Now the 49-year-old writer stood in what he half-jokingly referred to as “enemy territory” — a gun range in the gun-loving state of Virginia — and listened to an instructor named CJ lay out the rules.
“No gun-handling in the facility except in the booth, no exceptions whatsoever,” he told Karns. “The gun always points downrange.”
His therapist thought it was too soon. His parents warned him against it. His daughter, who’d watched him relapse before, feared it might set him back. But Karns had been planning this moment for months.
When CJ finished speaking, Karns walked over to a glass display case at Green Top Shooting Range and gazed down at a black-and-silver revolver, just like the one that had swung toward him 13 years earlier, its muzzle flashing in the dark.
In a nation plagued by gun violence, in a state scarred by mass shootings and bitterly divided over how to prevent them, would firing a weapon help Karns heal — or inflict more damage?
A month earlier, two men had killed themselves at the same gun range in a span of five days. Karns had heard about the suicides but wasn’t dissuaded.
“C’mon in,” CJ shouted, swinging open the door to the range as the pops suddenly grew louder.
Karns followed him to the end of an empty row of shooting bays, where his friend Jennifer Curran, a firefighter and avid gun owner, set down two black carrying cases and a green metal ammo box on the concrete floor.
As Karns picked at a box of bullets, she unzipped one of her cases and pulled out a Glock 9mm handgun, setting it carefully on the table in front of him.
She showed him how to load its magazine and aim through its sights. Karns slid the bullets into the magazine, thinking of the one that had been fired into his neck.
“Are you ready?” she asked, taking the loaded magazine from him.
He nodded, and she slid it into the Glock with a well-oiled click.
“All right,” she said. “This is now a loaded gun.”
'Leave her alone!'
The last time Karns had been surrounded by so many guns was outside Virginia’s Capitol.
On a Monday in January, thousands of gun rights activists descended on Richmond to protest gun-control measures promised by Democrats who’d just taken control of the state legislature. Urged on by President Trump, many of the demonstrators carried military-style rifles and wore bright orange stickers that declared “Guns Save Lives.”
Gun-control advocates — many still outraged by a 2019 mass shooting in Virginia Beach that killed 12 people — had also planned to demonstrate but abandoned the idea because of threats of violence. So Karns was a lone voice of dissent.
Wearing a running jacket, glasses and a Brandeis University baseball cap, he began asking strangers why they needed body armor and high-powered weapons. Soon a small crowd had gathered around him, with some calling him an “agitator.”
He was chatting with a pair of teenagers sporting heavy rifles over their slender shoulders when a man in his 30s approached. He invoked what he claimed were Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics showing that guns save 2.5 million people a year from crime.
“You can look that up,” said the man, an AR-15-style rifle across his chest. “Don’t take my word for it.”
Bystanders began to film the conversation as it grew more heated, ignoring Karns’s requests that they stop.
“I got assaulted. I didn’t have a gun because of people like you,” the man said angrily. “Have you ever been assaulted?”
“I’ve been shot,” Karns said, trying to keep calm. “I do not believe that more guns is better.”
But when the man argued that arming teachers would prevent school shootings, Karns snapped.
“Ha!” he screamed in the man’s face.
“I have watched children shivering under desks during code-red drills because we are allowing this,” he shouted, pointing at the man’s rifle before walking away.
Karns hadn’t always felt this way about guns.
Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Karns first learned to shoot with his father. During summer vacations in Maine, his dad would take him to the local dump, where they would use his grandpa’s old bolt-action Winchester to shoot rubbish and the occasional rat.
“I was a preppy young Republican, junior NRA member in the mid-’80s, when everybody was rah-rah-Reagan,” he recalled.
His politics drifted left in college and then in New York City, where he worked in publishing and advertising. But he wasn’t opposed to firearms. And when he arrived at the University of Arkansas in the fall of 1999 for a creative-writing program, Karns found himself deep in the heart of gun country.
A few of his fellow graduate students owned guns, and several times during his first year they would go out into the country, drink beer and squeeze off rounds at tree stumps.
On the first day of class his second year, as Karns sat in his office, he heard a bang echo through Kimpel Hall.
Karns thought bookshelves had toppled in a nearby office. But then he heard someone say “Help me,” and another bang.
Karns went into the hallway, where he smelled gunpowder before being ushered out by police.
James Easton Kelly, a graduate student who’d been kicked out of a comparative literature program, had shot and killed John Locke, a beloved English professor, before taking his own life. Kelly had bought the bullets at a Walmart minutes before the shooting.
Students covered the sidewalks in eulogies with chalk, but Karns was too shaken to attend Locke’s vigil. For the first time, he felt angry about the ubiquity of guns in America — a sentiment that would grow far stronger seven years later.
By then, Karns was living in Virginia, home of the National Rifle Association and a state long renowned for making it easy to buy guns. He was a newly divorced single father, working in communications at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and writing a novel after his daughter went to bed.
He had just put 4-year-old Anna to sleep on March 25, 2007, when his neighbor, a VCU student, pulled into her driveway.
