The Sad Rush and Dark Power of Firing a Gun
James Boice Finds America at the Gun Range
In the parking lot, Scott had his red cap pulled down low over his face. I could see only the shadows on his chin. We shook hands, introduced ourselves. “You don’t have to do this,” I said. He kind of snorted and did not answer, turned and opened the hatch of his SUV, pulled out a duffel bag. His shoulder sagged with its weight as he held it by its handles in one hand. “Ready?” he said. He headed toward the door. I followed.
At the door a big sweaty guy came out grinning, face flushed, a big semiautomatic pistol on each hip. He held up his hands and he passed, gave us high fives, saying, “Beautiful day to be an American!” Scott held the door for me. “You ever do this before?” he said. “Nuh uh,” I said and started to explain, defend myself, but Scott cut me off and said it didn’t matter, that I was here now. I started to tell him why I wanted to do this—because I wanted to know what it was like—but Scott did not want to hear that either. He said, “I’m just happy you’re here.”
We were outside the end unit of a business park in northern Virginia, a generally upscale metro-area region outside of Washington, DC the rest of Virginia, where they still have southern accents, considers snooty. From outside, it might have been an orthodontist’s office. It was clean, new, with black windows and ample parking. Inside it might have been a bowling alley. But when you walked in the first thing you heard was not the crashing of pins but incessant gun fire. It was visceral, exciting. Bowling alleys have bags and balls and those silly shirts for sale up front but here they sold heavy-duty double breasted shooting shirts, knives, bullets, rifle scopes, military grade weaponry. A customer was shopping for a semiautomatic pistol, a big bearded salesman showing him various options. It was an intimate interaction, they were murmuring to each other, gravely examining the body of each opened-up weapon. There was a desk where instead of renting shoes you rented guns. There were no pitchers of beer for sale, no nachos—only water and soda via vending machines. Bowling alleys have those screens overhead showing the scores and the big X when someone gets a strike, and the gun range had screens overhead too but they were television screens showing cable news.
Scott said, “You say you’re researching a book?”
I said, “Uh huh. A novel.”
He said, “What’s it about?” I hemmed and hawed, muttered something about a mass shooter maybe. I didn’t know, I had written a bunch of pages about a mass shooter but wasn’t sure about it, it did not feel right, I was still trying to figure the whole thing out. It would definitely have something to do with guns though. Somebody shooting somebody. A shooting.
No reaction from Scott behind his low hat. I could sense him on high alert—all too aware of his environment as he walked through it, of me and my subtexts, my prejudices, my bullshit.
It was a Saturday in spring and the range was packed, so we had to wait for a lane. I was surprised by who was there: the solitary middle-aged white men I expected, yes, but also a black couple on what seemed to be a good first date, an entire Asian family, a group of young men and women who from their style would not have been out of place at a National concert, a couple of guys who I guessed were Central American wearing military-like uniforms here training for God knows what. It was the same people I would have seen if I’d have gone to the nearby public park instead. The difference was everybody was focused and alert. Nobody was lost in their phone, or bumping into each other, or staring into space. There was minimal frivolity in the air, maximum seriousness. Because you had to pay attention at all times to what you were doing. Your every action had to be mindful, deliberate. Because you and everyone around you had a gun.
Scott and I sat on the couch while we waited. Rather, I sat and Scott squatted before me, unzipping his duffel bag and pulling out firearms as I stared down at the top of his hat. “We’re going to shoot three types of firearms today,” Scott said. He introduced them to me one at a time: a Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol which, Scott said, is what cops often use; a little five-shot .38 revolver which, Scott said, cops carry on their ankles for backup incase something happens to their Glock; and, lastly, an AR-15-type semiautomatic rifle, the type of gun used in most mass shootings including Newtown, San Bernardino, Aurora, and Orlando (it’s also called an assault rifle, though not by anyone you’d find at the gun range—that’s a political term liberals use, and an inaccurate one too that betrays one’s ignorance of firearms). A good introductory lineup.
