I was 23 when I pulled the trigger of a gun for the first time at the NRA range in Fairfax, Va. It was 2011, and I had no idea where San Bernardino was or just how close Sandy Hook Elementary was to my grandpa’s house. Feeling the handgrip of the Glock 19 in my slightly sweaty palms, my boyfriend holding me steady, I took a deep breath and squeezed. Bang! I shot the ceiling. Bang! The corner of the paper target. It was exhilarating.
I grew up in a very liberal household in Connecticut. My mother didn’t like the idea of water guns. Going to a shooting range, encouraged by my gun-owning boyfriend, felt like rebellion. But it was more than that—while my feet were rooted in Virginia, emotionally I was back in my college town in Maryland, protecting myself from every creep who followed me across campus at night or grabbed me in a bar against my will. I breathed in the metallic smell of the range and thought about the possibility of never being vulnerable again. Police officers shoot Glock 19s, and now, so did I. I was no longer that defenseless, five-foot-tall girl. I was a strong, confident woman with a gun.
From that moment, I was hooked on the Second Amendment. How dare someone try to take away my right to self-protection. My boyfriend gave me an NRA bumper sticker and I put it on my car, right next to my half marathon 13.1 sticker, celebrating the other most empowering force in my life.
I wasn’t reckless, nor was my boyfriend or the other gun enthusiasts I met. They understood that weapons are not toys. I took the range’s required safety course, consisting of showing my driver's license, my boyfriend's permit, and a surprisingly simplistic multiple-choice quiz. (Where do you point the gun? Answer: Always down the range, never at your face.)
Soon, I graduated to the revolver and then the assault rifle: the AR-15. The rapid fire and seemingly endless magazine made me feel like a hero. My boyfriend had customized his rifle with a better handgrip and scope. These pieces cost hundreds of dollars.
I asked him why he owned this gun if all we were doing was shooting at paper. “Simple,” he responded. “I need it for protection.” Surely a handgun was enough to feel safe, though, right? He looked confused, almost angry. “I want to be prepared.” Should I have been more afraid about the dangerous world I lived in? I considered buying my own gun.
In the years that followed, I heard about dozens of shootings: School shootings, workplace shootings, concert shootings, army base shootings. They were always crushing, but none of them necessarily abated my gun lust. I was no longer with that boyfriend, but I’d dated other men and had a roommate who owned guns legally and safely. They followed protocol, using special gun safes both at home and while carrying, and they respected the huge responsibility they had took on when holding a weapon. It was their identity. I was disturbed by the tragedies and horrified for their victims, but the way I used guns had nothing to do with that.
Still, I felt an inner conflict every time I read those headlines. The same year I started shooting, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and 18 other people were shot in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, Ariz. I felt queasy realizing that I had shot the same handgun that Jared Lee Loughner had used. I remember his maniacal face in papers, and while I knew that I would never use a gun the same way he did, was our excitement about the power of wrapping our hands around a handgrip all that different? We had a spooky connection.
I moved to Connecticut in 2015 and took my pistol permit class, which pending a background check and fingerprints, would enable me to own a handgun legally. Connecticut has notoriously strict gun laws, so I thought it would be an onerous process. But I took a four-hour NRA safety course (about 10 minutes of which were in a range), and then I was allowed to shoot. Internally, I questioned how safe this was—after all, driver’s ed requires hours behind the wheel before you can get a driver’s license. This experience plus a background check would get me a gun in a few months.
But eventually, I decided not to. Would I truly be safer? People say that an emotional response to a tragedy is not good reason to change your stance on guns laws. But what really changed my mind was the number of times I had to have that emotional response. Two weeks before Parkland, a friend of mine lost his teenage son to a tragic gun accident in his home. AR-15s (a gun I’d also shot) were by that point regularly mentioned in the news. Aurora. Sandy Hook. San Bernardino. Orlando. Las Vegas. Sutherland Springs. And most recently Parkland. I had convinced myself that these individual cases were flukes, that bad people will always abuse their power, but you can’t ignore such an obvious pattern; it’s data.
VIDEO: The School Walkout in Parkland, Florida
The NRA’s response to these tragedies, to Parkland in particular, was the final straw for me. Their idea? Combat bad guys with guns with more good guys with guns. Fear tactics. People often sarcastically equate gun control laws with a ban on cars. After all, cars kill more people. But cars are controlled. You can support the Second Amendment, even be a gun enthusiast, while also advocating for common sense laws like background checks, bump stock bans, and waiting periods. In fact, 97 percent of gun owners support background checks. The NRA chooses to use fear tactics instead. The organization doesn’t support the intent of the Second Amendment, which is why it lost my and many other people’s confidence after Parkland.
America has a mental healthcare problem. There are not enough avenues through which to get help and there’s a stigma around treatment. It’s a problem we need to fix and one that would surely decrease some people's predisposition to violence. But other countries have mental healthcare deficits too and a fraction of the mass shootings. The difference? The U.S. has more guns per capita than any other country worldwide. In some states, guns have shorter waiting periods than reputable therapists.
So yes, a person hellbent on harming others will do so no matter what, but making it easy for that person to get their hands on an assault weapon turns violence into mass violence. That’s why I’ve thrown away my gun license, torn off the NRA bumper sticker, and now fully support an assault rifle ban.
I don’t think gun owners are bad or oblivious. I respect their right to be able to protect themselves. But teenagers also have the right to attend school without being shot dead. I get scared walking to my car at night, too. I want to be that badass woman who can protect myself from anyone and anything. But despite the NRA’s effort to make me think otherwise, I also know that I don’t need an AR-15 or a preconfigured magazine to do that.