Photo by Tomas Forgac via Flickr

We are ten in the room, my colleagues and I, and the volunteer asks us if we’ve ever been to a gun range. The only hand in the air is mine; I want to lower it immediately, but I’m put on the spot. The volunteer says, “Great,” in a tone that I know — having used it in my own teaching — singles me out as the star pupil.

“Now, after they give you your gun, all your nice new ammo, what do they give you?”

“Uh, they give you hearing protection,” I answer, because I am the only one who can.

I’m afraid my colleagues are taking mental notes, replacing He teaches English and is a vegetarian with He teaches English and has been to a gun range as my index-card biography. I wish the mortuary science professor were here. He runs a skeet-shooting club and believes the Rothschilds rule the world.

“That’s right. Guns are loud, and people don’t expect that. When someone comes shooting into the room, it’s loud. The smell of gunpowder is everywhere, and it can overload your senses.”

I sink a little more into my chair. The active-shooter training has been going on for about twenty minutes, and now I’m the resident subject matter expert. The volunteer has been asking these leading questions for more than an hour. He has specific answers already laid out in his head; I understand this. This is often how I teach, with questions whose answers are sometimes so obscure that I know no one will guess them. Listening to the volunteer, though, I find this method of teaching annoying. Now I have a whole career to revise.

As the volunteer moves on to why most people freeze, rather than fight, in response to an active shooter, I want to explain myself. Specifically, I want to turn around and tell the very pregnant woman behind me, the dual enrollment director who just introduced some savvy high school students to my summer English class, that I’m not a threat to her children. I don’t want anyone in the room thinking that I’m, well, some kind of gun person.

You can be a gun person involuntarily. At least that’s what I find myself wanting to tell people. It’s the same way you can grow up in a family that prefers cornbread to be sweet instead of savory, or where people say “melk” or “pellows.” You don’t decide to enjoy your Southern breads a certain way or choose to pronounce things “wrong”; you just grow up a certain way. We’re all products of our environments. My environment happened to be supported by my father’s deep and extensive knowledge of guns. As a firearms instructor for the federal government, he taught what he called fifteenth-century technology to hundreds of law enforcement hopefuls each year. Because of this, I know basic gun safety, a bit of the lingo, and the weight of a revolver in hand, but not much else. Still, it’s clearly more than my colleagues, gathered in an eighth-floor classroom in downtown Washington, DC, seem to know.

The volunteer has decided we must learn how to pack a gunshot wound and apply a tourniquet. He uses a weird flesh-colored tube with a round, red hole in it to suggest injury. I don’t know if it’s supposed to be part of a leg or a section of someone with an eight-inch waist. It could be something grown in a lab or a particularly macabre foam roller. My eyes drift back to it whenever the PowerPoint gets boring.

This will be what I take away from the presentation: One day students will be bleeding out on my classroom floor, and I will have to stuff so much cloth into them. I will have to wrap more cloth around their extremities, stanching the awful bleeding. Where will I get so much cloth? Will I take off my work shirt, shred it into pieces? I’m not even armed with scissors.

* * *

Despite myself, I get annoyed when people debate guns with layperson diction. I hate the word gun; it’s a firearm, or a handgun, or maybe a rifle or pistol, if you want to be specific. You never point a gun, but you can aim a firearm. Anyone who “pulls” rather than squeezes a trigger is most certainly doing it wrong. This captiousness is not my favorite aspect of myself. I know that I’m actually wrong about all this stuff, that gun people call guns guns and point them all over the place, but I can be pedantic, even about things I have no interest in. If it helps, I also bristle at anyone referring to a vinyl record as “a vinyl.”