Scott was now showing me how to hold the Glock. When Gaston Glock invented it, he had no experience with guns and therefore did not know there even was a proper way to hold one, so he made up his own way and when the gun became dominant in the marketplace everyone had to learn how to hold it. To show me how, Scott did not have me hold the actual Glock which would have been a no-no because we were not yet in the shooting gallery. It did not matter if the gun was unloaded—it would have been a breach of safety and general public decency. Therefore Scott had brought a fake gun, just a gun-shaped piece of plastic, bright blue so no one could mistake it. He put it in my hands then bent and twisted my thumbs and fingers until I was holding it the way Gaston Glock wanted me: thumbs pointing out away from the body on either side of the barrel, left forefinger extended along that side, left hand cupping the right. It felt unnatural and uncomfortable and not tough at all. Your whole body tries to crouch behind the gun ridiculously, like a St. Bernard trying to hide behind a mouse. I told Scott this. He said you have to train your hands until eventually it becomes second nature. That way you can hold it properly without even thinking about it, in the middle of the night, half asleep, someone breaking in to your house. I asked how to train my hands and he said dry firing. You have to dry fire constantly. Always be dry firing. I did not know what dry firing is. He explained it is shooting an empty gun. He said it’s a good idea, when you’re home, on the couch, vegging out in front of the TV, to have your unloaded gun in your hand in the proper grip, pulling the trigger on it over and over until it feels normal. Have the gun on the coffee table, reach over, pick it up, pull the trigger. Do that repeatedly, always. You should have your firearm within reach at all times anyways, he said. I asked Scott if he does that and he said yes, he was doing it last night as a matter of fact. I asked if his wife minds it. He started to answer but seemed to think better of whatever he was about to say and instead said nothing, turned his attention to loading bullets into the guns’ ammunition magazines, giving me tips as he did so about home defense, saying how a Glock is better than something like a shotgun because it allows for more maneuverability if your enemy is right on top of you.
He had me stand up and he stood too and was showing me how to put my feet, how to bend my knees, how to kind of lean forward a little, hunch my shoulders and hold the gun at chin level with arms slightly bent. He was serious, but encouraging and engaged. He was coach and I was the freshman quarterback and I was about to go into the game. Or more serious than that—he was the sergeant, I was the private, we were facing life-and-death. We were in it together. We all were. My testosterone was soaring. I wanted to do well for Scott, and he seemed to want me to do well, he told me he could not wait to get me in there, he told me again he was happy I was here. I had never met Scott until today but it was starting to feel like we had known each other a long time.
From where I was sitting, past Scott’s head, I could see the people in the gallery shooting. It was startling and dystopian seeing such ordinary strangers now standing side-by-side with rifles and handguns unloading clips of live ammo. This was an unseen side of us. Our violence visible. It felt incredible this was allowed, it seemed insane and dangerous, something that should have been happening not in this suburb with all its garbage collection regulations and home owner association ordinances but off in a desert somewhere. I do not mean to say it felt wrong or bad—just the opposite, it felt exciting and great. Like I was being shown a new dimension behind humdrum day-to-day modern life that everyone had been in on but me. All you did was show up, pay for a lane, and start blasting. Anyone at anytime could have made a fatal error, or a nefarious decision. And we were all okay with it. We placed so much trust in each other just by being there. It did not matter that we were strangers to one another. In fact, it felt like we were not strangers at all. I’d felt more nervous on the street driving a car. Maybe, I thought, I wanted this. Maybe I had been doing life wrong, by not doing this, by not being a gun guy, or owning one, by being critical of those who do. Maybe I was a bloodless urban pussy with no trust in human beings, no joie de vivre, who was not taking advantage of being an American, who was not appreciative of being one. Maybe American rights had been wasted on me. Maybe Scott was so eager to help me and ask nothing in return because he felt the way I might if someone came up to me and asked me to help them vote for the first time. Maybe going to the gun range, I thought, is basically like voting. But with lethal force.
A lane opened up. Our turn. Scott had me put on big green earmuffs and protective eyewear. We entered.
Inside the gallery the shooting was intensely loud. Even with the earmuffs the boomboombooms penetrated my skull, you felt them in your sternum. It was smoky and smelled like sulfur, from all the gunpowder. It was hot. Spent shells were all over the ground, you kicked them as you walked. Everything was concrete, like an unfinished basement. The Central American paramilitary guys were shooting semiautomatic versions of AK-47s, their rounds making big bright sparks as they struck the concrete backstop. They had handcuffs on their belts, big black stormtrooper boots. No one seemed to be paying attention to them. They were trusted, just as I was. Just by being in that room with them I was trusting them, and vice versa. It felt remarkable that no one had stopped me before this point to ask me who I was or why I was here or to make sure I was not drunk or crazy—I had interacted with nobody but Scott up until this point and here I was about to start blasting.
