“Do you have your gun?” my father asked, when I called him from the motel in Eden, Texas.
“Yeah,” I said.
He had taught me to always carry a handgun when I was driving long distances alone. I eyed the .38 snub-nose revolver, its shiny black metal and wooden handle contrasting with the drab, brown bedside table. The short barrel made it hard to aim.
“If you ever have to shoot someone with it, you want to be as close as possible,” my father advised when he had given it to me in college, once I moved out of the dorms.
“Like this.” He grabbed my arm and pulled me close with his left hand, pivoting and punching me lightly in the ribs with his right fist--a boxer’s move.
My father had grown up in rural South Texas, just north of the Mexican border. Guns and hunting were as much a part of the landscape as the vast stretches of cotton fields and orange groves. He was a former boxer who had spent his entire adult life as a criminal defense lawyer. He represented accused murderers, rapists and drug dealers, listening to their stories day after day. He was a master in self-defense homicide cases. He knew the kind of violence that most people only saw on episodes of "Law and Order." When I was still in grade school, he would sometimes show me crime scene photos.
“What do you think of this one?” he said offhandedly, flicking me an 8x10 black and white photo of a rape/murder victim.
She lay facedown in a dirt field with one leg hiked up, her long, dark hair veiling her face, the dirt tattoo of tire marks from the defendant’s car visible across her naked body, the string from her IUD visible. Her vulnerability, the way her shame was exposed forever on film, scared me as much as her torturous death.
I was 10 or 11 at the time. Too mortified to talk, I couldn’t answer. More than 35 years later that image is still seared in my mind. With these images, my father trained me to be ready, to be on the lookout, to fight back. He taught me to shoot.
When I was 21, I graduated from college and left my home state of Texas to work and ski in Colorado. That first spring, when the narrow out-of-boundary shoots turned to sugar and the hikes grew longer for fewer and fewer turns, I set off on the two-day drive home to South Texas. It was the kind of drive you can only do in the West, with vast stretches of two-lane highway punctuated periodically by small towns and isolated gas stations.
Just before I crossed into New Mexico, I realized my car’s clutch was slipping. Not knowing what else to do, I kept driving. I stopped for the night in a small town in the Texas panhandle, a dry and dusty place called Eden. I called my father from the motel and explained my situation. He gave me an earful of gun advice.
“Keep it under your pillow,” he said. His voice was forceful, almost urgent. He had been giving me this same advice since I was 12.
“The element of surprise is very important,” he emphasized, “especially in a motel room. You don’t want someone to know you have it.”
But he couldn’t offer any car advice: “I don’t know,” he said vaguely, “I think at some point the car will just stop running. Make sure you have your gun, just in case.”
This was in the days before cellphones, and I was still a good eight to 10 hours from home. If the car died, I would be on my own. I had a sense of dread, worried the clutch couldn’t last much longer, but my need to get out of the middle of nowhere compelled me to forge on.
The next day, about 10 miles south of Eden, the flywheel blew and the clutch died. The engine went quiet, and I slowly glided off the shoulder, across the gravel and onto the dirt beside the highway, coming to rest under the shelter of a sprawling mesquite tree, its brilliant green fronds gracefully framing the sky.
The road stretched flat and black in either direction--no houses, no gas stations, no phones. Eden was 10 miles behind me. Menard was 12 miles ahead. San Antonio, 130 miles beyond that. I would have to hitchhike.
At 5-foot-3 and 115 pounds, I was no physical match for any man who might pick me up. I tried not to think of the dangers, and beat back my fear by focusing on each step of preparation. I locked the glove compartment, slowly put my luggage in the trunk, and stuffed my two most valuable possessions in my backpack: my typewriter and my gun. Then, dressed in a tie-dyed T-shirt and blue-jean shorts, my hair in a long ponytail, I started walking down the highway.
Within 15 minutes, an 18-wheeler pulled over. As it slowed to a stop ahead of me, I ran up to the rig, which was so high I stood on my toes. The driver leaned across the seat so we could see each other. He threw open the door.
