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Why I Can’t Stop Thinking About the Gun I Bought (But Never Brought Home)

The psychological effects of being an almost-gun owner

I walked home late the other night, the mellow buzz I’d built up wiped clean by anxiety. (Weed + listening to podcasts about serial killers has that effect on me, I guess.) As I approached my building, I took comfort in seeing that I’d left my bedroom light on. And discomfort in seeing my screen-less window wide open; wide enough for an intruder’s body to slip right through. My body decided before my brain did: It was gonna be an Apartment Sweep Night.

So I walked into my apartment, leaving the door open (to unmuffle my inevitable cries for help). Checked under the bed, behind the shower curtain. Checked the space between the fridge and stove (a very stealth spot). Checked the closet, then the storage space on top of the closet. It can’t support more than fifty pounds, but still. Good place for a murderer to hide, tucked behind the suitcases and untouched yoga mats and childhood ephemera. Turns out no one was up there — thankfully, because that’s exactly where I’d planned to keep my gun.

The gun is not hypothetical. It’s a secondhand Lady Smith revolver, and it lives at the Gun Gallery in Glendale, California. I picked it out in November; bought it upfront ($578-ish). I own it, but the way one owns stocks or a star in the sky. It’s not tangible.

Buying a gun was not my idea. That belonged to an editor friend, who asked me to write about the process from the perspective of someone who would never own a gun otherwise. Statistically, I am that: As a biracial, urban-dwelling, childless, liberal, 29-year-old woman, I’m one of the least likely Americans to pack heat. But between the cash incentive and knowing I didn’t have to keep the gun afterward — just write about what you decide to do with it, my friend told me — I was D for this Choose Your Own Gun Adventure. Even if I wasn’t sure how I wanted it to end.

Guns and I don’t have a long personal history. I grew up in 1990s Brooklyn, and on the news, we’d hear about gang initiations: kids asking unsuspecting pedestrians what time it was and then slashing their faces as they read their watches. I didn’t wear red with black and I feared razor blades, but not guns. I didn’t know anyone who went hunting.

That changed, eventually. After college, I moved back to Brooklyn and made friends from conservative pockets of America that I’d never seen. The concept of fighting with parents over politics, the idea of dads killing deer for dinner… all new to me. It tripped me out, knowing people who could both condemn gun violence and hunt with their families over the holidays with no cognitive dissonance. I didn’t get it. It was one of many ways that growing up in a large, diverse city resulted in my being sheltered.

So when I visited my then-boyfriend’s family in Utah one Thanksgiving and a trip to the range was floated, I was on board. I wanted the experience. Before we left the house, I got a safety rundown from his stepdad, who kept his guns in lockboxes and cleaned them regularly, whether they’d been used or not. Then we drove to a gun store, a line of bearded, hulking, open-carry men snaking around the corner to get in. I’d never been more terrified in my life.

It was fine, though. Fun. I abstained from the responsibility of reloading, but it turns out I have good aim. And I like being good at things! My ex’s mother shot slow-motion videos, and I watched with glee as my body rippled and gunfire explode in front of my face like a cartoon. After a couple rounds, she asked if I’d considered buying a gun for safety. I told her I felt safe in my neighborhood — which was true. The other truth, though, is that I didn’t (don’t) trust myself to be a safe enough, quick enough, smart enough gun owner. Even carrying pepper spray was too extra for me; I knew how easily it could be used against me, and that a gun would only augment my paranoia, temper, and general distrust of the world around me.

All this to say as soon as I had the opportunity to acquire one for free, I took it. Guess my anxiety was on vacation.

Because I’d just moved to California, the first step was getting a state ID. A friend and I went to the DMV and I was given a temporary printout and told it would be four to six weeks until the real deal arrived. Then I had to get my firearm safety certification. I studied the night before the test, college-style. Between my experience shooting (“keep the gun pointed in the safest possible direction”) and middling common sense (“never handle the gun when depressed”), I felt confident I’d get at least the minimum 23 out of 30 questions right. I quit quizzing myself halfway through the booklet and finished studying the next morning, during the 15-minute Lyft ride to Gun Gallery.

Gun Gallery was nothing like the store in Utah. It was smaller, no lines or gun range. The only people there, aside from the clerk and me, were an off-duty cop and a man drowning in gold chains and greasy hair and pawnshop must. I handed my ID to the clerk and took the test, which reminded me of the written exam for driving permits: The questions were similar to those in the study guide, but reordered and reworded just enough to make me second-guess myself.

Still, I passed (30 out of 30). The clerk showed me guns in my budget and explained that there’d be a 10-day processing period between my buying the gun and being able to take it home — the longest waiting period in America. Then his boss told me the 10-day period couldn’t begin until I had a real ID, not the piece of paper I’d been passing off as one. I paid for the gun anyway, telling them I’d return in three to five weeks with an ID.

Five weeks went by, times four. Gun Gallery called me to check in; I asked them to hold the gun. I called the DMV and had my ID mailed to me again — twice. It arrived in March, five months after I’d applied for it. In the meantime, I blew my deadline and the original story was killed. In the meantime, I had a lot of time to think about the gun.

I thought about it when explaining the gun’s place in my life to baffled fellow liberals and while watching the primary debates, feeling no less progressive but slightly less dogmatic. I thought about the gun while walking home at night, while fumbling with my keys, while checking under the bed or in the closet. I thought — think — about the gun multiple times a day, even though I’ve only seen it once.

I figured I’d return the gun once I filed the story. I’d get a refund, enough to spend a weekend at some douchey downtown hotel. But then the story died, and the idea of taking home an already-paid-for gun began to seem harmless, if not downright alluring. It’s like when your clueless uncle buys you an ugly-ish, expensive watch for Christmas and you’re like No, but yeah. Whatever, it’s not my money. That’s how I felt about the gun.

I decided I would take it home but neuter it. If I didn’t buy bullets, I wouldn’t have to buy a gunlock, and my being a gun owner would be less real. I could tuck the gun between the yoga mats, or in one of the suitcases, and I wouldn’t have to worry about guests accidentally shooting me or themselves when I showed it off. Because in this scenario, The Gun was a writing battle wound. It was symbolic. Not a weapon.

But keeping the gun on top of the closet began to feel impractical. I would never be able to reach it in time to use it. I didn’t want to think about shooting people, but there I was: regarding the gun with fondness whenever I was overcome with the fear that someone might’ve crawled through my window while I was downstairs checking the mail. If only I had a gun, I’d think, maybe I could cancel Apartment Sweep Night. Xoxo Gun, wish you were here.

But do I? Because I’ve had three months to walk into Gun Gallery and take it home, and I haven’t. Conversely, I could’ve shown up, signed some papers and gotten a refund. Haven’t done that either. See, we’re in limbo, me and the gun. Because my lizard brain thinks the possibility of having the gun is better than not having it. And that possibility? It’s my version of security, intangible as it is.

Stephanie Georgopulos is the author of Some Things I Did for Money.