Winchester rifles, .22s, a vintage bolt-action Springfield, six-shot revolvers — I’ve heard the different sounds they make, absorbed the kicks, and watched in satisfaction as small holes appear on large sheets of target paper. My father brought me to the range on occasion, usually with my brother, who showed an aptitude and interest far beyond mine. He would go on to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan; I’d work at a record store for seven years. Sometimes, when my brother and I were teenagers, my father would take us to the range at work. What I remember is the blur of walking around that range, mostly bored, until at least I got a chance to shoot. I remember the red earmuff hearing protectors clasping over my head, turning sound into a distant ocean churn and amplifying the rhythm of my blood as it ran through my head. The gravel on the ground, the hot shells that you couldn’t pick up until a few cooling seconds had passed by.

Once, when I was in high school and my brother was visiting from college, the three of us went to the range where my father worked and sampled some of the more interesting items locked away in a vault — historical items that were confiscated and processed years ago. There was a Thompson submachine gun, the kind used in every ’30s gangster film. It was a museum piece, its finely carved wood and simple elegance a testament to the durability with which things used to be made. Those details feel dissonant with its purpose: to give American soldiers in the trenches of World War I a light but powerful weapon, one that could “wipe out a whole company single-handedly,” in the words of the US general credited with its invention.

Though I fired the old gangster gun in semiautomatic rapid-fire bursts, I did that day what I mostly did at the range: held back, waiting for my turn with something my father preloaded and prepared, always leveling the barrel of whatever weapon I had toward the ground before standing to face the target. He and my brother could bullshit about this stuff all day, but I couldn’t pretend to hold much more than an hour’s interest before drifting off into my own head.

There was another gangster gun there, one that my brother and I were particularly intrigued by. This one wasn’t from The Untouchables but from “Straight Outta Compton”: an old MAC-10, the machine gun that had become synonymous with California gangster rap. After I had handled the comparatively art deco Tommy gun, the MAC-10 felt like pure brutalist minimalism. Essentially a rectangle and a cylinder, it embodied the ugly side of cheap mass production. My brother, much more of an expert on these things, deemed this one an Asian knockoff, and it proved to be so when, unprompted, the imitation MAC-10 emitted a dull pop and puffed dust around a newly made hole in the ground, where the gravel shifted at our feet.

* * *

I live in a city where it’s nearly impossible to own a firearm. The law in DC is incredibly strict around this, and even if we’re missing out on all the fun, recreational hole-making of gun ranges, I’m fine with it. Still, there’s a reason why my father opened our most recent phone conversation with a half-joking “Stay away from Fourteenth and U.”

“Oh, I usually do,” I tell him, “except when somebody good is playing at the Black Cat.” I don’t remind him that every time he’s visited in the last few years, we have dinner on Fourteenth Street, which is unrecognizable from his DC police days, even if three people were shot there, and one died, over the weekend. But I wonder about his sources for this information. I never know what will make national news. Why did the Fourteenth and U shooting make it all the way to him, while the other shootings over the weekend stayed local? I can’t help but wonder if it’s because the shootings happened at Moechella, an outdoor Juneteenth celebration featuring live go-go, DC’s local funk music. I was quick to tell him that there were two other music festivals, also featuring hip-hop and go-go music, that went off without a hitch.

A couple of months ago, my wife and I drove down Massachusetts Avenue one Friday afternoon, just as police cars barreled up the street to something urgent behind us. By the time we got home, Connecticut Avenue was a scream of sirens, with more cop cars than I have ever seen amassed in one place in the district. A man had shot at a group of students leaving the Edmund Burke School, wounding four people and eventually shooting himself; a sizable section of the city was shut down and overrun with first responders. I called my father, mainly to tell him we were all right, but somehow these lone gunmen with AR-15s aren’t the scary villains in his media of choice.

As I spoke to my father, a long-running text chain I have with a couple of colleagues blew up. One of them was walking home near Kennedy Street, where there was another shooting a few hours after the one at the Edmund Burke School. It got about five minutes of news time before it was determined not to be connected. Just a regular, everyday shooting you could file under “gang-related.” Nothing to see there.

