Lisk Feng

The Bullet in My Arm

I grew up in a gun-loving town in Alabama. My grandfather’s store sells firearms. But only after I was shot did I begin to understand America’s complicated relationship with guns.

I was shot on a Sunday. It was late and it was hot and I was 21, on my way home from dinner during summer break. I’d rolled the windows down because the breeze felt good.

I pulled up to a red light, about half a mile from my home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “Yeah!” by Usher was playing on the radio. A silver Toyota Tacoma turned the corner. As it passed me, I heard a pop. Then my left arm was on fire.

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If you’d asked me before that night how I might react to being shot, I would have said: I would call 911. I would get myself to the hospital. In fact it never occurred to me to call 911, only to want my dad.

I pulled into the Circle K across the street to call him. I looked at the blood blooming across my blue dress. It was new, and I wondered whether the stain would come out. Then I looked over at a girl standing in the parking lot, talking with two boys. Her wavy blond hair shimmered beneath the fluorescent streetlights. I thought about how I wished I had wavy blond hair like hers.

My dad said to stay put, that he’d come get me. I insisted on driving home, with my good arm. On the way, I apologized out loud to God for the things I’d done wrong in life. When I pulled into the driveway, my parents were standing outside.

I stroked my mother’s hair as she cried and drove me to the hospital. The surgeon said the bullet was small, maybe a .22-caliber, and too deep in the muscle to take out, so it’s still in my arm. They never caught the shooter, or came up with a motive.

Where I’m from, we like guns. They are as much a part of our story as Jesus, “Roll Tide,” and monograms. Even if you’ve never shot one, you appreciate the romance.

That appreciation begins when you’re young. Here is what I remember: November air, stadium lights, cut grass. We cheerleaders would stay after school to practice our halftime routine. On Friday nights, we’d crowd in front of the small bathroom mirrors to touch up our makeup—glitter eyeshadow if it was a big game—and emerge in a fog of hair spray.

The cheerleaders who were most envied were the ones who had their alarm clock set for 4 a.m. the next day. It meant they had a boyfriend who was taking them hunting, and that meant things were getting serious. When you were 15 or 16 or 17 years old, all you wanted to get was serious.

Not every girl was excited about the hunting itself. The gear was bulky and heavy: rubber boots and a big camo jacket, which, if you were lucky and had a brother, you could just borrow from him. The boy would pick you up in his truck and drive you out to his family’s land. If he had money—and you’d be lying if you said you didn’t notice—there’d be a hunting cabin, all-weather, with a beer-stocked fridge. A high fence around the property, too: It trapped the deer so they bred inside.

You’d climb into the deer stand and wait. The boy would have his rifle ready—maybe a .30-06, a youth model that didn’t kick as hard—and when his prey finally emerged, he’d squeeze the trigger, and you’d jump because the sound cracked open the sky. A few horribly boring hours for you, but when his face flushed with delight, you’d remember why you came—because it was important to him, which meant it was important to you, too.

Those mornings weren’t about guns so much as they were about growing up, the pride of inclusion in a culture, the proximity to a masculine energy we all found intoxicating. If people in Tuscaloosa talked about gun violence at all—in the wake of a mass shooting, or after the rare hunting accident—it was as an unfortunate but explicable bit of collateral damage: Occasionally cars hit people, but we still drive.

When I was 14, my grandfather became a co-owner of an outdoors store. It was huge and beautiful, like a ski lodge fit for Jackson Hole. The store carried everything—firearms, fishing equipment, hiking and camping gear. On football weekends especially, the place would crawl with people from all over the Southeast. Sometimes my grandfather and I would walk the parking lot, counting the out-of-state plates. The boys at my school would wear T-shirts stamped with the store’s logo—they came in a lot of different colors—and that made me proud.

After I got shot, after I was able to sleep on my left side again, I started thinking about the gun section at the back of the store. Did the person who shot me buy the weapon there? How long did the sale take? I pictured him—he is faceless in my mind, but always a man—selecting a gun, and then tossing in a pack of Dentyne Ice, because it was right there by the cash register, and why not.

Wondering felt like a sort of betrayal. Probably I had parroted the unfortunate-but-justifiable-collateral bit before. That logic became muddied, though, when the collateral damage was me. But nobody talked about it like that, at least not out loud. So for a while, neither did I.

