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Gun school: A true story of fear, fatherhood and the collapse of the empire 

The class I took was Basic Handgun, a beginners course in which I was introduced to "the operation of semi-automatics, revolvers, and firearm safety." It was September 2020, mid-lockdown, mid-crazy, a month before my second son would be born, 22 years after my first son was born.

At gun school, social distancing would be practiced, one student per table, classes no larger than eight students. Everyone would be masked.

And armed, of course.

This was a few months after the BLM demonstrations in Spokane, Washington, when the militia was out at night with their guns and camouflage costumes. Kate and I saw them on TV and Twitter, in Spokane and all over the West, men with assault weapons ready for war.

I'd seen them in Olympia, too, armed citizens asserting their rights. The third-grade teachers would usher their students back to the buses, their Capitol tour abruptly over. This was before the Capitol grounds were fenced, before people started shooting each other during weekend protests. In August, Kate and I saw a guy at the Country Store shopping with his wife and toddler with a gun on his hip, a posture I found idiotic, intimidating, infuriating. He was why I wanted to go to gun school. I hated him for walking around like that.

I didn't tell Kate I was going for weeks, and when I did tell her, she didn't say much. In fact, she didn't say anything. I considered canceling, but it had been so hard to get a spot. Everyone wanted to go to gun school. The pandemic — or something worse, whatever it was that had been tearing us apart for years — was working our fear, making some of us conclude that we might have to shoot somebody soon, which is what we mean when we talk about self-defense.

My brother bought a gun and locked it in his basement. For bears, he said.

"Really?" I said. "Bears?"

"Listen," he said. "I hear people shooting here all the time."

"It's Vermont," I said. "People shoot there — don't they?"

"Not like this," he said.

"Like what?"

"Like they're gathering," he said.

"Who is?"

"I don't know," he said. "I know it's ridiculous."

But I had the same paranoia, all those armed men in the streets — "to protect you," one of them told a woman who asked why they were in her neighborhood. She was brave as hell, following them around Spokane with her phone, recording their movements, asking them to leave, telling them she didn't want them in her neighborhood, that their guns didn't make her feel safe, posting it all over social media. I thought of the Gil Scott-Heron line, "Who's going to protect me from you?" I put my baseball bat under the bed and bought a can of pepper spray.

My brother called from his front porch, gun in hand.

"They're up the hill," he said, "shooting like crazy."

"Who is?"

"Listen," he said, holding out his phone.

"Firecrackers," I said.

"It's not firecrackers."

"It's Friday night," I said. "People are partying."

"With guns," he said.

"It's Vermont," I said. "There aren't any militias."

"You don't know that."

He was right. I didn't know anything.

My brother-in-law in suburban Cleveland bought a shotgun.

My sister wouldn't talk about it.

"I'll get the shells next," he said.

"Do you know how to use it?" I said.

"It's a shotgun," he said. "I think you just point and shoot."

"At who?" I said.

"I know," he said. "I understand what you're saying. But still."

We hadn't grown up with guns in my family and now everyone was getting one. We'd lived in safe neighborhoods and could rely on the protection of the police. We were starting to understand just how lucky we'd been. I hadn't shot one in years.

And I hadn't been out of my pajamas since April, when we came back to Spokane from Olympia, where I serve as a legislative liaison.

Summer got smoky. One night it was so bad in our creaky, old house I woke to Kate in a mask beside me. I made an air purifier out of a furnace filter taped to a box fan. She was 8 months pregnant. "At least the baby doesn't have to breathe this," she said.

I planned what I'd wear to gun school — black jeans, black T-shirt, steel-toed boots. My brother called when I was getting ready, and we kept talking as I drove. He wanted to know what kind of guns I'd be shooting. I told him I wasn't sure. "I don't know how to use mine," he said. "It scares the hell out of me."

"Get rid of it," I said.

"I can't," he said.

"Why do you even have it?"

"Just in case," he said.

I knew the statistics about guns in houses and people getting killed with them, domestic violence and suicide, accidents and murder.

"Don't show the gun," we used to say as union leaders back on Long Island, "unless you're willing to use it." Meaning don't make a threat you can't back up.

But that was years ago.

And we hadn't been talking about actual guns.

And now we were somehow. Or I was.

"Maybe you just need to learn how to use it," I told my brother on the phone.

"I know," he said. "But I don't want to."

There was no traffic. Everyone was locked up at home.

But it seemed like I might be late for school.

I told my brother I had to go.

"I don't even want to touch it," he said.

You had to be willing to use it was the thing — to shoot somebody. That's what we meant metaphorically in the union. Or they'd take it away and use it on you.

But this wasn't metaphorical.

If I bought the gun, would I show it? And after showing it, would I use it, or would my target take it away and shoot me or Kate or the baby or somebody else three weeks later?

I parked and walked toward the building.

That's when I realized I was wearing my slippers.

I had gotten out of my pajamas and managed to put on my black jeans and T-shirt, but I'd forgotten my boots on account of my brother calling.

My slippers were fuzzy wool with rubber soles.

People were going to hate me at gun school, but showing up barefooted would be worse.

"It'll depend on how the election turns out," the man at the front of the classroom was saying as I walked in. He stopped talking and looked at me and my slippers. They all did. Then he handed me my earmuffs and safety glasses and distributed the training packet.

I sat at a table in the second row.

Our teacher asked us to introduce ourselves and talk about why we were there and what our experience was. I said my purpose was self-defense and that I used to shoot cans and milk jugs. I said my brother was a sheriff in Vermont. I had to stop myself from saying anything else. I might have said anything. I wanted them to like me.

