Today, the day after I posted Carl and Stephanie’s thoughtful interview, a man entered an elementary school in Connecticut and killed dozens of people. The tragedy in Newtown, and the freshness of that community’s loss, makes the timing and imagery of this interview feel particularly painful. I considered temporarily removing this post from my blog, to allow readers to understand the interview with better clarity, removed from our collective grief.
I don’t know what I believe about guns. I wrote earlier that I tiptoed around Carl’s gun shop, always keenly aware of firearms’ power and potential. I do know that I learned so much from talking with Carl and Stephanie. And I know, wholeheartedly, that amid the roiling, rotten soup of grief that we all feel; we need to continue to talk with one another, to open up conversations with those we may disagree with, and to collectively learn from our loss. That’s what this blog is based on, and it’s why I will not be removing Carl and Stephanie’s interview.
I started watching the Walking Dead last week and I got hooked. The show is based on zombie apocalypse, and it’s about as dark and disturbing as you might imagine. The handful of characters survives primarily because they have guns. And although the premise of their lives is entirely different, Carl and his wife, Stephanie, survive because of guns, too.
Carl, who had always been a gun enthusiast, switched from teaching to selling guns when two of his three children, who have Autism, needed extra care. “That was the basis of beginning a business to work for ourselves. It was therapy here and therapy there, going to this meeting and that meeting. Carl started having trouble getting time off of work. This was his hobby, and we just thought, what if we work for ourselves? And as scary as that was, it turned into this- it was really driven by the diagnosis and wanting to be there when the kids needed us,” said wife, Stephanie.
I hope to never shoot a gun in my lifetime, although that might change if zombies enter the picture. But, after talking with Carl and Stephanie, and nervously tiptoeing around their shop, I get it: there are a lot of worrisome things out there: predatory people, the illness of those we love, financial instability. For the Heiss family, guns are a way to protect from the worst, build security, and add fun and flexibility to their lives.
WHY ARE GUNS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Carl- The Second Amendment is very important, it’s been a huge part of our history for over two hundred years. I grew up as a young boy, my father taught me how to shoot. He had a love for it, and I developed it. I was a history teacher for a while, so that ties in nicely with the history of this country. I served 20 years in the military, we shot obviously in the service and I competed a little bit. It’s just very important to me that people have the right to defend themselves, to hunt if they choose. I don’t hunt but I like to target shoot. It’s just a huge part of our culture.
Stephanie- They are a means to support my family. I was not raised around firearms at all. And then I met Carl, and he actually was able to teach me that there is really nothing to be afraid of if you are responsible and know what you are doing. It’s a tool, a tool for some people to feed their family, to defend their homes, or just as a hobby. He taught me to target shoot. Typically, women are better shots. Women are more patient, and they take their time. So that was always fun! I haven’t been shooting in a while, but I was a good shot. I turned 40 and you know, the vision changes.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Carl- My family first and foremost. My wife and three kids. This country is important to me. The freedoms that we have and hopefully pass on to future generations. Being reasonably successful- comfortable, happy, healthy. Those are all important to me.
Stephanie- My family. Thus, my roots, why I live in my hometown. We have three children, two of whom were diagnosed with Autism. So, having family around, and having a school system where they know your children and they care about you. So, really, that. My family.
WHAT DOES WINSLOW MEAN TO YOU?
Carl- It’s home. My wife is from Winslow, and I moved here 15 years ago. It’s home.
Stephanie- Well, I grew up here. And it’s just my home. It’s where I have family, where I have roots. My sister lives in Dallas, she’s lived there for over 20 years, and still for her this is home. It’s just nice to have roots and have family, even though they went away, feel like this is home base. Family reunions happen around here. It’s just home.
WHEN YOU RESELL USED GUNS, DO THEY COME WITH STORIES?
Carl- A lot of them have dear stories to go along with it; grandpa, uncle, father, what have you, used it to shoot however many years ago. Certain guns have come in here that were picked off the battle field in World War II. Or that have been passed through the generations.
TELL ME ABOUT A LESSON YOU HAVE LEARNED.
Carl- My wife is always right. How’s that one? (laughs) I would say that if you treat people well, they’ll come back. And that’s what I want. I don’t want one time sales. I want repeat business. If you treat people fairly and honestly and with integrity, they’ll come back, and they’ll tell their friends about it. I think that’s why we’ve been successful. We’ve only been open three and a half years and sales have really gone up. People seem to enjoy coming here, they have a good time.
Stephanie- It’s all about the boys. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from them, is that there’s a lot more compassion and good in the world. And people that care about us and our kids. We live in a little neighborhood, and having kids come up to us and say ‘Hi! I know Will-he’s in my class, and he said hi to me the other day’. And the compassion that the school district has taught in their school community and that comes forward in an everyday basis, we see that for our kids, and hope that is the attitude of the generation coming up. People are just people. And they are good. That is the lesson I have learned, that there is a lot more good than bad, even though the not good gets a lot more attention.
WHAT DO YOU WISH PEOPLE KNEW ABOUT GUNS?
Carl- That they are a tool. They are no different than a car or a chainsaw. A lot of the media talks about how guns kill people, but I would digress, people kill people. They need to be treated with respect- every firearm is loaded. Something you’ll notice, every gun I hand across the counter, we open the action to check to make sure it’s unloaded and any gun that is brought in here is checked as well. Accidents can be kept to a minimum with some safe guidelines and following the rules.
Stephanie- To not be afraid! To so many people, the unknown gives you a fear that’s really unfounded. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to learn, just like anything else.
WHAT DO YOU WISH WERE DIFFERENT IN GUN CULTURE OR POLICY?
Carl- There are close to 25,000 different gun laws in the books right now. As a citizen and a gun dealer, I’d like to see more enforcement of those laws. When people buy a gun from me, I’m required by federal law to run a background check on them. It doesn’t matter if it’s my father, my wife, my children, my friend. It doesn’t matter. I must do that. 99.9% of the people who come through here get a ‘proceed’. That tenth of percent that are a felon get a deny because the ATF doesn’t allow it- well, nothing is done about it. And that’s frustrating because the law says if you are a felon and attempt to purchase a gun, that’s a crime. But there’s no follow up. We don’t need more gun laws, we need better enforcement of what’s on the books.
WHAT WOULD YOU TELL SOMEONE LIKE ME, WHO IS A LITTLE NERVOUS AROUND GUNS?
Carl- The best analogy is: 'do you wear your seat belt when you drive? Everytime? Do you expect to get in an accident every time you drive?' Well, I would say the same thing to people who wear a gun, whether it’s for self defense or sport, I carry a gun everyday. That’s my job. I don’t expect to use it everyday, in fact I never have, to defend myself. But it’s like that seat belt, it’s there when you need it. And, if treated properly and with respect, it’s a tool. This is my life right here, my wife and I work very hard to build this up. Everything you see here is bought and paid for with our money. If someone tried to kill me or hold me up, I have the right to defend myself, and I value that very dearly.
Stephanie- I would tell someone to take a firearms safety class. Then you’d learn the safety around it. It’s not anything to be afraid of. We’ve always taught our kids that they aren’t toys. Guns should not be toys in toy stores to play pretend with. Because they aren’t pretend. They are very real and for certain purposes.