Never an Easy Target

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Antonio Canova's Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1804-6, on display in the Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court at the Met. Photo: JH.

Wednesday, 5_24_23. Sunny days in New York with temps in the mid 60s to mid-70s midday. 

When I was young, very young, fear generally was specific around the house and the people. It was my father’s often violent Irish temper. 

My father Frank Columbia around 1931 when he met my mother.

Although, my father’s rage was never directed or threatening to me personally but at my mother. I was afraid of him around those moments. In retrospect, I have no memories of him ever taking it out on me. His rage always threatened violence. It looks in memory as if he were somehow protecting me. 

I never knew his father my grandfather or my grandmother. They had both died long before I came into the world. Once when I complained to him about his raging anger, he remarked: “If you think I’m bad, my father was much, much worse!”

Hearing his teenage son complain evidently reminded him of his own experience which I later realized had left a deep mark on him. He named me after his father. It wasn’t until many years later, after he died, that I learned that his mother murdered his father after an argument. It was about money when it got threatening enough, she pulled out a gun nearby, and as he turned around to get away from her, she shot him three times in the back.

My grandmother was a woman in her mid-to-late 40s, about the same age as her husband. She and my grandfather, both Irish immigrants, had come to America in the late 19th century. The incident was in the Spring of 1915, also my father at age 15. He happened to be present.

Coverage of my grandfather’s murder in the Yonkers Herald, July 14, 1915.

The police came. She claimed it was self-defense, and she was arrested. It so happened that the police had been called there more than once before for the same complaints. They learned that my grandfather — then in his late forties — was a heavy drinker and with that Irish temper, he was abusive. So they were not surprised when his wife had had enough of his drunken abuse and finally took a gun and shot him.

The coverage the following day on July 15, 1915.

Nevertheless, she went on trial for murder. She testified that she happened to be cleaning her gun when her husband confronted her, and an argument erupted. The evidence of self-defense seemed weak yet thanks to my father’s testimony that it was self-defense, she was found not guilty.

The Gun.

I also never knew my grandmother on my mother’s side. She was never mentioned; ever. Nor was my grandfather. My mother had been orphaned at age 9 when her young mother died, coincidentally the same year that Frank’s father died. My mother’s father, also an immigrant from Poland, put his five girls in a Catholic orphanage where they were eventually taken into foster homes where violence was sometimes sexual by the man of the house. They all survived and lived long and healthy, if emotionally neglected, lives.

I bring up this personal story because an old friend Paxton Quigley has written a book about women and guns. It’s called Armed and Female II; Never An East Target. This is actually the Second Edition. The first was published 30 years ago when Pax had developed an interest in guns. 

There have always been women and guns. Annie Oakley comes to mind. And when she played to audiences around the world performing her skills, women came along with men to admire and thrill to her talent. My friend Pax is no Annie Oakley although I’m sure she’s talented because she pays attention and is successfully self-reliable by nature.

Annie Oakley, Baker’s Art Gallery, Columbus, Ohio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Back in the mid-’80s, Pax had a boyfriend who was a rancher (oh, incidentally before all that she had a marriage with two sons both of whom have now made her a grandmother).  He had guns, naturally, and she was with him when he took a gun into a store that needed to be repaired. They were up in Sun Valley, Idaho at the time and guns were not uncommon with many of the residents. 

Her initial interest and her boyfriend’s relationship to his gun was entirely practical and even sensible. Pax was in her 40s when she began to research guns. It occurred to her as a single woman (long divorced), living in the cities (LA, NYC), that there is always a potential risk. 

Paxton demonstrating a proper stance for shooting a gun.

So she bought a gun. A .38 Special. And because she knew nothing about handling a gun, she took firearms training courses. She’d tell me about the process of educating herself, then buying, and learning to shoot. Pax is one of those women who doesn’t assume she Knows if she doesn’t.  

I didn’t like the idea — even though it was none of my business. But because we were friends I listened, although I retained my doubts about owning a gun. 

After two or three years on the project, and having attended a number of courses, she decided to put it all in a book titled Armed and Female; Never An Easy Target. First published in 1990 (St. Martin’s), it got a lot of attention because of its purpose: teaching women how to shoot (without injuring or killing yourself — or someone else).

Soon after, she started teaching classes. Most of us who have never used a gun are in danger of just holding one. And learning is not an overnight process because guns are LETHAL.

In the last few years living in New York — which she loves — she was motivated to renew the topic and update her first book in a world that for women had continued to change dramatically. And the reality is that gun sales jumped during the early months of the Pandemic, and continued to rise even after the country returned to work. First-time buyers made up more than 20% of all purchases.

Pax teaching one of her classes.

Pax teaching to shoot from a prone position.

As I said, I was never interested in the subject. My fear of guns is like my fear of animals in the jungle. Americans, generally speaking, have always had guns. The first settlers of the entire continent had guns, and used them for all kinds of purposes including fighting the Native Americans; and helping themselves to their “property.”

Click to order Armed and Female II.

Now it’s a different world in many many ways. And women, for example, are more independent than the generations that came before. Many live alone and have active professions that occupy their lives. More women are buying guns then ever before. They’re motivated by the fear presented by the reality out on the streets. The most important thing they can do if they’re even thinking about it, is first to read Pax’s second addition.

In Armed and Female II, Pax has brought a lot of new information to the table. It’s a time when millions of American women are buying guns for self-protection. If you are one of them, or plan to be, she urges you to arm yourself with information and train with experts before so that you can safely defend yourself and your loved ones against any potential violence. Reading this book is a perfect way to get started.

While many Americans love their guns, Pax is not a gun enthusiast. It’s an entirely practical objective: keeping yourself safe in a world or in situations which are prominently dangerous in these times. And gun violence and intimate partner violence statistics are inseparable, affecting millions of women, families and communities — for generations — as was the case with my paternal grandparents.

I personally have never had the curiosity to even know because of my emotional relationship to the subject. However in reading Pax’ new edition, I am interested in the progress she’s made with the subject. And personally fascinated by the book she’s re-edited. She covers it all —  your fears, your nightmares, and your reliefs. With the facts, with the stories, with the admonitions and the self-assurance we all need.

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