I Grew Up With Guns, Then I Was Held Hostage With One
Haley Elkins didn’t fight then, but she’s going to fight now.
I love guns. I’m from West Texas — very few of us do not at least respect guns, if not love them outright.
As a trap shooter, I range between the high sixties and the mid-eighties, which is pretty damn good for a woman who only gets to shoot once a year or so. I keep about the same record as my father, a former homicide and narcotics detective, who shoots competitively about a half-dozen times each year.
My mother doesn’t care for shooting. It’s a lot of standing around, and her hips and knees can’t take it anymore. But for most of her life, she was just as good as, if not better than, my father.
She smiles knowingly every time I hit a sporting clay.
“It’s because you’re a woman,” is her theory. “You have a lower center of gravity than men, which gives you a more solid stance.”
Early in my parents’ marriage, they lived in a bigger city than they do now — quite a move for both of them, but in the late 1970s, you went where the oilfield dictated you go.
My mother was often alone for weeks at a time. And at some point soon after they moved, the television in the den started turning itself on in the middle of the night.
Now, my mother is about one of the most fearless and sensible women I know. Most oilfield widows have to be.
I’ve seen her be cool, calm, and collected about rattlesnakes. She was delighted when I once killed a scorpion on our kitchen counter with a high-heeled shoe. I’ve seen her sweep tarantulas off our front porch with a broom.
And she was sensible about this, “Probably just someone’s garage door opener or something,” but it still unnerved her a bit.
“I want a gun,” she told my father. “I’m alone all the time; I want a gun.”
Three weeks later, he brought her a pistol and was damn proud of it. She didn’t feel the same way.
“What the hell is this?” she demanded. My mother has never been one to pussy-foot around. “I meant a shotgun. What the hell am I supposed to do with a pistol? Shoot myself in the foot? Do you know how hard this thing is to aim and actually hit something? Am I supposed to slink around the house in the dark with this thing? What if one of these bullets goes through a wall and kills Mrs. Gladyson next door? Get me a shotgun.”
He bought her a shotgun.
Before Luke and I were married, we would have outrageous fights that were, essentially, us flexing our backgrounds and feeling out our differences, numerous between a Native American/Italian immigrant Texas woman and a decidedly WASP Ohioan who says “those are they” instead of “that’s them.”
One of the biggest arguments we ever had — which resulted in me sleeping in the guest room for two nights — was about guns.
I have a Winchester over-and-under that was a gift from my grandfather.
And I love that gun.
It’s a 12 gauge, which should make it heavier with bigger recoil than a 20 gauge, but somehow, magically, it isn’t — it’s lighter, with less recoil than most modern 20 gauge shotguns I’ve handled. Or maybe it’s just that this has always been my gun, and I’m most used to it.
But it did not travel with me to Ohio because, like many puzzling facts about living in the north, we were unsure about transporting even a shotgun across multiple states to occupy a small, highly urban apartment with me.
Luke and I were discussing how, after living in Cincinnati a year, I now wanted my shotgun.
“We will never, ever, ever have guns in this house. Ever.”
I’m not going to say I was surprised, but I was mostly amused. He must have been thinking I was talking about a hand-gun or an assault weapon or something — I just called it a Winchester over-and-under, and he must not have really processed what that meant.
“It’s just a shotgun,” I explained carefully, thinking that would clear things up nicely.
“Never, ever, ever,” he repeated.
Well, okay. It was a gut-check reaction; that was obvious. He hadn’t grown up around guns, and he’d spent a lot of his time advocating for assault weapon bans. He wasn’t able to put this in perspective right away, so I’d just patiently explain it to him.
“Honey, it’s not a Glock. It’s just a shotgun. It’s the ideal home defense weapon, because it makes a loud sound when you load it, and the spread is — ”
“What if you killed someone in our house?” he shot back, not letting me finish.
I blinked. Several times.
“Well. I mean. There’s a lot of ritual and meditation that goes into loading a shotgun, so it’s kind of hard to accidentally kill the postman…”
“I’m not talking about that; I’m talking about what if you killed some poor kid that broke in to steal our television? I’d never forgive you!”
Wow. What a sentence, right? Fraught, pregnant with meaning.
We don’t live in a traditionally “great” neighborhood. Our blue-collar working-class neighborhood is pretty low for violent crime, but it’s high for theft and such. And I was alone, a lot, both the year before and the year after we were married.
“Luke, I…well I’d have to assume…if someone did break into our house while I was here, I’d have to assume that they were there to do me harm. I mean, you just have to make that assumption. Would you rather me be dead or the kid that broke into our house?”
It was obvious by his silence who he’d prefer, and so I spent the next two nights in the guest room.
In six years of being together, it has been one of the most difficult arguments we’ve ever had.
