By Sarah Blanchard
The gun shop owners are busy with customers wanting gunsmith services and booking time on the rifle range. They don’t know there’s a troll in their midst. She’s the pudgy, silver-haired grandmother in Wrangler jeans, a buffalo-plaid sweatshirt, and well-worn leather barn boots, casually perusing a display of gun oils and cleaning supplies in the glass-fronted case by the check-out counter.
A fly-specked poster on the top shelf catches her eye:
“Liberal Tears® Gun Oil. Serious
Gun Care™. Because guns have only two enemies, Rust, and Liberals.”
The sign is propped up by a squadron of white plastic bottles capped with pump sprayers. One bottle displays its back label: “Makes liberals cry with every shot. Hand collected fresh from
liberal sources in CA, MA & NY. Keep out of reach of liberals. Bacon Scented.”
The Serious Gun Care stuff is Bacon Scented? Yep, it’s right there on the label. Apparently, in rednecky gun-world marketing, “Liberals” always equals Bad, and “Bacon” always equals Good.
There’s a layer of dust on every bottle of Liberal Tears Gun Oil. Maybe they’ll sell a few as gag gifts for the holidays.
Rest assured, fearful gun-rights folks. This old liberal plans to keep right on using what she’s always used—Hoppe’s No. 9, the century-old formula with its pungent, banana-daiquiri odor. No hint of a cholesterol-laden, high-sodium, over processed breakfast meat, and no snarky label telling me not to give them my money.
There’s no time to buy anything, anyway. Class is starting, so I stick my name tag on my jacket and follow the others through the double doors into a classroom at the edge of a six-lane
pistol range. My new Smith & Wesson Shield .380 semi-automatic pistol and I have come to this western North Carolina shooting range for a refresher course on safe gun handling. I’m one of eighteen women, all white, attending a six-hour introductory safe-shooting class offered by a local gun club.
The instructors refer to us as “ladies.” We range in age from thirty-something to seventy-
something and we’re all at least a little nervous. Some of us have never shot a gun before. Others are here to polish rusty skills. Several, like me, have shot long guns—rifles and shotguns—but now want to learn best practices with a new handgun.
Some of us have brought our own weapons, which were confiscated at the door. Instructors have taken them to the firing range to inspect them and confirm their unloaded status. We won’t get our guns back, we’re told, until after lunch. First, we must complete three hours of classroom training.
The six National Rifle Association instructors, all white men, take us carefully through the NRA’s safety protocols. The initial lecture covers types of handguns and ammunition. We learn about safety locks and load-and-fire mechanisms. How to carry and store handguns and ammunition, keeping them out of reach of children and untrained adults, and people who have issues with mental health or anger or alcohol. We all nod. We get it—there are people out there who should not be handling guns.
We are reminded—over and over and over— that we must assume
unless we’ve checked it personally. Never take anyone else’s word that a gun is unloaded. Ask to see the proof or do it yourself: Remove a pistol’s magazine, rack the slide and lock it open, or
rotate a revolver’s cylinder. Look for a leftover round in the chamber. Don’t just look, stick your little finger into the chamber and
feel for a bullet.
We discuss what’s on everyone’s mind, the recent fatal shooting on the set of Rust.
A tragedy like that should never have happened, we are told. “We don’t call that an
accident,” the head instructor tells us.
“The word ‘accident’ implies no one was to blame. Everyone was to blame. That’s not an accident, ladies, that’s a failure.”
We nod some more, impressed with this distinction. The instructors pass out brightly colored models of revolvers and semi-automatic pistol to check our stance and two-handed grip. The left-handed students team up with the left-handed instructor. The models are solid plastic—no moving parts—but we are told to treat them like real weapons, not toys. So we mime the actions of releasing a magazine clip, racking back a slide, flipping a safety lock, spinning a cylinder. We learn to identify our dominant eye and practice lining up the sights, pinpointing an imaginary target on the classroom’s cinderblock wall.
Then it’s lunchtime. Over pizza and chocolate chip cookies baked by the program’s
organizer, we chat about our families and children and dogs. Two women admire my tall boots and I’m glad I remembered to scrape the chicken manure off the soles before coming to class.
Niceties out of the way, the conversation turns to guns. I ask the group, “Why do you want to own a handgun?”
The universal answer is “personal security.” They know someone who’s been assaulted or burglarized, or they heard about a home invasion. They worry about neighborhood drug
activity. Many of these women live alone or with a disabled spouse. Crime is going up, they remind each other, because of the pandemic or political division or the economy or too many
“others” moving into our small mountain towns.
