Let’s begin with a confession: I was born and raised in the great state of Texas and prior to two weeks ago, I had never fired a gun. That will certainly be surprising to some folks as Texas often invokes images of shotguns, six shooters and gun-toting cowboys. For me, however, Texas is about home, family, the State Fair and where my own brand of quirky country makes perfect sense. While, like the rest of the country, I grew up in a pervasive gun culture, there was not one in my immediate family. I didn’t grow up around hunting trips, shotguns, rifles and pistols. My experience with guns was not linked to family or individual recreation, as it is for some, but to fear, intimidation and violence. I remember having to run, duck and hide more than my fair share because somebody at a football game or an after party decided to flex and start shooting in a crowd. I know the sting of losing friends and classmates to shootings and self-inflicted gun shot wounds. I remember how I felt being pushed inside a vault as three men armed with guns robbed my partner and me. So, while I had never shot a gun before, I knew all too well its power and effects.
Imagine my surprise when I found myself at a gun range on the outskirts of Atlanta. It was supposed to be an outing with friends (somebody found a groupon, so you know how that goes). I thought it might be a chance to address some of my fear of guns so I agreed. Slowly but surely, everybody got a little too busy to go and I was the last woman standing. Far be it from me to waist money or a good coupon, so I went. I didn’t fully realize how frightened I would be until I walked in the door of the range. For a while I was the only woman and one of two people of color in the building. It was strange to be standing in a room full of firearms and white men in camouflage hunting caps and biker boots. That could have been a very different scene at a different time of day, in a different location. I was fully aware that I was out of place and that being out place as a woman and as a person of color is always potentially dangerous. I remained out of place in the range that day as I jumped every time I heard a gun fire, including my own. I shot fifty rounds and even though it turns out that I’m pretty good shot, I never felt fully comfortable loading the bullets, holding the gun or pulling the trigger. Yet, a mix of exhilaration, pride and fear left me shaking for at least thirty minutes after I left the range. Though I wasn’t fully sure how to process it, and I’m still not, I was sure I would be back.
And back I was, this time at an outdoor range in Texas and anything but alone as I went with my mother, her partner and a good family friend who owns the guns we used, and who happens to be white. This trip felt decidedly different from my first experience. I am sure it was the combination of sunlight, fresh air and not being by myself. It wasn’t lost on me, however, that though I was not alone this time I was still very much out of place. Two Black women, a Black man and a White man are still an “odd” grouping to many. It was certainly “odd” to most of the folks at the gun range that day as we got plenty of stares and double takes, some lasting longer than others. It wasn’t long before I noticed two white men who had taken a particular interest in us. Staring each time I stepped up to operate the manual launcher as we shot at clay targets and loudly commenting on my shooting and on our family friend’s efforts to assist me, they made their disgust and discomfort at our presence known. It was a stark reminder of the history/reality of guns, race and place in the South or anywhere for that matter.
For me, both of these experiences at gun ranges in two different major Southern cities brought up issues of race, place and belonging. There was certainly something powerful in my ability to walk into these ranges, spaces dominated by white masculinity, and be defiantly “out of place.” Yet, I also felt “out of place” in my own skin as I tried to reconcile my enjoyment of recreational shooting with my own history and politics. How can I understand my experiences with gun violence on a number of different levels with wielding a gun in the controlled environment of a gun range? Can I be interested in guns, even recreationally, and still be vehemently anti-violence? Where do guns figure in my Black feminist politic? Is there room to think about women, safety and guns in a kind of feminist politics of self-defense? While going to the gun range was not about self-defense for me, as I write this a local news story is airing about a young Black woman who shot one of two men attempting to break into her home at 11am in broad daylight. Her father says he is proud of her for defending herself. He said that he taught her to use the gun for just that purpose and now he will teach her to forgive herself for doing what she had to do. I’m relieved that she was able to defend herself but I am afraid because she will still have to wait for the final word from a grand jury to decide whether there will be charges. And Black women don’t always have an easy time making claims of self-defense especially not when guns are involved, just ask Marissa Alexander…
Clearly, I’m left with more questions than answers. On some level, I wish I could say that going to these two ranges has given me a clear position either completely for or against guns but it hasn’t. What I am sure of is that these two experiences refuse to let me take any position for granted. They are, however, undoubtedly forcing me to think deeply about my politics, my fears and my history in order to move more fully into an understanding that refuses neat or logical conclusion but bravely tangles with the messiness and nuance that lies at the heart of the personal and the political.