I did not share this conversation with my parents, for a couple of reasons.
I have never believed in running to my mother about every fight Luke and I have because it’s not fair to Luke. My mother’s job is to always take my side, even when she has no real idea what’s going on, and so I leave her out of anything that’s not a big enough argument that we might get divorced over it. This means I leave her out of everything.
Luke’s parents are dead and he doesn’t really have anyone to “take his side”. My parents have always been very thoughtful about treating him as a son, not a son-in-law.
And I also didn’t share this conversation with my parents because Luke and I had gotten engaged very quickly, and were getting married very quickly, and they were already a bit unsure about the situation. His being a self-professed giant commie liberal Yankee didn’t soothe matters.
So, when Luke met my parents for the first time that summer, they suggested with absolutely no ulterior motive that we go out shooting.
The car ride to the shooting range was maybe the longest, quietest car ride I have ever been on.
I didn’t do the talking; I just shot. I let my Dad do the talking. He’s a more patient and thorough instructor than I am.
I am unashamed to tell you that my husband was afraid of that shotgun the first time he held it. He’d tell you the same thing, and I think that’s understandable for someone from an urban metropolis who has never held a gun, any gun, before. Guns = death, that’s a fact and hard to process.
I could tell he was afraid because he held it slightly away from his shoulder when he fired. In spite of the numerous corrections on how to sock it in against his padded vest, he couldn’t physically bring himself to do it until we were half-way through the day. The noise of it frightened him, made him unsure of himself; the recoil (made worse by his insistence on pulling it slightly away from himself) was uncomfortable and scary.
And I’m sure, in spite of how large and bulky a shotgun is, every news story about horrible accidents ran through his mind the whole time, unleashing mantras: Do not accidentally shoot your fiancee. Do not accidentally shoot her parents. Do not accidentally shoot that elderly gentlemen over there, or those teenagers practicing with their father. Do not kill anyone, do not kill anyone, do not kill anyone.
When he finally got the hang of it, when things finally clicked for him, he ended up shooting in the mid 30s — not half bad for someone’s first time to shoot any kind of gun, ever.
My Dad was pretty proud of this. Even now he’ll regale you with The Tale of the First (and Last) Time Luke Went Out Shooting.
“Shot in the thirties his first time out of the gate,” he’ll say proudly. “That’s pretty good for a Yankee, don’t you think?”
Then he’ll beam. It doesn’t matter to him that Luke has never been shooting with him again, or that he has virtually no desire to, ever — he tried it, in spite of being visibly nervous, and then he managed to overcome his nerves and become good at it, and these are the only components that matter to my father.
After Luke went out shooting with my parents and me, the texture of our conversations about guns changed. His stances didn’t, but the fabric — what the conversations were made of — had altered.
This was increased by a bachelor weekend a year or so later, in which he and the groom’s party went to a handgun range. He now understood better what he was talking about when he advocated gun-control. He understood the innate difference between firing something like a shotgun, and a handgun, and an assault weapon, because he’d fired all of them at least once.
When he came home, I waited patiently for him to explain his feelings.
“It was strange. You’re right, about it being very meditative and ritualistic, what you have to go through to load a shotgun just to fire two shots. And a handgun isn’t quite like that, but an assault weapon is the worst.”
He’d fired an AK-47 that was modified to reduce recoil.
“It was exactly like playing Duck Hunt on Nintendo. It didn’t move. There was no kickback. It was this bizarre combination of being the deadliest thing I’ve ever held, and the most similar to holding a plastic video game gun. It was so easy to totally divorce myself from that gun and its effect. You can’t do that with something like a shotgun. It requires too much physical interaction on your part.”
“What did you shoot at?” I asked him casually, wondering if he’d make the connection.
“That was uncomfortable too,” he said. “Because we shot at human targets — that is to say, those paper silhouette things. Like, literally, the intention was to shoot something standing in for a human being. It’s a completely different mental process than going out and shooting sporting clays with your father.”
I smiled at this. I’ll tell you a secret that my husband didn’t know at the time: I love my shotgun. But I loathe handguns and assault weapons. I loathe them even more than my husband does because I have more experience with them than he does.
I was given a Jericho for my sixteenth birthday.
The Jericho is a semi-automatic. It’s sometimes called a “Baby Eagle”, although it has no real relationship to the much larger, more powerful (frankly, fucking terrifying) Desert Eagle, which had been perfected by the Israeli military to blend the gas-powered concept of rifles with a handgun in order to allow for much more powerful cartridges.
Regardless of this lack of relationship, I loathed it the first (and last) time I ever handled it.
It was far heavier than I’d expected it to be — it looked so small compared to my shotgun.
And earnestly? It looked evil.
It felt evil. This was a gun invented to do evil things.
