I first picked up a gun in 2004. I was 25 years old and had already gone through all sorts of heinous tribulations that I had convinced myself were female rites of passage—a date rape in Newark, N.J.; an assault by two men in Martha’s Vineyard; and three violent muggings in New York City. I’d walked in and out of therapy and enrolled and dropped out of several self-defense classes when I realized my physical prowess did not match my mental brawn. But in 2004, I was living in Chicago and hanging out with a lot of tough guys, or so they liked to pretend. And a boyfriend took me to a shooting range for the first time—me in my long layered hair, glasses, and white lacy sweater, whining about what recoil might feel like while in aisles next to me men shot photocopied Osama bin Laden targets. I put on the goggles and earmuffs, took the .22 as if it were a snappy puppy that might bite, and I fired.
I fell in love with guns from the first shot. It’s hard to explain what it was that did it. The hard pop and cold ease in the aftermath—a sort of Zen-like calm that spreads through you after the high adrenaline burst of the shot. Or was it the fact that I was actually good at it, a fairly decent shot, and a dog-and-pony show for the shooting range that afternoon? Oh, look, a girl who can shoot. Or was it the power, the feeling that I was in control of something that could destroy more effectively than almost anything on the planet? That I, a historically scrawny, weak nerd who’d been the prey to all sorts of danger, could now be the danger.
The attention I got at the range that day, with big working-class Chicago guys marveling at my lady-focus and lady-drive and lady-aim! My boyfriend was never so proud. I posted a series of my new shooting-range photos on MySpace, and I never felt sexier.
I had discovered yet another calling that would upend expectation. Likereports about Nancy Lanza, I liked craft beers and outdrinking men at bars. I knew my Cormac McCarthy and my Herman Melville and my Jack London, my James Bond and my rappers and motorcycles. My first crush was the Marlboro Man, his ads all over my bedroom. Guns seemed the pinnacle of virility, and the ultimate way for me to be a badass woman—a tough girl in a man’s world, just a hair shy of being an actual man.
So for years, I went to shooting ranges. I shot .22-caliber rifles and M1911 semi-automatic pistols and Marlin .30-30 lever rifles and Glocks and ultimately even a shotgun. Boyfriends came and went, and they were all amazed by my love of guns and shooting. Until the one that wasn’t. We got serious just as I was considering buying a .357 Magnum. “I’d consider leaving you if you got one,” he said. “I don’t want that in my house.”
I remember laughing and saying something emasculating. But I was surprised. And I listened to his argument and realized that this man actually loved me and in building a life with me, one that could include children even, felt it would not be possible if I harbored instruments of death in our nest. I told him I’d forget about it. But I didn’t.
There was another time at a party in Santa Fe, N.M., where I had moved to, when I met a guy who was carrying a gun—an old antique six-shooter, like a cowboy. I asked him what I should get. And he said, “Don’t get one.”
“Why not?” I shot back.
“Because guns are for cowards,” he said. He owned several dozen, he claimed.
I kept putting the purchase off. I once pitched “lady buys gun” as a story for, of course, a men’s magazine, which I think was an excuse to, Gonzo-style, fulfill my true desire in the guise of reportage.
But I never quite got there. And then I got older and older and began watching my friends and their children and their lives, and the news began affecting me in ways it never did before, violence bringing me to tears and keeping me up at night. But until last week, I was never altogether sure that I would never own a gun.
Now I’m sure. I will never own a gun.
When I read that Nancy Lanza, killed by her son via her own gun, would boast to men at bars about her gun collection, I understood. This woman, long divorced, alone, in a house of men, in a world of men, somehow felt empowered by this thing. It probably made her feel protected, invincible even, big and strong. Like a man. (Or like the most antiquated, cheap notion of manhood you can spin, still sadly very much alive in our culture.) But Nancy Lanza is not a freak case—recent Gallup poll results show that the percentage of women who report home gun ownership is at a new high: 43 percent of women, just nine percentage points less than the level for men.* And, according to CBS News, in the past decade, shooting ranges have seen double the number of female participants.
There are so many horrible angles to the Connecticut school tragedy to investigate and contemplate—and the gender one is pretty low on the list of importance. But it’s the one I will remember. Because when we see photos of women in veils in my native Iran holding machine guns, we still think badass. When we see Angelina Jolie with her Lara Croft bandolier, like a beauty-pageant sash around her military sex-doll fatigues, we think hot. When we hear M.I.A. with her trigger-finger swagger calling for some enemy’s death, we nod along.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the shooter was a twentysomething white male—this is the demographic for this senseless crime—and we feel some comfort in the predictableness of that. But even a sweet Connecticut housewife and mother, or a literary geek like me, can get swept up in the false power of guns. It’s time to realize what much of gun-loving actually is—a passion for destruction veiled as protection.
It’s time for all of us to woman up and disarm.
Correction, Dec. 19, 2012: This article originally stated that women report home gun ownership at a rate 9 percent lower than men. The difference is actually nine percentage points. (Return to the corrected article.)