“What kind of gun do you want?” the helpful militia man behind the case asked. I had been enlisted on an outing to a shooting range, and I entered the facility with an eager queasiness in my innards. I deferred to my companion and her superior knowledge of firearms, consisting of one previous visit to a shooting range. She responded, “What’s your smallest gun?”
“A .22.” he said. “What’s the next one up?” she asked.
The clerk pulled out an all-black handgun with the name, Walther P99, on it. It looked like every gun I had ever seen in any FBI vs. terrorists TV drama (other common variants are FBI vs. aliens, FBI vs. drug lords, FBI vs. rogue FBI, etc.).
Despite the saturation of gun images in our media culture, I had never shot a gun nor seen one shot live. In my boyhood, I played with BB guns, firing copper beads, then later lead pellets as my tastes became more sophisticated, at paper targets, aluminum cans, glass bottles (not wise, considering the invariable danger of collapsing into sharp fragments), and even to put the fear of God into the hearts of small birds that crowded my mother’s backyard garden. Air rifles worked better than scarecrows, in my experience.
BB guns embodied my childish fantasy of the outdoors and rugged manhood, but they could not convey any of the seriousness of firing a real gun, which is what I expected and feared to find at the shooting range.
Along with the gun and two bags of 9mm luger rounds, we were issued earmuffs. TV shootouts make for a misleading representation of the skull-shattering noise level of real gunfire. Even with the muffs on, each shot from the chaps on either side of me was loud enough to ripple through my chest and come out through my nostrils, leaving me slightly unsteady each time, as though I were standing during minor temblors.
I was surprised at how hard it was to load the bullets into the magazine, which was essentially a cruel-looking, headless, metal Pez dispenser, with bullets for candy. They had to go in one at a time, from the top down, pushing against an unyielding spring. I’m sure my soft poet’s hands would perform the operation quite dexterously with practice, but my first tries were clumsy affairs, trying to push and slide the bullets into the magazine, frustrated by how they resisted, how they seemed determined to pop back out. In other words, almost as hard as getting those candy tablets into a Pez dispenser.
The basic loading procedure involves pulling back the slide, inserting the magazine into the handle, then snapping the slide shut with the press of a button, whereupon the gun is ready to be fired. The Walther P99 is a semi-automatic, meaning that after each shot, it ejects the spent, still-warm casing and loads up the next round from the magazine. As a funny side note, the spent shells are ejected from the right side of the gun, typically spitting out right and down. However, as I was shooting, the occasional shell would pop out directly backward and glance off my shoulder. I even saw a shell bounce out toward the left somehow when my companion was shooting.
After you’ve taped your paper target to a piece of cardboard attached to the conveyer mechanism, you press a button that sends the conveyer hurtling away from you, as far away as you want the target to be. The target shows a roughly life-size outline of a man’s upper body, with various vital organs identified. (I tagged the cerebrum and cerebellum early on, but never was able to pierce the tiny gall bladder.) I was impressed at some of the more creative paper targets people brought from home, including one that featured a swarthy, vaguely Latin-American-looking illustrated guerilla in a beret, gripping a lily white blond girl as a human shield.
In almost all respects, the actual shooting was unlike what I had expected. First of all, if you ever go shooting with something bigger than a BB gun, hold the damn thing tight. Though I’m sure it’s a cooing baby in the hands of some of these muscle-bound gun nuts, in my hands, the Walther kicked like a mule on Viagra. On my first shot, I felt both arms tossed high above my head, wriggling like giant gummy worms. I learned my lesson, but even with acute concentration throughout the rest of my session, the shots still bucked my arms upward each time.
Second of all, one eye or two? My companion insisted it was “lame” to close one eye when aiming, à la TV faux-cool shooters. But one-eye shooting had never failed me on the cans and bottles circuit. I tried it both ways with the Walther, and met with distressingly inconsistent results. One minute, I was sure that two eyes were better than one; the next minute, it seemed like two eyes made my vision blurry.
Which brings me to a related problem. Maybe I’m just getting old, or maybe the noise and smell of gunpowder and shells were getting to me, but I couldn’t keep my vision focused when looking through the gun’s sights. The smell, in fact, acrid with oily metal, burnt smoke, and unshaven men (and women), is probably what made me dizzy, so much so that I eventually cashiered myself into the viewing gallery, rather than finish my bag of ammo.
Third, this is a handgun, not a sniper rifle, so I expected there might be some diminished precision, even compared to my BB gun. But I didn’t expect that once the target was about 20 feet out, it was impossible to hit the body part I was aiming at. Hell, it became hard even to hit any part of the target. In this respect, TV has it right (sometimes). Any time you see a guy on Chuck or Prison Break shooting repeatedly at another guy about ten feet away and missing badly, and you wonder, “Why can’t he hit someone that close?” – well, the reason is: it’s freaking hard. And my targets weren’t even moving.
The thing I most expected this activity to be was the one thing it was not: fun. Even though I was nervous about shooting a gun, I thought the experience would be . . . cool. I was surprised to find that firing a gun conveyed none of the thrill that is popularly believed to accompany the activity. It’s often said that shooting ranges are good for relieving stress (akin to punching a bag), or that shooting offers visceral excitement and feelings of power. None of this was true for me. I found the whole experience more stressful than anything, certainly not a way to relax or have a good time, and at no time did I think to myself, “Man, I feel more powerful than ever!”
That’s not to say that this was a wasted experience. Though I didn’t find it fun, I was glad I tried it, because it helped me appreciate the reality of guns, beyond the fictional representations, which really are largely fantasies. I am reminded of what Thoreau wrote about guns and boyhood:
We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected. This was my answer with respect to those youths who were bent on this pursuit, trusting that they would soon outgrow it. No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.- Thoreau, Walden