Ryan asked that I not use his real name, or any description that could readily identify him, in this article. He isn’t the kind of person should be worried, and he doesn’t seem paranoid at all, not in any way irrational. He is just concerned that his opinions, when told without the need for spin when he’s around various specific groups of friends or colleagues, might rub some of those folks the wrong way.
I meet Ryan at a local gun range in Dulles, Virginia, minutes away from the airport. He is in his late thirties, taller than average and wiry. He has a strong grip, which I try to match with my handshake, and an easy smile.
Ryan brought his AR-15 with him, and we’re going to shoot it.
It’s a very cold day, twilight, early March, so going inside the building is welcome. It’s warm, a lot brighter than I imagined. I’ve never been in such a place before. I’ve shot guns before, a couple revolvers, a hunting rifle, but have only seen indoor ranges depicted in TV shows and movies.
The smell of the guns, oil and exploded gunpowder, is everywhere. But the loud ventilation system keep it from being stifling. We check in; they know Ryan here by name. He comes in at least twice a month, if not more.
“I just enjoy shooting,” he says. “It’s fun.”
And it is, especially with the AR-15.
I almost feel the shots more than hear them through my massive earphones as we take turns using the semi automatic rifle to fire at paper targets. Ryan is a really good shot. He hits the center of the chest and forehead areas more often than not, even when pulling the trigger in quick succession.
I manage to get close to bullseye maybe three times out of thirty rounds fired. I don’t mind, though, because of how exhilarating it is to do such a simple, fast action as pull the tiny trigger and launch a tremendous amount of destructive force down the target alley.
“I wish we could shoot some different things here. Like ballistic gel. I’d love to play with that stuff,” Ryan says enthusiastically.
I have to say that I agree with him. I’ve searched “ballistics gel” on YouTube and the resulting images are unforgettable. In slow motion, you see the physics of the destruction a projectile causes as it tears through a material that mimics the density of a human body.
After almost an hour at the range, we head out for a quick dinner at a place called Silver Diner in Reston, not far away from Ryan’s home.
Our conversation turns to his experiences growing up in rural West Virginia, in Shepherdstown, a small town of row houses on the Potomac river in Jefferson County, surrounded by endless miles of rolling hills and farmland. I’ve been there before, with a friend who’d attended Shepherd University.
Ryan recalled hunting with his father and grandfather, who owned one of those farms. The family sold it off in parcels after his grandfather passed away in 2009. Ryan’s memories of his early life are vivid, and his fondness shines through. He muses on what his life might have been like if he’d never left to go to college at Carnegie Mellon for computer science.
“If I wasn’t such a nerd I probably would have stuck around.”
It’s dark when we drive back to his home in Sterling, the AR-15 lying across the backseat in its case.
Ryan’s house is a modest split-level ranch, with a meticulously manicured lawn and rows of bushes and a garden in a small backyard, freshly mulched during a stretch of unseasonably warm weather at the end of February. It sits in a humble-looking neighborhood, nestled between two larger communities of what might be referred to as “McMansions”. Despite the house’s relatively small 1500 sq. ft. of living space, Ryan and his wife had to get a mortgage for over $550,000. They can afford it between Ryan’s defense contractor salary and his wife’s more modest income earned working for a large national nonprofit. It would be hard, if not impossible, to afford if either of them was out of work, though. This is a very expensive area of the country to live in.
I meet his wife of eleven years, “Serena”, and their two young children, a boy and a girl, both in elementary school. Ryan introduces me to them as “the writer taking down some opinions”. They look at me wide-eyed, very attentive, but remain shyly silent.
He’d let Serena know ahead of time that he wouldn’t be back home until later, since he’d be with me, so she made some spaghetti and cheese-covered garlic bread for herself and the kids. She offers us left-overs, cooling on a countertop, and we decline. ‘Too full already,” I say. Silver Diners are known for sizable portions.
Serena seems very nice, and soon disappears with the kids to help them get ready for bed, leaving Ryan alone with me. We’d already talked about his earliest relationship with guns. I asked him about his earliest ownership of guns next.
Despite growing up around the weapons, witnessing their utilitarian use firsthand, he’d never felt a need to own one himself.
