"I can’t go to work today. The voices said stay home and clean the guns."
—bumper sticker seen in South Austin

It was my idea to see Charlie’s Angels and then shoot guns. When my shooting party became a threesome, all women, it made perfect sense. We checked our calendars and lined up babysitters, because unlike the agile acrobatic Angels we are women with baggage—hips, thighs, bags under our eyes, and the kids who gave us them. We left work early and met at the mall in our gun-toting clothes—tight black capris for me, a black dress with Western styling for Kris, comfy shoes for Jill. We were gonna kick some middle-class mom ass.

My son started it. Despite my best peace-loving efforts, when Cope turned two he discovered sticks. Leaving the park one day, he clutched a dead stick and turned it on neighbors, cats and cars. "Pow! Pow!" He had never seen a gun nor a TV show with guns nor hung out with older gun-wielding youngsters. It was just in his blood. My husband explained that to be male is to hunt. But I took it personally—how could someone who came from deep inside my body want to kill?

Like all moms of boys I had to make a choice. Gun Play or No Gun Play.

A confession: my favorite childhood game was "spies," involving stealth moves in the hallway, bathroom ambushes, shoot-'em-up drama and long limb-twitching deaths. But I wasn’t prepared for my blond cherub to become a serial killer.

"Guns are very bad," I lectured. "Guns kill. If you see one, you must go get a grown-up."

"But Mah-ahm, it’s just pretend!"

He was right of course, but we had to make some rules.

    1. No shooting in the car.
    2. Before you can shoot someone, you must ask them if they want to be shot.
    3. Hand-made guns make better noises than store-bought.

About this time, Cope had his first best friend over to play alone. Though we’d known the parents from preschool for several months and had entertained their son in our home before, this was the first time he was going solo. The father leaned back in our futon couch before he left and asked, "Do you have any guns in the house?"

And to my deep embarrassment and shame, I had to say "Yes."

It was a long story. When Cope was a baby Jim worked with a woman whose husband died after a long illness. She asked Jim if he would take a bag of guns that she found in her husband’s things and just get rid of them. He could keep whatever he made from selling them. Jim came home from work that day with a red plaid carry-on bag and a wad of cash. The only problem was that the gun shop wouldn’t buy one of the guns—it was junk. So that is how we came to have a bag with a handgun in it on the top shelf of the converted garage and a box of ammo for it on another shelf, both too high for me to reach without using a chair. A couple of sleep-deprived years had passed punctuated by arguments about the gun.

"Get it out of the house!" I muttered over a sink of dirty dishes.

"Why are you so afraid of guns?" Jim replied, sorting laundry.

"Because they kill."

"Have you ever shot one?"

This question hung in the air until the argument’s tail curled back on its own head.

"Get it out of the house!"

Then came the winter of Lego guns. We built them crazy and convertible. We shot them to pieces and rebuilt on the spot. How can anyone be afraid of a red-and-blue-and-yellow-and-green assault weapon made from Duplos? "Can I shoot you?" "Yes!" "Bang! You’re dead!" "Aaaaaaaaaaaaack!" Plunk on the floor.

Now that Cope is six, we have progressed from a too-pretty-to-be-lethal water gun to the double-barreled soaking kind. But one day I came home and Cope had bought with his own allowance a five-dollar black plastic assault rifle that rat-a-tat-tat-ed. "Hold up your hands, Mom!" I surrendered, tiredly, and then went back to fixing dinner.

When I called Red’s Indoor Range, I learned that Monday was Ladies Day. Perfect. About the movie—we observed that the Angels fight with their bodies and brains—kind of the way we mother. Only the good-girl-gone-bad, played by hipless Demi (the Anti-Mom), packed metal. The scene of her stroking her lethal golden piece was downright erotic. But it had nothing to do with shooting a gun.

Located on a highway that leads toward the deer-covered Hill Country, Red’s is a long low white building, kin to the kind of smoky bar that sells only Coors in a can. It is trimmed in red as is the sign announcing we could "BUY SELL TRADE/GUNS AMMO KNIVES." As I crossed the empty gravel parking lot, the swish of rush hour traffic at my back, I had a giddy, off-center feeling inside. Suddenly I remembered late-night alcohol-fueled visits my friends and I made to peep shows and X-rated video stores in college. That was 20 years ago. Had it been that long since I’d ventured down a morally dark alley?

It smelled. I want to say like metal but my husband says that metal itself is scentless. It’s the oil they use to clean and lubricate the working parts. Okay. That and cheap air-freshener, the kind made to hang in your car.

We filled out forms. One that mentioned mental illness. One that said if we got injured or killed we wouldn’t blame anyone. Kris got serious and white. Jill read the fine print slowly. A young guy handed us giant ear muffs and clear plastic glasses before punching time cards with our names on them and showing us into the range. It was hot. There was nowhere to put our purses.

We met our guns—a Smith & Wesson Model 617 .22 Revolver and a Smith & Wesson .22 Semi-Automatic. The attendant showed us how to drop the bullets in their rows and snap them into the handle. He showed us the red dot that means it’s unlocked and how to look between the notch to aim. When I picked up a gun to shoot it, it had a satisfying weight to it.

What I learned: it’s louder when someone else shoots because there’s no way to anticipate the explosion. If you look at them right, guns—especially revolvers—look like small sculptures, a careful balance of curves and straight lines. Shooting smells like fireworks. Shooting is about the target, not the gun. Anyone can be a good shot if the target is close enough. It’s kind of meditative to reduce the world to this hot white tunnel and the target that flies closer or farther with the flick of a switch. I’ll never forget the sound of the pulley sliding the man-shaped target closer or farther, the white paper flattening or filling with air. Guns are killing machines.

Shooting a gun is possibly one of the stupidest things I’ve done in the past twenty years. Guns have nothing to do with the movies. Yet I’m glad I did it. It was scarier than childbirth or taking Cope to the E.R. with a 105 fever. Adrenalin flooded my limbs every time I fired. By the time we were done, my body felt pumped with cement. I probably only shot ten times.

After I paid for our time and ammo ($28 for us three), I asked the guy if what we’d been shooting could hurt someone.

"Oh... yeah," he smiled. "Yeah."

We emerged less than an hour later, silent. The hot night and thinning traffic felt safe, familiar, comforting. We drank cold water and sat on the car. It was like seeing a movie your mother warned you against. Now we were wise to a world that until now had been safely hidden from us. Everything was changed. Stopping for gas, we eyed our fellow customers with suspicion. There were so many places a gun could hide.

Since then, my stomach clenches each time I see the "no guns" sign at our community garden. I listen with shock to the news about Texas Senate Bill 501 that says it’s okay to carry a licensed gun in certain government buildings. Like fear and hate and sadness, guns are lurking everywhere. Now that I’ve held one in my hand and felt its power like lightening in my body, I can say for sure that I am afraid, so afraid, of guns.

About the author:

Robin Bradford is an award-winning short story writer and essayist. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, Quarterly West and Boston Review, among many other places. Born in Japan and raised in Oklahoma and Texas, she lived in Delaware and Rhode Island before settling in Austin in 1988. She works as communications and development director for a nonprofit that provides affordable housing in Austin. Bradford lives with her husband, their son, three cats and a dog. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three—is the best thing that has ever happened to her. Send feedback for Robin to: motherload@austinmama.com and visit her site at www.robinbradford.net