Getting shot did not end my life. It didn’t even upend it, really. The one time I cried, I was sitting in a tufted chair in my parents’ bedroom while the local Fox affiliate was on. “The victim,” the anchor said, “is still rattled but at home and doing fine, we can exclusively report.” It was disembodying, listening to this person I had never spoken with speak about me. We can exclusively report.

Each time I replayed that night in my mind, a different image would surface. My 4-year-old sister, in the driveway when I pulled in. When I got out, she saw the deep-red side of my dress, the bloodstain like a Rorschach pattern. She pointed at it and calmly said, “You got shoot on your dress.” After that, the hospital. I was wheeled—who wheeled me?—into the empty waiting area of the emergency room. A nurse at the desk looked up from her phone and said, expressionless, “We’ve got a gunshot wound.”

These were not the details the police wanted me to remember. Like detectives on a TV show, they asked me to close my eyes and relive the drive. The way the air smelled, the sound of the other cars. But I was not a TV character, could not conjure the missing fact that would give meaning to all the others. (A beer can clattering across the street—for some reason, they seemed to think I might have heard a beer can clattering across the street.)

No memory was unimportant, they assured me. Three days after the shooting, one officer, a woman, told me that my dreams might be useful. Sure, I said. The night before, I told her, as I’d slept next to my mother, I’d dreamed that I saw the silver pickup careening toward the bedroom window. “This time,” the driver was saying.

I told the policewoman that in my dream I had tried to make out his face. I had a second chance: He might shoot me again, my dream-self reasoned. This time I’ll be paying attention.

“But I woke up,” I told her. “I didn’t see him.” The policewoman, who was very kind, took notes and nodded several times.

I traveled the next week to France for a writing class. The bullet did not—does not—set off metal detectors, but I carried a letter about it from the sheriff, just in case. In the fall, I went back to college in New England, where the story of the lead inside my arm was just that: a story. But like the ugliest white noise, it was always there, defiant and relentless. After late nights at the library, I’d call the campus police, wary of the three stoplights I had to pass on my way home. I’d ask the woman who usually worked at that hour to stay on the line with me while I walked. We never talked, really, in those 10 minutes, but occasionally I could hear her radio crackle in the background.

Sometimes a friend would ask whether my feelings on gun rights had changed. I usually said “I don’t know,” and that was true. Knee-jerk calls for gun control didn’t resonate with me. Yet a reverence toward guns no longer felt right either.

I found my ambivalence unsettling. Everyone else seemed so sure about how to feel about guns—people on campus, on the internet, back home. Unlike most of them, I had made intimate acquaintance with gun violence. I should have had some special insight. If what had happened to me wasn’t fodder for clarity, I feared nothing ever would be.

On February 14, 2018, 17 high-school students and faculty were gunned down in Parkland, Florida. A few days later, my grandfather called me in Washington, D.C., where I now work as a congressional reporter. He wanted to talk about what had happened.

We’d never discussed gun control before. After I got shot, we talked about me. We talked about the reporters and TV trucks parked outside my dad’s office. We talked about the dead-end police investigation. Never, though, about the gun.

After Parkland, we did. Me on the phone outside a D.C. restaurant, my grandfather at home in his study. He said that “something” had to be done about “all this,” and it didn’t look like “anyone up there”—meaning Washington—was “going to do a damned thing about it.” I could picture his brow furrowed, his head shaking.

He said that when he’d learned the killer in Parkland had used an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle, he’d asked one of the store’s managers to call the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to find out whether the store could stop selling those types of weapons to people under the age of 21. The woman there said it could—it was a private business—but it would risk age-discrimination lawsuits. She was right; this has already happened in Oregon. My grandfather told me he didn’t care much about that risk, so he’d ordered the change.

He’d also considered pulling AR-15s from the shelves altogether, but first he’d had his employees look into who regularly buys them. Turns out most customers are landowners and farmers with a wild-hog issue. The pigs barrel onto their property, digging up roots and acorns and generally tearing up the ground, making it difficult to run equipment over the land. Because the animals often travel in herds, a semiautomatic rifle—no reloading required—is a particularly efficient means of stopping them. You bait them with corn, draw their attention to it with a hog caller (a plastic cylinder that turns short puffs of air into piglike grunts), and then start firing. For that reason, my grandfather said, he’d continue to sell the gun.

