After we were both shaken by the killing of Philando Castile, I promised my father I'd learn to shoot.
Two days before Philando Castile was killed while informing a police officer of his concealed carry permit, I learned my father had one, too. I was home for the Fourth of July weekend, happy to be in the wide expanse of Ohio when my mother informed me that my father carried a gun. She told me there had been a problem at the Elks club where he was a member and she’d only learned of my father’s weapons after he had to brandish a pistol for protection. My first concern wasn’t whether he always carried a gun. My fear was what would happen once people knew, specifically a police force in a small town slowly dying.
I could only think about my father coming out of the club after closing, the silver of his Jaguar glinting under a small strip of streetlights, a train blaring in the distance. Thought of a cruiser slowly making its way under the MLK Memorial Viaduct, taking the small bumps of gravel beneath its tires and casting them into the darkness before the brakes screeched to a halt. I thought about my father reaching into the glovebox for identification and the sparkle of a barrel in the darkness. Then a muzzle flash cutting off any explanation.
I remembered my father carries the muscle memory of blackness and American violence. He knows what careful movements must be made and how his skin itself may be a weapon. But I know that knowledge may not save him.
It didn’t save Philando.
Philando had been stopped 49 times before that night. I can imagine his hands on the steering wheel, the respectful movement of his eyes, and the tone of his voice. He’d been so careful, and still perished.
As we had over the previous years with so many others, my parents and I watched the news of Philando’s death. We voiced our anger, our resignation at the growing number of black citizens killed. My father questioned what else Philando could have done. None of us had an answer.
My father admitted that he’d carried a gun as a young man because the power was intoxicating. He’d carried it to Detroit and was caught, spent a night in jail, travelled back and forth between Ohio and Michigan for court dates. He was spared real jail time due to the illegal search and seizure that started the ball rolling. He didn’t own another weapon for 25 years, saying he wouldn’t own another until he knew how to handle both the weapon and the power. But then he felt he needed one to protect himself at his social club. Then he said I should get one, too.
I balked at the idea of such a dangerous thing in my possession. My father insisted I needed the protection.
He never understood my decision to live in Philadelphia, far from my small hometown. I accepted his gift of pepper spray shortly before my departure, always promised to be safe when out in the city. Learning to shoot was another way to temporarily put his concern to rest. My father understood I work in North Philadelphia, in the heart of a section called Nicetown. When people think of urban blight the neighborhood is what they imagine. My office is sandwiched between Temple University and its affiliated hospital, but that is where the connection ends. Rows of abandoned houses dot the block across the street; panhandlers stalk the gas station and beg for change at streetlights. There are near-nightly news reports of bodies found shot, stabbed, or maimed. I work in an office with two armed guards and there are emergency call buttons beneath the desks, a barbed wire fence around the employee parking lot. My co-workers and I walk the block in pairs, wary of getting lunch alone, always flipping our ID lanyards backwards or stuffing them into pockets. Despite this daily navigation, my father’s fear is that my muscle memory is weak, that I am too far removed from being on guard.
My father knew that when he suggested I learn to shoot and get myself a permit, that I’d go home, obsessively research, and try it. I am my father’s daughter. I didn’t relent because I actually considered owning a gun. I relented just to say I’d picked up another skill, conquered something I didn’t think I could master. I’m sure my father knew this is what would happen, figured curiosity would get the best of me and I’d eventually call with the news I was a legal gun owner with a permit to conceal. Before I crossed the turnpike that Sunday, I told my father I was willing to learn, but that the idea of owning a gun still made me feel uncomfortable and afraid.
* * *
The following week, after I returned to Philadelphia, my friend Jameel taught me to shoot. He was familiar with guns and, like my father, wanted to make sure I knew how to protect myself. There’s been a surge in the number of black women learning to handle firearms since the 2016 election cycle began. I searched for black gun clubs in an effort to find common ground. I found women are filling classes and waiting lists, anxious to learn the ins and outs of self-protection. Gun dealers have reported spikes of black women purchasing guns and the National African-American Gun Association has gained 9,000 new members since Election Day, the bulk of which is made up of women just like me. Considering the organization was just founded in 2015, and was now 18,000 members strong, I had to at least consider the possibility of joining rank. Jameel agreed I should come into the fold.
We purchased a GroupOn for a range in Northeast Philadelphia and I spent the drive over wiping my hands across my thighs, my body so tense I trembled and cramped. Jameel rubbed my arm, promising my predictions of killing someone after dropping the gun would never happen. He reminded me that he was there to teach me everything I needed to know. I couldn’t help thinking that wasn’t enough. Shooting takes confidence, a steady hand. Driving across Philadelphia toward that range was like a death march. What if I accidentally pulled the trigger? Caused a bullet to ricochet and hurt someone? What would happen if I ended up carrying a gun and became a threat in ways I’d yet to experience? There were too many questions and not enough answers.
Still, I found myself clutching a pair of ear protectors to my chest while men, young and old, fired long guns around me. We’d arrived at the club, set at the rear of a dead-end block, in the middle of a weekday. The gravel lot was nearly empty, dotted with only a few pickup trucks and sedans. The club looked like a convenience store stripped of all its neon. There was nothing gaudy, or particularly dangerous, about its looks. When we entered, I wanted to run. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but the room was brimming with weapons of every kind. It seemed that from every surface, walls to floor, a gun was displayed.
