I’m not gonna lie. After Trump was elected, I was afraid. The Supreme Court decision that made my marriage legal at the federal level meant individual states could no longer deny my wife and I benefits or hospital visits, but Trump’s campaign rhetoric set me back on my heels. Could this new-found acceptance be temporary?
Rational or not, my fear prompted me to take an “Introduction to Handguns” class. Looking back, it seems a bit comical because I don’t own a gun and have no intention of buying one. But in that moment, knowing how to handle a gun seemed like an important life skill. I’m not sure that I gained that skill in the end, but I did develop some unexpected empathy for gun owners.
Rational or not, my fear prompted me to take an “Introduction to Handguns” class.
It wasn’t really my first gun class. In fifth grade, I begged my parents to let me go to Conservation Camp. I thought of myself as fairly outdoorsy, but twenty-three mosquito bites in one week pushed me back indoors. For the price of those mosquito bites I got to learn about canoeing, motor boating, archery, skeet shooting, and handgun shooting. I had seen guns before; many of my extended family members owned them, and everyone I knew who lived on a farm had a rifle in the barn or garage.
While rifles and even revolvers weren’t cause for concern in my childhood, I did find it strange that Christians would own objects that were created to kill. Knives are used to shape and carve wood into usable objects and pieces of art and also to cut up food. But the only use for guns is to kill. Many draw the distinction between rifles and handguns; rifles are for hunting and handguns are for violence (or defense) against (or from) other people. To me, both are killing. “Do not kill” seems pretty straightforward, but we humans have consistently come up with justifications for killing each other, like in times of war.
In the years between my childhood in Kentucky and adulthood in Chicago, IL, guns and what they represent changed significantly. In that time, many of my cousins had been to war, and my closest one had been twice. As he returned home, guns he owned shifted from the iron and wood hunting rifles that stayed in the garage to the sleek but heavy handguns and AR-15s that lived in the house. To compare these different kinds of guns was like comparing a wood paneled station wagon to a Hummer. They could both transport people, but their intended functions were distinctly different. Moreover, these weapons of war became part of the domestic sphere; they were in the house to protect those in it. They were not guns for hunting or sport. Moving the guns from the garage to the bedroom closet marked a psychological shift for my cousin and probably many others. Having been to war, he no longer felt safe at home without a weapon close to hand. And feeling safe seemed like a right.
Moving the guns from the garage to the bedroom closet marked a psychological shift for my cousin and probably many others.
My devout religious relatives own the most guns. How did they square their faith with their interest in guns? Maybe they wondered the same thing about my sexuality: how did I justify being gay and Christian? That wasn’t a question I had about myself. But when I went to the class, I carried my curiosity about how people understand their relationship to guns.
I had decided on a women’s only class that lasted for three hours one evening. There were twelve women, including two mother-daughter pairs. We went around the room introducing ourselves and saying aloud why we were there. Most spoke about self-defense or that they were thinking about getting a gun and wanted to know how to use one. Could they even aim and shoot it? How do you choose a gun? My fifth grade camp week was the most previous instruction anyone in the room had had.
Half of this three-hour class was devoted to legally required classroom training on safety and the laws concerning guns. Honestly, this classroom introduction was comfortable. As a professor, the classroom was a familiar space for me while the gun range was not. We went over the requirements for getting a FOID (firearm owner’s identification card), how to safely store a gun at home, concealed carry laws in Illinois, where you can and cannot take a gun (think bars, state parks, public universities, etc.), and finally, how to transport a gun.
My devout religious relatives own the most guns. How did they square their faith with their interest in guns? Maybe they wondered the same thing about my sexuality: how did I justify being gay and Christian?
I was aware of the concealed carry laws because they’d been all over the news, and I was used to seeing “no gun” signs in many public places in the Chicago area. But I was caught off guard by my reaction to the laws. In Illinois, in order to transport a gun in a car, it has to be unloaded, in a case, and in a sealed part of the car away from potential passengers. Otherwise, the owner has to have a concealed carry license. In Kentucky, my home state and land of Conservation Camp, any person who is legally allowed to own a gun can have it loaded anywhere in the car. To travel between these two states with a gun, you’d have to know the gun laws in Indiana or Ohio. The hodgepodge of regulations governing the transport of handguns reminded me of the various state laws that I’d had to master as a person in a same-sex marriage.
Before the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationally, I had to know what state I was in to know if I’d be considered married. And the geography didn’t always follow state lines. My marriage was recognized in all of Illinois, but I had more legal rights in Chicago than at the state level. My marriage was recognized in Iowa, California (where my in-laws live), and Massachusetts. I absolutely wasn’t married in Kentucky, Indiana, or Ohio.
Navigating this patchwork of state laws was exhausting and made me feel geographically isolated. Should I fly places to minimize the amount of time I spent in legal limbo? Should I travel to some places, like Kentucky, at all? I imagine when my two-tours-of-duty-cousin said that he couldn’t visit me in Chicago because he couldn’t bring a gun into the city, that he was doing this same geographical calculation.
The hodgepodge of regulations governing the transport of handguns reminded me of the various state laws that I’d had to master as a person in a same-sex marriage.
I don’t have any answers to gun violence or legal reform. I still don’t know why my most devout Christian relatives own more guns than my other Christian relatives or how they justify living with the tools of war in their own homes. But I do know that in the gun class, albeit briefly, I could see the world from a very different perspective. To my surprise, I understood the fear of having one’s rights threatened and could draw that parallel to my own experience.
That moment of empathy made me curious. Could we have a larger conversation about gun regulation that started at the underlying beliefs and fears that motivate us? If I can find a moment of connection around such a fraught issue in American politics, it gives me hope that it can happen again. And that, at the least, is a starting point.