We talked about how hiking the age for AR-15 purchases was unlikely to stop the next Parkland. Still, it felt good to do something, anything. The problem was a complicated one, he said, and the only thing Democrats seemed able to do was serve up broad-stroke talking points, while Republicans said nothing at all.

On Capitol Hill, I’d watched up close as apathy had settled in after earlier shootings. I could predict the responses of each party’s leaders. I could recite the thoughts and prayers, all of which had begun to feel like a mockery of God, of the brains he’d given us to figure this out. I found myself thinking of 1 Peter 4:10: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

If my grandfather, a middle-of-the-road Republican who voted for Donald Trump, could see the many grays of this very American problem, I thought, why couldn’t anyone in Washington?

I lamented this fact to an editor in the days after Parkland. I also mentioned that I had been shot. Soon, I found myself assigned to write a piece about the experience, about Alabama, about what both had taught me about the American obsession with guns.

There was a problem, though: I wasn’t actually sure what these things had taught me. So I went home.

My grandfather picked me up from my parents’ house one Saturday in May. As we drove, he asked me to remind him what I was writing about. I said something lazy, offhanded: “What it was like getting shot in a place that loves guns.”

“It’s not love,” he said. We pulled into the parking lot of his store, which sits high on a hill. You can see almost all of Tuscaloosa from there. “It’s about necessity.” He mentioned rattlesnakes and coyotes. For people in rural areas—that’s more than 40 percent of Alabamians—guns are still a day-to-day defense against such animals. Yes, there is ample love for guns in Alabama. But to forget that they’re tools is to miss an important point.

We walked into the store. I’d forgotten how big it was. It smelled like pine. In the back-left corner was the gun room, its name announced in tall brown letters beneath a taxidermied leopard. I felt something like awe, as though I’d just entered a church. For the next couple of hours, I watched employees handle firearms with care bordering on devotion. They spoke with pride, which made sense. I could see how expertise on something so complicated, so controversial—so lethal—might feel gratifying.

This isn’t to say that they were absolutists. Reid Duvall, a tall 20-something with sandy-colored hair, was at the counter that morning. Back in Washington, I’d spent months talking with Republican lawmakers who bristled at the notion of “commonsense solutions” to gun violence. Proposed gun-control measures reflected anything but common sense, they told me. Moreover, the National Rifle Association was stridently against them, on the grounds that almost any concession would undermine the Second Amendment. But Duvall, who described himself as “very pro–Second Amendment,” seemed to suggest that this argument was insincere. “It just makes sense, stuff like age restrictions,” he told me. “There’s a certain maturity level required for guns, in general, and especially with something like [an AR-15]. Some people probably shouldn’t have them.”

“Maybe Republicans can learn something from that,” my grandfather chimed in.

I also got the sense that not every customer who buys an AR-15 really needs it. “Some people buy it to have it, because they’re scared that their rights to own it will be stripped—they buy it, leave it in the box, and throw it under the bed,” Duvall said. “But most guys we deal with buy it for a purpose. It’s a tool for eradicating hogs, and it’s better because it’s quicker. They’re just more efficient than working a [bolt-action rifle], stuff like that.”

It occurred to me that guys like Duvall—and the others at the counter, Jarred Johnson and Morgan Pate—had had their voices hijacked by people like Kaitlin Bennett. She’s the woman who marked her graduation from Kent State this year with a photo of herself shouldering an AR-10 and holding her cap, which she’d decorated with the words come and take it. The photo went viral, and now Bennett is a far-right notable who posts incendiary tweets designed to elicit “liberal tears.”

That the broader population has transposed the attitudes of people like Bennett onto most gun owners is understandable. Popular discourse is given to extremes. But gun owners’ representatives—ostensibly sent to Washington to cut through the morass—appear guilty of the same. In all the times I’ve talked with GOP lawmakers about guns, why have they never mentioned that age restrictions are, for many conservatives, a worthwhile starting point? Better question: Do they even know?

“I don’t know,” Pate said. “It’s not like they ask us.”

I was pleased to have arrived at this insight. “Republicans are alienating reasonable and responsible gun owners,” I wrote in my notebook.

