What a gun can do to you

There are as many reasons that people own guns as there are gun owners. Some people feel safer with them. Some feel more empowered. Others feel conflicted because of the way guns change the way they think and live.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Anne Davis fires her revolver at a Keene, N.H., shooting range.

Let me tell you about three people I know who own guns. (I hope you’ll understand why I won’t use their names.) One is a retired police officer. She straps on her holster anytime she goes outside the house. She’s a professional who doesn’t advocate others owning guns but has carried one for so long that it is part of who she is.

A second acquaintance is worried about the catastrophic breakdown of society. Though she is a “prepper” and has laid in stores of food and amassed a small arsenal of weapons, she is lighthearted, pleasant, and makes her living as a therapist helping others overcome their troubles. She just believes what she believes. 

The third is most indicative of the modern Ameri-can gun owner. She recently separated from her husband of 31 years. Her brother, who works in law enforcement, encouraged her to buy a handgun since she is living in a small Vermont town. She had grown up around rifles and learned to shoot at a young age, but she never thought of using guns for self-defense. 

“I’m now alone and in my 50s in a small town,” she says. “I hear things – mostly about kids and drugs. I talked with my brother, and in December we went to a shop and bought a .38 Beretta. He made sure I practiced with it and was confident and comfortable enough to pull the gun out.” But the gun has changed her life, she says. “I listen at night and am always thinking about what might happen. The gun is within reach and the magazine is full. I think it is horrible. It makes me feel out of control. It scares me even though I’m quite competent in its use.”

Many men and women keep secret their decision to own a weapon or simply don’t think it is important to talk about what they see as a practical necessity. Many others would never own a gun, consider the current arms race a baffling fad, and think gun owners are in much more danger of accidental or impulsive harm than likely to ward off an assailant.

Regardless of how you interpret the Second Amendment to the US Constitution – whether broadly to include assault
 weapons, high-capacity magazines, and unfettered access to firearms or narrowly to include only hunting rifles and licensed handguns after a scrupulous background check – the heart of the matter is the word “self” in “self-defense.” All of the polemics of the great gun debate now under way in the United States come down to that concept.

Self-defense has shifted in recent years as police forces – once the go-to authority when someone felt threatened – have scaled back in many communities and “castle law” and “stand your ground” doctrines have expanded. Even as crime rates have plunged, gun ownership has surged. In a Monitor special report, Patrik Jonsson and Clara Germani examine the mainstreaming of gun ownership in the US and how that is shaping the debate over rights and restrictions. 

Whether your mantra is that guns kill people or that people kill people, guns are not neutral objects. They are personal, powerful, and deadly. And they reshape thinking. Some people sleep sounder because of them. Some feel more powerful. Some, like my friend from small-town Vermont, are deeply conflicted.

“I feel I have to have one,” she says. “It’s just that now there’s this constant feeling of impending danger. Once you let in the fear, you can’t get away from it.” 

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at

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