I climbed into the rig and sat on the passenger seat. The driver had leathery skin and looked to be in his late 50s, about 10 years older than my father. I surveyed the cab of the truck, watching and evaluating his every move. I tried to anticipate every possible attack scenario as I fastened my seatbelt. He looked into his side mirror and pulled back onto the highway.
I put my backpack on the floor next to the passenger door so he couldn’t grab it while driving, hoping I wasn’t obvious. As we rode to San Antonio, I periodically brushed the back of my hand against the front pocket of my pack, feeling the hard, bumpy surface of the revolver’s cylinder for confidence.
When we got to the north side of the city, I pointed out a place where he could let me out and called my dad on a pay phone, telling him what had happened.
He listened without interruption, finally asking, “Did you have your gun?”
“Yeah,” I said.
"Did you show it to him?"
Dad! That’s not hitchhiking--that’s carjacking.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he said, with a chuckle. “All right, well, I’ll come down there and get you.”
As an adult, I sometimes hear liberal friends and acquaintances deride gun enthusiasts as “gun nuts” or “gun fanatics.” I know they don’t mean to insult me or my family personally. I know they can’t comprehend how a parent would give his 22-year-old daughter a gun. But where I come from, that isn’t so unusual. When I moved into my first apartment in college, both of my roommates’ fathers had given them guns, too. From my dad’s perspective, he was protecting me, empowering me to defend myself against an unpredictable and dangerous world. I, being young and female, welcomed that power and security.
I had been shooting guns since before the age when I have clear memories, 4, maybe 5. I shot pistols, shotguns and hunting rifles at summer camp, on ranches and at bird hunts. I could shoot sitting, standing and prone. For me, guns were a family affair; I hunted with my dad, my uncles, even my grandmother. WD-40 and cleaning fluid were the scents of my childhood.
But I had never had to use a gun in a high-stress situation. I didn’t have military or police training. If danger was a paper target, an empty beer can, even a flying bird, I was prepared. But what if it was a person, someone unpredictable, someone on the attack? My only preparation was my father’s advice, movies I had seen, and my own imagined scenarios. And yet, the idea that a gun was essential for my protection was imbedded in me from childhood. I checked it regularly, under my mattress or car floor mat. It was my touchstone of safety. My gun gave me the confidence to drive 1,000 miles alone.
When I left Texas for the return drive to Colorado, a brand-new clutch under the hood, my dad gave me a 9 mm Glock. For many years after that I always traveled armed. I lived in Texas, Colorado, Utah and Connecticut and drove the thousands of miles in between by myself with no cellphone and no companion other than my own personal bodyguard: the Glock under the driver-side floor mat.
In 1993, I graduated from law school in Connecticut and moved back to Texas to clerk for a federal judge. In the four years since I had stepped out onto the highway with a .38 in my backpack, the tenor of Texas gun culture had intensified. Two years before my return, a man named George Hennard crashed his truck through the front window of a Luby’s cafeteria in Kileen, Texas, and shot 44 people, killing 24, including himself. It was the worst mass murder in U.S. history at the time.
Texas lawmakers responded with the now-familiar refrain that a good guy with a gun could have stopped a bad guy with a gun. In this case, though, it was a good girl with a gun. Susanna Happ had survived the massacre, but her parents were killed. Although in the past she had carried her gun in her purse, that day she had left her gun in her car in the parking lot in order to comply with the law. She testified in the state Legislature that it was the “stupidest decision of [her] life.” The legislators promptly passed a law permitting gun owners to apply for licenses to carry concealed weapons.
A few months before I moved back to Texas, then-Gov. Ann Richards vetoed the concealed carry law, and the public backlash was fierce. My father was outraged. “She laughed when she vetoed it!” he fumed. Presciently, he predicted her defeat in the next election and the inevitability of a concealed carry law in the future. It was more than just a Texas birthright to own and carry firearms; it was nearly a duty.
I waded into this tide of public sentiment carrying a lifetime of my father’s dogmatic insistence that I always have a gun for self-protection. Each night I came home alone to my quiet apartment in Fort Worth in an old stone house, the dark deepened by the silhouettes of the sprawling oak trees. I would park behind the house, slide the Glock out from under the floor mat and slip it into the back waistband of my pants, into a pocket, or simply tucked in the crook of my arm if I was wearing a dress. Then I walked quickly, furtively, and slipped quietly into the house.
