Alexis Lagan was ten years old when she got her first taste for competitive shooting. Her father, Barry, took her to a firearms class at a youth center in Las Vegas, and one thing stood out. “It was all boys,” she said over the phone from Boulder City, Nevada, while her dad listened in on the line from Las Vegas.
Lagan is an athlete with USA Shooting and a 2020 Olympic hopeful in the 10m Air Pistol and 25m Sport Pistol events. At the end of that first class 15 years ago, the instructor, a man named Mr. Moose, set up three competitions.
“I think I placed second, first, and second,” Alexis said.
“First, second, first, kiddo,” piped up Barry, a Las Vegas police officer and co-owner of a firearm instruction company.
“And I ended up beating all those boys,” Alexis continued.
“Pretty badly, too,” her dad added.
“A couple of them went home crying,” she went on, “because this ten-year-old girl in a pink jacket with rhinestones beat them all out.”
Alexis is an outlier in a few ways: Most gun owners aren’t Olympic shooting hopefuls, and women are less likely than men to own and shoot guns. But she and her father are evidence of a fact that’s not entirely shocking, yet still illuminating in the context of America’s never-ending gun debate: According to the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of gun owners in America grew up in a house with guns. That means the fight over gun reform in America is about far more than the Constitution or public safety or how mass shootings take place. It is, in part, a fight over a family tradition. Over a way of life.
The finding—from a 2017 study titled America’s Complex Relationship With Guns—was the first time the research non-profit asked the question. “We wanted to learn more about how exposure to guns from an early age shapes experiences with and attitudes toward guns,” Juliana Menasce Horowitz, associate director of research at Pew, explained in an interview.
A right to bear arms is an abstract idea. A memory of your dad showing you different kinds of guns, their properties and weight, and taking you out to shoot them—that’s part of your life, your personal story
Two-thirds of gun owners grew up with guns in their house, the survey found, and only 19 percent of people who didn’t grow up with guns owned them now. Those who grew up in rural areas were by far the most likely to have had guns around as a child: 72 percent. Even so, almost half of US adults grew up in a house with guns. Meanwhile, 42 percent of Americans were currently living in a house where guns were present, according to the survey.
The survey probed community ties, as well, and found that gun owners were more likely to have friends who owned guns, and vice versa. They were also more likely to lean Republican.
The data provided a statistical underpinning for the polarization not just of the gun debate, but of gun ownership itself, and thus of American communities. And they raised an obvious point that is still often overlooked amid rhetoric that typically strips people of all context—especially their culture and upbringings—and labels them either as a gun nut, or the one trying to take every single gun away. A right to bear arms is an abstract idea. A memory of your dad showing you different kinds of guns, their properties and weight, and taking you out to shoot them—that’s part of your life, your personal story.
For both Alexis and Barry, firearms were one way to spend time together, something they could look forward to. Like a father and son who play football, Barry suggested.
“It was neat to be able find this thing my dad and I could bond over, my grandpa and I could bond over, my uncles, that all these different people and I could share,” Alexis said.
When Marcel McClinton was growing up in Houston, Texas, his dad owned guns and so did most of his friends’ dads. “Guns were everywhere,” he said. He recalled learning to shoot by aiming at zombie targets in the shooting range as a kid and training a rifle on clay ducks. Like Barry Lagan, McClinton said his father taught him about safety and kept the guns secured at home.
I first met McClinton, a high school senior at Stratford High School, while talking to student leaders in the push for gun-reform laws after the Parkland shooting in Florida. McClinton is the co-founder of the Orange Generation, a Texas-based group seeking to end gun violence. He’s also on the executive council of Team ENOUGH, a youth-led anti-gun violence group launched with help from the pro-gun-control Brady Campaign, and he’s traveled with the Parkland-born March for Our Lives campaign.
In that milieu, McClinton has tended to stand out in a few ways: Until recently*, he identified as a Republican, and he’s from Texas. He’s also black. The first two made him more likely, statistically, to become a gun owner one day (and he does think he may buy one when he’s older), but not the last. While Pew found 36 percent of white Americans owned a gun, the survey concluded only 24 percent of black Americans did.
His background made him an example of someone who didn't fit neatly into the cliches of the gun debate.
“I’m not scared of people who follow safe storage and safe handling of guns,” he told me. “Those aren’t the people who scare me. The folks who scare me are the people who a red-flag law would flag.”
Red-flag laws let a judge confiscate guns from someone deemed a risk to herself or others. McClinton said his views on gun reform—he’s against NRA funding for political candidates and views strident Second Amendment defenders as prizing their rights over children’s lives—were something he had to explain to his social circle.
“At first, it was confusing for my friends. They were like, you know, ‘You’ve gone with me to my house, you know we have guns in the house, are you trying to take those away?’” he said. “We had a sit down conversation about what am I really doing. Am I trying to move to take their guns away? No.”