And in spite of it being heavy, it was a lot less cumbersome to maneuver than my shotgun. This alone, that it was so easy to wave around, fucking terrified me.
“I don’t like it, and I don’t want it. It makes me nervous. It’s not right. Someone like me should not own that gun.”
If my father was disappointed, he only let it creep around the very thin edges of the conversation. Mostly, he was understanding. Maybe he was even proud.
I have no idea where that gun is now. I only know that he took it back from me and that I don’t own it. Frankly, not knowing where it is also fucking terrifies me.
If I could have taken it apart myself and destroyed all the pieces, I would have, for reasons I didn’t even understand at the age of sixteen. I only understood that I loathed it, and something I had such a strong, immediate spiritual reaction to was not a good thing.
But I’d understand those feelings a lot more intimately after college.
When I was in college, I spent several years with an abusive boyfriend.
He was smart, though, so it was a quiet kind of abuse — very few marks. Very few public displays of anger. Hard worker, upright citizen. A bit quiet, and a bit cold, but not the kind of man you’d expect to slam his girlfriend into kitchen cabinets.
I didn’t realize how truly terrified I was of him until I left him, because my god, our ability as women to sweep so much under the rug is practically infinite. Even as a feminist activist, as a woman who had participated in the Vagina Monologues three years running, as a woman who worked domestic violence hotlines, I was still able to rationalize so much about his actions for such a long time.
Nine months after I left him, he called me crying at ten o’clock in the morning. He was drunk. He was hurting. Life was hard. And I still loved him, and only wanted good things for him, so I rushed over to his apartment.
For the next hour, he held me hostage with a Glock pistol, a semi-automatic handgun. This has also been the gun of choice for Jeffrey Weise, James Holmes, Cho Seung-Hui, Jared Lee Loughner, and most recently, Adam Lanza.
In my case, it was a gift from my boyfriend’s father. For “home defense.”
It is perhaps the calmest I’ve ever been in my life. He moved from pressing it against me to pressing it against himself, changing constantly, threatening to kill us both.
Wait. Wait. Wait, said my mind. Be patient. Your chance will come. And if it doesn’t — or if it does and you don’t take it — you’re both going to die here. Be patient.
I was patient, and my chance did come — because he set it on the coffee table right before he fled to the bathroom to throw up.
I’m astonished he didn’t take it with him, but the same thing that perhaps made him most dangerous — being unbelievably drunk — also probably clouded his general understanding about just what the hell he was doing.
The second he made it through the bedroom doorway, on his way to the bathroom, I plucked it very carefully off the coffee table, picked up my purse in the other hand, and left.
I sat in my car at the very edge of the parking lot, with the doors locked and the engine running, for a minute or two. I was at a loss: while I knew I needed to call the police, what the hell should I do about this gun I now possessed? It was loaded, it doesn’t have a safety, and I didn’t even want to drive with it in the car.
So I executed the slowest series of movements I ever have in my life. I mimicked what I’d seen my boyfriend do a dozen times: I pressed the magazine catch, removed the magazine, and set it in the large cup-holder of my truck. Then I pulled the slide back, which is maybe the scariest thing I’ve ever done: one round in the chamber.
The bullet looked strange to me, but I had a hard time processing why. I set it on the console of my car, studying it as I calmly dialed 911. Why did it look so strange?
But more importantly, who was going to take this gun? I asked myself this as I punched the three little numbers. I had to call someone, I couldn’t just keep this gun. That’s how fucked up my thinking was at the time: it was all about the gun.
When the 911 operator picked up, I was still so calm, so cool, so very collected. I stated my name. I stated my location. I stated the nature of what I was calling about.
“You see,” I said after I’d relayed a short two sentences about the situation, “I had to call — because I don’t know what to do with the gun. Someone has to come take this gun.”
And then, like flipping a light switch, I promptly lost my shit.
I’ve never cried that hard before or since. It was the hysterical kind of crying where your chest feels like someone is repeatedly stabbing an ice pick into it, where you lose all feeling in your hands, where you can’t even breathe, let alone speak. I tried for minute after minute just to talk, just to get out one word, but everything I tried resulted in a sickening screaming sound that I couldn’t believe was coming from my body.
God bless and keep you, 911 operators. That woman on the other end of the line was so wonderful.
“You’re doing so good, honey, you’re so brave; I just need you to breathe for me right now, okay, we’ve got someone on the way. Stay on the line and just breathe with me.”
I wanted to tell her okay, I’m going to, thank you so much.
I screamed instead.
“You’re doing so good! You’re so brave! Just breathe. Breathe for me, that’s all I need you to do.”
A male and female police officer showed up a few minutes later. The woman had to tap on my car window several times because I had locked myself in and couldn’t process that she either needed me to open the car door or roll down the window to talk to her.
