The 9mm pistol frightened me--not because I was in front of it. Because I was the one holding it.
I had visited my father in lower Mississippi, and my stepbrother and I shot his rifles at a makeshift target of a hay bag filled with straw. I had never shot the sleek, black pistol before. I took aim at the bag's center, firmed up my stance, and squeezed the trigger.
I missed the center by only a few inches, but my shots were grouped in a nice circle to the upper right--a mark of solid precision.
"Nice shot," my stepbrother told me.
I looked at the gun in fear. It was the easiest gun I had ever fired. I didn't have to grasp it tightly like my mother's .357 magnum. I didn't have to strengthen my arms and hold in my breath like firing the 20-gauge shotgun I inherited from my uncle--a wild weapon of wood and iron that tore into my chest whenever I fired. I just pointed the 9mm, cupped the clip, and shot.
It was as effortless as a toy.
As I'm talking to Wayne McNeil of gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety, he describes to me what it's like to be shot with a gun like that. In 2012, two men fired three times--twice in his chest, once in his arm--during an attempted robbery in Mobile, Alabama. The suspects were never caught.
"I heard a firecracker," he says. "I turn and see these two young men. I wonder, 'Why are they throwing firecrackers at me?' I felt a strange pressure--like I was being compressed from the inside and the outside at the same time. I got five steps before I even realized I had been shot."
An openly gay man, McNeil speaks to me only days after the Orlando mass shooting where Omar Mateen killed 49 and injured 53 in an attack on nightclub Pulse. He's been to Pulse. He says his friends are safe.
"I remember laying down, bleeding," he says of his attack. "I thought, 'This is what it feels like to die.'"
In the aftermath of Pulse, McNeil believes the country will refocus on gun control reform. Sen. Chris Murphy stood on the Senate floor for 15 hours last Tuesday until Republicans agreed to vote once more on gun control laws that the chamber considered in December following the San Bernardino shooting.
They voted Monday. All four laws failed--again. One week after the country's worst single-person mass shooting in history.
After Orlando, gun control has suddenly become a queer issue, and LGBT people and their advocacy groups have stepped into the ring. The Human Rights Campaign added gun control to its list of policy objectives, including "limiting access to assault-style rifles, expanding background checks, and limiting the ability for suspected terrorists, and those with a history of domestic abuse to access guns."
This gives hope to activists like McNeil.
"Personally, if my community--the LGBT community--comes together and gets behind gun violence prevention, I think we can greatly effect change for the better," he says.
Speaking to friends of Pulse survivors, McNeil and the HRC may be overestimating if LGBTs can really unite around gun control.
"People having guns doesn't mean you're going to go out and kill other people," says Alejandra Acevedo, friend to Pulse victim Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon. "I don't really know what to say (about gun control). Everyone's taking things out of proportion. I can't say this could have been avoided because it could have happened anywhere. You have a right to own guns."
Angela Gurzi, who lives near Pulse, says that the gun rights battle will never be settled in this country.
"Everyone has a right to have one," she says. "There will always be the good guys with the guns and the bad guys with the guns."
Even typically fringe groups, such as Pink Pistols, have come out swinging during this crisis with talk of arming LGBTs. Membership has apparently skyrocketed among the group's 35 active chapters. Open-carry groups have volunteered to accompany pride events, such as the Cincinnati Pride this weekend. Even I, as a gay man who stared into the faces of loss and despair in Orlando last week, still believe in gun ownership as a right among Americans.
But I was fortunate. I grew up in a culture that respected the gun as a tool. My family taught me discipline and respect for the gun's power. My community taught me the great responsibility in owning such a weapon. We hunted. We trained ourselves to act in self-defense, because if I called 911 for help, no one was coming. In the deepest, reddest South, a community came together to teach a generation how to care and defend itself.
Most Americans do not receive that restraint. Most American need to be told they should not have access to weapons that can spray a room with bullets at just a tap of the trigger. Most Americans just fall in love with the power--the same power that takes children, worshippers, moviegoers, office workers, and club kids from us.
It's time to end the love affair. The Senate shows no unity on this issue because we ourselves have no unity on this issue--LGBTs included. If our movement is going to wade into this issue, then we must be ready to face our own division over gun ownership first as Americans, then as queer people. Then we can call out these leaders in a clear voice--hopefully before someone else becomes the target.