The Last Gun I Shot

As a Texan, as an American, I believed that I wouldn’t be able to understand where I lived unless I wrapped my head around the guns themselves.

Blackandwhite photo of a person standing wearing a belt with a buckle that says “Texas” and a gun holstered on either hip.
Photograph by Mark Peterson / Redux

The first time I saw an AR-15 up close was at my friend Agustin’s house, in Texas. This was in the summer of 2020, after the mass shootings in El Paso and Sutherland Springs and Midland-Odessa, but before the ones in Uvalde and Cleveland and the Allen Outlets mall.

I had been shooting guns because I had been writing about guns. So far, though, my only experience was with pistols; Agustin had offered to teach me about semi-automatic rifles. Agustin and I were both members of the volunteer fire department in Marfa, which sounds more exciting than it is—we spent a lot of time sitting around the station, fiddling with engines, and trading local gossip.

I’d picked Agustin as my long-gun tutor because he seemed like a good mixture of brave and safe. He worked at the power company, where he was a lineman; on the weekends, he competed in those obstacle courses in which you scale walls and splash through mud pits. He had a black Corvette that he drove in an open-road race in which the goal was not to go as fast as possible but to maintain an average speed of a hundred and twenty-five miles per hour. That was very Agustin—adrenaline, but within boundaries. On the rare occasion it was necessary for the fire department to enter a burning building, it was often Agustin who went.

I went over one evening for the first lesson. Agustin’s dog nosed at my knees and I scratched her on the head, but I had a hard time paying attention to anything other than the gun. It sat on a table in the living room, an empty magazine beside it. I’d grown to appreciate the handgun I’d been shooting, a friend’s Glock, for its heft in my hand, its compact efficiency. But I didn’t like the rifle. It seemed to radiate menace, even unloaded. Its aesthetic was one that I associated with soldiers and SWAT teams and spree killers. I’d heard gun people scoff at the gun-ignorant expressing this kind of reflexive, animistic fear. What did I think it was going to do, jump up and bite me? (Of course, gun people believe in the fetishistic power of the semi-automatic rifle, too—that’s why they put its silhouette on their shirts, their bumper stickers, their flags.)

A friend who had recently returned from living in Scandinavia was vehemently opposed to my project. Why did I need to shoot guns to write about guns? To him, it was simple: in America, they were instruments of death. If there was anything more I needed to learn, perhaps I could go interview some parents of murdered children, or watch footage of the aftermath of a mass shooting in the setting of my choice—mall, church, library, Walmart, movie theatre, dance club. I could look at some charts of gun deaths per hundred thousand residents: Norway, Denmark, Finland, hugging the x-axis; the United States, a line spiking out of all proportion, like a statistical error.

But I believed that I wouldn’t be able to understand where I lived unless I wrapped my head around the guns themselves. No other state is so closely associated with the mythology of the gun, and, by raw numbers, Texas has more of them than anywhere else in the U.S. (Per capita, our rates of firearm ownership are closer to the national average.) No matter where I go, when I tell people where I live, they grin and point gun fingers at me. Bang, bang—the universally understood symbol for Texas.

Around the time of my visit to Agustin’s house, I had been reading the work of David Yamane, a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University and a self-identified liberal gun owner. One of Yamane’s main points was that, for many Americans, guns are normal—neither instruments of righteous retribution, like some on the right like to imagine, nor harbingers of societal collapse, like some on the left believe. Millions of Americans live with firearms, and most of them don’t kill themselves or anyone else. As a Texan, as an American, I was going to encounter guns, whether I liked it or not. Perhaps it was possible to enter into a truce with them, or even to find some appreciation. But there was something else: if everyone around me was going to be armed, then I should probably know how to shoot, too.

I grew up in a conservative place—I went to a public high school whose mascot was a Confederate soldier, in a city where one of the main thoroughfares featured monuments to Confederate generals, in a state where the third Monday in January was celebrated not as Martin Luther King, Jr., Day but as Lee-Jackson-King Day—but the conservatism of suburban Virginia in the nineties wasn’t oriented around guns. This was before Columbine, before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I had plenty of classmates who spent weekends hunting with their uncles, but guns didn’t define anyone’s personality.

After college, I lived in Baltimore, a city with tough gun laws and lots of gun murders. During the summer, I worked at an outdoor-education program for high-school students. The sweetest of the teens didn’t come back the second year; I heard that he had been hit by a stray bullet, and was now in a wheelchair. The Baltimore police founded a special task force to get guns off the street, and it became one of the most successful gangs in the city—robbing people, planting guns, stealing drugs and reselling them. In Baltimore, the presence of a gun would have indicated some kind of emergency, and I had no urge to shoot one. Then, in 2012, I moved to rural Texas. My first week in town, a new friend invited me to go to a ranch for target practice. We tromped through the switchgrass and pointed a borrowed shotgun at a row of empty beer cans. I was giddy at the strangeness of it all: the wide expanse of sky; the grasshoppers as big as my palm, hurtling across the path; the casual, unapologetic presence of guns. I kept a spent shell in my pocket for a week, a reminder of my new life.