That changed in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks.
One of Ryan’s cousins, whom he had been very close to growing up near his large extended family in West Virginia, died when the Twin Towers collapsed during the largest terrorist strike on U.S. soil. We’ll call him “Tom”. Tom was one of very few cousins, who, along with Ryan, left home to go to college after graduating high school. And Ryan had a true bond with him. They were both nerds, one gravitating toward the financial world while the other found more affinity with computer languages.
“He was the closest thing I had to a brother,” Ryan said, his eyes showing the weight of those words.
9/11 was an emotional jolt for the whole country, and it planted a seed in Ryan’s mind: Anything can happen at any time.
Ryan shows me through the master bedroom, and into the back of the couple’s walk-in closest, where I see something that looks almost like it belongs in a western film about bank robbers. It’s a “ProVault Loaded 24-Gun Safe” made by the Liberty company, which Ryan bought five years ago. He used to keep his guns, back when he only owned a few, laid out across the top shelf of the closet.
He now has twelve weapons he keeps in the safe, an assortment of rifles and shotguns, a compound hunting bow, and ammunition. I watch as Ryan removes his latest addition, the AR-15, from its case and places it into the safe.
“I’ll clean that later after we’re all wrapped up talking,” he says.
He has a plan.
Ryan bought his first gun before he met Serena. It’s a pump-action shotgun meant for home protection. She was a little shocked when he first showed it to her after they’d been dating for a few weeks. Ryan was such a mild-mannered, liberal-leaning guy, with an IQ approaching 140, who enjoyed writing code and reading on weekends, that the hefty gun didn’t seem to fit with the overall picture she had of him.
Before they were married, Ryan had purchased two rifles, and both of them were regularly spending time at gun ranges or outside shooting skeet with Ryan’s family in West Virginia.
When the kids were born, Ryan ramped up his collection, buying a couple handguns which he stores in a biometric pistol safe, chained to a floorboard under their bed. The big safe was bought once the children hit pre-school age, and Ryan would save up yearly to increase his collection.
Over the past ten years, as school shootings and mass shootings in general have continued to increase in number, frequency, and intensity, Ryan has increased his own preparations and expended much more thought on the matter of guns’ relationship to our society.
As we talk about this, he offers his “plan of action” if he hears of an “active shooter” situation in the school his children attend.
Each of his children has a cell phone, and they have a code they are supposed to text their father if something like that happens. If they send him that code, Ryan is going to hurry home as fast as he can, retrieve his AR-15, and go to the school. Ryan’s workplace is very near, and he’s made practice runs already, and is almost certain he will arrive their before local first responders.
He wants to be there to save his own children.
When I point out to him the inherent danger of his plan, and that those first responders would probably mistake him for the enemy, he shakes it off. “I’ll be there before them. I’ll get in the school and the guy or whoever will be dead before anyone else shows up.”
I’m mortified. But, at the same time, I want his plan to actually work.
I want child murderers to be prevented from becoming child murderers in the first place. I think, I hope, that most of us do.
This isn’t an opinion piece, but the subject matter demands it from me. I couldn’t keep from writing the above.
I think there are many “Ryans”. There are “Ryans” with and without guns.
His plan almost comes across as a fantasy, something from a macho action hero movie from the ‘80’s and ’90s. Just like a majority of boys who grew up in America during those years, Ryan imagined himself as someone who could roll in on a big Harley Davidson motorcycle, shoot the bad guys, and rescue their victims.
It isn’t a fantasy any longer. We live in a world where terrorists crash airliners into skyscrapers and dump trucks into throngs of pedestrians, a single perpetrator machine-guns down hundreds of people at a country music concert, and children are shot in the hallways of their schools on a weekly basis.
We have all the horrors, and more, to match anything we might imagine, but there are no action heroes to keep the bad guys from winning. They usually die or get caught in the end, but not until after they succeed.
Ryan’s intent is pure. I don’t believe it is necessarily safe, and it certainly wouldn’t be legal. I think he’s right, though. It should be harder for the villains to get what they want, shouldn’t it?
Thank you for reading and sharing.