When my parents drove me from Dallas to New York City for college, we hid one of Dad’s handguns in the compartment under my feet in the back seat. I knew we’d carry a gun with us. Dad carried everywhere—most often his trusted Glock—and Mom carried sometimes, too. We drove to New York instead of flying precisely so Dad could carry. Planes made him anxious; he felt too vulnerable without a gun on his hip. So the three of us, and all our baggage, squeezed into the cherry-red Lincoln MKX we rented for the occasion. I didn’t mind the road trip because it meant I could bring a Costco-sized pack of Easy Mac. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the gun.
On the cusp of my first taste of independence, Dad’s guns no longer felt like the assurance of protection they had been for me growing up. They felt like a burden I longed to shed. Whatever Dad carried, I carried, too.
Dad never shielded me from the fact that we kept guns in our house, but I can count on one hand the number of times I actually saw one. I remember being very young and Dad telling my friends and me at sleepovers, If you ever see a gun lying around, do not touch it, and tell me or Mom. We nodded because his normally affectionate voice became so serious.
Occasionally, if Dad was in the process of cleaning his guns, I’d catch a few of them laid out on the white folding table he set up in our game room. They had names I never learned to differentiate, since I was taught to steer clear of them, no matter the shape or size. Seeing them out in the open, I’d back away slowly, feeling as if I was walking on landmines. It seemed that the guns had intrinsic power and danger only Dad could control, and that they would explode at any second if not in his expert grasp.
For my older sister Lauren, guns were fun, not scary, and she and Dad bonded over them. Dad would take her shooting on the weekends. They’d bring back their paper targets, laughing about who’d hit more head shots. Why don’t you like to go shooting like Lauren, Bud? Dad would ask. I never knew how to answer. I’d shrug, saying I just preferred when we played soccer together or ate pancakes at IHOP for dinner. The real reason was that guns never stopped terrifying me. I couldn’t match his, or my sister’s, enthusiasm for holding life or death in my hands. Once I grew up and moved away, I could finally articulate what I came to understand as my coping mechanism: in order to justify my parents’ gun ownership, I had to see guns strictly as practical tools. I needed to be able to say, my dad has guns for personal defense, and not, he just likes to practice killing.
I entered high school eight years after 9/11, but the threat of terrorism remained urgent and critical in my house. Dad became cryptic about how many guns and how many rounds of ammo he stored in his gun closet. I didn’t ask questions because I didn’t like how Dad acted when he started talking about guns. His eyes would narrow and blacken, and he’d warn me about potential disasters: a terrorist attack on Dallas, a full-fledged nuclear war, a foreign hacker cutting off our electricity and water supply. He needed guns to defend our family in case of these emergencies, which I’d also begun to fear. Sometimes I thought Dad verged on paranoid, but he was the smartest man I knew, and I trusted him.
The honest truth is this: I felt safe knowing Dad kept guns in our house. Guns were okay, good even, if they were in Dad’s knowing hands. He carried them because of a need to protect. He carried them because of fear. I respected, and in a way envied, how easily and tangibly he could barricade himself from the world’s cruel and unexpected dangers. As long as I lived under his roof, his guns shielded me, too. I was secure—armed by proximity.
Dad and I were touring colleges in New York on the day of the Boston Marathon bombing. We heard the news from a barista in a campus coffee shop brimming with students on MacBooks. He was wary of me living in the biggest city in the country—a city with a target on its back and exponentially more crime than my safe suburb—but he saw how excited I was, and later that year, he moved me there. I was scared of the things he was scared of, of being powerless in the face of attack or disaster, but I needed to wiggle my way out from under his equipped wing if I was going to learn my own survival tactics.
It took us two full days to drive from Dallas to the Tri-State Area with all my life’s belongings. The gun sat dormant until we were fifty miles from New York. Dad’s concealed carry license wasn’t valid once we entered the city limits, so we decided to leave the gun somewhere for him and Mom to pick up on their way home. He had researched options—supposedly there was a train station with rentable lockers somewhere nearby in New Jersey. I wondered if it was even legal to store a gun in a rented locker. Once there, we crossed the length of the deserted station twice and eventually asked the security guard where the lockers were. He said they had been taken out years ago. I silently reasoned that the transportation bureau probably feared that people would leave bombs in the lockers. Then I silently reasoned that Dad’s weapon wasn’t the same as a bomb: it wasn’t designed to kill, but to protect. I avoided grappling with the fact that the two tasks may be intertwined.
