The first person I ever knew to be shot with a gun was Sean Clapper. We were 14. According to the story, he was at Justin Ball's house after school when Justin accidentally shot him in the spine with a handgun, paralyzing him. He did finally walk again, but only with great difficulty and likely forever on crutches.
He was the only lucky one. Every other shooting I was close to growing up in Anchorage, Alaska—a place where it is not uncommon to see people walking down the streets of downtown with a rifle or shotgun slung over their shoulder—ended in death.
There was the little brother of the twins in my class who found a gun and shot himself. The friend who went camping the week before our high school graduation and, after pretending to be a bear, was shot in the thigh by a friend. He bled to death on the way to the hospital. Then there was the kid who shot and killed his parents at the breakfast table and came to our high school with a gun—we went on lockdown for that one.
I can rattle off a half a dozen more shootings that have hit close to home since then, including working with a girl at the University of Oregon who was shot in the bottom by Springfield high school shooter Kip Kinkle, and the death of my step-brothers' cousin in a school shooting in Bethel, Alaska.
No, I am no stranger to the danger of guns. I get a metallic iciness in my stomach when I think of an accidental gunshot killing one of my two daughters, who are 4 and 2.
Still, this winter, I decided I needed one.
GENERATORS, CHAIN SAWS AND GUNS
I moved into my new house in downtown Bend last September. It's on an alley where the occasional drunk or group of teens cruise through, two blocks from the general location of seven fires set earlier this month by an arsonist who has still not been found. It's easy to see into my house and into the life of a single woman living alone and often caring for her two little girls.
While I had considering buying a gun before, it wasn't until I began lying alone at night in that new house downtown that I realized just how very vulnerable I was and I decided that I would like to have a gun.
As a precursor to writing this story, I recently mentioned on Facebook that I might buy one. The thread was a stunning 127 comments in four days. Bad things rarely happen, wrote one person. Lock your doors and you'll be fine, mentioned others. Embrace that random violence could happen to you and just live your life, said another. One person even messaged privately saying they feel sorry for me that I am so afraid in my own house.
But for me, wanting a gun does not come from a place of fear. It comes from a sense that it is irresponsible not to be prepared. It's really just the way I was raised. Like my parents, I own a generator and a chain saw. I know how to change the tires on my car. All this is to say it feels naive to me to expect that I will always be able to rely on the electric company, emergency services or any other person to solve serious problems for me.
So, I'm not just talking about dealing with nighttime burglars. I'm talking about Katrinas and Superstorm Sandys. I'm talking about being able to tell people to get the fuck off my porch and be able to back up that demand with a machine that could kill them.
I realized I wanted a gun not because I'm afraid I can't defend myself, but because I think I can.
INTO THE WOODS
To help me understand whether this gun purchase was something I was truly serious about, I needed to go shooting. So, I called up a buddy who has recently begun privately teaching "defensive shooting" techniques, as in "learn to shoot someone" techniques. This sounded just like the kind of reality check I was looking for.
His name is Adam Neder and we met at the corner of Knott and China Hat Roads. I followed his truck out to the base of China Hat Butte and we started unpacking the guns.
He'd brought six of the 16 he owns: two shotguns, a rifle, a 9mm Glock and two .40 caliber handguns. For the first hour of what would be a four-hour training course, we talked gun safety and he probed into how serious I was about this.
"So what are we shooting today?," he asked.
"Well," I said, looking down at the array of options we had, "I'm trying to decide whether I should buy a gun and if I do, whether it should be a shotgun or a handgun and then what exact model."
"Well, what are you going to use the gun for?"
This actually was a difficult question to answer because saying the words, "I want to be able to shoot someone if they try to harm me or my kids," still feels a little hollow to this 32-year-old Subaru-driving liberal no matter what my feelings about being self-sufficient.
"Oh, you know, so I have one in case I need it," I finally stammer out. "Really, it's as much about defending my kids and my stuff in a catastrophic event as anything."
"Zombie apocalypse, then?"
But Neder, who is a reserve officer with two law enforcement agencies in Central Oregon, took me seriously, zombies aside.
