GearJunkie’s Hunt and Fish Editor Nicole Qualtieri wasn’t always a gun owner.

A gun is a tool. I have come to appreciate these five words in my 6 years of gun ownership.

As a hunter, guns are an indispensable part of my gear kit. My freezer has waxed and waned with meat procured by rifles and shotguns since 2015. And the shots that procured that meat were fired by my own hands (or the hands of friends who gifted me meat from their own hunts).

But suffice to say, the ownership and handling of guns was the biggest barrier to entry I faced coming to hunting in my 30s. As more folks get into hunting in their adult lives, I’m sure I’m not alone in this. And I might argue that the biggest barrier to hunting isn’t a lack of mentors; it’s figuring out guns and how they might fit into a previously firearm-free lifestyle.

From childhood, where guns were protection, to my young adult life, where they were disastrous, guns remained largely off-limits. But now, as they’ve become tools I use regularly, I think my evolving stance on guns is a story worth telling.

But it’s neither a political statement nor a call to action. It merely shows how one person renegotiated what guns can mean over the course of a lifetime.

Growing Up With Guns

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My dad’s Model 870 Wingmaster, now in my own closet; photo credit: Nicole Qualtieri

I didn’t shoot a gun until I was 30 years old. But I grew up around guns. In fact, my father was — in the truest sense of the word — a gun nut. Pistols and shotguns were a norm in our house, and my dad actually taught tactical shooting courses at one point during my childhood.

My father had dreams of teaching my sister and me to shoot competitively, and yet he wanted to wait until we were older to teach us. But that time never came. He passed from renal cell cancer in 1999. My mom sold his pistols but kept his shotgun — a superbly clean Remington Model 870 Wingmaster — set up for home protection. This gun is now in my own closet.

Even though guns weren’t a part of my own life growing up, they were still there — always. The respect my dad imparted resembled fear more than awe. I’ll never forget my dad showing me where the shotgun was, then telling me that if someone came into the house, to point it at them. He told me to tell them it was loaded with buckshot, showing me how to pump the action and move the safety to fire.

I was maybe 12 years old. The memory rings clear as yesterday. My younger sister and I were latchkey kids. If someone invaded our home, they might find two little girls inside, alone, with a Remington 870 loaded with buckshot.

Whose side might luck be on? In my little girl heart, I feared any possibility involving that shotgun.

Columbine, Aurora, Personal Loss

With my father’s passing, guns faded into the background. We moved from Columbus, Ohio, to Denver, Colo. I was a junior in high school, and the year was 2000.

The year prior, on April 20, 1999, I had watched kids my age march with their hands on their heads outside of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., after two students massacred 13 of their classmates before killing themselves. The following spring, my lacrosse team played Columbine in a scrimmage. After walking off the field, my 16-year-old legs buckled beneath me, hit by the reality held by the kids on the other end of the field.

In my time at Colorado State University, my friendships with Columbine survivors led me closer inside the lives of kids affected by guns in a wholly different way. Their stories are etched in hard steel, their losses and sadness continually compounded by the shootings that came after and continue today.

And then, after college, the movie theater near my mom’s home in Aurora, Colo., was attacked — again, a mass shooting. It was where we’d go to occasionally catch movies. I’d sat in those seats.

In the years after, a few of my closest friends took their own lives with guns. The wind was knocked out of me in those losses; the shift in who should own guns was a constant question in my mind.

Certainly, I figured, I would not be a gun owner. And, at that point, I didn’t think that many people should own them. Guns, for me, held a sinister place, a darkness, and an evil that was unshakeable.

The Normalcy of Guns in Montana

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Checking the zero my Weatherby .308 before the 2020 season; photo credit: Nicole Qualtieri

Montana! This bastion of mostly rural life became my home in 2012 when I moved for a job in corporate sales that didn’t last. But the move sure stuck.

Here, I made friends with Lindsey Mulcare, a fourth-generation Montana hunter, and her gun collection was both extensive and sentimental. I made more friends, and I saw that guns were simply a part of their gear closet — less protective, more utilitarian.

Being in a house with guns became more common than being in a house without. People carried guns as grizzly protection in the ranges skirting Bozeman. They open-carried hunting rifles in downtown Bozeman, as they went into the local gun shop in the heart of the action. Pistols were visible on many hips — and these weren’t the hips of law enforcement.

I ate elk for dinner, encountered bugling bulls in the hills, learned the difference between a mule deer and a whitetail. And the urge to hunt seemed to well up from the springs of mountain hikes and backpack trips.

Soon enough, my friend took me shooting for the first time; I shot her grandma’s rifle. At once, I was both shocked by the recoil of the .308 and elated at hitting the target. I shot a few more guns that day, and I realized that shooting could be fun. It could be safe.

And I wondered if perhaps it could also change my life as an omnivore.

And Then, a Hunter

In 2014, I scored a gig working in communications for a television show I’d never heard of called MeatEater. Hired on as a nonhunter with a desire to hunt, my desk sat in a pinnacle of hunting mentorship and idealism. I learned a lot.

There, I began to utilize the basic language of guns and hunting in a communicable way. And then, in 2015, I received my first gun: a Weatherby Vanguard Series II .308.

I’d get up early to go shoot with my friend Janis before work. I took a hunter’s education course with two gals from work. I wondered to myself if I could really, truly pull the trigger on an animal.

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Even in all of this, I still sat on two sides of the fence, feeling like an onlooker in my own life. I truly was scared of what could happen if I messed up. I was scared of hurting myself or someone else. And I didn’t want to wound an animal, but I did want to fill my freezer.

I understood, and still understand, a gun to be a tool of “violence,” in the truest dictionary sense: “a use of force intended to kill something.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, I missed my first shot at a young buck in 2015. But in 2016, I took an adrenaline-rushed first shot and wounded an animal before ultimately tagging out.

Since then, I’ve been lucky, and perhaps now experienced enough, to take one-bullet shots on big game and take home a slew of birds with shotguns.

Guns as Gear

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The author blasts some clays during the 2020 SHOT Show; photo credit: Sean McCoy

Since I first shot a gun in 2014, I have learned to enjoy firearms, and I truly love to shoot different guns, to understand their utility, and to better myself as a shooter. I’ve learned to renegotiate the fear I felt initially to respect, and it continues to run deep.

I recently saw a social media post where a friend posted a pic of their new gun. Someone commented, “What’s her name?” My friend’s response struck me in its familiarity and simplicity: “A gun is a tool. Nothing more. Nothing less.”

At the end of the day, this is my new take on guns as well. They are gear in my closet, and they are tools of my trade. They are safe in my own hands and the hands of responsible gun owners.

And they are certainly unsafe in the hands of some others.

Really, the evolution itself strikes me as palpable in each phase. Within me is the little girl holding a shotgun in a state of curious anxiety alongside her father, the young woman shocked and grieving human loss to guns, and, finally, the grown woman with a broadside deer in her sights, ready to pull the trigger.

These days, to me, a gun is a tool. Nothing more. Nothing less.



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