From the second-floor screened porch where Karns and a friend were drinking Yuengling and listening to Wilco, he saw two men emerge from the alley behind his neighbor’s house.
“Hey, can I talk to you?” one said, reaching for her bag.
When she pulled away, the man pulled out a silver-and-black revolver and pointed it at her head.
Karns saw the glint of the gun and stood up.
“Hey, that’s my neighbor,” he shouted. “Leave her alone!”
In less than three weeks, a mass shooting at Virginia Tech would leave 32 people dead and a nation in shock. But the gunfire that devastated Karns got little attention.
That night, as the weapon swung upward, Karns’s friend dived into the kitchen.
Karns saw the gunman’s eyes, then a burst of light, and he fell to the ground.
'Full force into the fire'
Bryan Boyles wrote the words “Darkness” and “PTSD” at one end of a whiteboard, and at the other: “Life We Want.”
It had been a month since the Richmond gun rights rally. Sitting on a couch in Boyles’s office, Karns told his therapist he was planning to go to a gun range to confront his fears and overcome them.
Boyles worried that his patient was treating his life like a novel, putting heroics ahead of his recovery.
“It would be brave and good showmanship to just go, pow,” Boyles said, drawing a straight line from “Darkness” to “Life We Want.”
“But you risk re-traumatization,” he said, drawing another line back to the darkness.
From the moment Karns had regained consciousness on his back porch, blood pouring from a gunshot wound where his neck met his shoulder, his life had been shaped by the trauma — and the alcohol he used to treat it.
The bullet had narrowly missed his spine. The person who fired it was never found. Though Karns had saved his neighbor from harm, as paramedics cut off his clothes, they feared he would go into cardiac arrest from shock.
Surgeons decided it was safer to leave the bullet in his body. But the slug soon began to press painfully on a nerve, and doctors were forced to cut it out.
Signs of his PTSD would take longer to emerge.
A few months after the shooting, Karns and his daughter were at a performance of “Beauty and the Beast” on Broadway when the show’s pyrotechnics set him on edge.
The same thing happened when a girlfriend surprised Karns in his apartment. And a fireworks show for the Fourth of July left him cowering in a ball on the ground.
He began to drink more to dull his frayed nerves.
In 2010, Karns and two friends founded Ardent Craft Ales out of a garage. But as the brewery expanded, so did his dependence on alcohol.
“It became a really good way of hiding what was becoming a need behind a career path,” Karns said.
One day, he was cleaning a keg when it exploded, sending a wooden bung into his chest.
“He was really startled. His eyes were kind of dazed,” recalled Jerry Whitmore, a neighbor who hung around the garage. “I think he was going through a flashback.”
Whitmore knew about flashbacks. The Vietnam War veteran had spent nine months in a New York hospital after suffering one while struggling with substance abuse. He’d also spent years working for the Department of Veterans Affairs and recognized PTSD when he saw it.
Whitmore persuaded Karns to get help. But even as he began seeing a therapist, Karns slid deeper into alcoholism. He spent days at the brewery and nights at the bars.
“I would be home all day, and he would be out until 8, 9, 10 p.m.,” recalled Anna, who was in middle school at the time. “I would make myself food. I was neglected.”
Anna decided she wanted to go live with her mother in Minnesota.
His drinking only got worse in her absence. And by the time she moved back to Richmond two years later in early 2017, her father was hardly recognizable.
The once athletic Karns was on his way to weighing more than 300 pounds. Alcohol had started to overwhelm his liver, kidneys and circulatory system. A few weeks after Anna’s return, he checked himself into a hospital — the first of four stays in two years.
After Anna went to camp in Maine that summer, she came back to find the dishes hadn’t been done in a month. Their pets hadn’t been cared for. Her father was suicidal.
She poured alcohol down the drain to keep him from drinking it, and she took away his keys when he threatened to drive off a highway overpass.
Last spring, when Karns and Anna drove up to Boston to visit colleges, he was so triggered by brake lights that she ended up driving. She told him she wanted to meet the person he was before the shootings, before PTSD and alcoholism had transformed him into a volatile and absent father. When Karns learned his liver was failing, he feared his daughter never would.
A few weeks later, Karns stopped drinking and started seeing Boyles. The therapist was a recovering alcoholic and understood that substance abuse was often a response to trauma.
Boyles helped Karns understand the compound trauma of the two shootings and how his PTSD flipped his body into fight-or-flight mode — the tingling in his neck, the tightness in his back — as cortisol and adrenaline flooded his veins.
The best remedy, Karns learned, was to get rid of the energy before it overwhelmed him.
He began going to the YMCA every day for a couple of hours. At first, he could hardly make it from the parking lot to the gym. But as he put one swollen ankle after the next on the treadmill, the weight began to melt away.
He lost 90 pounds in seven months.
At the same time, Karns and Boyles were working on his PTSD with “exposure therapy,” building his resilience by exposing him to triggers like the guns at the rally.
