Heather Aruffo’s essay, “At the Women’s Only Handgun Workshop in Fairbanks, Alaska,” appears in the Spring 2022 issue of The Southern Review. Here, she discusses the myth of American exceptionalism, gun culture in Alaska, and her research process for creative nonfiction.
Jack Zawlacki, editorial assistant: As someone who grew up around hunting and gun ownership, in reading this piece I learned a bit of what it might be like for someone with no familiarity with that culture to enter into it. You mentioned at the beginning of the piece that you were doing research for a novel and wanted to get the combat scenes right. But what inspired you to tell this story and investigate a bit of America’s relationship with guns?
Heather Aruffo: You know, this was one of those essays that I never really intended to write. I started this before I really considered myself much of an essayist, and when I’d only ever really dabbled in nonfiction. My MFA was in fiction, and most of my time was spent on that novel. But as soon as Alex, one of the instructors, started with her “good evening, ladies,” shtick, I remember opening the back page of my NRA guide to pistol shooting and immediately scribbling down every insane line she said. The class was so unlike what I’d expected, from being NRA sponsored to the way Alex communicated with us, that I felt like it was too unique of an experience not to try to capture it. And I think also living in Alaska, where guns are very much a way of life and at times very much a necessity, added a layer to complexity to telling the story that I wouldn’t have necessarily felt unless I was living in a similarly rural area where hunting and self-defense from animals was equally important. The investigation of America’s relationship with guns very much comes from some of my preoccupations as an essayist. I’m interested in answering broader questions, and trying to make sense of my experience in terms of the broader historical and cultural context. I’m very interested in the idea of Americanness, and the way in which the United States often portrays itself with a kind of exceptionalism that is very much counterfactual. So, this essay in many ways provided a way to dig deeply into a hot button issue in a way that explores the nuances and gray areas. That’s where a lot of the power of creative nonfiction lies, in my opinion.
JZ: And as a quick follow up, did you end up finishing that Soviet-era sci-fi novel? Care to give us a preview?
HA: I did! It died a slow death and never found me a literary agent, unfortunately. But it taught me a lot of things, including how to write a novel, so I am grateful for that. It’s one of those things that I’ve accepted that it was the best book I could write at the time, and it’s served its purpose in my writing life in that it taught me a lot about publishing. But I don’t really have any intention of bringing it back again.
JZ: You mention the contradictions in the logic of the NRA throughout the piece i.e., supporting gun restrictions for the Black Panthers, fighting gun restrictions for domestic abusers, and their silence on international gun rights. Do you see any potential for the NRA to change their stances?
HA: I don’t, honestly. From what I’ve seen of the NRA, they seem like an organization that is more intent on politicizing gun ownership than their original role of promoting marksmanship. I would love to think there’s a place in policy for reasonable gun ownership that would allow the use of guns for hunting, etc., and would help to prevent mass shootings through regulation. But the NRA so far has stood in the way of so many of those types of legislation that I really don’t see them changing anytime soon.
JZ: The story of guns in American history is massive, starting from the colonies to the present day. When writing a nonfiction essay, how do you limit your scope when taking on a subject this large?
HA: Good question! The scope was actually quite an issue with this piece. I workshopped this piece at Tin House, and that was a big question at the time, was how much to include, and how much was the piece meandering and including a lot of anecdotes. One friend of mine from that workshop pointed out in a later draft that since the title emphasizes the class as a women’s only handgun workshop, it would make sense to focus on women’s experiences of shooting and gun ownership as a sort of thesis statement or main thread in the piece. I extended that to also include the Alaskan angle, a sort of geographic focus that helped to add unity to the piece. I’m a millennial with ADHD and access to a computer; I’d research all day. But ultimately, I think when it comes to research and scope, particularly with personal essays, its one of those things where you have to think about what information will be in service of the piece, what helps to build your argument, and what information is helping you to give as balanced a look at the question at hand as possible. I’m a scientist by training, so I really love the process of research and when I write essays, I try to collect as much information as possible so that I can look at an issue from all sides. And in this essay in particular, I wanted to be compassionate and add a degree of nuance and empathy to a political issue that can be so black and white in the way it is portrayed.
JZ: You describe the shooting range as “a place with no bearing on reality” (285). It’s a perfect description. They’re almost unnaturally safe, sterile, organized, in a way many other aspects of American gun culture are not. Does the shooting range pose a problem in our imagining of gun safety?
HA: I’m not sure, honestly. I’m not a gun owner, so I don’t know how often people go to ranges! But I do think that the shooting range-esque portrayal that the NRA uses (ex: the three rules of gun safety mean that a gun will always be safe) to talk about guns is part of the problem. Of course, a gun isn’t dangerous on its own, but there is always a person behind it, and people are fallible, or go into shooting with the wrong motives to begin with. The way that the NRA, at least in the shooting class, spoke about guns seemed very simplistic. And gun ranges can be dangerous. A lot of the gun owners I know in Anchorage don’t like going to the outdoor ranges here because they don’t trust the people who go to them. But I think overall, the sterile idea of guns being safe if you follow the rules is definitely unnatural given the way the NRA portrays it.
JZ: Yet there’s also this enjoyment derived from shooting, hitting the bullseye, etc. How did/do you reconcile this feeling with your reservations and concerns about guns more broadly?
HA: You know it’s interesting because I think there’s a lot of things that are kind of risky/give you an adrenaline rush I like to do that are intrinsically linked to something that causes problems in society. For example, I love to drive, but it is also an inherently dangerous activity and contributes to climate change. That’s something I at times struggled to reconcile. In terms of guns, the violence is so immediate, I do think it lends itself to different questions than something like driving, which is necessary for transportation and the damage caused by it isn’t necessarily as immediate. And I think to some extent, again, there’s the idea of divorcing the gun from the act of shooting. “Shooting as a sport,” as Alex in the essay says. So, I think there is a place in those gray areas where you can appreciate the skill that shooting takes, and draw enjoyment from it, while still remaining critical of gun culture and the way in which gun culture plays out in society in real time.
JZ: I’ve sometimes thought about gun ownership myself, but have simply moved around too often to give it serious consideration. I’m also aware of the increased risks of gun ownership, with a recent study on the likelihood of dying by homicide being double when a gun is in the home. Do you think you’ll ever own a gun?
HA: You know I do think about it a lot. I’m back in Alaska, and wildlife really is everywhere. Heck, I saw five bears on a trail run a couple weeks ago! But honestly, I’m not sure. I would like to learn how to hunt, in order to be able to eat more sustainably. Responsible gun ownership is no joke; there’s a fairly significant time commitment in terms of maintaining equipment, going to ranges to practice so that you can actually use your gun well, etc., that I’m not sure I have the bandwidth for right now. Maybe someday. But like you said, there is also the risk of dying by homicide that worries me about gun ownership. I’ve struggled with depression in the past as well and having a gun worries me from that perspective as well.
JZ: I really enjoyed reading this piece and thinking through this country’s complicated relationship with guns. In the vein of looking forward to reading your next piece, are you working on anything else right now?
HA: I’m working on an essay collection! I actually just signed with a literary agent, so here’s hoping that I’ll have a book coming out in the near future. A lot of them are very similar to this essay in terms of blending research with personal experience, so if you liked this essay, be ready for more! It’s tentatively called “Work-Life” and is a blend of personal essay, travel writing, science writing and cultural criticism.