We drive two hours. I trot my husband and three children in to see my old family friend, the man who played Santa Claus every year at the Girls Club Christmas party at my mother’s insistence. The man whose voice velveted the radio waves for years and whose confidence in me fortified my own. George hasn’t seen my boys in years, hasn’t even met my baby girl. He smiles. He hugs. And in a holster on his hip, he wears a gun.
I wave goodbye to my family, pay the hundred-dollar fee, and complete registration for the concealed handgun carry class.
* * *
There are four cardinal rules of firearm safety:
- All firearms are always loaded.
Grandpa Wilson was 14 years old when he got shot. He stood at one end of some old car and his friend stood at the other.
“Hey Cliff,” his friend called, leveling the shotgun at Grandpa’s chest. “Wanna get shot?”
He thought the gun wasn’t loaded.
Nicknamed “Blondie,” Grandpa was famous for his thick hair. He was pushing it out of his eyes when the gun went off. Without that thick hair, Grandpa would’ve ended up with one arm. As it was, his arm raised to tame his locks, the left side of his body—from armpit to hip—took the brunt of the scattering shots; he appeared doomed to die.
The first doctor they took him to, a known alcoholic, told his parents there was nothing they could do. Their son was dead.The second doctor, a known drug addict, shot him full of morphine to dull the pain. A dosage that, if the gunshot wound didn’t kill him, would do the trick, supposedly mercifully.
Grandpa’s parents did not give up on him. They caught a ferry across the Arkansas River to get him to the Paris hospital about twenty miles away, where the three Smith brothers—John, James, and Charles—had recently graduated from medical school. They administered medication to counteract the lethal dose of morphine. They kept his wounds open with a mustard plaster so they could dig out the pellets. Like his parents, the three brothers never gave up.
Grandpa lived. “His parents never taught him about guns,” he said of his friend.
My mom still has his shredded shirt, peppered with bloodstains.
* * *
The concealed handgun carry class is at Big Jake’s Steakhouse in Van Buren, Arkansas, population 23,000 (filming location for the 1982 Civil War miniseries The Blue and the Gray). We meet in an upstairs room, with long folding tables flanked by black pleather banquet chairs. A movie poster of The Outlaw Josie Wells joins framed arrowheads, a John Wayne portrait, and a window-sized picture of the owner with Bill Clinton on the reclaimed-wood walls. A faux outhouse door adorns the area to my right.
George’s sonorous voice pierces my observation haze: “ . . . he’s just about American as you can get. He lives in the woods; good thing, too. Otherwise there’d be lots of dead people.”
* * *
- Be sure of your target and what’s behind it.
My mom was five years old when she was shot. In the eye.
Her brother Johnny and his friend Jackie Jones were shooting a cardboard box with a BB gun in the backyard.
“Get out of the way!” they told her.
She might have responded with a petulant “No!” or she might have just silently refused to move, her stubborn streak taking an early hold. In any case, she continued making her mud pies right where she sat.
Johnny remembers getting between her and Jackie Jones, one hand reaching to make his sister move, the other reaching to make his friend cease fire. Mom remembers screaming. Johnny remembers her reaching her hands up to her face. Mom remembers Johnny rushing her to the house, carrying her inside while she screamed and kicked.
Kicked her red cowboy boots right off.
Three days later her pupil split in two. Her parents took her to the doctor, who announced they’d have to operate. A pre-kindergartner, Mom thought she’d be awake during the whole procedure and that it would hurt.
They didn’t operate. Nothing could be done to rectify the damage.
She’s legally blind, and in the dark, her two pupils enlarge to the point of reunion.
* * *
There are two other students in the class. A boy in his twenties, buzz cut topped with a cowboy hat, which complements his plaid shirt, work vest, and jeans. A girl in her twenties, buzz cut like the cowboy, eyebrow ring, sweatshirt and wind pants. Do they laugh at my mermaid-length hair and middle-aged face?
While we wait for his partner, George teaches us some U.S. history. How the “Indians weren’t doing much with their land anyway” and that today’s rednecks and hillbillies are the descendants of prisoners dumped here to be the newfound nation’s foot soldiers. The “first gun-grab” was when the Brits came to seize guns from the people of Concord . . . and thus the American Revolution.
From somewhere downstairs, some video game blares carnival music.
* * *
- Never let the muzzle cover anything you don’t want to destroy.
“Have you ever been shot?”
“Nope,” my dad replies, and we go on to talk about his precious granddaughter and Thanksgiving plans and how, at 70, he really shouldn’t be so tired from raking the leaves spread across his acre lawn when he got to sleep in so late this morning. I call him lazy.
His memory tangents, a little late: “I was never shot, but I did shoot somebody.”