No one launches into a diatribe against Democrats or Biden or vaccines or mask mandates or immigrants or defunding the police. But one woman references last summer’s BLM demonstrations in Asheville, and I overhear someone else say, “…before all our guns get taken away like in Canada.”
When a forty-something kindergarten teacher glances at the wall behind me, I see that we’re chatting beside a huge poster of a larger-than-life bald eagle in full flight, mouth open in a
predatory scream. The text of the Second Amendment sprawls beneath its talons in 128-point script.
Someone asks what motivated me to buy a handgun.
“Bobcats,” I say. “And coyotes.”
Bobcats? They stare at me, confused. Is that a code name for Antifa?
“Bobcats,” I repeat. “A bobcat tried to carry off one of our hens last month. My husband suggested getting a shotgun, but I want something easier to carry around. To protect my livestock and scare off predators.”
Their heads nod when I say “predators,” but I’m pretty sure we’re thinking of different things. Conversation stalls. One woman frowns and shifts her eyes back to the poster on the
wall. I briefly consider asking what my classmates think about the phrase “well-regulated militia,” but lunch is over and now we’re heading into the shooting range for live-fire target
We’ve all donned full eye and ear protection so it’s hard to hear anything above the explosive sounds of handguns firing at close range in a concrete bunker. The instructors’ voices must also compete with the continuous jet-engine roar of a high-powered ventilation system sucking gunpowder-laden air out and pulling fresh air in.
There’s an excellent three-to-one student-teacher ratio, each group with its own shooting
lane. My lane’s instructor is Roger, a short, trim man with a deep voice and well-tended silver mustache.
First, he says, we’ll practice our aim and stance with an actual handgun, dry-firing
our unloaded pistols a few times at a cardboard target hanging just five yards away. “The likely distance of an intruder in your home,” Roger explains. I want to ask him if I can swap out my
home-intruder target for a coyote-shaped one—set at coyote height and chicken-coop distance— but I keep silent.
When it’s my turn to live-fire, Roger helps me push on the cartridge’s stiff spring to load
the bullets. He reminds me to keep the safety on while I rack back the slide, which slips the first bullet into the chamber. He checks my grip and prompts me to keep my thumbs away from the recoiling slide. I line up the sights, flick off the safety, breathe, and press—not squeeze, never squeeze—the trigger.
The first shot from my new weapon hits the target but not the human-shaped outline.
“Went past his right ear,” Roger notes. I shift my grip, correct my aim, square my stance. The second shot and the third and the fourth punch a tight circle of holes in the figure’s right lung.
“Good cluster,” Roger says. “He’s dead.”
I fire sixteen rounds with my own gun, then I try a few others for comparison—a .22 long-barreled target pistol, a Glock 9mm with a pinpoint laser sight, and a snub-nosed .45 revolver,
all from the instructor’s private collection. Brass shells are flying everywhere, pinging off the walls and littering the floor. My hands have begun to stiffen from the heavier weight and sharper
recoils of the Glock and the revolver, so I’m relieved when the class concludes with a quick review of gun cleaning and safe storage.
Almost as an aside, Roger points out the dozen or so bullet holes that pock the plywood wall behind the gun-cleaning table. No accidents, he reminds us. Failures. The program organizer hands out class-evaluation forms while our personal weapons are whisked away again. The instructors will again ensure that the guns are unloaded before we are allowed to carry them through the shop and out to our cars. When my Smith & Wesson comes back to me, the slide will be racked open, and the magazine removed. Someone’s pinky will have poked into the chamber to verify the absence of a leftover live round.
I finish writing my evaluation, giving the course and the instructors full marks. While I’m waiting for my gun to be brought to me, I wander through the shop again, looking at Glocks and
Sig Sauers and Rugers, gear bags and ammo cases and concealed-carry purses. On the wall near the ladies’ room, there’s a cork board covered in push-pinned snapshots of happy friends and customers, most camo-clad and all heavily armed. Some of the photos feature shooters posing with dead deer or cardboard targets with perfect bulls-eye shot clusters.
One photo catches my eye. It shows a young boy, maybe eleven or twelve, and his younger sister. She can’t be more than ten. They’re gripping AR-15-style assault rifles, cradling
them like heavy shields across their child-sized chests. He’s squinting at the camera, trying on a tough-guy look in baggy, oversized olive-drab fatigues with the sleeves rolled up. She’s dressed in pink camo, hugging her weapon and missing a tooth but smiling anyway.