We had no backup plan. Back in the car, I frantically searched on my phone for other short-term storage spaces. Although I didn’t think we had broken any laws, I felt guilty and dirty. I was suddenly complicit in a scheme founded on Dad’s desperate need for defense, and I did not want to be collectively responsible.
Dad thought it’d be easier to just take the gun into the city, keeping it in the hidden compartment under my feet. I said no. I begged him, almost to the point of tears, to not break the law. I was terrified of him getting caught carrying illegally and arrested. That was always a fear of mine: losing Dad to his guns.
Dad wore special pants, belts, and vests that kept carrying comfortable and hidden. The only time he didn’t carry was when he had to go to court to testify as an expert witness; his lifelong career in trust management made him a valuable third party in estate disputes. Over dinner after one of Dad’s unarmed days, he told me that he’d been in an altercation downtown. As he had entered the parking garage elevator outside of the federal court, a man hovering in the area ran over and scooted between the closing doors. In the elevator, the man approached and cornered Dad, hands under his shirt, as if preparing to rob him. They were alone, and there were no security cameras. The man backed off just as the elevator slowed to a stop, and Dad rushed to his car. It was situations like these, Dad explained, that made him feel he needed to carry at all times.
“An old guy like me would have been totally defenseless if he had tried anything,” he said. I nodded.
Dad was nearly sixty then. I could picture him in the elevator: full suit and briefcase, tie tight around the neck, the sweat prickling on his brow. How his hand had reached for the missing holster on his hip, how he had gone into survival mode. On some level, I understood.
The most practical and cost-effective solution we found for our unauthorized gun drop-off was renting a cheap motel room located just outside the city for two nights. We’d check in, leave the gun inside, and continue into New York scot-free. This plan wasn’t ideal by any means, but to me it was preferable to Dad carrying into the city, where gun regulations are some of the strictest in the country.
The motel we found was the only establishment on a long, flat, unmarked road just off a New Jersey highway. The small lobby building looked like it had been bought off a Home Depot lot and was surrounded by grass dying in the summer heat. Dad and I waited in the car while Mom went inside to negotiate with the man behind the counter. It was evening, and it appeared that we were his only guests. The concierge was visibly suspicious of us; he kept looking out the window to me and Dad in our jam-packed car. I suppose he had reason to think we were up to no good—our car full of cargo, Mom’s convoluted reasoning for wanting to stay in a motel off a highway in New Jersey when she said New York was our destination. When we finally got the room keys, the concierge followed us to the door and watched us until we went inside. I felt like I was doing something criminal, even though that’s exactly what we were trying to avoid.
Dad exhumed the gun from the hidden compartment and brought it into the motel room. There was no safe in the closet, so we had to creatively deliberate where to leave it. I opened the nightstand drawer next to one of two double beds; there was a tattered Bible inside. We didn’t want to leave the gun anywhere obvious in case a cleaning person—or the suspicious concierge—came in.
We settled on the microwave, under the assumption that no one who entered would have a reason to open the microwave. We left the gun unloaded, as it had been the entire trip. Dad still carried the ammo, though the bullets would offer no protection now. I rustled both of the beds to make it seem as though we’d slept there.
Shaking off the unsettled feeling in my stomach, we drove into the city. I moved into my freshman dorm on Washington Square Park. When the time came, I said goodbye to my parents at an Italian restaurant near the Holland Tunnel. Our table was in front of a big bay window, which was open to let the breeze in. Once the check was settled, we hugged, and I cried. I exited the restaurant first and walked alone on the sidewalk under the window. It was beautiful out, the sun hot on my damp cheeks.
I was grateful for my parents, and especially Dad, for building a home where I felt safe. But I knew that I was no longer inside his jurisdiction. And the less Dad was able to protect me, the more I felt I was the one who needed to protect him.
Moving to New York from Dallas meant meeting more and more people whose fathers did not objectify their need to protect, did not carry that burden on their hip. People whose fathers were not always in defense mode, whose fathers had never even held a gun. It meant facing more and more questions about my gun politics and my parents’ gun politics. I didn’t—and don’t—have the simple, neat answers they were looking for. In conversations, I tried to keep Dad’s guns hidden under my feet. Revealing them meant putting my Dad on display, vulnerable to judgment and presumption.
