Guns -- and none

A woman who grew up with guns goes on to a life without them


I got the gun after the boy next door told me I could not be a real cowboy without it. The trigger clicked softly, so I followed it up with "Bang, bang. You're dead." No mistaking my violent intent.

At 4, I wanted to be a cowboy. Not a cowgirl, a cowboy. I wore a flannel shirt and jeans, and I carried a gray plastic pistol with a red trigger.


My ears ring for several minutes and my body shakes and shivers. On my first trip to the Imperial Valley with the man I would later marry, I shoot a real gun, a Smith and Wesson .38. "Bang, bang" is superfluous.

The kick astounds. I hold the pistol in my right hand, steady the butt in my left, breathe, and aim for tin cans we've brought to shoot the heck out of. My trigger squeeze isn't half bad, but the recoil's backward knock stuns me, and my arm flies up -- above my shoulder, above my head.

A city girl, I felt no horror at holding a gun, shooting, sitting next to guns and boxes of bullets. This surprises me now.


My cast-iron frying pan is out of service. Or out of my service. The shotgun needs re-bluing before dove season opens Sept. 1. Boiling chemicals erode this old pan, handed down by my mother-in-law.

The gun, however, takes on a mottled gray-blue-green renewed beauty. As I ohhh and ahhh at each accumulated layer of sheen, I fear for my frying pan.


"It's heavy," says the postmistress. "Feels like a cannon."

I pick up the first of many weapons my husband would purchase for his arsenal. I thought his fascination with loud toys interesting, entertaining even, an obsession I'd known little about before marriage. I also didn't know, that day at the P.O., that he was only getting started.

He owned, prior to the cannon, two pistols he rarely shot and the re-blued shotgun. Twenty years later he would own about 30 guns -- rifles, shotguns, numerous pistols of varying calibers and barrel lengths, the cannon, a black-powder Walker, a semi-automatic machine gun. When his father died, he would inherit another 30.

The cast-iron cannon, about a foot long, weighed 12 pounds. Cannon balls, made from wheel weights melted in the frying pan and poured into molds, were ramrodded down the barrel. Into the top went black powder and then a fuse. Ignited powder expelled the cannonball so slowly we could see it lob its way toward a target which it may or may not reach.

But that's a small point. Smoking fuses, ignited gun powder, a gigantic ka-boom followed by only marginally quieter echoes make a symphony of bang.


Sunday mornings we pack pistols, shotguns, a .22 rifle, and sometimes the cannon and black-powder pistol into the orange truck. We stop first at the office, where these weapons are stored in a locked gun safe.

We follow a dirt road to the hilltop and place our own cans for targets. Careful of jagged, bullet-etched edges, we later collect them for recycling. We teach our children gun safety, and we treat our guns with respect and care. Each of us loads our own gun. Only one person shoots at a time, and everyone else watches. At home afterwards, the heady smell of Hoppe's #9 solvent emanates from the garage where we clean.

Along with our two children, I become a good shot; in fact, I rarely miss. I shoot revolvers and a small rifle. We enjoy these outings until two college students are murdered near where we shoot. We never go back up that road, and we never shoot again as a family.


My shooter husband moves out. As he leaves, he offers me a gun: Would I like the .38 snub nose like the one the police chief carries in his holster? No, I tell him, I would not. I could not shoot someone -- no matter what. Take all the weapons. Please.

But the pearl-gripped Colt .45, the revolver that won the West, remains registered in my name. I picked it up at the dealer, a reprise of the cannon at the P.O. years before. He has forgotten. This pristine gun, touted as an investment, remains -- legally and against my wishes -- mine.


I study guns in museums, inspecting as closely as glass permits flintlock mechanisms, bluing, the burl of wood. I favor blunderbusses with barrels like clarinets. I appreciate guns as art. I wonder that I ever held one, enjoyed shooting, accustomed myself to the bang and kick and awful noise that reverberates in the entire body long after trigger squeeze. Wanting to please, I did what otherwise I would not: I jumped onto a well-armed wagon.


Single again, I date a man who brings a pistol without my knowledge when we go to Carrizo Plain seeking wildflowers. He loads and hands me a .22. I urge him to shoot first; he refuses. I take aim and hit the target. His mouth drops open and he shakes his head. I empty the cylinder, never missing, and hand him the gun. He puts it away without shooting.

That was my last shot. Now, my wagon is unarmed, and I drive it alone.

Diane Halsted lives, writes, and teaches in San Luis Obispo, California.

Anonymous says:
Jun 24, 2010 06:06 AM
This article seems to be hinting towards an anti-gun stance which is a direction I hope HCN does not go.
Anonymous says:
Jun 24, 2010 09:13 AM
Thanks for your comment Chris. We run a variety of op-eds and personal essays that express their authors' opinions on various subjects. Their appearance in HCN does not, of course, imply that we agree or disagree with the author's opinion -- the author is stating his or her viewpoint. Best regards, Jodi Peterson, managing editor
Anonymous says:
Jun 25, 2010 12:21 AM
I had an almost identical set of life experiences with guns as the author of this perceptive essay. Like her, I am no longer a handler of guns. Thanks for running this one, HCN, and for editing it, Michelle.
Anonymous says:
Jun 29, 2010 04:43 PM
I dated a hunter once who had a huge arsenal of assorted weapons for killing animals. Some of those weapons would have blown a buck clear away, no meat or antlers left for mounting. A can of room-temperature Coors in hand he had them all lined up against the cabin wall one night and I wondered who would need such an enormous arsenal for any reason. It was not my preferred lifestyle.

When we parted, I somehow wound up with the remains of a scarred old rifle...maybe from the '40s...stock and iron intact but the "guts" missing. Harmless and somehow handsome, it leans in a hunterly fashion on my cozy and otherwise peaceful hearth.
Anonymous says:
Jun 29, 2010 09:38 PM
I was just curious about the two murdered college students. Were they friends of Ms Halsted's? Seems if the two were murdered so close to where they regularly went that she might want a weapon to protect herself and loved ones from the possiblity of the same thing happening to her.
I respect her choice, but wonder about the sudden change...
Doug Johnston
Anonymous says:
Jun 30, 2010 04:41 PM
An odd article. Sort of passive resistance to doing something the author does not want to do, but eventually became proficient at, to please others. Sounds mystically averse to guns.
Guns are not mystical. They are collections of springs, screws, tubes, some metal and a bit of wood, or mother of pearl for the Colt SAA .45
They can be dangerous, or not, depending on who handles them, as any Westerner knows. And they can be works of art and historical importance, especially a Colt SAA.
Mystical attraction or aversion to guns is out of place and less than useful.

Anonymous says:
Jul 01, 2010 04:14 PM
I appreciated Diane Halstead's point of view based on real experiences about guns. I grew up around guns too, had a cousin shot to death by a drunk, had two friends shoot themselves in the foot. I lived in inner cities and isolated rural areas and never needed a gun to defend myself. I never remember us being so obsessed with guns back in the 50's. From recent news accounts about murders I can conclude that "guns don't kill people--friends and family kill people."