It was a lovely old neighborhood of limestone homes near the Trinity River. Sitting on the front step at night, I could hear the lions roar at the zoo. The neighborhood was far safer than the one I had just moved from in New Haven. Looking back, I can’t pinpoint why I lived in such a state of high alert. Was it working in a courthouse and hearing the inevitably grim stories? Was it hanging out with FBI agents and U.S. marshals who wore their guns on and off duty? Was it living by myself for the first time in a new city where I didn’t know my neighbors? The bottom line was that I was a young woman alone. I was vulnerable, and I felt like a weapon offered safety. What was more, I felt like everyone around me had a gun.
The following summer, I finished my clerkship and prepared to move to Boulder, Colorado, to work for a law firm. In between jobs, I took a road trip with a good friend from law school. She had grown up on the Upper East Side of New York.
“My dad says, 'There’s always one thing you need to take with you on a road trip: your AAA card,’” she said as we set out for the first leg of our trip.
“My dad says the only thing you need is your gun,” I said.
We laughed, and she shook her head.
“Do you have yours now?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said.
There was a long, awkward pause.
“Ah,” she said. “I’m not sure how I feel about that.”
For the first time in my life it occurred to me that my having a gun might not be reassuring to someone. I had never thought to ask how she felt beforehand. I had never been close friends with someone who would object. But what could I do? I couldn’t just throw it away.
We drove from New Mexico all the way up to Montana and back with both the AAA card and the gun, but we never needed either.
After that trip, I moved back to Colorado, a middle-ground state as far as guns were concerned. I practiced criminal defense and civil law, then joined the DA’s Office. I continued to drive with the Glock in my car for long-distance and night drives, but the fog of gun obsession lifted. The only people I knew who had guns in Colorado were law enforcement and hunters. I worked closely with police who recertified their weapons' proficiency quarterly. The more I saw of their training, the more I saw the inadequacy of my own.
While I grappled with this, a man in Boulder named Forrest Leigh, an ex-Marine and NRA member, was cleaning his guns and accidentally shot one. The bullet ripped through the wall of his apartment and into the next, piercing the forehead of his 27 year-old neighbor, Tara Coakley, killing her. She had been sitting down to eat pizza with her brother and his fiancé. Hearing this story froze something inside me. My unease about carrying guns grew. The consequences of an accident--a literal slip when clearing a chamber or cleaning a barrel--cast a long, dark shadow over my confidence in having guns.
Ten years after I stepped out onto Highway 83 hitchhiking alone, I set off on another cross-country drive. Newly married, I moved from Boulder, Colorado, to Brooklyn, New York. The night before the movers arrived, my friend Amy and my sister, Alanna, came to provide moral support. Tired of packing, I pawned off as many possessions as they would take. I gave Amy hats, decorative home items, and house plants until her car couldn’t fit any more. I gave my sister my guns.
It was the red tape, really. I wasn’t yet familiar with the gun laws in New York, but I knew they were strict. I was setting off to be a prosecutor in the Manhattan DA’s office. It was easier to get rid of the guns than to research all of the laws and regulations about owning them in the city.
Also, I had more guns than I had realized. I pulled them from under the floor mat of my car, out of my closet, and from under my mattress. There was the Glock, the .38, a .22 revolver, a .22 rifle, and one more I can no longer remember. I was surprised and somewhat embarrassed by the little armory I had built up piece-by-piece over the years, collecting different guns for different needs.
As I handed the last gun over to my sister, it hit me that I had never lived without guns. What if our car broke down on our way to New York? It’s not that I expected danger, but if danger came my way, I expected it to be armed. How did people without guns protect themselves?
“They’re still mine,” I said to my sister. “I’ll want them when we move back.”
“Yeah, of course,” she said, locking them into the trunk of her car.