In 2015, the summer before my junior year in college, Texas passed an open carry law, meaning personal guns no longer had to be concealed when carried in public. People who knew I was from Texas were eager to talk to me about it.
“Do your parents own guns? Do they support the open carry law?” they asked me. As far as I knew, my parents still preferred to keep their guns concealed, but I didn’t tell them that. I didn’t want them to know my parents owned guns at all, because I didn’t want to invite a battery of condemnations—that my family was therefore backwards, close-minded, extreme.
I’d divert the conversation: “Oh, my family doesn’t talk about politics much. I don’t keep up. Have you started your paper yet?”
Most of my inquirers were fellow liberal arts students who assumed I’d eagerly renounce the politics of my home state. They expected to hear me say, plainly, that I disapproved of my parents’ gun ownership. I have never said that.
It’s true that when I remember the gun in the motel room microwave what I remember is fear, unease, and anxiety. It’s true that those are the only feelings I’ve experienced in the immediate presence of guns. But, for me, this truth is more vital: gun ownership, and gun carrying, is the means through which my Dad expresses his fear, unease, and anxiety about living a world that increasingly feels out of control. It’s an urgent attempt at self-preservation, and it’s a burden—one I’ve come to understand and one I’ve borne by association.
Three summers after my parents retrieved the gun from the motel room microwave, I went shooting for the first and only time. I was taking my native New Yorker boyfriend, Jason, to Texas—his first time south—to show him where I grew up and meet my parents. Going shooting seemed like the right thing to do, accomplishing three objectives in one: making Dad happy, initiating bonding between him and Jason, and showing Jason a quintessentially “Texan” activity. Dad was surprised when I first proposed it. You’ve never expressed interest in shooting before, why now? I think a part of me wanted to see if I could finally appreciate the comfort Dad found in carrying a gun. I wanted to know if I could cradle one in my arms instead of recoiling in apprehension.
We dedicated a whole Saturday to it. Dad carefully considered which guns would give us the most dynamic experience at the range and counted out goggles and earplugs for each of us. He took each gun, one by one, out of the four-foot-tall safe in his closet and laid them out on his and Mom’s bed. It looked like we were preparing for war.
The range was an hour away from my parents’ house and deep in the rural region. The owner had essentially cleared out an extensive tract of land and set up a horizontal spread of card tables with targets a few yards in front of them. His range rules, he assured us, were very relaxed; we just had to make sure not to approach the targets when the range was “hot”—that is, when people were shooting. The only other patrons there were a group of young men and women celebrating a birthday with barbeque. It was August, and the Texas heat was verging on 100 degrees. It was nearly impossible to open my eyes in the bright white light without the goggles on. We looked silly, like insect fighter jet pilots.
Dad taught us the proper way to stand—feet shoulder-width apart—and carefully placed the starter handguns in our palms, making sure our fingers were wrapped and interlocked around the handle. He didn’t load the guns until we were perfectly positioned. Jason went first, setting up his shot with cool confidence. The metallic boom didn’t make me jump as much as I had expected it to. He hit the target somewhere within the inner rings and smiled as he turned back to us. It was my turn. Facing the target, lining up the bullseye just over the sight, I remember the world going mute and feeling very fragile. Squeezing the trigger was like anticipating a roller coaster drop. I winced the whole way through. As the gun went off, I closed my eyes. I quickly placed it back on the table, eager to get it off my hands.
I grimaced every time I pulled the trigger after, never entirely confident I hadn’t hurt myself or someone else. Looking at the targets at the end was fun—I came close to the bullseye three times—but I skipped my turn as often as I took it. I preferred being a spectator, leaving the guns in more capable hands. I left the range with a deep red sunburn on my thighs that didn’t fade for weeks.
Shooting was my attempt to find closure regarding my ambivalence about guns. I wanted to feel the assurance Dad felt when he was armed. I hadn’t. But I knew that extending sympathy, and love, required acknowledging an unbridgeable gap between yourself and another.
On our way back to the car as we packed up at the range, I walked beside Dad. I helped lug all of his guns and accessories back home—for a brief moment, I carried his burden. That night, I slept under my old roof with Dad’s guns tucked away on the other side of the house, and I slept easy.
Alyssa Matesic works in editorial at Penguin Random House. She graduated summa cum laude from New York University with a degree in English and American Literature and a minor in Creative Nonfiction. After serving as Editor-in-Chief of West 10th, she co-founded the prose journal Pigeon Pages.