I arrived in Texas with the vague impression that the state was a lawless libertarian paradise when it came to firearms, but that wasn’t exactly true. Until the mid-nineties, when the Texas legislature passed a contentious bill allowing concealed carry, it was illegal for civilians to be armed in public. (Texas’s gun restrictions stemmed from post-Civil War attempts to keep weapons away from both restive Confederates and formerly enslaved people.) As opinions about guns became more politicized, advocating looser laws became a useful tool for politicians to motivate a conservative base. But, when I moved there, Texas was still less gun-friendly than Missouri or Florida or a dozen other states, according to a ranking in Guns & Ammo. The Republican-dominated legislature kept pushing. In 2016, the state legalized open carry for permit holders; then the legislature got rid of the need for a permit. Now nearly any adult in Texas can be armed in public without the need for training, background checks, or rudimentary guidance.

Texas’s gun policies are increasingly misaligned with public opinion—even many conservatives weren’t thrilled about permitless carry—but it doesn’t seem to matter. Earlier this year, families from Uvalde, where, in 2022, a gunman with an AR-15 killed nineteen students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School, campaigned to raise the minimum age to buy some semi-automatic weapons from eighteen to twenty-one, a broadly popular proposal. Instead, the legislature opted to require at least one armed security officer in every public school. The state’s rates of gun deaths—suicides, homicides, and accidents—are the highest they’ve been in decades.

Agustin and I practiced at a range on the outskirts of Alpine, a B.Y.O.-targets kind of place where the ground was littered with brass bullet casings. Agustin approached the exercise with a rigor that was almost ritualistic. I liked doing something that was serious enough to require ear and eye protection; I liked the sound the magazine made when I clicked it into place; I liked how jangly I felt after I pulled the trigger, all the built-up tension in my body suddenly released. When my shots went wide, which was often, I would feel an obsessive focus on correcting my error. And I liked holding that much power in my hands. Better in mine than in yours, I remember thinking, a thought directed at no one in particular, or at everyone.

In 2020, amid the upheavals of the pandemic, the Presidential election, and the George Floyd protests, the United States, a country that already had more guns than people, accumulated millions more of them, many purchased by first-time gun owners. A large share of the 22.8 million firearms sold that year were bought by white men, who make up the vast majority of gun owners. But some of the fastest-growing segments of gun owners are from backgrounds the industry considers “non-traditional”: women, Asian Americans, liberals.

That year and into the next, I continued with my gun research. I got a concealed-carry permit, for journalism, and spent some time at a gun store in Austin, also for journalism. Or at least that was the excuse I gave my friends. The store had flyers for a gun-themed comedy show called “Guns and Giggles,” which I did not attend. I was at the shop so frequently that I developed a crush on one of its employees, a lanky bicycle mechanic whose name was Freedom. The natural next step would be to get a gun, for journalism. Freedom recommended a Glock 19: compact, with minimal kickback. A year earlier, the idea would have struck me as absurd, but now it had the aura of possibility.

Friends and acquaintances kept telling me about the guns they had bought, or almost bought. My mother, who had never displayed any interest in firearms, mentioned that she’d taken a women’s-only handgun class. On Instagram, I followed a collective of trans alpaca farmers living in rural Colorado whose pictures of their baby animals were interspersed with pictures of their self-defense arsenal. A couple of my most politically active friends went to the woods for mysterious tactical training that they were pointedly close-lipped about.

In November, I travelled to Arizona to take a defensive pistol class at Gunsite, a bucket-list destination for a certain kind of dad. For five days, a sinewy, joyless ex-special-ops soldier watched over us as we practiced drawing, aiming, firing, and reloading as quickly and as accurately as possible. The point of all the repetition was to build muscle memory, to make the actions automatic, movement that preceded thought. Before holstering your weapon, you were supposed to ask yourself: Is my world safe? If not, you stayed drawn.

I loaded enough bullets that week that my thumb cramped, so I bought a speed loader. It was pink, the preferred color for gun accessories for women. (You can get pink thigh holsters, pink-camo gun safes, and enough pink parts to build an almost entirely pink AR-15.) I was one of two women in the class, and our instructors kept praising us for our presence. All week long, they had been presenting scenarios to justify our imaginary use of force. They were usually laced with sexual menace: the biker gang, the meth heads, and the “unspeakable things” they wanted to do to women and children. Being armed was not just a means of self-defense but a responsibility, according to this way of thinking. Men were armed in order to protect women; empowerment, in gun world, was women protecting themselves.