Next I wanted to know what Republicans should say—what other gun-control measures beyond age restrictions should be pursued. In retrospect, I realize this is why I’d agreed to write a piece about guns, and to make the trip home. I hated what had happened to me, and I hated what had happened to the children in Parkland. I wanted to hate guns, too. That’s how I thought a good person should feel. I’d re-cataloged my ambivalence from unsettling to irresponsible, even immoral. And yet it remained.

Two nights after visiting the store, I went shooting with an old friend whom I’ll call Tyler. (Tuscaloosa is in many ways a small town, so he asked me not to use his real name.) I’d phoned Tyler when I started working on this story, in the hopes that he could help me remember things about hunting, about home, that I’d forgotten. We stopped by his house to pick up his Labrador and some beer. He left his Suburban running as we fished out the Yeti from a closet and packed it with Bud Lights and ice.

Tyler slid the cooler into the trunk, next to his AR-15. It was almost dusk. We were headed to some land he owned about 45 minutes outside of town, to kill some hogs.

I put my bare feet on the dashboard. We listened to Willie Nelson. Earlier in the trip, I’d watched as the guys in the store had handled guns. Now it was my turn.

We turned off the highway onto a dirt path. When we got to his cabin—tiny, with rocking chairs on the front porch—the alarm was blaring. At first, we wondered whether there’d been a break-in. Not that there would have been much to take, apart from a television with rabbit ears. Still, it felt good to walk in with someone who was armed. Tyler looked around, holding the AR-15 over his shoulder. All clear. He grabbed boots and wool socks from a closet. I pulled them on, and we doused ourselves in bug spray.

We walked back outside to unload the trunk. Then Tyler made a joke, something about how we were in “lawless country” now. He fired three shots into the sky. Pop pop pop.

I jumped backward, shielding my face with my forearms. I yelled his name. He laughed: “What?”

I held myself in that space just before tears, where your cheeks warm and pressure builds in the back of your throat. I hadn’t expected to be scared.

We climbed into an all-terrain vehicle that was parked in a shed, and snaked it through the woods into an open field. Here we were, surrounded by miles of tall grass. Power lines dissolved into the horizon on either side. The sky was lavender.

The plan now was to wait. Tyler and I took turns blowing into the hog caller, as minutes bled into hours. No sightings, but it was an easy time. We were comfortable in the ATV, talking about our 10-year plans—I didn’t have one; he thought that was risky—the gun and the Labrador resting between us. Any anxiety I’d felt earlier, in the presence of something so lethal, was gone.

Earlier this year, in the wake of Parkland, I talked with congressional Republicans for a short article about what they believed to be the political consequences of a mass shooting. “In Alabama, where I grew up,” I wrote, “the Second Amendment is not so much a right as an inviolable element of culture—lawmakers are not wrong to believe that challenging this, however slightly, could spell political suicide.” I reread this the other day and cringed.

I don’t buy into the idea that regular people are more sensible, intrinsically, than creatures of D.C. But they are certainly more complicated than their leaders care to admit. Whether congressional members’ fear of “political suicide” via gun-control legislation reflects the influence of gun lobbyists or intellectual uncertainty or some combination of the two, I don’t know. But the result is a warped polity whose leaders are manipulative of public opinion rather than responsive to it.

Lawmakers of both parties are alienating reasonable and responsible gun owners out of deference to extremists, sure. Acknowledging the ambiguities, the gray areas, of American attitudes toward guns—all the things that could make a gun-violence victim want to go shooting, or a firearms dealer decide to regulate his own shop—won’t solve this problem, or single-handedly stem gun deaths. But continuing to see things in the current terms pretty much guarantees that we’ll get nowhere.

As my evening with Tyler wore on, no hogs appeared. But I wanted to shoot the AR-15—that’s why we’d headed out of town. Tyler proposed target practice. He walked out into the field and balanced our empty beer cans one on top of another. They were just visible in the tall grass.

It was easy to find a rhythm. I nestled the stock into my shoulder and steadied the red dot on the top can. I pulled the trigger. The can exploded into the air, a blue blur. A piercing ring followed and made the rest of the world seem still. I caught the metallic scent of gunpowder. “The best smell in the whole wide world,” Tyler said.

I snapped on the safety, and he restacked the cans so I could go again. The same deafening pops that had almost sent me spiraling a few hours earlier now set loose a sweet dose of adrenaline. I was happy. I didn’t want to be.

This article appears in the October 2018 print edition with the headline “The Bullet in My Arm.”