He gave me a holster, the Glock and we marched out to a firing ground strewn with shotgun shells and beer cans at the bottom of a small rise. What rounds we did fire would stop in the hillside, ensuring we wouldn't harm anyone in the vicinity.
He put up a torso-sized piece of cardboard with a florescent orange target in the very center and we stepped back to work on our draws.
After practicing how to properly draw and hold a gun, it was time to add bullets.
Now, I have been shooting probably 15 times in my life. I was about 10 when I shot my first gun. My stepfather, who collects guns in a safe in the basement, would take our family to gravel pits all over Southcentral Alaska and set up targets for us to fire at with his collection of pistols and double-barreled shotguns. The primary goal was teaching gun safety. This is pretty important in Alaska, which leads the nation in gun deaths per capita, according to a 2011 survey by the Violence Policy Center.
But it wasn't just about gun safety. It was about him trying to impart some of his enthusiasm for shooting and gun ownership to my little sister and me. And his enthusiasm is great. I am, in fact, a former member of the NRA because my stepfather was happy to find any excuse to contribute to the organization and did so on my behalf for several years. I even have a silver-plated Tom Selleck bullet to prove my membership.
It didn't take much prodding for me to fire away—I thought it was fun. But my sister hated it. He would practically demand that she shoot, but she would always refuse, melt into tears and hide behind our Astro van.
I would be lying if I didn't acknowledge that at least part of wanting to own a gun is about wanting to live up to the image I had of myself growing up—an independent girl unafraid of guns even when others are.
But despite the many times I had been out shooting with my stepfather or friends, this particular afternoon shooting with Neder was totally different. Where before I had always aimed at a milk jug or a Coke can, this time I was shooting at a torso. And on Neder's recommendation, I was yelling, "Stop or I'll shoot you," loudly and with enough intent to scare myself. The effect was sobering.
My first time firing, I drew the Glock from the holster keeping it in tight to my right side and pulling it to the center of my chest, and then moving it straight out, giving my yell and then promptly squeezing my eyes tightly shut and blasting off a round that went way to the right, kicking up dust 20 feet from our target.
If I missed like this in my small house, more than likely the bullet would end up in my children's bedroom.
I tried again, this time shooting wide to the left.
"Uh, so that wasn't great," I said.
"Go slower this time and try to keep your eyes open," he offered.
I did and for the next two hours of shooting didn't miss the target again.
By the time we were done, I'd shot every gun but the rifle, which wasn't an option I was considering. Far and away my favorite gun was the Remington 870 20-gauge pump action shotgun.
From 35 feet away, I consistently hit the center of our cardboard rectangle with spray after spray of shot until it was a tattered mess.
I was starting to feel fairly cocky.
"I think I could totally do this," I told Neder.
"Just remember," he said. "You can't hesitate once you've decided to shoot. That's when people get their guns taken away from them. And once you've shot, you have to justify the shooting. If this ever actually happens, keep the person on the ground and keep the gun in your hands until the police get there. Wait for them to tell you to drop your weapon. You will probably be put into handcuffs until they sort it all out."
I learned a lot from Neder that afternoon, but most importantly I learned that, as sobering as the realities of gun ownership may be, I still wanted one.
$299 WALMART SPECIAL
Shooting with Neder helped me decide I was looking for that Remington 870 20-gauge pump action shotgun. When I initially began to think about this purchase, I was considering a .38 revolver with a laser, but decided that a handgun would be easier for my kids to handle if they ever got ahold of it—not good.
It was also a lot easier for me to aim with a shotgun because it's braced against my shoulder. With my arms outstretched and my hands out in front of me I felt like I didn't have real control, which would be critical if I actually wanted to hit someone.
And it's a lot more likely that a bullet would go through a wall, hurting someone I didn't intend to, than shot from a shotgun shell. Plus, if I used a shotgun shell with double ammo (which is like 8 or 9 little chunks of lead in the shell), or buckshot (which is like rocksalt inside the shell) or birdshot (which is many, many tiny balls of lead in the shell) instead of a slug, I would get a wide spray pattern. That might mean I wouldn't have to be as accurate in an intense situation as with a bullet.
Now that I knew I wanted one of the most popular guns on the market—according to several gun-buying advice websites it is the best-selling shotgun ever—I thought finding it would be a piece of cake. This was not to be the case.
