As I walk to the rifle range, I find myself thinking, "I am way outside of my comfort zone. I am way outside of my comfort zone. I am waaaaay outside of my comfort zone." As I get closer and see the four weapons laid out on what look like short picnic tables, pointed toward far-away paper targets, the voice in my head changes: "I don't know if I want to do this. I don't know if I want to do this. Do I really want to do this?"
I'm in favor of gun control. I'm OK with hunting, though I have never wanted to try it myself. I have a hard time accepting the idea of keeping a handgun for personal protection. I'm afraid of guns, in fact. But I want to understand how they work, understand if my fear makes any sense, and so I sign myself up for "Women on Target," a day-long firearms safety and recreational shooting course run by the NRA.
When I told my friends that I was planning to spend an entire day learning how to shoot, their reactions ranged from dismay ("I can't believe you'd do that!") to happy surprise ("There's hope for you yet!"). My journalist friends were eager to chat about it; my non-journalists friends' reactions were divided along political party lines.
I have never held a real gun in my life. And now, after hours of instruction about safety and the different parts of a pistol, a rifle, and a shotgun, I am standing next to four of the scariest looking weapons I've ever seen: an AK-47 and three AR-15s. And I'm going to lift and shoot each one of them.
I start with the one that scares me most: An AR-15 .223, a military-grade semi-automatic rifle that one instructor says is like an M-16. All I know is that, when his wife shoots it, it spits fire and makes me jump. My heart is pounding and I'm sure my fear shows on my face. If I can handle it then everything else I do during the course will seem easy, right?
The instructor warns us to aim for the targets and be aware of what's behind them -- large berms of dirt -- because the guns have a range of up to two miles. I'm really not sure I really want to be doing this.
The AR-15 is heavier than I thought. It is louder than I thought. And yet… shooting it is easier than I thought. I don't flinch when I pull the trigger, even though the blast causes nearby car alarms to go off. I rub my feet on the gravel under the table and realize that it's not rock, it's casings, thousands and thousands of them.
The AK-47 is harder to handle. The magazine tips out instead of going straight in, the safety is difficult for me to engage and disengage, and it feels way too long in my arms. I ask the instructor which gun he likes best and he grins. "All of them," he tells me. "It just gets expensive." It's easy to go through a hundred dollars worth of ammunition just shooting targets.
By the time I try the second AR-15, which is modified to shoot smaller .22 caliber ammunition, I notice that I am no longer scared, just curious. Another instructor shows me how to load cartridges ("Not bullets," he tells me) into the magazine ("Not a clip -- those are TV words"), and then gives me a handful and tells me to do it myself. I load the magazine, check the chamber, aim at the target, release the safety, take a deep breath, and squeeze the trigger as I exhale slowly. It's a sharp-sounding pop, not a teeth-rattling blast, and when I'm done -- 10 rounds later -- my forefinger is black with soot.
An hour later, I'm on the handgun range. There are at least a dozen guns laid out on the ledge in front of us, and I've already shot three different .22 caliber semi-automatic pistols with surprising accuracy for someone who has never shot a gun before. They were easy -- so easy that I felt uncomfortable, because it felt like a game. As I load the slim magazine with small cartridges I think that it's like putting lethal Pez candies into a dispenser.
"It's not natural to hold an explosion in your hand, but that's what we're doing," my instructor tells me as he helps me fold my hands around a Glock. The 9mm is harder for me to handle so it takes more concentration -- and, oddly, that makes me feel more comfortable.
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Up next: Trap shooting. The other women in my group have told me that the single-barrel shotgun is harder to shoot than a pistol or a rifle, and they're right -- the stance doesn't feel natural, you have to lean your cheek against the gun, and the butt of the weapon is shoved into your shoulder. Still, I manage to shatter two out of three clay pigeons on my first try, and I quickly come to appreciate the skill that goes with this sport. By my second turn, I've stopped thinking of the shotgun as a weapon and think of it instead as a piece of sporting equipment. This isn't as big a leap for me as it seems: I was a fencer in high school and college (yes, sword fighting, of sorts) so using a weapon while playing a sport makes sense. I just never thought of a gun that way.
I finish trap shooting early and surprise myself by heading back over to the handgun range, where I shoot two different revolvers, both .38 specials. It's the end of the day and I've been learning and practicing and shooting for nearly 7 hours; my hands are shaking, my shoulders are sore. But I'm no longer nervous about firearms -- in fact, I'm enjoying the experience. My classmates are talking about empowerment and control, but I mostly feel calm, relaxed, and alert. It's not because I've destroyed something or worked some anger out of my system, it's because target shooting demands absolute concentration. You have to stay focused, and that feels good.
It's during the class on state law at the end of the day when my new-found appreciation clashes with my long-held beliefs about guns. The instructors seem exasperated by Massachusetts' gun laws, but as far as I'm concerned, they're not the people the law targets. Yes, handguns cause less than one tenth of 1 percent of all accidental deaths in the United States, on average (about 600 deaths out of more than 31,500 in 2010, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), but I still think the non-accidental deaths (more than 200,000 a year) are the ones we need to worry about, and I still think that we need to strictly regulate firearms in order to bring those numbers down. The instructors are all about safety and sportsmanship, and the laws are there to restrict the people who aren't. I enjoyed shooting the AR-15, but I still don't see a need to make access to assault weapons easier.
Where do you stand on guns and gun control? Has your point of view changed over time?
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