I spent more than twenty years in the military but only touched a gun twice. The first time was at Air Force Officer Training School. My flight went to a firing range, where we were handed guns, given an incoherent briefing on safety and usage, and told to fire at a vaguely human-shaped target. Mine seemed miles away. I was fortunate enough to get my weapon pointed in the right direction and began to fire, my arm soon sore with the gun’s kickback.
A sturdy sergeant came up to me. “Ma’am, you’re firing into the dirt in front of your target. Lift your gun up. Aim at the target.”
“I am aiming at the target,” I said.
“You only think you are.” The story of my life.
I raised my gun and saw dirt fly up from my shots yards closer to the target. Heartened by that, I raised my gun again. I should have seen something on the target but mine remained pristine. The sergeant came by again.
“Now you’re shooting over the target. That’s dangerous. Aim at the target.”
Soon I was shooting back into the dirt in front of the target. The sergeant came by one more time. “You don’t like me, do you,” is all he said. He stopped bothering me after that. At the end of the day, my target was still whole and threatening. I worried about what this would do to my being commissioned until I found out officer trainees didn’t have to pass, just fire—which made me wonder why the Air Force chose to waste our time with the firing range.
Eight years later I received an assignment to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. I heard I had to pass a firing range test. Apparently someone forgot to schedule it, because I got to Germany without catching sight of one. Four years later, I was reassigned to Spangdahlem, just two hours away. I was startled to receive a date for a gun test.
“But I didn’t have to fire to get to Ramstein. Why should I have to fire to be reassigned within Germany?” I protested.
The headquarters bureaucrat shrugged. “It’s required.”
“Why didn’t I have to do it when I came?”
“I don’t know. But it’s required.”
Now it was required. I dreaded it, completely dreaded it. At the range, where I was firing with other officers, I stood frozen. Most of the people there had handled guns before and were joking around about getting the afternoon off. This time, the two sergeants at the range explained things, calmly, thoroughly. They came around and checked with all of us. We had 120 rounds and had to hit the target with at least 40 to pass. This time, we fired 12 at a time, then the sergeants came around to check on us. Again, I had hit nothing. The sergeant came to see, said, “Hmmm” and nothing more. He stuck with me for the next round, watched how I fired.
“Wait,” he said and lifted my gun while I held it. “There. Hold it there. Now fire.”
I fired, jerking the gun away as I did so. Still nothing showed up on the target. He patiently moved the gun back. “Your job is to hold still. Let the gun do the work.”
This time I concentrated on holding still, and I was rewarded with a tiny dot on what would have been the target’s pinky finger. I shot more confidently after that and was rewarded with the occasional dot on the extremes of the target. At the end of the session, the sergeants removed the targets, brought them over to us and began to count the holes. When they got to me, they circled each hole with a magic marker. At first they counted 37.
“Wait. Here’s one,” I said, a slight indention on the edge of the leg. One of the sergeants found another.
Thirty-nine. We looked. We peered. We went over the target inch by inch. We recounted over and over. No more than thirty-nine. I was doomed. No future command position. A desk job back in the States.
Then one sergeant said, “Look. Doesn’t this hole seem larger than the others?”
I couldn’t see a difference, but I kept my mouth shut.
“Why, yes,” the other said. “She must have sent two bullets into that exact space.”
“Right! So that’s really two holes. Congratulations, Major, you passed.”
What I wanted to say was “I love you guys. I love you!” It was one of those things that made me enjoy the Air Force. But it didn’t mean I was now capable of firing a gun on my own. Fortunately, I was never required to do so.
What I noted about these two incidents was how much better I did the second time around when I’d received more instruction, more training, more individual attention. I relaxed a little and did better, actually managed to hit my target. It did not arouse in me any great desire to begin shooting guns, but it turned the gun into a tool, something I could be trained to handle if I needed it.
Guns are tools, that’s all—very dangerous tools. We don’t allow people to drive (legally, at least) who have not studied, passed a written test, passed a practical exam, and bought liability insurance for their cars. Yes, I know there is no constitutional right to drive cars, but I bet if they’d had cars back in the 18th century, there would have been.
Congress refused to pass the simplest of legislations, requiring a background check for all gun buyers. Even many gun owners supported it. Passing that legislation could have opened the door to other controls, which is probably the reason it failed. It would have indicated that we can legislate amendments. As it is, people seem to have no trouble regulating First Amendment rights, like libel laws regarding the press, tentative measures in both directions regarding religion, not to mention voter ID laws.
Guns create criminals. Recently, I read a letter in our local newspaper from someone wanting to keep gun rights intact, just keep the guns out of the hands of the insane and the criminal. That same day, the paper reported the conviction of a young man who shot and killed someone in a bar, someone who jostled him. It had been crowded, the jostling led to words, to shoves, then to this man pulling out a gun and firing. He had not been a criminal and probably still wouldn’t be if he hadn’t had a gun. The worse that would have happened would have been a bar fight, and yeah, maybe someone could have gotten killed but not very likely. As it is, two families lost their sons that day.
I live in a fairly quiet area, beautiful with mountains and waterfalls, trees and gardens. But there seem to be so many murders nowadays, and I have to wonder how many of these would have taken place without a gun in the mix: the young man who got into an argument with his wife and in-laws, pulled out a gun and killed all three, while his children ran out the back door screaming to neighbors; another man who quarreled with his wife, shot and killed her while their two daughters slept. And on and on it goes, but it’s never the gun’s fault, is it?
Over 30,000 people in this country died in 2012 because of guns. We get all wrapped around the gun barrel when a crazed shooter starts firing in a school, in a movie theater, at a parade—then we forget about it. We seldom think of the children dead in gang shootings, dead because they’ve found grandma’s gun to play with, dead because adolescent angst has led them to that drawer in Dad’s office where he keeps his gun. Dead. Dead. Dead. We worry more about the terrorist who wounds and kills handfuls than we do about the culture that worships guns in this country.
I have no desire to take away Second Amendment rights. I know many responsible gun owners who take care of their weapons, who lock them up carefully, who know what they’re doing with them. These people know what a dangerous tool guns are. I also know irresponsible ones, people who don’t have a clue how to use the deadly tool they’ve bought. Background checks are a good first step, but they’re not enough. We need to test, license, and regulate. We need to take charge of the guns, not let the guns take charge of us.
Guns in the hands of the untrained, the nervous, the frightened, the excitable, the angry are bad business. I’m describing myself now. That’s why I don’t have a gun.