My son was killed in a school shooting in 1992. Since that time I’ve been on what people often refer to as a “journey.” I’m not a big fan of pop psychology. Dr. Phil and Oprah can keep their “closure,” “healing” and the like, but in this case the “journey” metaphor fits. Every survivor of gun violence will be on a journey for the rest of his or her life. Each survivor’s journey is an individual odyssey. Some end badly, some end well. Some result in surprising discoveries.
The administrators at my son’s school knew the killer had a gun and ammunition, but they were too inept to stop the shooting. I’m a writer, and I was so angry at their failures that I wrote a book about the murders, and about guns in America. It was intended to reveal the stupidity of those college administrators, and it succeeded in that. But it also made me realize that there was no redemption in revenge. Instead, I eventually made peace with the college, and became more involved in the gun violence prevention movement. I advocated for sensible gun laws, wrote op-eds, and did talking head duty on TV.
People were generally respectful of my experience as a survivor, but I was told repeatedly that my views had little grounding in fact, because I knew nothing about guns or gun culture. So, a few years ago, I got my Class A Large Capacity license in Massachusetts and bought a couple of handguns. I’d hunted as a kid and am a Navy vet of Vietnam vintage, so guns weren’t new to me. What surprised me was the fact that I found shooting therapeutic. I was mastering the instrument of my suffering.
Recently I published a piece in the New York Times about the idea, proposed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, that arming teachers would reduce school shootings. In this article I proposed to look into the matter of how much training it would take to transform an average gun owner such as myself (or a teacher or a rabbi with my level of skill) into someone capable of reacting instinctively and flawlessly to an active shooter situation. I was, in essence, trying to imagine myself in the library where my son had been killed. How much training would I have needed to save him?
The answer, of course, was “a hell of a lot.” In short order I became convinced that, instead of training teachers and rabbis to shoot like special forces operatives, it would be wiser and more humane if we could train special forces operatives to be teachers and rabbis.
My article was well-received by the people who already agreed with it. But unexpectedly, this writing project carried me to a place in my 26-year survivor’s “journey” that I could never have imagined.
As research for the article, I began taking lessons in defensive handgun use. By the time it was published, I had become engrossed in the training. I saw how complex and physically challenging tactical defensive shooting could be – like learning ballet or gymnastics but with lethal implications. Given my history, I was surprised at myself for being so interested in this intense and specialized activity.
Then the real surprise came along.
I’d been working away with my Ruger LC9s and my Sig Sauer P229, but I was having some difficulty with the way each gun fit the task. The Ruger felt too jumpy and small, and that first pull on the DA/SA Sig was a bitch. To make matters worse, I have small hands and I’m left handed. Sometimes it felt as if the guns were working against me.
Toward the end of the fourth session my instructor, who’d been steadfastly encouraging me through my difficulties, went inside his big black bag and came out with a pistol, a little smaller than my 229. “Try this,” he said. “It’s striker fired. It’s simpler to operate, and it’s ambidextrous. You can work the slide release and safety with either hand, and you can turn the mag release around to work lefty.” He put the gun in my hand and suddenly my hand was happy. I took a few shots – nice trigger action, comfortable to hold and shoot. “Wow. What is this thing?” It was a Sig P320. I took a few more shots, and then I didn’t want to give it back to him. For the rest of that afternoon and all that evening, I kept remembering how right it had felt to hold and shoot that gun.
If you’re reading this essay, you’ve probably had a similar experience. You find a gun that just feels right. But I’m a gun control advocate and a survivor of gun violence. It wasn’t supposed to be happening to me.
The next day I took my Ruger and my 229 down to my local gun shop and swapped them for a Sig Sauer P320C 9 mm. and a couple of boxes of shells. I drove home happy, feeling as if I’d satisfied a deep need or sorted out a troubling situation.
My training has gone smoothly since then. I’ve learned to extract the pistol from its appendix holster, put rounds in the target, clear a jam, and swap out magazines without posing a danger to myself or others. Soon I’ll be moving and shooting. My instructor says I’ll get faster and smoother. He says it’s all about establishing good habits and repeating them until they become muscle memory. I know I’ll never achieve the proficiency of those guys in the You Tube demos, but that’s all right. I’ve already had a remarkable and unexpected turn in my “journey.” I’ve had a romance with a pistol.
Will I continue to advocate for sensible gun laws and better education about gun safety, mental health and situational awareness? You bet! But I’ll be coming in on these issues from a slightly different angle now.