Calls and visits to eight different shops in Bend turned up not only a complete zero on my gun but on ammunition, too. It was something I'd encountered when trying to buy 9mm and .40 caliber bullets to contribute to my shoot with Neder. The ammunition shelves of local shops are barren—totally empty.
At one store a man came in looking for ammunition. He asked if the handful of shotgun shell boxes on the shelf was really all the store had.
"Yep, sorry to say," said the clerk. 'We can't keep it on the shelves. We have guys coming in here buying ammo, they don't even own a gun," said the clerk.
"People are really that scared?" asked the patron?
"Guess so," said the clerk. "It's been that way since the election."
Even though I knew I wanted a brand new gun, because of this difficulty in finding the right one, I did for awhile consider buying a Winchester 1300 from a guy named Kyle off Armslist Bend, which is like Craigslist for guns. Ultimately, I decided I just felt too sketchy about going to the home of some guy I didn't know to purchase an extremely dangerous item.
Finally, after considering going to Portland to get this gun, I made a call to a store I don't often frequent, but happens to be one of the largest gun retailers in America—Walmart.
"Yeah, we've got that gun," said Mel in sporting goods. "And the Mossberg and a New England and a Maverick."
"I'll be right over," I told him.
I headed in past the $2.98 contact solution and giant containers of kid's bubbles for 99 cents to the gun section, where there were two large round containers holding about 20 guns each.
Feeling a little like a fish out of water, I asked Mel, who turned out to be about 75 years old and pretty crotchety, to see several of these shotguns. I was only allowed to see one at a time. They all had trigger locks and Mel had a way of grabbing them back up quickly and storing them again in their cases as soon as I put it down on the counter. The gun staff at Walmart receives annual trainings on gun safety and gun laws in order to work in this department.
While it is becoming much more common for women to buy guns these days—some studies show ownership among women is up 10 percent or more since 2005—I was still an oddity in the Walmart gun section.
A guy in sunglasses who looked straight off the set of 'Orange County Choppers" eyed me for awhile and then gave me a little nod of approval as I tried out the pump action on one of the shotguns.
But Mel seemed a little concerned when I told him I was ready to buy the Remington.
"Have you ever shot a guns before?" he asked. "Do you know anything about them."
This was, um, really annoying. But I tried to quell that surge of feminist indignation and instead simply responded, "What do we need to do to make this happen, Mel."
The answer was a background check.
I handed Mel my license and filled out a computerized form, which included questions like, "Have you ever renounced your United States citizenship?", "Have you ever been dishonorably discharged from the military?" and "Have you ever been deemed mentally defective?"
There are apparently lots of reasons people cannot buy a gun—and I was about to encounter another one.
After completing the form, Mel swung the computer back his way and looking it over declared with way too much gusto, "I cannot sell you a gun."
Now everyone in the section was definitely looking.
I was rejected because the address I entered on the computer was different than the one on my license, due to my recent move and failure to update it with the DMV.
This was frustrating and was my first personal experience thinking, "Well, I'm sure this roadblock would never stop an actual criminal from getting a gun, but it's certainly inconvenient to me, a total non-criminal."
And for just a moment, I could understand the belief that many gun owners have about gun laws never actually thwarting the right people.
For me, though, solving this address problem was only mildly inconvenient—a trip to a very busy DMV with my kids. Overall, I was pleased to see that at least Walmart was really checking into the details before selling a gun. But I wouldn't have had to do this had I bought my gun privately or from someone who is not federally licensed to sell firearms.
Within five days, I had my new license sticker and headed back to the store, where Mel, bless his heart, had agreed to set aside the gun for me.
This time, things went smoothly. The background check took about 15 minutes for information to be verified with the Oregon State Police.
Then a store manager came over to double-check everything. She then walked me to the front of the store and had another woman there confirm that the serial number on my gun matched my receipt. I was finally allowed to walk out the door with my Remington.
I took it home and later that night, after my kids were in bed, I read the manual, put on the safety and loaded the gun. Then I put it up somewhere high.
I'm still getting used to feeling like there's a poisonous snake coiled in my house waiting to strike anyone that gets too close, but then again that is the point.