AR-15, photographed by Michael Sullivan

by Stephanie Webb

In September of this year, I met with three friends, Charity, Elena, and Aurora, to celebrate Aurora’s birthday. One of us brought up the subject of guns because of the active shooter training at the school where she taught. Because of the rise in gun deaths, more offices and schools had been participating in active shooting drills, and people who had otherwise no exposure to guns were learning about running, hiding or fighting. Charity was a pacifist and had an intense fear of guns, which was in direct conflict with her partner who not only owned and knew how to operate guns, but had taught children how to protect themselves using martial arts. Surprisingly, Elena said, “Well, I used to compete in shooting. Maybe it would be a good idea to go to a range and try it out so that it’s not so scary.”

Of all the responses to a fear of guns, that was not what I had been expecting. Elena continued, “We can either go to a range, or I might have a friend who might let us shoot at his property. He used to teach people about gun safety.” Charity was flabbergasted, but Aurora said, “Well, we’re all teachers. Surely confronting a fear is the best way to get around it.” I said, “You know, I’ve shot a BB gun, but never a gun with bullets, so maybe it’s time to try it out.” Still flabbergasted, Charity found herself agreeing to this outing, and Elena promised to ask her friend about shooting on his property. I jokingly said, “Yeah, we’re the chicks with clicks.” We briefly thought about getting shirts with that phrase, but decided against it. On October 26, 2019, I shot several guns for the first time; ironically, my conclusion was that guns are a lot like racism.

In the beginning, anything unknown is always scarier than known entities. When Elena brought up the opportunity to shoot, Charity’s first response was fear. I tend not to spend time around guns because I have dealt with mental health issues. However, as violence against the Black and brown communities has increased, I had considered owning a weapon not because it felt safer, but because I have never wanted to feel powerless in the face of a threat. Aurora, who had been a math teacher, had no opinion about it one way or another, but was willing to approach the issue like a problem she was solving. In this way, Black and brown people approach racism differently and dependent on each situation. We ask ourselves so many questions before entering interracial spaces or beginning any type of collaboration, professional or social. We are so accustomed to people taking advantage of us that we have to gauge just how vulnerable we can be without detriment. Frequently, scenarios play out in favor of White privilege: White people have been given the benefit of the doubt as “safe” people, and their safety is considered vital to a successful interracial engagement.

Because Texas has a bountiful supply of both guns and racism, Black and brown people enter situations of potential violence with immense skepticism. Guns have been the primary symbol of violence used against people in general, which was why Charity, a White woman, had been so reluctant to come in contact with one. As a Black woman, I once silenced a party when asked about my preference for guns because I answered, “I don’t feel very comfortable with guns because most people are getting them to protect themselves against people who look like me.” For Black and brown people, having a gun could be used as the motivation to kill us whereas for White people, guns are recognized as a right by the Constitution. Unfortunately, guns have also been viewed as licenses to commit violence in response to perceived threats; Black and brown people are simply considered to be threats. In the United States, racism — like gun ownership — has always been sanctioned as a right of White people, and a threat to Black and brown people.

Guns, like racism, represent the potential to do great damage without proper training. We were lucky in that every step of this journey, there was someone with more knowledge. Elena’s friend was willing to host us, which meant we were shooting on private property with a trained instructor. Elena was already familiar with weaponry and owned a survival rifle. When Elena was instructing us on which ammo to purchase, we were politely interrupted and assisted by a military veteran who had trained his daughter in weaponry. When we arrived at the property, the instructor explained where was safe to shoot, posture, positioning, and firmly stated that we should only shoot what we wanted to shoot. At no point was there uncertainty, which would not have happened if we had gone to a range. Everything was controlled, and we all felt relatively safe.

Controlled interracial situations have frequently meant the difference between survival and violence. When confronting potential racism, Black and brown people generally prefer smaller gatherings to larger ones, which have higher probabilities of racist encounters. When at the gatherings, we interact having carefully gauged whether we should be the life of the party, wallflowers, or if our presence was genuinely desired — meaning that we were in a safe space. Often, we have been told that when confronting racism, White people have been unable to recognize any particular damage they might be doing. Because of their position of privilege, there have been many relationships damaged by subconscious White insistence on groupthink (which has often been anti-Black), or when private revelations of discomfort have been dismissed. In uncontrolled situations, racism has been indescribably violent.

Because we were in a controlled situation, Aurora, Charity, Elena and I were able to load and unload; we were able to miss; and we were able to safely receive correction. More accountability made it possible for us to see Elena strut her stuff, for us all to be laughing at the end of the lessons, and to refuse to shoot certain weaponry. Personally, I still fear an AR-15, but I fear dangerous consequences, not an inanimate object. That intimacy — being among trusted friends — made it possible for us to be vulnerable. With racism, emotional accountability allows everyone to express emotions; a Black or brown person, or a White person, has free expression. Within emotional accountability, Black and brown people are able to have negative feelings without being ostracized, derided, or violated as punishment. At the same time, White people are allowed to be genuine and authentic without the responsibility of maintaining racism. Confronting racism among known elements makes it possible to heal.

By the end of the day, I had hit almost all of the targets, including a clay pigeon, all of which were immensely satisfied. We learned that guns could cost anywhere from $150 to the amount I paid for my freshman year in college. While I would not say that I would purchase a gun, I could say that I understand why people would be fascinated by such a hobby. I was more open to the idea of trying it again to see if I could improve my shot, and I was curious about what I would do if threatened. Like guns, racism involves countless hours of relearning how to approach life. From a Black and brown perspective, we spend hours unlearning the history that created our position in the social hierarchy wherever we are. It would seem that the White perspective learns to understand the context under which societies were created, and to challenge those paradigms.

As I said, shooting guns did not make me want to make a habit of target practice, but it did help me to understand why others would. If society is going to heal from its traumas, there must be scenarios where more people confront the atrocities of racism in such ways that all parties feel safe. At some point, it is possible that words will finally fail, but they can only fail if we refuse to load, change our postures, and aim for progress.

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