In junior high, he and his cousin Tommy Thomas went rabbit hunting. Walked the two blocks past the junkyard into the fields beyond. They’d already killed a couple of cottontails and were walking along a narrow creek searching for more. Tommy kicked a bush and a rabbit darted out and across the creek. Tommy gave chase first; my dad followed, leaping over the creek.
Dad heard a shot. “Did you get him?”
“I didn’t shoot.”
“I didn’t either,” my dad replied.
And then he saw the holes in Tommy’s sleeve.
“Man, I almost shot you,” Dad said, lifting up Tommy’s cuff, thinking he’d just got his shirt. Then he saw blood running down his arm.
“I’m gonna go get help,” Dad said. Maybe he threw that .410 shotgun to the ground.
He told the first person he could find, “I shot my cousin!”
They took Tommy to the beloved Smith brothers at the Paris hospital. My dad cried so hysterically his mom put him in a warm bath. Everybody said it hurt him a whole lot more than it hurt Tom. Tom was told to use the fingers on that hand or else they’d draw up a bit. The last two fingers did draw up a bit, but he was still able to play football. And he kept hunting.
My dad carries a .45 on his hip most times. Sometimes he carries his .380 (when he’s dressed up and has his shirt tucked in—because it’s small enough to put in his pocket). Sometimes he carries both—his .45 on his hip and his .380 in his pants pocket or in a special pocket built into his undershirt. When I hugged him on Halloween night when he was standing on the porch, handing out candy to the neighborhood kids, my arm grazed the one on his hip. I don’t know if he had a second gun on him that night.
* * *
George tells us that his partner Tim eats his vegetables because “he eats cows and cows eat vegetables.” I now understand why the gun class is being held at a steakhouse.
Tim arrives, wearing what is beginning to seem like the concealed handgun uniform: button-down shirt, vest (his a camel-colored leather), jeans, hip holster. His wife, a Russian woman named Natalia, wears a turtleneck with a fleece vest, jeans, and her hair pulled into a ponytail, secured by a velour scrunchie. She goes to get Tim a Coke.
Tim begins his part of the presentation by telling us that there is no justification for getting your weapon out unless you’re going to stop grave bodily harm from occurring. Would reasonable people think that, in your situation, you were genuinely in fear for your life? Because if you shoot someone, “You’re gonna be tried by the lowest common denominator.” People who are too stupid to get out of jury duty, or people who serve on juries because they have an agenda. And let’s not even start talking about the liberal media. Poor, completely justified George Zimmerman, for example. Even though he was lucky enough to eventually be acquitted, look at all the scrutiny he had to endure.
* * *
- Keep your finger off the trigger ‘til your sights are on the target.
Seven years older than me, my cousin (John III) openly wore his gun on his hip at Christmas dinner. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. Was he afraid some meth-head was going to come raging through the front door while we ate our deviled eggs? Was he not more afraid that one of the five or six kids present might somehow get hold of it?
A few years earlier, my mom was at her brother Johnny’s house. She brought her Yorkshire terrier. John III, who lived in a double-wide on Johnny’s property, had just picked up a stray. The stray attacked my mom’s dog—still in her arms—biting hard and holding fast. Standing right next to Mom, Johnny tried to pull the stray away, who had proceeded to bite my mom as well, breaking her skin and causing her to bleed.
Amidst the struggle, John III walked up with his .44 and shot the stray, who was still grappling with Johnny.
Johnny was shaken—his hands were trembling. He silently left the scene, heading to his bedroom with a single mission on his mind: to better hide his handgun so that his grandkids—John III’s kids—would have less access to one more gun. Instead of pushing it further back in the closet where he kept it, Johnny, fingers tingling with adrenaline, fumbled the gun. It fell on the floor and discharged. Shot him in the foot. The bullet went through his ankle, through the interior wall, and lodged in the brick exterior where my mom could see it from outside the house. She ran inside, finding Johnny at the end of a blood trail that snaked from the bedroom, down the hall, into the living room. She ran the half block to the house of one of the county deputies who helped stop the bleeding until the ambulance arrived.
Later, Mom asked John III, “ Do you know how close you got to shooting your dad?”
“I knew what I was doing,” he replied.
Aunt Gail said Grandpa Wilson, if he had still been alive that Christmas, would’ve told John III, “Put that thing away for now, son, and let’s have a nice dinner.”
* * *
“The recoil spring on your standard handgun is designed to work with the average adult male grasp.”
“You need to have your handgun readily accessible. A lot of women carry gun purses—purses with pockets especially made for guns.”
“Don’t buy your gun on the Kotex aisle. Don’t carry a keychain gun. If you’re gonna be a bear, be a grizzly.”
“If you shoot someone in the face they’re gonna quit wanting to fight.”
“In active shooter situations where police respond, 18.2 people die. In active shooter situations where an armed citizen on the scene responds, 2.2 people die.”
