Last Christmas, as our family was gathered to open presents, my fiancé reached under the couch cushion he was sitting on and pulled out a handgun.
It wasn’t loaded. And he had only good intentions. The gun was a gift from his stepdad and two older brothers—cleverly hidden under his own seat for him to discover.
But I, suddenly, couldn’t breathe.
To my fiancé and his family, the gun was a rite of passage. We’d just gotten engaged in December, and all of the other men in his family had at least two firearms of their own. This gun, his first, was a sign of their trust in his leadership as we started our young family together. It was a way to honor this major milestone in our lives.
He was ecstatic.
Blindsided by the arrival of a deadly weapon as our newest family member, I barely managed to conceal my deep discomfort. Brett could tell I wasn’t thrilled. “Don’t worry. We’ll talk about this later,” he whispered.
I’d had some experiences with guns. My 91-year-old grandfather, who runs a farm and antique sawmill on Orcas Island, is a World War II vet. Once or twice, around holidays, he dusted off a pair of German Lugers he acquired during the war and showed us how to clean them.
Several times over the years, when a horse on the farm was dying and in pain, or a deer had been mangled beyond the point of recovery by one of the dogs, he’d pull his rifle off the top shelf in his closet and head out to the field, his shoulders resigned to the life he was about to end.
In college, while studying abroad in Morocco, a friend and I stayed for a week in a small village in the rural Atlas Mountains. Our host, a 30-something Amazighri bachelor with seven brothers, was thrilled by the two American girls sleeping on the couch in his living room.
On the night we arrived, he invited a group of male friends and neighbors over to play cards and drink mint tea. Hunting rifles in hand, they insisted on posing for pictures with us. My friend and I joked that, depending on the political climate, resurfaced photos of us in a foreign country with a group of Arab men holding rifles might someday effectively end our chances of ever running for elected office.
Still, as a concept, the thought of holding or using one was largely terrifying, associated mainly with death. Outside of subsistence living, the appeal was beyond me.
It wasn’t until I traveled to Spokane to meet Brett’s family that I came face to face with the world of recreational guns.
Politically liberal, his parents were actually pushed out of their church in 2000 when the congregation found out that they were planning to vote for Al Gore. I couldn’t help but notice their delight at the opportunity to take the new city girlfriend shooting in Spokane.
At the shooting range, flanked by his parents and older brother, a rack of bumper stickers advised us that “Gun control means using both hands.” In the women’s bathroom, I faced a sign on the inside of the stall door advertising pink Tasers.
It turned out that, after my body stopped viscerally recoiling at the sound of gunfire, I was a pretty good shot. Holding such power in my hands, feeling the recoil after firing and seeing the immediate impact on the target gave me a rush I wasn’t expecting.
Flash forward three years to Christmas, though, and I was still deeply uncomfortable with the idea of owning a gun. Gun ownership was something I had always assumed Brett and I would decide on together, if it came up at all. Raised on a literary diet of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I imagined that someday we might become mountain homesteaders and amble off into the woods together with our hunting rifles to scare up some dinner.
But a handgun? In the city?
I’d written enough articles for local television news to know that no good could come of that.
A national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study vindicated my position: “Regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home,” the abstract reported, “having a gun in the home was associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide.…”
Rationally, Brett agreed. Emotionally, though, his relationship with guns was more complicated. As a 7-year-old, he was schooled in sharp shooting by his biological father. Together, they traveled regularly to a multi-state gun jamboree in Montana, where Brett won first place in a shooting contest. Back at home, his mom worried about the Band-Aids peppering his arms. Stray buckshot, they told her.
At gun shops, he and his father lingered together over a .44 lever-action carbine. While Brett looked on excitedly, his father talked with the man at the counter and pretended to think about buying it for him. He never did.
Not too much later, Brett would decide to stop speaking to him—a decision that had nothing to do with guns, but nonetheless helped me empathize with the part of his identity that was so wrapped up in owning one.
Eventually, back in Seattle, he and I found a compromise: The gun would live at his brother’s Capitol Hill apartment, which has a gun safe. Eventually, when we live somewhere with room for a safe of our own, we might revisit the concept of gun ownership.
The thing we kept coming back to, amidst heated conversations about family patterns, apocalypse scenarios and firearm absolutism, was the way that keeping a gun in our home changed how we related to the world.
“The trouble with owning a gun, or carrying it,” Brett explains, “is that you can start relating to the world in that way.”
We didn’t want to live in a reality where the gun—and violence—became our go-to option for dealing with major problems; a lens through which we see the world. Even if that problem was an armed intruder.
Rather than living according to the fantasy of protecting ourselves from a man in a ski mask, we’ve chosen to protect ourselves from the more likely reality of accidentally hurting ourselves or someone we know.
Berit Anderson is the managing editor for Crosscut, a daily news website dedicated to creating a sane and sustainable Northwest through its coverage of politics, policy, culture and technology.