I squeezed the trigger, breath held in with a shallow gasp. I was afraid of the cool metal gun, of the tension in the mechanism, of the power of destruction in my hands. The amplified boom of my heartbeat was all I could hear. My fingers were slick with sweat, but there was no stopping now. I had gone this far. I had committed to the shot. I pulled the trigger harder, clenched my jaw, and resisted the temptation to close my eyes. I didn’t want to do this.
The gun fired.
The minimal kickback radiated through my wrists, elbows, and shoulders. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. A chill ran through my body like an electric charge with the realization that I had just shot a gun. I held a gun in my hands and pulled the trigger. After all the fear, all the expectation, all the anxiety, and it was that easy. Just pull the trigger and fire. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to stand motionless and feel the weight of the weapon in my hands.
I thought about Columbine. About thirteen dead, two killers, and me, seventeen-year-old me, crouched on the floor of the cafeteria while two of my friends gunned down classmates just outside. And the overwhelming fear of guns ever after.
The goggles pressed on my glasses, the ear protection smothered my hearing. I mentally checked over my stance; squared feet, shoulders back, arms bent, right finger on the trigger. There was a knot in my throat as I aimed carefully and squeezed more firmly a second time. The bullet opened another hole in the paper target twelve feet away.
Earlier that morning only a few cars had been in the parking lot of the Santa Fe Community College when I arrived. Likewise, I hadn’t passed anyone in the hallway as I made my way to the classroom designated on the email confirmation. The date was September 11, 2010, the ninth anniversary of America’s worst terrorist attack. Maybe that’s why there were only three of us in that day’s Pistol Shooting Basics.
“Usually this class is over capacity, with a waiting list and two teachers,” the pistol shooting instructor had said as he unlocked the door to the classroom. He had been ten minutes late, and every second of that ten minutes I had hoped class was cancelled.
I sat at a table on the far right of the small, windowless classroom, near the exit but closer to the front than I wanted, for politeness sake since there were only three of us. I studied the pistol shooting instructor as he hefted large silver cases onto the tables at the front of the room. He was compact, wiry-thin, and grey haired. Deep creases radiated from the sides of his eyes and along his cheeks. He moved quickly, almost bouncing as he walked. Too much energy for a Sunday morning. I should have stayed in bed.
“Hello everyone!” he said when the suitcases were in place and the course materials were distributed: handbooks emblazoned with NRA logos. My stomach dropped as I opened the slick publication, I didn’t want to support the NRA. But the community college catalogue hadn’t mentioned the connection in the course description. But I couldn’t leave now, couldn’t walk out in a huff over politics.
“Let’s have each of you introduce yourselves and say why you’re here,” he said.
Crap. I hated this. Introductions and new situations always took strategizing to figure out what to divulge and what to lie about. I tried to calm the flush already starting on my cheeks. No one had to know why I was really there, I didn’t owe them anything. It was as if the word Columbine was tattooed just under my skin, to emerge when I was especially vulnerable.
The other two students, a man and a woman, had sat next to each other on the opposite side of the room. They were a similar age – probably just retired. She was wearing a puffy pink vest and pink sweat pants. I judged her as a rich white woman, recently relocated to Santa Fe. The man could have been in Santa Fe longer, or even a native; he was outdoorsy looking with cargo pants and a camouflage cap.
Camouflage man said, “I’m here because I want to get my conceal carry license.” He sat with his arms folded over his chest like he didn’t want to be there.
“Good, this is the first step,” said the pistol shooting instructor. “See here.” He turned and pulled up his brown corduroy jacket, showed us a hidden pistol on his belt. Lifting the jacket higher, he showed us another pistol in a holster at his armpit. He propped one leg on a desk and yanked up his pant leg to show us a small gun strapped above his brown boot. He explained how he could stash up to eight guns on his person without anyone knowing. I hadn’t realized the average person was just a community college class away from being able to walk around with a hidden gun… or two… or eight. Scary thought.
I gauged the distance to the exit. Could I just leave now? But I had already paid for this class in full, I should stick it out and get my money’s worth.
The woman introduced herself next. “I’m here because I want to learn how to protect myself. I feel unsafe.” Is Santa Fe too wild west for you? I wanted to say. But I didn’t know her reasons for feeling like she needed a gun. But I didn’t think that this puffy pink vest wearing woman would feel any safer with a handgun in her Prada purse. But who was I to judge? I didn’t feel safe anywhere, not any more.