* * *

The last time I went shooting, over a decade ago, I was in grad school, and my brother and I were visiting my parents in New Mexico. There are pictures of me, my dad, and my brother from that trip — an impossibly expansive sky, the earth rolling out before us, barren but for brush dotting the landscape for miles. We shot pistols at rocks, and my dad praised my shooting. I have no idea how many times my brother had done this with Dad alone, but here I was, doing pretty well at it, aiming, firing — always squeezing, never pulling — and watching the rock wall ahead of us burst in all the right places.

That year, I had moved into a duplex apartment in a small Georgia town, and I had asked my brother about owning a gun. I was alone in a new place, and the house seemed unsafe in the dark. Though he had only been in my new place once, when he helped me move in, he immediately debunked the idea. I’m sure he had very specific vocabulary about it, noting the geometry of the room. How sure was I that I’d shoot at somebody? If I did, how sure was I that I’d hit somebody? If I missed — and this is what stuck with me — how did I know what was on the other side of the wall I’d likely be shooting toward? What were the chances that I’d miss an entirely hypothetical intruder and hit the very actual neighbor sleeping on the other side of that wall? He talked of freezing, of nanosecond decision-making, of gun placement and loading and who knows what else.

All I heard was, You are not a gun person, and I was fine with that.

* * *

The volunteer warns us about the video before he plays it. It presents three situations: a shooting at a small college campus, a workplace shooting in a warehouse, and a shooting at a mall food court that descends into chaos. Though some of my coworkers scream at the suddenness of the inexplicable violence, this is not one of those Red Asphalt compilations of actual carnage. I suppress my urge to joke about the producers blowing their budget on squibs of fake blood that burst open on the extras’ clothing. Now is not the time to reveal my love of bad movies and Mystery Science Theater 3000. References to The Room would be lost on this crowd, who’d label me as even more of a weirdo.

The video is overlit and poorly acted, though it is somewhat informative: Find an exit if you’re in a mall; this makes sense. Turn off the lights and close the door if you’re in a classroom, and the shooter will apparently try the knob and move on; I’m less hopeful about this one. If you’re in a warehouse, simply run up on the shooter, screaming while you spray them with a fire extinguisher. Both my pregnant colleague and I are disappointed that the man in the video didn’t bash the shooter over the head with it. But really, I would never rush anyone, armed or not, with a fire extinguisher. This seems like terrible advice.

We don’t learn what to do about the thinness of our classroom walls, which worries me. We don’t learn what to do about the doors to classrooms that don’t have Smart Boards, which is to say the classrooms that don’t have electronic locks to protect the giant, never-working Smart Boards and the wheezing old computers attached to them. All of our other classroom doors can only be locked with keys, which are only available to security. And we don’t learn what our particular responsibility is to our students, though we watch another video of teachers learning how to attack a classroom intruder.

One of the teachers in the video had survived the Columbine shooting as a teenager. We don’t learn what to do with that information either, though I am touched that a survivor of that horrific school shooting chose to teach. And we don’t really know what to do with the story about a victim of the Virginia Tech shooting, in which the shooter methodically walked up and down classroom rows and shot students at their desks, one by one. Amid all the sounds and smells and cognitive dissonance of being trapped in the middle of something that should never be happening, no one knew what to do.

I am a slow reviser of my work, which means that in the time between writing the first draft of this essay and writing this particular sentence, there have been more mass shootings in America. Just how many more is hard to say; I went to the Wikipedia page for “List of mass shootings in the United States” expecting to find the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, ten days after the racist shooting in Buffalo, New York, a month after twenty-nine people were injured in a shooting at the Thirty-Sixth Street station in Brooklyn. I found nine more shootings listed for 2022 — most of which I had never heard of, or maybe pushed away, my brain rejecting yet another depressing New York Times notification. In 2021, in 2020, and before, there were more shootings: Breonna Taylor. Jacob Blake. A kid from Illinois shot into a crowd of protesters, killing two, and walked away, holding his rifle. The police didn’t even seem to register his existence because, in their eyes, he wasn’t the problem.