“They’ve tried to breed every iota of aggressiveness out of people in this country and that’s just not who we are.”
* * *
When my Aunt Gail moved to Houston for her career in retail, she lived alone in a small apartment. A man began abducting women her age—in their twenties—from apartments (like hers), killing them, and leaving their decapitated bodies for police to discover. Their heads he kept, never to be found. Gail set up a burglar alarm: she stacked bottles and cans in front of her apartment door.
Grandpa Wilson felt this system was inadequate. He went down to Houston. Hand-delivered the pearl-handled .22-caliber revolver he first taught her to use when she was eight and they were out at the town dump shooting at cans. She accepted the gift—probably kept it under her mattress, she thinks—but still used her homemade intruder alert system. The gun, however, traveled unused with her to many new homes.
Years later, after she got married and her son was born, she and her husband Don kept their bullets in one place and their guns in another, for safety’s sake. One night, Gail and Don awoke to noise at their patio door. Gail had her weapon located and gun loaded before Don could even find his bullets.
“You stay here,” Don said, toting his unloaded .25-caliber derringer downstairs.
After a few intense minutes, Don returned to the bedroom. “There was nothing down there.”
“Good thing,” Aunt Gail said. “What were you going to do with an unloaded gun if someone was down there?”“It’s kind of heavy,” Don replied. “I could have thrown it at him.”
“It’s kind of heavy,” Don replied. “I could have thrown it at him.”
* * *
I guess I’m the one that led my mom to get her concealed handgun carry license. Last year, my drug-addicted stepsister showed up at my 66-year-old mom’s door at 9:30 at night with her drug-addicted boyfriend. The daughter of my mom’s ex-husband’s wife, my step-sister claimed she missed my mom, and wanted to see her, and wanted her to meet her boyfriend, and she loved her house and couldn’t she see it?
My mom took her on a room-by-room tour.
I chastised my mom, telling her that just because my step-sister wasn’t high enough to rob her that night didn’t mean she wasn’t high enough to come back and rob her another time.
“She was awfully enamored with my laptop,” my mom realized.
I called George, a retired police officer, asking him to keep an eye on her, and he encouraged her to enroll in his concealed handgun carry class.
* * *
The only way to stop a threat, Tim informs us, “is to stop it like a rattlesnake in your front yard. Shoot it and kill it.”
I feel threatened when George places four empty 9-mm handguns on the table for us to examine—to feel the weight in our hands. To see if we can imagine ourselves with that particular gun. Because owning a handgun, and having our concealed handgun carry license, won’t do us any good if we get a gun that’s so uncomfortable that we don’t end up carrying it.
At the shooting range, I prove to be a crack shot, just like my mom. I haven’t shot a gun since I was probably twelve years old, aiming with my mom’s .22 at some cans hung from the ends of branches on trees growing atop a train tunnel in rural Arkansas, but by golly, I can shoot a paper man in the center of his torso ten or twelve times in a row from a distance of 7 yards. I smile for a selfie with my gun and my torn-up paper man.
I put the 9-mm on the table, the stench of gunpowder burning my nose. I dig in my purse, past the first-aid kit that every mother carries, past my silver sparkly sunglasses, and locate my vanilla-scented hand sanitizer. It does not displace the smell.
I have no special gun pocket in my purse.
My dad and every one of his three siblings all have guns. My mom and every one of her three siblings all have guns.
Google “Why own a gun?” The top answer will be “for protection.” But who are we protecting ourselves from? Does the true threat come from outside or from within?
Tim signs off on the forms I need to file to get my concealed handgun carry license. Catches my eye and tells me “Good shot.”
Surprisingly, I feel proud that I can handle a gun well.
It would cost me another $300 (minimum) to purchase a gun and another $147.25 to actually get my license.
I tell my dad I’ve decided against getting a gun right now.
“I hope someone doesn’t break in and kill your whole damn family,” he replies.
Well, hell, I hope that too. That’s something I can’t really anticipate. But I can at least stop my kids from repeating my family’s history in the confines of my own home.
Three of the following four statements are true: Heather Steadham, a writer of primarily creative nonfiction, currently studies at the University of Central Arkansas, hoping one day to earn her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, then move to New York where she will seek her destiny of becoming head writer at Saturday Night Live; Heather Steadham, a married mother of three, just returned to Arkansas after living for four years in Naples, Italy, where the fertile volcanic soil contributed to the birth of a post-vasectomy baby; Heather Steadham, a former teen pageant queen, has worked more than 25 jobs, ranging from Toys R Us peon to nonprofit theatre director to sexual abstinence educator (none of which she enjoyed so much as her one-time stint singing and dancing onstage with the Beach Boys at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas); Heather Steadham likes asparagus.