His friends now either agree with him, he said, or at the very least respect his opinion. And while it’s been a few years since he shot a gun, he expects to get one when he moves out on his own, for protection.
“This shouldn’t be politicized,” he said.
Two events shaped McClinton’s thoughts on guns: when someone with an AR-15 threatened his church and and attacked a nearby auto detail shop—killing one and wounding six others before being killed himself—and after he saw news about the Las Vegas shooting that left 58 dead and another 851 injured on TV. Gun reform is about students' “right to live,” he told me. “That’s something you need to understand,” he said. “You’re denying someone the right to live.”
As gun ownership in America has concentrated (while there are fewer gun owners, there are more guns), one particular kind has skyrocketed: concealed carry. Rates exploded between 2007 and 2016 to 14.5 million concealed carry permit holders. In her 2016 book Good Guys with Guns: The Appeal and Consequences of Concealed Carry, sociologist Angela Stroud investigated the impact of family ties on concealed-carry gun owners.
“There is a deep emotional connection to guns for men that's not just about being macho or feeling afraid other men have an advantage over you—it’s also about these early experiences hunting with their fathers,” she told me. “This might be the first time they connect to their father, they’re spending a lot of time outside, there are a lot of really fond memories where guns are a part of it.”
It’s why fathers pass their guns down to their sons, she said. “The gun is more a symbol of that relationship.”
Stroud and her partner both own guns (her partner hunts). She lives in rural Wisconsin and teaches at Northland College, and said her fascination with gun ownership began with her stepfather, a quintessential rural Texan cowboy.
“That was the first time that kind of lifestyle was real for me, and I loved it,” she said. He owned guns and took her shooting for the first time. “Everybody hunted,” she said. “You needed guns to keep critters away, as he would say, and so guns were not anything mystical or scary or strange for him.”
Stroud’s stepfather offered a vision of masculinity, one tied to guns, that she jokes she’s been researching ever since. He considers gun control “insane,” she added.
I asked her if given all this—the close ties between guns and family and community—people who own guns might take calls for reform as a fundamental attack on their way of life. Stroud noted that certain gun-control measure do have support among gun owners, but that the phrase “gun control” put many of her interviewees on the defense.
And though it wasn’t part of the research for her book, she suggested gun owners might feel similarly protective about their group as someone who’s part of a religion. Rural gun owners often ask why reforms are needed, she said, when nearly everyone they know owns a gun and nobody they know has been killed by one. While rural gun homicide rates are the lowest in the nation, suicide rates there are some of the highest, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data analyzed by the Washington Post.
National gun-reform movements are particularly sensitive to building a coalition that bridges the cultural gap over gun ownership and counters the hardline politics of groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA).
March for Our Lives student organizers have been holding town halls across the country to encourage conversations about gun reform. At a town hall in Salt Lake City this summer, they took pointed questions from gun owners who felt attacked for their views and who demanded to know why the students wanted to take law-abiding citizens' guns (March for Our Lives activists countered that they’d never called for that). Afterwords, one gun owner said the meeting had been civil, “and that’s a step in the right direction.”
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, a gun-control advocacy group, said the organization’s membership was diverse, and included rural gun owners. They saw a spike in membership after the Parkland shooting, including from people in rural areas, she added. The organization advocates for safe gun storage and argues it backs “common-sense gun laws” that most gun owner agree with, such as universal background checks.
“We’re all coming from the same place,” Watts said. “Gun owners have the same value system that all Americans do, which is that we want to keep our families safe.”
For Alexis and Barry Lagan, the question was how to share the relationship they have with guns, and with each other, in a city still reeling from a devastating mass shooting. In a USA Shooting video from May, Alexis talked about the Las Vegas massacre: “It was difficult to be a shooter that day,” she says in the clip. “To hear my friends scared for their lives, it was terrifying. But that’s not what this organization is for.”
Barry said he saw his daughter as an ambassador for safe gun ownership. Alexis, for her part, wished there were more focus on ordinary families who owned guns, on the greater macrocosm of the culture—even the people who made their careers in the firearm industry.
“So much negativity has been cast on firearm ownership,” Barry added.
There’s no mistaking the pride in the father's voice when he talks of his daughter’s career as a shooter and her talent, even from the beginning. It's the kind of emotional bond gun-control activists will have to continue to grapple with as they push for reforms. To wit: On the same day pre-teen Alexis beat all those boys at the firearm class, the two of them took a photo—one of the first pictures Barry has of himself with one of his two kids (both daughters), holding a firearm. In it, Alexis is wearing her dad's police department hat.
*Correction 11/06/2018: A previous version of this story said McClinton currently identified as a Republican, which is no longer the case. We regret the error.
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