Jameel, adept at building his own weapons and owner of several, launched into a conversation with the owner soon after I presented the printed discount voucher. Instead of talking, I stuffed my hands into my pockets, terrified to come near any of the Glocks at waist level. When I came back to the conversation, Jameel and the owner were discussing the weapon I should use. I wanted a revolver, something small, easy to load, and with as little kickback as possible. I was handed a sectioned bucket with a Glock, a box of bullets, and a pair of ear protectors before we entered the shooting gallery.
When we passed through the door, the room was near its capacity. A handful of men held rifles to their shoulders and aimed before firing. A sign on the wall cautioned rapid fire was not allowed. There was a pause required between each shot. With each boom of a bullet exploding I jumped. After I struggled to hear the safety briefing of the range instructor, Jameel guided me to our assigned shooting alley and spent the following half hour naming the parts of the gun, showing me the proper way to load the clip, and how to position my hands. He shot 15 bullets as an example and left 35 for me, now shaking, palms drenched in sweat. He told me, taking a seat, that the rest was up to me.
I pleaded with him to take turns firing with me, but he looked at me over the black frame of his half-rim glasses and refused. Jameel, dressed in black and bearded, looked the part of a shooter. He fit into the roomful of men who knew what they were doing. I’d watched his forearms flex as his pressed bullets into the clip; watched the ease with which he racked the gun; watched as he aimed and pulled the trigger without tensing his whole body and jerking to a finish.
On my first try, I caught the skin of my thumb in the slide. Ripped and bleeding, I backed away, terrified to shoot again. Jameel, never one to let me give up, helped me staunch the blood and gave me a moment before nodding toward the gun. There was no easy out. I knew what was expected. Move forward. Second bullet, the casing bounced back onto my arm, leaving a half moon etched into my skin. I tucked the shell into my pocket, my souvenir of conquering a fear.
Between the alternate booms of long guns, I fired each bullet into a silhouette down range, pausing only to allow Jameel to reload the clip. At the end, five headshots stood out among the misses and the shots pulling left. I was shaking, sweating, and a bit high.
The following day at work, my co-workershe federal agency where I’ve been employed for nearly nine years – told me my body would remember its position, and each time I went shooting the easier it would be. Muscle memory. I couldn’t be quite sure this was a good thing.
* * *
When I was 18, on my way to take my driving exam with my best friend, I was mistaken for a robbery suspect, just like Philando was. Pulled from the car, spread eagle on the hood in the rain, I learned being female is no protection. I held my tongue, my anger, because I was no match for four officers with guns. I knew to kowtow, to say “sir,” to move slowly, to not move at all. I knew not to protest. It was necessary for survival. It still is.
After we were escorted to the edge of town, told never to come back, I never did. I looked straight ahead, occasionally wiping away tears and the remnants of rain falling from my hair. I made Lisa, the petite white girl I’d been friends with since the second grade, promise to never tell my parents. She did and continued to drive. I failed the exam and it would be weeks before I tried again. It’s been 20 years since I’ve entered that town. I don’t know how it would have gone if I’d had a gun on me.
Back in high school, a man I dated was a member of a local gang. Louis, who smoked cheap cigarettes and whose body was littered with even cheaper homegrown tattoos, never seemed dangerous to me. He paged me daily, waiting on a return call that included details of how my homework was done and how my day had gone. When I visited him, in a town slightly bigger than mine, he made sure I was off the block by dark.
The same summer I was a robbery suspect, I found myself at the home of a friend by proxy, alone with a member of a rival gang. When he learned Louis was my boyfriend, he produced a bright silver revolver, massive and pointed directly into my face. He taunted me, waving the long gun snout in the still air, until I cried and he took pity on me. I never told Louis because I knew the wave of violence that would crest over the neighborhood and I didn’t want that blood on my hands.
Silence became the easy way out for me. I never raised my voice in protest, never told when violence touched me in some way. I justified these omissions because there was never the noise of a gun. I never had to flinch, contract, or flee.
As we waited for news of a conviction for Philando’s killer, we also awaited some defense of his legally owned and carried firearm from our nation’s reigning gun leadership. We waited for them to remind the courts of the second amendment. Instead, there was nothing. The NRA called his shooting “troublesome” and promised to say more “once all the facts are known.” Facts, just like muscles, can atrophy, wither, and die when neglected.
Black people in the U.S. know the weariness of the failures of grand juries and prosecutors. It’s something we’ve become accustomed to for generations, black bodies dying both on camera and away from prying eyes. And we’ve grown used to running headlong into systems of racism, classism, and limited protection under the law. So, I worry for my father, for Jameel, because I’ve seen time and again how little compliance can do to stop this cycle.
I keep turning over the words of Ty Shaw, the black woman who launched an Atlanta-area group called Armed Empress: “Violence is deeply connected to the black experience.” I keep thinking this connection is like sinew, tendon, or bone. It is a part of us in ways we never asked for, requires exercise and adjustments that are oftentimes painful.
It’s been a year since I held that Glock in my hand, surprised at the weight of it, unable to press the bullets into the clip. I’m hard pressed to know if I will ever hold one again. I’m certain my one-off shooting will not appease the men in my life, so sitting in my GroupOn queue is another range pass.
But I’m not convinced arming myself is the solution. Jameel once told me, “never pull a gun unless you are ready to use it.” I don’t think I’d ever be ready. I’ve stared down too many gun barrels to ever feel comfortable with the idea of needing to turn one on someone else.
For me, there is no way to recognize the possibility of good when it comes to owning a weapon. I can only see the bad, what makes me fearful. And just like my father, until I can control both the weapon and the power, I’ll refrain from trying to harness either of them, willing to master the skill without actually using it.