News & Politics

First Person: Aiming for the Heart

I’m a pacifist. My husband was in the Marines. What did he want for his birthday? To go shooting with me.

Illustration by Jason Schneider.

For his birthday, my husband took me to a pistol range.

Gregg hadn’t fired a weapon since leaving the Marine Corps five years earlier, and he missed shooting. Before we dated, I’d never held a firearm. When I wanted a cap gun as a child, my parents told me to smash the caps with rocks instead. After college, I joined AmeriCorps to teach in the inner city. Gregg enlisted in the Marines and learned to kill.

During a period when we’d broken up but remained friends, he convinced me to try shooting. He now says it was an attempt to demystify his world because he wanted to reunite; I may have agreed out of guilt because I didn’t want to. I was terrified of the weapon and would shoot only the circular targets, not the human figures.

It took me 12 years to agree to marry him—to live with the paradoxes. Gregg is both the toughest and the most generous person I know. Bullied as a kid, he learned to fight to protect himself and others. He joined the military for the same reason I’m a pacifist.

Now I put up with machetes and knives stashed in every room of our home, including the bathroom (just in case). He finds common ground with my vegetarian friends. We both concede that the need for force is a grayer area than we thought. But there are times we still wonder in private or, jokingly, aloud: Would we each be better suited to someone else? That’s when we try hardest to meet in the middle.

Inside the squat building in a Lorton industrial park, AR-15 rifles line the walls and glass cases are filled with .357 magnum revolvers and 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistols. I choose a revolver, which makes me feel like a cowgirl.

We pick our targets from options on the wall. Among them are black-and-white drawings of men: heads, torsos, tops of legs, slightly smaller than life-size. I decline the terrorist—in turban and torn white shirt—as well as the intruder with pistol aimed straight ahead, selecting instead a faceless silhouette.

Inside the booth, the air is bitter and smoky. Empty casings litter the floor. Gregg recites the Marine safety rules: “Treat every weapon as if it were loaded. Never point a weapon at anything you don’t intend to shoot. Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you intend to fire. Keep the weapon on safe until you’re ready to fire.”

Bam! Bam! Every few seconds, a weapon fires somewhere in the room. I insert six rounds and click the cylinder closed. My head throbs, yet I find I’m less scared of the gun than I was my first time. I can sense its appeal—the feeling of control, the test of my capabilities. As I squeeze the trigger, the shock reverberates along my shoulders. Whispers of smoke rise from the barrel. One shot reaches the head, others the crotch. “Good job,” Gregg says. “You’re hitting him in important places.”

“But not where I’m aiming,” I say. I’m going for the chest.

In my wedding vows, I told Gregg he was my greatest gift and my biggest challenge, a man who loved me unconditionally but also encouraged me to grow into a better version of myself. Is that what this is? The shooting may or may not be, but the give-and-take that brought me here is.

As we stand amid the casings, Gregg’s body cradling mine from behind, he lays his hands on my arms to turn my elbows inward. Then he gently rotates my wrists to push the gun forward. With his help, I end up—finally—around the heart. 

Eva KL Miller lives and writes in Alexandria. She can be reached at

This article appears in the December 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.