They all looked at me, the pistol shooting instructor and two retirees wondering why a twenty-something woman would be there. The blush crept back to my cheeks.
I wanted to say, “I’m here because I’m afraid of guns, and I want to understand what I’m afraid of by learning how to use one.”
I wanted to say, “I want to shoot a gun so I can take some power back over the chaos and pain they have caused in my life.”
I wanted to say, “Just so you know, I went to Columbine, and I’ve lived in fear every day for the eleven years since that it will happen to me again. I’ve lived with the guilt that I got out of that school when others did not. I’ve lived with the shame of knowing killers.”
But instead, I said, “I’m here because I want to know what it’s all about.”
After a few hours of classroom instruction where we learned safety and handling techniques from full-color photos in our NRA handbooks, it was time to put our knowledge to practice.
“We’re driving out to BLM land,” the pistol shooting instructor said as we bumped along an unpaved washboard road, throwing dust over the pickup with the two retirees following behind. I didn’t have a four wheel drive vehicle, so that was why I ended up riding alone with the pistol shooting instructor in his red Jeep, the silver cases of guns lined up in the back.
I didn’t know much about Bureau of Land Management land, except it was open to public use and all around Santa Fe. I found it interesting that, for a community college class, we drove out to the middle of nowhere instead of using an established shooting range. Maybe Santa Fe didn’t have one? I never thought about it before. We drove way out, along county roads with numbers instead of names, in a direction my ten years in Santa Fe had never taken me. We drove into the red dirt and scrub and cactus, out to the low New Mexico hills. I turned to see the flume of dust behind the Jeep and felt a jolt of panic. I wasn’t sure where we were. I should have paid more attention. I wasn’t sure I could get back on my own. I should have noted the street names. But there was no getting out of this now.
We turned onto another unpaved road marked with some hieroglyphic signs. The pistol shooting instructor slowed the Jeep to check out two pull-outs along the road. One had been occupied with two men, their shotguns, a dog, and a cooler, and the other, he said, wasn’t the best orientation. So we kept driving into the unknown. Finally, he chose a spot that was tucked back off the road with a dirt hillside that we could shoot into. I wondered how many other people were shooting in the area. I felt exposed and vulnerable.
What the hell was I doing? Why had this class been so important? Lately I had been compelled to take more risks, face my fears. Shooting a gun was just one thing in a progression of radical exposure to the things that triggered my anxiety the most. The next part of the process would be in a few weeks, when I would be moving back to Colorado. For the first time in ten years, for the first time since I had graduated from Columbine High School the year after the shooting, I would live near the shadow of Columbine. I was glad I was taking the pistol shooting class in Santa Fe, where few knew my grief and trauma and pain. Where few knew my history, my connection to killers, my shame of survival.
After I shot the designated four bullets into the paper target, I handed the gun to the pistol shooting instructor, pointed down as he had taught us in the classroom. He smiled at me, the lines next to his eyes and mouth folding deeper. I took off the bulky ear protection and plastic goggles and set them in the back of his red Jeep, able to again hear the sound of footsteps, cars crunching on the dirt road, a crow cawing somewhere close. The sky was a cold clear blue that day, and despite the bright sun there was a chill to the air, autumn around the corner.
I walked through the dirt around cholla cactus and yucca to the post where my target hung. Pulling down the paper printed with black circles and straight lines, I saw that three of my four shots were in the smaller circle in the center, the fourth just off to the corner. My accuracy was strangely satisfying, and with that feeling came a surge of doubt searing up from my stomach.
“Well done,” the pistol shooting instructor said when I held up the target. Neither of the others had hit the bullseye. A lump settled in my throat. How could I justify being successful at shooting guns when, as a mass shooting survivor, I didn’t believe in them?
“Do you guys want to shoot a revolver?” the pistol shooting instructor asked, gleefully, like this was fun.
“Sure,” the man said.
“Sure,” the woman said.
I just nodded, thinking I shouldn’t say no. I was in the middle of I didn’t know where with three strangers and cases full of guns after all.
The trigger was harder to depress on the revolver, and there was more kickback. But I loaded it like a pro, turning the cylinder, pushing in the bullets, watching myself from a distance like I was in a movie. We all used the same target after the initial four shots, but I noticed mine went more in the circle than not. The pistol shooting instructor got out some other guns from the silver cases at the back of his Jeep, including a small pistol he said was good for “the ladies,” and a shotgun that I chose not to shoot, but camouflage man held like he was hunting a bear.