The other guys said who they were. I was the only one there who didn't already own a gun. Which was fine, our teacher said, because I would be firing lots of handguns today and would get a feel for what I'd want to buy.

I paged through the training manual.

"Do not put ammunition in your mouth," it said in the safety section.

The other guys knew as little as I did, or they wouldn't have been there. Each of them had a new gun and now they wanted to learn how to shoot people with it.

Our teacher stood behind a table of guns, which he said we'd talk about soon enough, but first we had to cover the four universal firearm rules — All guns are always loaded, Never point the firearm at anything you do not want to put a hole in, and two other ones I can't remember, kind of like the four noble truths of Buddhism.

Our teacher covered the pros and cons of semi-automatics and revolvers, the difference between single-action and double-action and striker-fired firearms. He was competent as hell. When he picked up a gun, he seemed comfortable with it, unlike me and my brother. He would not show the gun unless he was willing to use it. And he was willing.

I thought maybe I was too.

I didn't want to walk around with it or sleep with it under my pillow.

But if all hell broke loose, at least I'd have one and know how to use it.

If the militia came to our front door, for example, and into our house.

People were getting killed all over — Minneapolis, Kenosha, Portland.

Class went on for hours. I took furious notes, the most studious student in the room, there in the second row in my slippers. As a teacher myself, I knew our teacher would like me best, the one right there with him. Then it was time to go to the range.

I shot a .38 Special and a .44.

We were each in our own lane, shooting targets 20 feet away.

I wasn't hitting much.

"You're going to have to account for your flinch," our teacher said.

We'd practiced loading magazines in class and I loaded two now for the semi-automatics at my station. One was much bigger than the other, heavier.

"That's the one the SEALs use," my teacher said.

It had a little anchor etched into its barrel.

I tried to account for my flinch, concentrated on my breathing, on relaxing, trying to reach a meditative shooting state. I fired and hit my target in the chest. I took more deep breaths, accounted for the flinch. I fired and hit my target in the throat, in the head, in the chest again. Nice and slow. Pop. Pop. Bang.

"Good pattern," my teacher said. "Now try the other gun."

The lighter one was even better.

I'd be able to shoot all kinds of people with it — in self-defense.

This was the one I wanted.

I tried to maintain my Zen state, breathing, shooting, relaxing. Sometimes I missed my target. Sometimes I hit three feet from where I was aiming.

"Just imagine if he was moving," my teacher said. "That's what you're going to have to train for."

Right, I thought. Moving targets.

"It's nothing like the movies," he said.

But some of it was.

Kate was asleep when I got home. She asked about it in the morning and I said it had been interesting. Then I went online to buy a gun, one of the .9s I liked.

But it turned out you couldn't buy a gun, not one of the good ones, not anytime soon. You couldn't buy ammo either. Everyone had already bought it all. The manufacturers couldn't keep up. It was the pandemic and also that other thing that had been boiling away for years, the country coming apart, infected with hatred, so many of us arming and rearming ourselves, preparing to kill each other. And I was one of them. If somebody came after me or my family, I believed I would be able to shoot them, to kill them. I'd imagined it at the range as hard as I could. Would I be able to use the gun? Yes, I decided. Who knew if it was really true. I found a store with a waiting list and put my name on it. At lunch I told Kate how you couldn't buy a gun today, not an expensive, accurate one. "But I put my name on a list," I said.

I could feel the weight of the heavy one in my hand.

Kate was quiet.

I concentrated on my sandwich.

"We're not getting a gun," she finally said.

Her cousin had killed himself with one, I knew that much.

But I also knew how afraid she'd been of the armed men in the streets, how afraid she was of armed men at home, too, killing themselves and their wives and their children.

"What about the militias," I said.

"You want to be like them?" she said.

I just wanted to be on my own side. With a gun. Ready for the end of the world.

I told her we'd keep it locked up, that we'd both learn to use it, that we'd never take it out except to go to the range or if we really needed it. I was starting to wear her down a little.

"Absolutely not," she said.

I took my name off the list.

My gun fever subsided over the following days. The baby was born. Other stuff happened that winter. My fever came back. Kate never had a fever, but there was a kind of wearing down in her, bred from the fear and rage and despair infecting us and so many others across the country. We hated the Supreme Court and Congress, big business and the academy, the woke left and the fascist right, social media and podcasts. We hated the pious maskers and the furious anti-maskers. We hated not being around people, even though we hated so many people. Kate and I were self-contained at home with a new baby, luckier than most to have the joy that baby brought and brings. We had enough money. We'd been spared so much suffering. But we still got enraged too often, or fell into despair, the kind of despair and rage and impotence that accompanies general collapse, the end of the empire, the end of the world. Even though we had everything.

We still talk about the gun sometimes, when things outside are particularly bad, when something scares us enough.

"But we'd have to be very certain," Kate says, trailing off.

I know what she means — that we'd have to be very certain to keep it locked up, never taking it out, forgetting it entirely, or better still, never buying it in the first place.

When I was 12, I shot milk jugs full of water with a .30-06. It belonged to my dentist, a family friend, and he taught me how to shoot it with a giant cup of vodka in his hand, setting up plastic gallons of water as targets. I finally hit them all and he told me to go look at what I'd hit. But I couldn't find anything, just puddles.

"Isn't that something?" he said.

It really was — everything gone but the water.

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click to enlarge Samuel Ligon - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR
  • photo courtesy of the author
  • Samuel Ligon

Samuel Ligon's most recent novel, Miller Cane: A True & Exact History, was serialized in the Inlander, where this essay first appeared. Ligon is the author of two other novels, two books of stories, and is co-editor, with Kate Lebo, of Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter and Booze. He teaches at Eastern Washington University.

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