“Guns don’t kill people, people do.”

This was a phrase that I used to say with my best southern accent (which was never very good) jokingly when I was poking fun at people who were in love with guns and the NRA. These were people that I was fairly positive no longer existed in today’s society with so many tragic shootings crippling our nation. To my surprise, however, this quote was not just something liberal minded folk like me would say in jest, but a direct quote from the Okanogan County sheriff in a recent newspaper interview.

Okanogan County is a large county located in central Washington. The sheriff who was quoted was 100% serious, and he is even more serious about upholding the 2nd amendment no matter what.

I am not from Okanogan County. I am from Bergen County, NJ: a much different place. However, I am living here in rural central Washington as a volunteer for the year. I have spent my entire 23 years of existence on the East Coast, so this year has been quite the experience. I teach on a Native American Reservation where the small children I work with are riddled with poverty. It is eye-opening, but it is not nearly as shocking as when I read the sheriffs words about his stance on gun control in the local paper.

Back in Bergen County guns are bad; very bad, actually. It does not matter what political party you support: guns kill people. Sure, they could be used for hunting too, but no one in New Jersey actually hunts. Our version of hunting is scouting the best deals and finding a parking space at the Garden State Plaza. Skinning a dear? Why would we touch road kill? That is absurd.

I signed up for a volunteer program after college. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and my liberal arts education was either going to be grocery store clerk or used to milk my unrealistic dreams of changing the world that college made me think was possible. I chose the latter. This led me to Omak, WA teaching Native American kids, which has been life changing.

I was expecting being exposed to Native American cultures and practices, and I was expecting the rural, middle-of-nowhere aspects of the area. I was not expecting the real life cowboys that live right next to the reservation. Literally, this county has cowboys and Indians. There are rodeos, line dancing bars and entire stores devoted to cowboy couture (which is actually a thing).

With all of this comes guns, lots and lots of guns. Hunting is not just something I hear about once in a blue moon. In fact, 1st graders I teach every day proudly announce to me what they killed and skinned each weekend. I am used to avoiding killing deer on Jersey turnpike. I ended up in a place where the weekend sport is to find the little Bambis and shoot at them.

I suppose I was not that naïve. I knew these places existed. My own father grew up hunting ducks in New York State. I thought little of it and shoved it under the rug with all the other family quirks. I never imagined that I would be living in a place where guns were ingrained into the culture.

Here I am, full of ideals and hopes for the future, living and working in a place that is completely opposite of what I stand for. As a volunteer, who is more or less on a vacation from the real world for the year, it is not exactly my place to be judging the area I have been placed. I am supposed to live in solidarity and become a part of the community. I am supposed to learn and appreciate the culture here. Should I saddle up and learn to shoot at moving targets on the weekend? I don’t think so. Plus I can’t really pull off the cowboy gear. Should I tell my 1st graders that guns actually do kill people and that they need to change their whole culture? That probably would be frowned upon.

With anything in life there should be a balance. As much as the op-ed piece saying the answer to all the recent problems is to arm all teachers (this was a real piece) upsets me- it’s the way of life here. Most of the friends I have made here use their guns responsibly, and hunt with them. I sat in horror with these same people as we heard the news from Newtown, CT. They own guns, but they are not seeking to hit up an elementary school.

This year out in the actual wild wild west, not just the west I used to imagine in my head back east, has offered an entirely new perspective. Guns still freak me out. I probably never will hunt. I stand behind my opinion that gun control laws need to be revised. However, this year has put some faces to the opinions that I never ever thought were possible to have. I see the flipside of things, which is an experience I think we all could use when it comes to opinions. Now if I could just find those people that still think reality television is an accurate portrayal of anyone’s life, because those people definitely cannot exist.

You can read more from Catherine Migel on her blog.

Feature image via flickr.