An intimate history of gun violence in rural America through the story of one girl

Content Warning: Gun Violence, Domestic Violence, Suicidal Ideation, 

I am sitting in the public library trying to focus on what is real and in front of me to slow down my brain which is spiraling into anxiety and fear. I am scanning the room for exits and checking to see if the door we are near locks. It doesn’t. I try to make my eyes stay focused on my oldest, happily absorbed in a book. I  see my son building blocks with my toddler. I also see a man walk in weighted down with heavy bags. I try to make eye contact so that I can gage his mood and if he is a threat. This is not uncommon behavior for me, but given the latest news cycle of mass shootings, my alarm bells are louder and easier to set off. 

I hear a lot of debate about guns and the causes of mass violence, but I am not hearing a lot from the people who live in the communities who supposedly love guns and benefit from having easy and constant access to them. I am sure there are many people from my neck of the woods who would have a different analysis and experience than me, but I know for a fact that there are just as many women and children living in the war zone that I grew up in. I have learned that if I can not find what I am looking for, then I need to create it. The stories that follow are just one girls experiences of growing up poor in gun-loving rural America. 

The first time I held a gun in my hands, I was only five years old. I was sitting criss-cross applesauce on the edge of my dad’s bed. My dad, my real birth dad, was dying of AIDS so he lived all of his days in a hospital cot that was in the living room of the apartment that he shared with his wife (not my mom) and my four siblings. I spent a lot of time curled up in that bed on the weekends when I was at their home. 

My dad reached under his pillow. He pulled the gun out and although this is my first gun memory, there must have been something before this, because I sensed danger. Already the hairs on the back of my neck were raised and already I was terrified. Even in the arms of my dad who called me “Face” and “Sunshine” and told me he loved me at every chance.   

He was saying words, but I do not remember them. My memory of this moment is a silent film. I can feel the weight of the gun in my hands. I am already trained to play along with men, even dad-men, and act like I am interested in whatever they say so that I do not make them angry. I examine the gun with my eyes and try to force a smile at my dad. His eyes are not smiling. He looks sad. He looks scared. Why is he scared?! If he is scared then I definitely need to be scared too. I do not know what shifts but I feel it in my body as my dad takes the gun out of my hand. Now, I feel that cold metal that was just in my hands, pressed against my head. I can’t breathe. What is happening? Then. My brother, the oldest one. The one that I am also scared of. He enters the room and without thinking, I dive off of the bed and run out of the room as fast as I can. I know that my dad can’t get out of bed to chase me. I will be safe now. Not only does he have AIDS, but he had Polio as a child and his immuno-depressed state has somehow reactivated the polio and stolen his ability to walk even with a cane as he used to. 

When my mom comes to pick me up with her new boyfriend, Tom, I am still trembling. I am still not forming words, which is unlike me. If I am not talking, something is not ok. My mom would not let it rest until I gave her the details of what happened. She is furious and over the course of the next week her fury and fear are building and building. The story of what happened is building and building and I can no longer at this age decipher between what happened and what was my mom’s interpretation of what happened. 

That Friday, my mom locked the doors and turned the lights off when my step-mom, Jane came to pick me up. When Jane demanded that my mom send me with her so I could see my dying father, my mom let loose on her. If not for that locked door, I can only imagine the brawl that would have ensued. Instead, I was witness to a knock out drag out screaming match. The hysteria died down and we let our guard down and turned the lights back on. Then the police came. 

Boom! Boom! Boom! “Open! Up! It’s the police!”

Now my mom is not mad. She is terrified. We are white and therefore incredibly privileged, but in a small predominantly white town, it is this part of town, the low income housing side, that sees the most police aggression. Still, I am her only child and she has nothing to lose. She will not put me in harms way. “NO! I will not open this door! I will not let you take my child back to that place!! Please! He put a gun to her head! He put a gun to my daughters head! I won’t let you take her!” 

“We have a court document that states that the child needs to be with her father right now. We need you to open the door or we will be forced to bust it open.” 

My mom is frantically dialing the court ordered lawyer. She isn’t getting ahold of anyone. She isn’t sure what to do. My step-dad is just recently released from Prison and she does not want to get him in trouble over this. He is hiding in the bedroom. I am hiding too. I am curled up in my mom’s closet under a pile of clothes, squeezing my eyes closed and crying. I have heard from my mom that my dad was trying to kill me. That he wants to die and that he wants to take me with him. 

The police are in the house. I can hear my mom sobbing and begging them not to take me. They demand to be told where I am. They are in the room. My mom’s room. I am trying to be silent but I am still gulping for air. I can see through the slats in the closet door that they are tearing the room apart. They look under the bed. They look in the clothes basket. They knock everything off the dresser. I am not on the dresser, but clearly they are mad that they have to do this job and they are acting big and tough. It works. I am more scared than I was on my dad’s lap with a gun pressed to my face. 

