I found a gun in my dad's car in 2013. I was back home for a visit and just looking for a pack of gum, so you can imagine my surprise when my hand landed on a loaded firearm instead. I recoiled so quickly that I smashed my elbow on the dashboard, gifting myself with a colorful bruise that would last for a few days. Without intending to, I immediately burst into tears. I cursed the United States of America and vowed to never ever come back, not even to visit my clearly insane, pistol-wielding family. I barely pulled myself together by the time my father walked out of the post office and sat back in the driver's seat.
It was never a secret in my family that my father was a licensed gun owner; I had been aware of this fact since my early teenage years, when he sat me down and delivered a grave, detailed speech about firearm safety in the house. But because I had been out of my childhood home for years, I had virtually forgotten that he had a license to carry a concealed weapon. Plus, at that point in my life, I was in no state to talk about the topic that my parents and I have disagreed on most intensely through the years.
In the years leading up to this incident, I had been a loyal resident of Boston, and I was still raw from the tragedies that had recently taken place in the New England area, from the Boston marathon bombings to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. The day after the 2013 Boston marathon, my neighborhood was on a 24-hour lockdown while the police searched Dzokhar Tsarnaev's apartment, which was only a few blocks away from mine. I had gone to my fair share of vigils and shed countless tears over the victims who may as well have been my neighbors.
That night, as we ate crispy-skin salmon, I told my parents what I found in the console of my dad's car. I tried to kick off the discussion by asking them why they felt compelled to own so many guns. Had they ever used them? Was there ever a time they felt like they needed to use them?
Deep down, I knew this was a bad idea even as I began saying it. After all, the only reason I was visiting my parents was to see them one last time before I hightailed out of this country to move to Australia. And my final visit was about to end ugly.
My mom was actually the first to get defensive. Instead of answering my questions, she lectured me on how little I know about having a home and keeping that home safe; about how dangerous it is to walk the streets of downtown Savannah, Georgia, when there are shootings going on left and right. I responded even more vehemently, urging her to understand that fighting gun violence with guns is so not the right solution. She yelled that I had become a stuck-up, liberal know-it-all since I graduated from college. I screamed that she was obsessed with Fox News, and thus ignorant. And so on.
After all the shouting, slamming things on the table, and threatening to never see each other again, we went to sleep upset. I felt bad for saying the horrible things that I did, and I felt even worse about the fact that the two people in the world I love most didn't agree with me about something so important. Before I left, we mended things, even if temporarily, and we left the gun conversation alone for a while.
Over the next two years, we bore witness to the same mass shootings — the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; the Paris attacks. But we continued to remain silent about the topic every time we Skyped or chatted on the phone.
In the meantime, each of these devastating massacres made me relive that moment in my dad's car. I couldn't erase the cold, hard touch of the gun from my mind, even though I desperately wanted to forget about it. I remembered the stinging sensation on my funny bone after I pulled my hand away from it. The memory was only getting stronger and stronger, and it was becoming impossible to ignore.
During my time in Australia, I found myself in countless social situations where friends or acquaintances would talk about the most recent gun-related tragedies. The conversation always ended with a stream of comments about how ridiculous some Americans were for still holding on so tightly to their gun rights. Idiots! What are they thinking? Messed up people, man.
I was far too embarrassed to speak the truth — to admit that the people who raised me technically fell into that category. I didn't want to be found guilty by genetic association, so I carried on the silence.
The only person I felt comfortable speaking about it to was my partner Myles, who knew my parents well and understood there was so much more to them than this tendency. As an Australian, he, too, was dumbfounded at how the United States handles the firearm issue, yet even he encouraged me to be more gentle with my parents on the matter.
"You know how it is," he said one day. "Americans in your parents' demographic live in fear, and they work so hard just to make ends meet that they don't have time to see another side. And yelling at them won't help."
I hated that what he said struck a chord in me. I didn't want him to be right; little did I know, though, I was about to see his words come to life on my parents faces.
Myles and I arrived in Georgia on Dec. 1 this past holiday season, the day before the San Bernadino shootings. It was the first time in my adult life that I was by my parents' side when tragedy hit, and we sat together in disbelief, grieving together over the loss of innocent lives. My mom was especially upset; she wondered aloud how many more times our country could go through this, and how anyone could feel safe anymore.
When talk of gun control arose, we found common ground for the first time. We agreed that there needs to be much tighter regulation over who has access to such weapons. We need stronger legal barriers that prevent guns from landing in the wrong hands. Then my father said something I'll never forget.
"It's hard to feel safe in my own home now," he said, vulnerability in his voice. "And god forbid someone try to break in the house when your mom is here alone. We should have something to protect ourselves."
There it was. The talk of fear. The same fear that so many Americans are currently dealing with. It dawned on me in that moment that my parents only know what they know because of the very limited information they see in the media they consume. My parents don't have the luxury to travel and experiences different cultures like I do, to see how our country is falling extremely short on this particular issue compared to others. How can I expect them to understand the other side of the coin if they've never even seen it?
So I changed my approach. Instead of pointing fingers at them for being cruel, unreasonable people who wished for more violence in the world (which is the complete opposite of who they are anyway), I slowly started feeding them bits and pieces of the information that wouldn't normally be available to them on the nightly news. I talked about alternatives that work in other societies. And for this past Christmas, I took them to Peru, where they experienced a culture so foreign that they came back to the US with an ever-so-slightly different perspective. It may not result in a huge change right away, but it certainly planted a seed that could grow and blossom over time.
I have to admit that the strong disagreements my parents and I have gotten into over the years have left me exhausted and, frankly, a little hopeless about our country's future. But there's so much that I've learned from being in constant discord with them about gun control. They have taught me to look a little closer at why people believe in the things they do. So many Americans live in a constant state of unease, and they're still stuck on thinking of guns as true protection. When those of us who support gun control heatedly shove our own opinions in their faces, it won't give them any tools with which to think more differently. It will only push them away.
A few weeks ago, the four of us were preparing for a final dinner out together before Myles and I went on our way. Walking out to the car, my dad came rushing past us.
"What is it, Dad?" I asked as he opened the door to rummage for something in the vehicle.
"I'm just taking something out," he replied quickly. I saw him carrying something tucked under his arm into the house. I knew what it was right off the bat. He came out a second later with a smile on his face.
"I know it makes you uncomfortable," he said quietly as he climbed into the driver's seat.
It was a baby step, sure; but it was also the farthest we've ever come.
Images: Gina Florio