We exchanged a lot of information in that very short time, but the thing that struck me the most was when I handed them the gun and the accompanying magazine.
“The fuck,” said the woman. That’s it. Just two short and seemingly very out-of-place words.
They were clarified a moment later by her partner, who had peered down to look at what she was seeing. “These are hollow-points,” the male officer exclaimed. “They’re meant for piercing armor.” I’d found out later that they weren’t, actually. They were meant to maximize flesh damage. None of that mattered at the time. I just understood why the round had looked so strange to me.
After that, things moved very fast, as you can imagine. It wasn’t until a month later, when I had returned from my stint with my parents, making up my final exams, and walking the stage at graduation that I realized the single round I’d set on my console, the round in the chamber, had rolled off in my hysteria, to be lost in the dark space beside my seat.
My ex was calling me a lot. Two, three times a day. I hadn’t pressed charges, because I didn’t want him to lose his job, and although I had attempted to take out a restraining order, the local DA at the time was “cracking down” on “unnecessary” restraining orders, compounded by the fact that I hadn’t pressed charges and didn’t intend to.
I was leaving in a few short weeks anyway, moving halfway across the country.
It remains one of the biggest regrets in my life, that I didn’t press charges and fight. A couple of years later I found out that he was seeing a woman with three small children. I found out that he was considering applying for law enforcement.
Not pressing charges is something that has haunted me ever since.
But was young at the time. Scared. Confused. And sad. I found it difficult to get outside of myself, and I didn’t understand the potential echo effect, the repercussions, of what my own inaction might entail. We so seldom do.
So I did the only thing I knew to do: I kept that bullet, that tiny piece of deadly metal, and I looked at it whenever my ex left another voicemail on my phone.
“I wear an albatross around my neck for all I’ve done,” he said on one voicemail. Poetic. Sad. A reference to Coleridge.
Fuck you, said that bullet. You don’t get to reference Coleridge, and you don’t even get to be sorry.
That little, compact piece of death has traveled to Ohio with me.
You might expect that it rests someplace romantic, like my jewelry box, but you’d be wrong, because it’s not a thing that I romanticize.
It lives in a shot glass, on our kitchen counter, which is probably the last place it should live. You can see it if you come over to our house; it’s right there. I’ve noticed more than one person eye it without comment, but I can’t bring myself to put it anywhere else or to get rid of it.
I see it every day, and every day it reminds me.
A few months ago, I managed to see my best college girlfriend in Seattle. She’d spent two years with the Peace Corps, and we’d been apart a long time. She’s still had to travel several hours to see me, but she did it because I was on “her side” of the country.
“You know what’s always bothered me?” she said. We were sitting in a bar, alone, drinking gin. Several other friends, including my husband, sat in the hotel lobby away from us.
“Samantha told me awhile back that you kept that bullet. Is that true?”
“But…why would you do that?”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s simple. Because it reminds me. It reminds me that I am alive. It reminds me what I’ve gone through to be who I am. And it reminds me where I come from, and why I believe what I believe. And it reminds me to never, ever go back.”
And I’ll tell you something else: this essay is long, and it’s taken a round-about road to my thesis, because it’s not really a thesis at all — it’s as essential to my soul as light and breath. We have enough “theses” and “theories” and “commentary” floating around right now, enough to drown in. It would be easy, in fact, to drown in it — to just choose never to come up for light or breath again.
I’ve taken the long way around because I want you to understand.
Not just read, not just “process,” I want you to physically, in your core, I want you to feel it, and to understand it, what it is that I feel, what it is that I know.
And when you talk about this, I want you to see me, and feel me. And when you begin to form an argument in your mind, I want you to have to consciously disregard me. I want you to have to emotionally set me aside. I want you to have to invalidate and rationalize me by choice.
You can advocate or rail against whatever you like, but I want you to have to push past me to do it.
Because I didn’t fight then, but I will fight now.
Because reading the pro-gun lobby comments on Sandy Hook — not the well-reasoned, sensible ones, of which there are very few, but the outright insane ones, of which there are many, that openly advocate sacrificing the lives of our children for unfettered “freedom” of adults, the ones that suggest that all those teachers should have been armed to the teeth, that the Westboro Baptist Church will be there praising “God’s judgment,” and that even my mother — my own mother’s comment that crazy people are just going to do crazy shit, and that this has nothing to do with guns — as if it were just that simple —
Well. There is a time-warp, a black hole that blooms in my soul.
For each and every time, with every comment, with every outraged indigence about “trampling” on the second amendment, with every word and breath, I am that young woman again, sitting in her truck in a parking lot, alone except for a 911 operator.
And I am screaming. And screaming. And screaming.
This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.