They open the closet door. I do not wait for them to lift the clothes and find me. I throw the pile off me and while they are realizing what is happening, I make my escape. But I am small. I am a kindergartner. They grab for me, but I hurl my body underneath the kitchen table. I cling to the leg of the table, while they cling to my legs. I am sure they are trying to talk to me and tell me I am safe, but I do not feel safe. I am screaming at the top of my lungs, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and that is when they finally let me go. They finally see how scared I am. They tell me mom that they will send over a social worker and that they will not make me go to my fathers this weekend but that we will need to go back to court and get this all worked out. 

here I am sitting at the table that I hid under.

The trauma continues through the court process where they make me testify in a room full of adults. Men. Some of them police with guns holstered onto their hips. They will not let my mom go with me to testify because they are afraid I won’t tell the truth with her there. They make me do this many times over weeks and months to make sure that my story does not change. My accusation is pretty serious. They search my father’s apartment and never find the gun, but they also never send me back there. The next time I see my dad, he is on his death bed in a hospital and I am there to say goodbye. 

My exposure to guns did not die with my father. The second time that I held a gun in my hands, I was seven years old. My step father hands me the gun and directs me to point it up the hill in the yard behind our trailer. He tells me he is training me to hunt groundhogs. This gun is nothing like my father’s gun. It is much bigger. It is almost as big as me. My step-father is laughing at how ridiculous I look trying to hold the weight of it up on my scrawny shoulder to steady it. “It’s got a kick! So get ready! It will probably knock you on your ass!” He is cackling at this. 

I hate this. I don’t want this gun in my hands. I am afraid, but I don’t want to prove my step-dad right that I am a weakling good for nothing girl child so I take a deep breath and squeeze the trigger. The shock of the force and echo of the blast knock me flying to the ground.  I want to cry and run away but I want to impress my new dad more. So, I get up. I smile at him. I ask, “Did I do it right? Did I do a good job?” and only after he hugs me do I allow myself to touch the throbbing spot on my arm where the gun has left an already spreading bruise. 

As much as I don’t like the feel of a gun in my hands, I really don’t like having the gun in someone else’s hands even more. I have mentioned that my step-dad put me through a rigorous “training” in some of my previous writings. Basically, he was incarcerated for most of his life and so I believe he put me through exercises that he was put through in prison. Some of the training was fun. He would take me on long jogs, he would count my push-ups and sit-ups and reward me when I met my goals. 100 sit-ups without stopping would earn me a baby doll that I desperately coveted. (I earned that doll by the end of first grade.) but the training got more and more sinister. One of his favorite “drills” to put me through was a “game” where he would instruct me to run up the steep hill behind our trailer and avoid being hit by the bullets that he was shooting at me. “Remember! This is important! It is hard to hit a moving target. Keep moving! Keep zigzagging up the hill! DO NOT RUN IN A STRAIGHT LINE!” 

“………” 

“Ok! GO!!!!!” 

The hills that I would run into while being shot at.

I do not know if he was actually shooting at me, but I know that I was running like hell and I was hearing the gun firing behind me. Whether it was all just to scare me and he was really shooting at me or not, I will never know, but I never got clipped with a bullet. I believed that I felt the bullets zinging around me although in my adulthood I wonder if it was only the wind because how could he have actually been shooting at me? 

The only time I know that he was definitely shooting live bullets at me, was the time that he pointed a b-b gun point blank at my head in the living room of our trailer. I was a child and he was pissed at something I did. I ducked just as the bb left the gun and it shot right over my head. My mom was sitting right behind me and her head while sitting was right where my head was while standing. It was too fast to see where it hit her, but I saw her reel backward with her hands to her face and I again let out my loudest scream, “MOMMMMMMYY!!!’ 

I never saw my mom hold a gun, but from time to time I would see her take out a single bullet that she kept, “In case she needed it.” She would hold it in her fingers and turn it this way and that. I knew what that bullet was for. I lived in fear of that bullet. I knew I would lose my mom to AIDS, but I feared I would lose her to the bullet even sooner. I still have that bullet. I keep it not for the same reason as her, but because I want something that my mother touched.By the time I was a teen, Tom was also lost to AIDS, but still gun culture survived around me. It was not uncommon for me to go on dates with boys out some back road, not to go “parking” in the woods, but to shoot at cans and get to know each other. (In case any of the boys I dated in high school are reading this, I much preferred the “parking” to the shooting. Thanks though.) Anyway, by this time, I had been trained well and I knew that men wanted a woman who was strong enough to hold a gun. I would wear my sexiest cut-ff daisy duke jean shorts and hold that gun like I meant business. If you weren’t looking closely, you might think that I liked guns. You might think my heart was beating face and my face was flush with romance, but no. My body was panicking and I was just already pretty good at controlling it to appear normal. Because to not love guns was not normal.
I can’t tell you all of my gun stories. It would take too long and what is the point. You understand my story, I think.  But even if we didn’t live in the middle of a mass shooting epidemic, I want you to know what it feels like to live in the belly of the gun-loving beast. I never felt safer with a gun in my home.

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