Home on the Range

by Natasha Ball


My husband and I pulled into the parking lot of the United States Shooting Academy early in the morning, taking a driveway that seemed like a wrong turn, just beyond the Tulsa Police Academy.

Aaron had packed everything we’d need for the day and nothing more: hats, ammunition, pistol, holster, spare magazine, magazine pouch, aluminum bottles of water. He packed us a pair of identical lunches: some slices of leftover ham and carrot sticks in Ziploc bags. We intended to satisfy the qualification requirements to legally carry firearms, concealed on our person—or, as we heard we would be able to do starting in late fall, carried openly on a hip—for lawful self-defense. In our state, under the Oklahoma Self-Defense Act, that meant a morning in a classroom with a few dozen people we had never met, all of them armed. It was something we could do together. A day date.

My husband is the gun enthusiast, the kind who loves to shoot but can’t watch war movies anymore. He was the Army specialist with coffee eyes who stared back at me from a photo, snapped while he was on patrol just outside his basecamp east of Kabul. Between him and a gray sky were trees growing out of an open pit. Hanging from his shoulder were an M4 carbine and an M203 grenade launcher, barrels pointed to the dust, the guns held flat against his torso in presentation, more by default than with pride. Peeking out from far behind him was a boy, one of the many children who followed when the soldiers circled the camp, pelting the armed men with tiny rocks when they refused to surrender their pencils and candy.

Hear This Land‘s editor, Michael Mason, discover the (in)formalities of acquiring a gun in Oklahoma.

The photo troubled me, but I’d sneak moments at work to open it, to search for new things to notice about it. I liked the look of Aaron’s right hand, how his palm relaxed around the shape of the pistol grip, the casual way he held his index finger just a breath from the trigger. I thought about the boy in the background. He was hiding from the camera, behind the man with the big gun.

Aaron is an expert marksman, a product of the U.S. Army’s sniper school in Fort Benning, where the country’s elite fire bullets through the boughs of Georgia pines. From his weekend drills he would bring home pennies with holes like exploded blisters, which he’d shot from a distance longer than the height of the Golden Driller, about 80 feet, using iron sights. Proud, he put one of the pennies above our fireplace, where we kept our family photos.

But I had decided to ignore the rifles in our closet and the revolvers in our bedside table. Only people who favored the death penalty and voted for Bush 43 collected guns. Besides, they had failed to keep my husband safe from the nightmares, which then were just starting, intruders in the night that attacked while the guns slept. But his only trophies in life had been for pulling triggers. He convinced me to go with him to a nearby gun club, where for the first time I watched him flatten his belly to the grass, gold and dry with winter, and nest the rifle he kept in our closet in the hollow of his arm. They lay there, the two of them, for what seemed like too long, the rise and fall of Aaron’s breath hidden underneath his coat.

They were hundreds of yards from their target, but not far enough away from me to know that they’d gone elsewhere together, to the hidden place animals go when they’re charmed by a target. More minutes passed. When he finally fired the shot, the sound reacted with the sky, blooming and expanding as it rose. But his body hadn’t as much as flinched. The sound of the bullet as it pierced the metal target made its way back to us, singing like the rim of a spittoon. My husband and a rifle had outsmarted the Oklahoma wind that blew across the range. After a few rounds at the handgun range, we went for a lunch of fried fish planks, served stacked in plastic baskets atop beds of leftover batter. I sat in the chair at his side rather than the one opposite, and we sipped from a shared root beer. He sat with his elbows on the table, eating hushpuppies with hands trained to kill.

We had been told to report at quarter to 8, to a windowless classroom inside the main building at USSA, more a hunting lodge than a training facility. At home, I dragged getting dressed. I knew I wasn’t going to get the license. I couldn’t see myself at work, at the grocery store, in the car on the way to pick up our 4-year-old from preschool, with the telltale outline of a pistol showing through my clothes—me as one of those people.

I felt guilty after I signed up for the course, especially since what I was doing as a stunt—at best, out of curiosity—seemed to settle my husband. A new book I ordered had arrived, and I was behind on laundry. But I couldn’t forget that a firearm  and I were a team on which my husband was willing to bet. As it turned out, the coffee at the academy was decent. Some people recognized me, saying they listened to me on the radio. On our breaks from class my husband and I flashed each other pictures we found in magazines and calendars in the pro shop of girls in camo bikinis wielding assault rifles. We lounged on the black leather couches in the lobby, eating M&M’s from the vending machine.

That morning, our teacher—a competition sharpshooter—clicked through the slides of a PowerPoint presentation. John Zane is a veteran, a pastured Army medic with a job as a factory maintenance mechanic. At some point, he completed at least 16 hours of firearms instructor training to qualify to teach the concealed-carry course gig at USSA. The motto embossed into some rubber bracelets we got at registration read, “Win the Fight!” For Zane, the fight is for life. He keeps a copy of the Constitution—its touchy Second Amendment sandwiched between those promising freedoms of religion and speech, and having enemy soldiers sleeping on your sofa—in the front pocket of his camo-print backpack.

He hides a handgun in his clothes when he showers at home. He avoids bars, mostly because concealed weapons aren’t typically allowed there. Even if they were, Zane told us, he has never drawn a gun on anyone before, and since he’d like to keep it that way, it’s best to avoid places like bars. Zane likes to tell his students that there is enough metal inside of his body to build a lawn chair. That’s because about a week before Christmas in 2011, a Broken Arrow school bus rolled over him twice and dragged him nearly 200 feet. He was armed the day of the accident, he told us.

Zane has boyish, ornery eyes, like he knows all the best places to reload. During our section on Oklahoma’s “Make My Day” law, he played a tape of a 911 call. A gun was the hero, in the right place at the right time, saving a woman from an intruder attempting to break into her home. Moral of the story was, he’d rather hose off the porch than shampoo the carpet.

Later Zane showed us, by drawing with a marker on a whiteboard, how, when you shoot someone, you’re shooting a fluid-filled sack, ballistically speaking. For those times when you really need to stop someone, like in the case of the woman in the 911 call, to release the maximum amount of energy from the bullet into said sack, see about hollow points, which work like big meat drills, blossoming like a flower and sticking to the insides of a transgressor. Zane spoke of the various options available to women who choose to carry a concealed weapon—there are fewer than those of men, mostly because of how our clothing is cut. My husband put down his pencil when he realized I was taking better notes.

Inside of half an hour, we put 50 rounds into the dirt berms outside, the exact number required by the state to qualify for concealed-carry licensing. When we returned to our classroom, Zane called each of us by name to his desk. He signed two copies of our course-completion certificates—one to walk to the sheriff’s office with the license application and one for us to keep, to hang on a wall if we so wished. We got to keep our range targets, too, which sunk to the bottom of my trunk as I drove through the summer.

This winter, as we filled the hallway in our house with new picture frames, we joked that we should find a spot for the USSA certificates. Aaron knew exactly where they were. He walked into our office and pulled a crisp manila folder out of a filing cabinet we share. He’d kept our certificates there, together with some of our son’s drawings, and other of his precious things.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 4. Feb. 15, 2013.