Kouts resident Alicia Heitz didn’t grow up with firearms.
In fact, she didn’t touch a gun until she was 26.
But after ending what she called an abusive marriage, Heitz went out and purchased one during her divorce when “things got scarier” than she thought they ever would.
Byron Gentry of Portage didn’t grow up with firearms either.
But he shot his first gun when he was 18, and he said he was hooked from that point on.
He purchased his first firearm — an AR-15 — soon after.
Then there’s Kokomo resident Heidi Otiker, who bought her first firearm when she became a mother, knowing that if she ever needed to defend her growing family one day, she’d be ready and able to do so.
These are just three of the over 1.2 million permitted gun owners throughout the Hoosier state, according to Indiana State Police statistics.
And while each of their stories might be different, they all share the same beliefs, such as the Constitutional right to bear arms and the vitality of proper firearms training.
Because at the end of the day, they all said, legal and responsible gun ownership in this country is just that — a right, and it’s one they will all fight to protect.
The trio did admit that there are a lot of opinions about gun owners and gun ownership in this country, especially in the wake of mass shootings such as the one in May in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and two teachers died, but these three are adamant about “changing the narrative” when it comes to the topic.
‘Pushing responsible gun ownership’
Gentry remembers standing up in front of a group of gun owners at a rally that occurred shortly after the 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, where 26 people, most of them children, were killed.
He was giving a speech on the Second Amendment.
“And in the crowd, people were inadvertently pointing guns at each other,” Gentry recalled. “It started to frustrate me so much because the country’s hurting. And I’m fine with the whole let’s get together and rally and show them that there’s not just bad people with guns. But when people are inadvertently and recklessly pointing guns at each other, it made me go up there and crumble up my speech and throw it away.”
Instead of delivering his prepared remarks, Gentry told the crowd that it was their behavior that made people “hate guns.”
“I told them, ‘They don’t hate guns. They hate you,’” he said. “And I told them we need to do better.”
A few years later, Gentry founded Infinity Solutions LLC, one of the largest firearms training facilities in northern Indiana.
The businesses’ motto preaches safe and effective gun ownership, Gentry said, with an emphasis on safety.
And there are four rules that every gun owner who takes lessons or classes at Infinity Solutions LLC must remember too, Gentry added.
“Number one is to know the status of your weapon,” he said. “Number two, and this is my hard and fast that you must never violate, is to not point a gun at anything that you don’t want to buy or bury. … Number three is fingers straight and high outside the trigger guard. … Number four is to know what’s at your target, beyond it and flanking it.”
Violating one or more of those rules gets you a toy gun for the day, Gentry said, regardless of whether you’re a first-time gun owner or someone who’s handled one for years.
“It’s pushing responsible gun ownership,” he said. “… In Hobart, there was a dad teaching gun safety to his two sons and shot his 9-year-old daughter in the head and killed her. It makes me sick. So, every person that we don’t touch means that could happen. At the end of the day, it’s always about safety.”
Heitz and Otiker agreed with Gentry’s sentiments.
“I feel like gun safety is a must,” Otiker said. “I think they should go back to have to have licenses. When you go to apply for a gun, you should have to take a 6-hour course. It should be required across the board. I think some people don’t even know how to take apart a gun to clean it.
“How are you going to be a gun owner and don’t even know how to take apart a gun to be able to clean it or properly load it?” Otiker added. “Knowledge is power.”
Otiker and Heitz also represent a growing population of gun owners throughout Indiana: Females.
‘It’s really empowering’
According to the previously mentioned ISP statistics, over 389,000 females currently hold active firearm licenses in Indiana, an increase of about 70,000 since Jan. 1, 2021.
“Female gun ownership in the last, I’d say five years, it’s really ballooned,” Heitz said.
Heitz teaches an all-female firearms training and safety class at Infinity Solutions, and she said she believes word-of-mouth and just the desire to be able to defend yourself are some of the key reasons for the uptick in female gun owners.
“When we see another woman demonstrating the ability to do something that others might not have previously felt they’ve been able to do, that’s inspiring,” Heitz said. “It’s really empowering, and it could be what causes a female to want to be able to pick up a firearm on her own and start training.”
Heitz said she often sees women get intimidated when they go to the shooting range with their male counterparts, or she witnesses situations where men try to control the situation for the woman, such as loading and unloading the firearm for her.
“I’ve been there,” she said. “I know exactly how they feel. I know how it feels to be taught something by a man who doesn’t quite understand where I’m coming from or how my brain works or what my exposure or experience is. So, my goal is to get women out to teach them those things themselves so that when they go gun shopping or get on the range, they know exactly what they want to do.”
Many shooting facilities across the state have now started offering all-female classes or range visits specifically for those reasons, Heitz added, and she believes the number will just continue to increase as more and more females enter into the gun industry.
‘It’s a hot-button issue’
But while gun owners are increasing across the Hoosier state, so is the rhetoric against them, Gentry, Heitz and Otiker said.
Whether that reported rhetoric is driven by fear or misunderstanding, the trio said the great gun debate should be put to rest simply by reading the United States Constitution.
“I think it’s a very fear-driven stance to truly believe that by removing the tool you’ve removed the violence,” Heitz said. “You cannot legislate violence out of the world, as much as you want to. … If we were to ban guns, the violence would still be there. The violence has not been eradicated. What you’re actually doing is eliminating the ability for that person to defend their life.”
Gentry agreed, adding that gun ownership is often like the “pink elephant in the room.”
“Non-gun owners think that a lot of people they know don’t have guns,” he said. “‘Yeah, my crazy Uncle Bob owns guns, but nobody else that I know does.’ Well, a lot of people do, they’re just unwilling to tell you they do because they don’t want to blast it out there.
“For me, the debate’s dead. If you want to change the Second Amendment, then there’s a Constitutional process to do that,” Gentry continued. “It’s a hot-button issue, and it’s seen as scary because if it bleeds, it leads. But there are over 50,000 deaths on opiate overdoses, for instance, and nobody wants to talk about that.”
Otiker also chimed in on the debate that’s often seen across the nation as it pertains to the issue of gun ownership and the Second Amendment.
“It’s one thing that they haven’t been able to take away from us,” she said. “We should be able to protect ourselves and our homes, whatever it may be. What do we have if you take it away? When you take that right from somebody, it’s like when you give somebody an inch. They take a mile. … That’s what is being done with the Second Amendment.”
So, is there a middle ground when it comes to the topic of guns? Can both sides of the proverbial aisle come together on the issue?
Maybe, they admitted, though it might be challenging to get there.
“Middle ground would still include putting things in place to make it harder for people to exercise their right,” Heitz said. “I’m not personally in favor of violation of rights, so I think any gun law is unconstitutional. I understand the fear behind it and the need to feel like putting a law into place to try and appease that fear, but I don’t support making it harder for people to defend themselves.”
Otiker agreed, admitting she wishes people understood that responsible gun owners just want to be part of the solution, not the problem.
“Yes, it’s the bullet from the gun that can kill people, but it’s the people behind that gun,” she said. “I just wish that one day, I could be the person behind them or next to them in my car or whatever that may be, 15 steps behind them, when someone is trying to rob them. And I have my gun, and I am able to protect them. Are you going to feel thankful then, or are you still going to think my gun is bad?”