I wouldn’t say I had a good time at Gunsite, exactly, but I did feel a growing pride in my competence. I wasn’t the worst shooter in the class, as I’d feared. I wore my loaner pistol in a hip holster, and its presence, initially unnerving, soon faded into the background of my day. One evening, back at my hotel, I had the sudden sense that I had forgotten something important. I looked around the room for a minute before I figured it out: it was the weight of the gun that I missed.

The sociologist Jennifer Carlson writes about the figure of the “citizen-protector”: “Gun carriers use firearms to actively assert their authority and relevance by embracing the duty to protect themselves and police others.” For Carlson, this new model of citizenship emerges from a context of American decline, economic precarity, and social alienation. In a world of decaying institutions, the citizen-protector takes matters into his own hands. The implicit assumption that he is not just a guy with a gun but a good guy with a gun is fundamental, a conviction so automatic that it precedes thought. During my lunch break at Gunsite, I indulged in my own citizen-protector daydreams. In them, I was in the midst of some future calamity, a mass-shooting incident, say. It never ended with me coolly bringing down the bad guy with a single shot—in my fantasies, I was unarmed—but with me using my new knowledge to seize his gun and confidently eject the bullet from the chamber.

The grand finale of the week was a tour of the home of Gunsite’s late founder, an imperious and erudite racist named Jeff Cooper. The house was built like a fortress, with walls that could withstand small-arms fire, steel gates to shield the bedrooms, and window slits near the front door so that Cooper could target any unwelcome visitors. As Cooper’s granddaughter served us cookies and juice, my classmates asked, again, if I was going to get a gun. They wanted to recruit another person to their side, I’m sure. But I think they also thought that I should own a gun for my own good.

“A gun is status—that’s why they call it an equalizer,” Richard Hofstadter quotes “a young Chicago black” as saying, in a 1970 article in American Heritage on American gun culture. “What’s happening today is that everybody’s getting more and more equal, because everybody’s got one.” But convictions for gun crimes still disproportionately impact Black and Latino populations. A police officer killed Philando Castile when he was reaching for his gun license; Marissa Alexander was sentenced to twenty years for firing a warning shot in the air to scare off her abusive husband. As an equalizing instrument, guns are no match for an unequal society; if anything, they merely make existing inequalities more volatile.

I got to Uvalde late on the night of the shooting at Robb Elementary School, after driving through one of the biggest storms I’ve ever encountered. It was Biblical, terrifying. The next morning, the first camera crews were staking out their spots in the grassy plaza across the street from City Hall. Uvalde was a town of hunters and veterans and small-scale drug crime—a town where guns were normal, until they weren’t.

I interviewed an elderly man in a “Duck Dynasty” cap, sent adrift by the news. He was a hunter, but he didn’t understand the appeal of an AR-15. “I don’t even like pistols,” he told me, stricken. I saw him at the library weeks later, and he looked worse, pale and hollowed out. “I’m having a hard time,” he said. I think I hugged him, but I don’t remember. I remember feeling unequal to his grief; I felt unequal to everyone’s grief in Uvalde. I remember thinking about the refrain I’d learned at Gunsite: Is my world safe? I could imagine wanting to draw a gun and never, ever putting it down.

I haven’t shot a gun since I was in Uvalde; I seem to have lost my appetite for it. I didn’t know that the last time would be the last. Three months before Uvalde, I was on the way to Boca Chica, the South Texas beach where SpaceX launches its rockets, and I stopped at Massey’s, a gun range I had visited once before. Massey’s has the alarming, ramshackle charm of a roadside stand that rents Uzis. A poster on the wall showed a silhouette of a man looming outside a suburban house, and the caption “He’s not here to borrow a cup of sugar.”

It was a slow day, and the guy behind the counter flirted with me half-heartedly. He showed me the custom etchings on his AR, where the safety switch was labelled “Libturd” and “Triggered.” He gave me a fifty-calibre bullet as a souvenir, and let me shoot his handgun with the silencer on so that I could see how quiet it was. Finally, he walked me out to the range with my rental pistol and a box of bullets. He hung around to watch me load the magazine. It had been a while, and my hand shook a little. I didn’t think I was afraid, and yet there it was, my body telling me something that my mind didn’t know yet. He looked at me kindly, forgiving me for my nerves. “You just have to keep practicing,” he said. “You get to where you can override the fear, where you don’t feel it anymore.”

For a moment I could imagine myself as who he wanted me to be. My movements so practiced that I didn’t think about them anymore. Impervious, solid in my certainty, hands held firm, steady in my aim. It was later, when I was in Uvalde, that I understood that the shaking came from a part of me I didn’t want to override. The world is tough, I remember thinking during my gun period. Maybe you have to meet it where it is, rather than wish it were otherwise. But I’ve decided that I don’t believe that. Because the world is something we make. ♦