Gretchen Lager’s fondest childhood memories involved shooting bullets at tin cans and balloons along the Slippery Rock Creek in western Pennsylvania – but one day in 1995, guns became a far more menacing presence in her life.
Her brother-in-law killed his wife of 30 years – Lager’s sister – with a deer hunting rifle. He then turned the gun on himself in a murder-suicide that orphaned their 15-year-old daughter. For years afterwards, Lager was stridently anti-gun.
“I have been hating guns with everything I believe until lately,” she said.
But earlier this year, Lager recalled those more pleasant childhood memories, “and I thought, ‘there’s something about guns that I really know and love. There’s a mechanical beauty. There’s something fun about it.’”
Lager, 64, who now lives in Hershey, purchased a .22-caliber pistol more than two months ago to rekindle her target shooting hobby and enrolled in a gun safety class at the Palmyra Sportsmen’s Association.
Still, she’s far from the stereotype of a gun owner, decked out in camouflage and stockpiling weapons while waiting for the apocalypse. Lager hates the National Rifle Association – “I think they are opportunists” – believes in mandatory training for people purchasing guns, and would never want to use her firearm to hurt an animal, much less a person. Instead, she considers herself part of a “silent majority” between two political extremes on guns.
Lebanon County residents are buying guns and obtaining permits to carry firearms with increasing frequency, according to data kept by the Pennsylvania State Police. Local gun stores said many of their first-time firearms owners are, like Lager, outside of the stereotypical gun-owning demographics: women, older couples, even 80-plus-year-old women and the disabled.
“You can tell all their lives they’ve been against guns, but now they want to feel safe.”