All the while, I wondered, how did they feel when they shot their guns, those boys at our school? Did they feel the immense weight of the weapons, of what they were doing? Did they aim carefully at their classmates, or pull the triggers wildly? How had their bodies felt as they killed, did each bullet through flesh echo in their chests? Was there ever the temptation to soften their hearts once started, or, once a gun is fired, once the decision to murder is decided, is there no stopping? Only more pulling of that trigger. Only more death.
I couldn’t equate the friends I had known – the two geeky smart boys I sat with at lunch, saw before school, had hugged close like friends do – I couldn’t equate those personalities with the murderous monsters who had rampaged through the school. How much of my life the past ten years had been shaped by killer friend shame? How many of my choices had been running away from the guilt of being alive?
The pistol shooting instructor said, “Good work today.” He packed up the silver cases of guns and boxes of bullets while the three of us walked the area, picking up spent casings and adding them to the box on the bumper of the Jeep. I slipped two small casings into my jeans pocket, and occasionally touched the place on my hip where they settled.
I held my bullet-holed target as the pistol shooting instructor drove back down the bumpy dirt road. This time the truck with the other two was in front, spewing dust onto us. He slowed, pulling back, and the truck disappeared around a bend. I was distinctly aware that I was alone in a vehicle full of guns with a man capable of concealing eight guns on his person. And I didn’t know where I was.
“You seem to have a natural talent for shooting,” the pistol shooting instructor said. “Is this really the first time you’ve done this?”
“Yes,” I said, and that lump knotted again in my throat. I wondered what he would say if I said, “I went to Columbine.” He’d probably tell me where he had been that day when he heard about the shooting at the Colorado high school that, at the time, had been the worst U.S. school shooting. Almost everyone told me their story of that day instead of asking to hear mine.
“Would you be interested in joining my women’s pistol shooting team?” he said. I realized I was running my fingernail inside and out of the bullet hole in the corner of the target. I stopped when he looked over at me.
“Thank you for offering,” I said. “But I’m moving in two weeks. To Denver.” I knew I’d feel better when we hit pavement.
“Oh,” he said. Then he started talking about salsa dancing. “Been doing it for years,” he said. “You wouldn’t think I’m 67 now would you?”
I looked at his hands on the steering wheel. “Well, no,” I said, to be polite.
“I eat healthy,” he said, “all organic, no processed crap. And I take supplements.”
Oh, Santa Fe, where even the community college pistol shooting instructor eats organic. I would miss that. Or maybe not.
“Would you want to go dancing with me before you leave?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure how to answer.
I wanted to say, “I’m 28, dude. Back off.”
I wanted to say, “What the fuck is happening?”
I wanted to say, “I just shot my first gun, and I’m still in a space of trauma, still wrapping my head around having just handled a gun, of having just fired bullets into a hillside. Of hitting the target. Of almost liking the feeling of shooting a gun.”
I looked at the door handle, wished I could see the truck ahead of us, wished we were on pavement.
“That sounds fun, but I’ve got so much packing to do,” I said, because I was still in his car, on a dirt road in the middle of public land, with a number of guns in the back. And I didn’t know where I was or where I was going.
“Maybe next weekend,” he said, smiling at me. Was he looking at my chest? When did things get so weird? Was the 67 year old community college pistol shooting instructor asking me out? The day had gotten strange, and this was the least strange part.
My expectation at signing up for the class was that I would be terrible at the actual shooting part, but I thought that something haunted inside of me would dissipate as I held the gun in my hands. Instead, I had shown enough skill that the instructor noticed, and the haunted part of me had expanded and, well, roared. It was like a lion was now on my chest, squeezing claws into my heart, kneading awake a part of me that I didn’t realize had numbed.
In my experience so far, trauma didn’t get any better. I hadn’t healed. After surviving as mass shooting, I hadn’t figured out how to “seize the day” or personify “life is short so live it to the fullest.” I didn’t think that even possible when fear was around every corner, through every doorway. So I took a pistol shooting class and shot a gun. I defied the memories of two black coated killers. Aimed at their memory, and shot. The guns of teenage killer friends were no longer pointed at me.