The day I bought myself a weapon


The day I bought myself a weapon

ANNELIESE BURGESS has had enough of being scared of men. Of the constant hyper-vigilance. The looking over her shoulder when she walks the trails and beaches of the Eastern Cape. So she visited a gun shop.


I'M BUZZED in through a heavy security gate. Target Line is a gun shop and shooting range in a sad, desolate part of East London. There are rows upon rows of gleaming weapons: hunting rifles, shotguns and pistols. But also fishing rods and reels, and hunting paraphernalia. Camo jackets, scopes, night-vision goggles. The low, moody lighting contributes to the man-cave atmosphere.

“How can we help you today?" asks a friendly man in a hunting jacket. 

“I am tired of being scared," I say.

I let the confusion clock for a moment before I ask whether they sell “tasers, stun guns, or whatever else I can use to seriously hurt someone without killing them".

The pronounced relief on the man's face is a bit strange.

“Yes, of course, right this way." He unsheathes the first one from its black cover. It's a small, square, pink box. “Nice and compact. Fits into a lady's handbag and packs a punch."

He demonstrates how it works. The menacing popping crackle makes me shriek. I have an aversion to unexpected loud sounds. A hooting taxi or a backfiring car will instantly bathe me in a fight-or-flight sweat. The sound of the taser elicits the same flush.

A lifetime of being scared of what men can do to women has brought me here.

Every woman knows how we live our lives around the potential violence men can unleash on us. Planning where and when we go  — where we walk, when we walk, where we drive, when we drive, where we stay — and the myriad other layers of being “careful, alert, aware” to prevent them hurting us.

The looking over the shoulder, the listening for sounds in the dark, the ongoing, everyday computation of risk wherever we go.

I am sick of it.

I love walking. On my own. In silence. With only the sound of the wind and the ocean and the trees. I like seeing the kilometres clock up on my Garmin app. I like how walking makes my body feel. And how it empties my head. But I hate the epidermal unease. Always there, like a black bird on the hedge.

It's Sunday. I park at the entrance to the botanical garden. It's the starting point of a route I have worked out that has minimised risk: the gravel road down to the Kwelera River has regular vehicle traffic (safe). The mud track along the rocks towards the village will, in the early morning and late afternoon, usually have some dog walkers out and about (safe-ish). The last stretch through the village and back to my car is mainly along the tar road (safe). 

It's windy and there's a slight drizzle. The coastal pathway is deserted. The weather is glorious. I decide to take my chances. As I round the last corner, I can see the village houses in the distance, but between me and there are two vehicles parked at one of the picnic spots.

My brain goes into automatic risk-calculation mode.

The vehicles feel out of place. An SUV and a kombi. A group of people. From the way they stand and move, they all appear to be men. I see no children. Just figures around a fire. This time of day, that probably means drinking…

I turn back.

That familiar feeling now tingles under my skin. A mixture of helplessness and hyper-awareness. And a bit of shame. The constant internal dialogue: Am I just being stupid? Nothing has ever happened here before. There's always a first time. Don't let them steal your freedom. Just keep going. Probably just a few buddies chilling. What is the worst that can happen?

Well, we know. 

“I don't want a pink one. I want a black one. And a bigger one. And one that looks like a weapon, not a tampon packet." 

“Nobody is going to care what the colour of the thing is when you taser them with this voltage," helpful Camo Man explains.

“I don't want pink anything. I hate pink."

I show him a picture of the Vipertek VTS-989, which according to this American veterans website is at the top of the list for “best stun gun for a woman”.

It delivers “painful stopping power".

Pain is good. 

It has “shock plates on the sides that will shock an attacker if they attempt to take the gun from you" and “contoured grips that aid hand alignment, making it easy to use and control". And  “ultra-sharp spike electrodes that can penetrate through thick clothing".

“Ah, yes. We have that. Different brand. But just as good." 

I'm quite a way from the relative safety of the river mouth (where there are usually people) when I hear a vehicle approaching from behind me.

I feel a sliver of panic. Why are they coming this way? They seemed to be having a party. I don't want to look back, but I do. The kombi is slowly driving up the track towards me. The sliver becomes a wave. 

Back to the conversation with myself: What were you thinking? Are you mad? Breaking your own rules about safety.

There is bush on one side, ocean on the other. Should I wander off the road and let them pass? The road feels safer than the bush. I have pepper spray in my bag but it would be useless in this wind. 

An irrational jumble of thoughts fogs my brain. I remember two men once trying to drag me out of my car in District Six. I remember a recent message from my friend about her niece being raped by an Uber driver in New York. I remember the police alert on the local crime group the week before about the serial rapist “last seen" at our local shopping centre. 

The vehicle is right behind me now.

It drives past. Only a driver. He greets me. 

A giddy, tremulous sense of relief crashes over me. 

And then rage, like a fist in my stomach.

I am sick of this.

Of feeling so vulnerable, scared, helpless, hapless, pathetic.

Camo Man suggests I also buy a directional mace. “Better in windy conditions. And you can aim for the eyes. This thing spits like a cobra."

Then he shows me how to use my stun gun. Surrounded by five men, I  press the red release button repeatedly. It feels good. 

But, even with its “painful stopping power", a stun gun requires direct contact with the target's body to be effective, and you have to be within arm's-length of the attacker, Camo Man explains.

I have an abiding fear of guns. I grew up around them and know how to handle them. But I have always hated their cold, gleaming menace. The destruction and death they cause. And the sound. And the recoil. And the potential that they can be used against you. 

But I will no longer be a victim. I want the freedom to move around on my own in the world. And maybe, ultimately, that will mean overcoming my hatred of guns. 

But I'm not quite there yet. 

“Mace for the eyes. Gun for the groin," says Camo Man, handing over my purchases.

The cheerful laughter of the gun shop boys irritates me beyond measure. 

♦ VWB ♦

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