Boyles, who has a PhD in social work, not only owned guns but also kept one in his office, in a safe not far from the couch where Karns sat. Yet he also feared that the gun range was too much, too soon.
“If someone has a fear of bridges, you don’t start them in a car by themselves at 100 miles per hour over the biggest bridge in the world,” he told Karns during the Feb. 24 session.
“So, what you’re proposing is not doing what I normally do, which is going full force into the fire?” Karns asked. “Even though I did that with the rally.”
“Yeah, and that was okay,” Boyles said. “It could have gone horribly. At least it’s a little bit predictable, and you could have exited. You could have picked up the phone. But at the first crack of a firearm, it’s done.”
The pandemic decided for them, shutting ranges and giving Boyles more time to work with Karns. During a session in March, Boyles popped a bullet out of a magazine so Karns could hold it. He kept it in his pocket for two weeks.
Boyles also had Karns slap his couch at home with a tennis racket to simulate the sound of gunshots.
But even as the therapy continued, the rest of Karns’s world came to a halt. The YMCA where he spent so much of his time closed. He watched fellow alcoholics resume drinking and, in April, felt the urge himself.
“It was the first time in the past year that I had thought, ‘God, it would be nice to have a drink right now,’ ” he said.
After the death of George Floyd in May, Richmond was consumed by weeks of protests against racial injustice. During a demonstration in June, Karns put himself between armed Black Lives Matter protesters and gun-toting counterprotesters. When a Confederate sympathizer racked his shotgun, Karns could feel his nerves begin to scream.
But he kept going, seeing the protests as a way for the former capital of the Confederacy to confront long-buried trauma.
On Sept. 2 — almost 20 years to the day since he’d heard gunshots ring out at the University of Arkansas — Karns decided it was time for him to do the same.
He was walking by the graffiti-covered statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue when his phone buzzed.
“I’m bringing a Glock 19, a .22 AR-style rifle, and an actual AR,” Curran texted. “Sound good?”
“Yes,” he replied, already feeling his neck begin to tingle.
'You all right?'
As he looked through the pistol’s sight at the paper outline of a person 10 yards away, Karns tried not to think about the last time he’d seen a muzzle flash.
Curran stood behind him, her hands on his shoulders.
She had learned to shoot after surviving domestic violence. And though she and Karns often argued over guns on Facebook, the two single parents had formed a bond.
“Check the sights,” she said. “And pull slowly on the trigger.”
Karns focused on her instructions and squeezed.
The weapon suddenly bucked in his hand. Karns blinked as an empty casing flew out of the pistol and struck the wall.
“You all right?” Curran asked.
Karns nodded, but he set the gun on the table and leaned back with his face to the ceiling.
“You’re doing really good,” Curran said. “You hit a bull’s eye.”
The first bullet he’d fired in 20 years had pierced his target through the heart.
Before he could think about it, the Glock was back in his hands, and he was firing until the magazine was empty.
Curran examined the shredded paper figure. “Every one of your shots has gone someplace that would have hurt,” she said.
They moved to the next bay, where Curran had laid out the rifles. Karns picked up the .22, which felt just like the Winchester he’d shot with his father 35 years before.
He fired it 25 times, remembering an era when guns were not yet linked to murder in his mind.
And then it was time for the AR-15 — the kind of gun used in so many mass shootings, from Newtown to Las Vegas and Parkland.
Curran showed him how to use the telescopic sight, then slid in a magazine, chambered a round and passed him the weapon.
Karns pulled the trigger and felt his whole body shake.
The muzzle flashed as the rifle kicked back against his shoulder, hitting him in the same place where the bullet had years earlier.
But now the gun was in his hands, and the power was terrifying.
“That’s a big-ass gun,” he said.
He fired it three more times, then stepped away, his hands sweaty and red, and took a deep breath to calm his racing heart.
When the magazine was empty, he plucked a two-inch-long casing from the floor, shaking his head as he passed it from palm to palm before putting it in his pocket: a souvenir of a day that had long seemed so unlikely.
He took one more turn with the pistol, aiming for where the neck met the shoulder, but somehow missed. When the ammunition was spent, he set down the gun and raised his hands in the air, as if washing his hands of the weapons.
“You all right?” Curran asked, as Karns leaned over with his hands on his knees, appearing sick.
But then he stood and hugged her.
“I’m so proud of you,” she said.
His hands shook slightly as he drove home, to a house of half-packed boxes. Sixteen years after moving to Richmond, he had decided to leave.
“Richmond will always be the place where I was shot, the place where my marriage fell apart, the place where I got drunk,” he said.
He had applied for a job in Maine, helping others recover from trauma and addiction. Three days after his trip to the range, he drove up to his family’s summer home, where Anna — college on hold because of the pandemic — was waiting for him.
Karns felt more at peace far from the noise and politics and memories of Virginia.
In Maine, he could hear the echo of hunters’ guns as he hiked along rural trails with Anna, trying to be the father she’d never known. But the sound bothered him less now. And since the trip to the range, a strange idea had taken hold of him.
There were bears in these parts. Karns could really use a gun.