The DC shooting on Connecticut Avenue doesn’t appear on this list of mass shootings; you have to go to the specific page for 2022, which includes all the shootings that aren’t deemed notable enough to get their own Wikipedia pages. In this more focused annual review, there are 320 shootings listed, so far, for the year 2022. Uvalde was 73 shootings ago; Connecticut Avenue, another 70 before that.

In my own life, too, shootings pile up: An adjunct professor I work with who can’t make it to orientation because her cousin was killed. An email from a student that says, “I haven’t been attending classes or completing any work due to me having to take care of a loved one that is hospitalized from a gunshot wound to the chest.”

I think I want to make a point about how close we are to these tragedies, that I used to teach outside Dayton, that I saw the Misfits in El Paso when I was in high school, that I played my last show with an ’80s cover band in Midland. But what is that point, exactly? I scroll through just those 320 shootings, and I can still make the connections:

I grew up in Brunswick, Georgia, where one person was killed and five others injured after two men shot at one another inside a club.

I lived for three years in Cincinnati, Ohio, where four people were injured after a shooting in the Walnut Hills neighborhood.

I live half an hour from Baltimore, Maryland, where three people standing together in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood were shot; a fourth person who was driving by was also hit by gunfire. This list goes on.

I live ninety minutes from Smithsburg, Maryland, where a shooter opened fire at a manufacturing facility, killing three and injuring one before fleeing the scene.

My father lives outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, where a man shot three people, killing one, and injured three officers in the Glenwood Hills neighborhood before being shot and killed himself.

I went to college in Lubbock, Texas, where four people were shot in the Parkway and Cherry Point neighborhood in the early morning hours.

I went to grad school in Milledgeville, Georgia, where an argument between two men at a bar escalated, ending with them opening fire on each other and wounding one another. Two bystanders were also shot.

I live in Washington, DC, where a shooting carried out by two men across multiple city blocks wounded four people, including two teenagers.

I have no real connection to these shootings, just proximity. Just a shared locality. A nationality.

* * *

With his PowerPoint, the volunteer presents a single slide for every major US shooting. We never really learn why the amount of time between newsworthy shootings keeps shrinking, from Columbine to Sandy Hook. From Virginia Tech to the Navy Yard. From Orlando to Las Vegas. From the worst shooting in US history to the new worst shooting in US history. From denial to acceptance. By the end of the training, some of us are laughing at one another, gently razzing each other’s ability to tackle an incoming shooter. I can’t join in; I’ve been thinking this whole time about tourniquets and the flesh-colored leg tube. About bad production values and my raised hand. Who here’s been to a gun range? The lesson I take away is that I’m not ready. The walls in our classrooms are so thin. This training has not trained us.

Not once did the volunteer use the word if. Always when.

Later in the afternoon, I call my brother. As always with these types of situations, he is an expert, calm and knowledgeable. He has seen much worse than anything I am ever likely to see. I tell him that I was the only one who had ever shot a gun, and he says of course I was, that we’re all a bunch of liberals. I can’t argue against him, even if I want to. He talks about the amount of time it takes to clear a building before help arrives. I’ll have to be calm and help people. I try to imagine what that would look like, but I only see the fake-leg tube and the volunteer casually stuffing it with gauze. He tells me to keep a knife and a flashlight in my bag. I tell him that I’m not too worried about it, that whatever’s going to happen will happen. I don’t tell him that I could never imagine carrying a knife on the metro, or into a school building. He tells me I’ll be all right, and I choose to believe him.

Andrew Howard

Andrew M. Howard is a graduate of Texas Tech University and Georgia College & State University, where he earned an MFA in fiction while teaching GED students in the nation’s oldest mental institution. His work has recently appeared in Undeniable: Writers Respond to Climate Change, Sycamore Review, and Miracle Monocle. He lives in Washington, DC.

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