It’s been 16 years and I never did move back. I lived through 9/11 in New York City and the East Coast blackout the following year. During the blackout, I heard people walking on the roof of our brownstone apartment in the night and I thought about my guns in Colorado. I lay in the stifling dark, longing for a gun under the mattress.
I thought about protecting my sleeping toddler in the next room. But I also thought about how his curiosity and physical abilities so far outpaced his reason. How would I ever be able to keep a gun, or anything, accessible to me but not to him? I pushed away images of him finding the gun, his chubby little hands wrapping around the stock and the trigger.
I had long agonized about whether I could safely raise a child in a home with guns. I knew that to do so, I would have to spend lots of time and effort teaching firearm safety and skills. Even then, accidents happen. The statistics about accidental child shootings, I knew, were stunning. But I also had personal experience. When I was 12, I accidentally shot a hole in the ceiling of my parents’ bedroom with a .357 magnum, barely missing my own face. As a child that was an embarrassment, as a parent looking back, I couldn’t even breathe.
That night in Brooklyn, I heard more than people walking on the roof. I also heard my neighbors walking around outside, murmuring in wonder at the darkened city, laughing at the novelty. The sheer density of the city meant there were always people around if I called for help. That same density meant that bullets could easily pierce through walls, endangering neighbors in a profoundly different way from in the suburbs. I was grateful for the lack of guns. I knew no matter how drunk and out of control my alcoholic neighbor got, I never worried about him killing himself or anyone else in a blind rage because a gun was so easy to grab. I was astonished to realize that my faith had outpaced my fears.
Scary and terrible things happen. How do you defend yourself against true evil? I think of the Petit family in Connecticut, where two sociopaths broke into a randomly selected home and raped and killed the daughters and wife. The father was beaten on the head with a baseball bat from his own garage and tied up, unable to save his family. What if he had had a gun? Would he have been able to get to it and save them? My father absolutely believes he would have. But the facts of the case suggest otherwise. For my father, having a gun is a kind of insurance against tragedy. With his gun, he was not afraid. I used to feel the same.
Then, on Dec. 14, 2012, I had just returned home from dropping my first-grader off at a reunion with her kindergarten teacher, when I read the breaking news of the Sandy Hook school shooting on my phone. My sister called me immediately.
“What is wrong with this country?” she cried.
I hurried upstairs and closed myself in my bedroom so that my other children couldn't hear me crying.
My sister and I both had first-graders then, like 20 of the child victims that day. We knew the dimples on the back of their still doughy hand, the feel of their breath on our necks when you kissed them goodnight, the smell of their skin with sweat that is still sweet. They were afraid of bugs, loud noises and the dark. We knew how much they loved their teachers, and that four of the victims at Sandy Hook were teachers. All of those bodies ripped apart by a semi-automatic machine gun in the hands of a damaged boy. So many deaths, so many broken families.
“Those guns I left,” I said, wiping tears and snot off my face. “I don’t want them back. Ever. I don’t care what you do with them. I can’t be a part of this anymore. Sell them, turn them into a buy-back program. I never want them back.”
I have grown beyond my father’s world. I left his home. I left his state. I left his guns behind. People sometimes ask how my dad feels about my evolution on guns. I tell them that we are family. We love and respect each other. I tell them it’s a continuing conversation, and we find much on which we can agree: rules and regulations we could both accept.
Whatever my personal choices, my children will never live in a gun-free world.
Every year we return to Texas.
“Dad, will you please clear all the guns and lock them up while we are there?” I ask him
“Yeah. Sure,” he says.
“Really, Dad, all of them.”
And every year when we arrive, I sweep my father’s house, like a Secret Service agent. I gather up the guns he missed. I hand them over to him reprovingly. I have my own family now, and have to find my own way to keep them safe.
When I drove east out of Colorado gun-free, I left behind much more than my guns. Over time I came to realize that I left behind the feeling that I was always under siege, the feeling that every moment I must be vigilant. I left behind the burden of responsibility and the fear of the wrong person finding, stealing or using my gun. Most of all, I left behind the fear of being that parent on the 911 call—the one with the animal scream because her child accidentally shot herself or her sibling.
I left gun country, and then gun country left me.