I was 13 the first time my step-dad taught me how to shoot a pistol.
“Annie Oakley!” he’d exclaim when I hit the bullseye.
Growing up in rural Texas in a family that hunted, I learned how to shoot quail on our Thanksgiving hunting trips and how to hide my disgust when my brothers would string up a deer carcass between the trees in our front yard. They taught me how to line up the rear sight aperture with the front sight post and the best way to hold a pistol to avoid limp wrist. When I moved to Montana in 2008, my step-dad gifted me a bolt-action hunting rifle. I never thought twice about our pro-gun stance.
But no one in my household ever taught me how to have nuanced conversations about the intersection of gun obsession and violence. I had to learn that on my own.
In December 2012, I had traveled from Montana back to my parent’s house in Texas when news broke that 20 children and six staff members were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. I sat motionless on my parents’ couch as tears drenched the downy head of my 11-month-old son. Anxiety bubbled in my stomach, my mouth went dry, and the words of the news anchor blurred like TV static as I watched the horror unfolding on screen.
That night at dinner, my step-dad, a lifelong card-carrying member of NRA, said, “Some people are saying this is all a hoax by Democrats to pass gun control. What do you think about that?”
“I think some people need to have their bullshit meters checked,” I replied, angry that anyone would care more about their guns than the deaths of twenty elementary school students.
Fury is a feeling I’ve come to know well, even as I’ve continued to own and shoot guns with Annie Oakley accuracy. I feel it when I realize we’ve only had more frequent mass shootings at schools since Sandy Hook. I feel it every time I hear someone say “thoughts and prayers” or blame mental illness or protest that “now isn’t the right time to talk about it.”
And I want to scream that we are not the only country with people with mental illness, violent entertainment, or divisive politics. But we are the only country that fetishizes firearms so much that we’d rather let children be murdered in their classrooms than pass common sense gun legislation.
After Parkland, I needed a place to channel my rage. So I joined Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Now I’m a volunteer in the organization’s Montana chapter. Every morning I wake up and scan my Google Alerts for news related to gun violence in our state. It’s helped me realize that gun violence doesn’t just mean mass shootings. Unintentional shootings by family members mishandling guns, domestic violence homicides, and suicides are much of the reason 110 people in the United States die by bullets every day.
I’ve worked to connect gun violence survivors with resources like counseling and bereavement services. I’ve mourned during vigils, passed out gun locks at community events, and met with state legislators to urge them to change laws.
I’ve even marched at the U.S. Capitol after the bloody weekend in 2019 that killed 23 people in El Paso and nine people in Dayton, Ohio.
Common sense gun legislation doesn’t mean banning all guns. It means closing loopholes that currently allow murderers to acquire guns through private sales. It means passing red-flag laws so law enforcement can remove guns from people who make threats. It means holding the gun lobby accountable.
Experts agree, until we acknowledge the ways our gun policy is divorced from the safety of Americans, gun owners included, firearm violence is only going to continue to get worse. School shootings reached the highest level in 2021 with more than 200 incidents, according to data from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security. Even more terrifying: firearms are now the leading cause of death for children, surpassing automobile accidents.
My son is in fourth grade now, the same age as the children killed in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday. We live in rural Montana, where his classmates are enthusiastic about hunting and it’s common for kids his age to begin taking hunter’s safety classes.
Lately, he’s been asking for a .22 rifle, but I’m reluctant. While I am a gun owner, I never see my gun as an extension of my personhood. I never let it override my humanity. How do I teach him to have a healthy respect for guns and to value human life over weapons?
I think the answer is showing him that it’s possible to do both. In our household, we can own a gun and advocate for legislative ways to prevent the next mass shooting.
Tiffany Williams is a photographer, writer, and advocate in rural Montana. See her photography work at tiffanyphotographymt.com or read more of her musings about parenthood, marriage, and social justice at 406families.org.