Many people were using those paper life-size human silhouette targets, but Scott, shouting to be heard, said he prefers not to use those, because in real life situations, due to many reasons including darkness or adrenaline, most of your shooting skills will go out the window no matter how much time you have spent on the couch dry firing. But if you have been training on a very small target, your muscle memory will once again kick in and you’ll miss a little less severely, you’ll still be more likely to hit your enemy in an area of the body that will kill him quickly. “And the area of his body that will kill him quickly,” Scott said, “producing from his back pocket a 3 x 5 index card, is about the size of a 3 x 5 index card.” Scott slapped a black bull’s-eye sticker on the card, clipped it to the target holder and sent it down range a few feet. He gave me the loaded Glock. It was very heavy. I liked its substantial presence. It felt perfect in my hand, a natural extension of it. Scott stood behind me, his arms around me, both of our hands on the loaded gun. He put me like a doll into proper grip, stance. He kicked at my feet, to get me to widen them. I could feel his body’s warmth, smell his breath. How often did two straight white men stand like this? It was part of the intimacy, part of the experience.
He did something to the side of the gun then shouted into my ear that the safety was now off. “Okay,” he shouted, “when you’re ready, take a deep breath in, and as you exhale pull the trigger back smoothly and steadily all the way back without stopping.” He let go of me. Stepped back. All alone now. I was trembling, energy coming to boil inside my veins. I did not know what to expect or what it would feel like. I inhaled, exhaled, pulled the trigger. The gun came to life. It felt like an animal in my hands, like I was choking a coyote. You had to dominate it. You had to be a man. You had to kill it. It only came to life for a brief moment, then the life was gone—not dead, just gone again. I made a big boom that joined with all the other ones from my fellow shooters. The firing felt removed from the life. I was not sure a bullet had in fact shot out. I had to shout back at Scott over my shoulder to ask him if it had worked, very conscious about keeping the gun pointed down range. Scott had come to life too, he was jumping up and down behind me, the life had gone from the gun into him. He had pushed the brim of his hat back on his head, revealing his face for the first time. It looked completely different from how I thought it would—younger, rounder, thinner. He was grinning like a proud father. He seemed happy and naked, eyes bright. I could not imagine this man alone on the couch pulling the trigger on an empty gun. He slapped me on the shoulder. “That’s it!” he cried. “Do it again!” I did. This time it was easier, and I saw the shell casing come flipping out the top of the gun as it fired, it landed on my wrist, warm. “See?” Scott shouted, pointing at the target. A neon green nick had appeared on the edge, meaning that’s where I’d hit it. Not much of a hole, you could hardly see it. Entrance wound, I guessed.
He had me pause, showed me that I had to line up the sights of the guns—there were two, one at the front and one at the back—and that when I aimed I had to focus on the sights themselves and let what I was shooting blur behind them. You had to almost not see what you were shooting, who you were shooting. You had to forget about it, forget about them, forget about everything else and pay attention only to yourself and your gun. I tried that—aimed at the target, imagined it a person. The hell with them, I told myself. Me and my gun, me and my gun. I pulled the trigger, obliterated the bull’s-eye. Fatal shot to the heart.
Scott whooped, clapped me on the shoulder again. I could hear him faintly behind me, amid the firing: “Yeah! Outstanding! Outstanding!” I felt good. It had been so long since I’d had somebody react to me the way Scott was. He was on my side, he wanted to help me, to teach me how to defend myself and my family. When was the last time a stranger was on my side and wanted to help me, without condition, simply because I had asked him? I could not remember. As I emptied that magazine, clustering my shots around the bull’s-eye, I was gushing sweat. We all were, in the gallery. It was our exhilaration, our energy. Our shared decency. My eyewear was fogging up, I could see very little, but I did not care, I could see the sights of my gun clearly enough, and I could tell from Scott’s cheering that I was shredding the bull’s-eye over and over. Eventually the gun stopped firing, which meant I had emptied it. It happened too quickly. That’s it? Scott took the gun and reloaded me, then I emptied that clip too, and then another. The bullets I was using cost money, they were Scott’s, he had paid for them, and they were not cheap—but he would not let me reimburse him, he would not hear of it. Just glad you’re here, he kept saying.
When I emptied another clip, he had me try the AR-15. This one took .223 rounds, which were smaller and thinner than the 9mm rounds the Glock shot, they made littler holes in the target you could hardly see until you peered in closely at it in your hand later. I could not feel it when I shot the AR-15, it did not kick much if at all. There was no coyote to choke. And with Scott’s silencer it did not make much of a boom to join with the others, all it made was a lonely little pth. But shooting this weapon, I understood more concretely and more intensely how horrible it is to do a mass shooting. To turn to my left or to my right and start firing this at these people standing there, which I could have easily done if I’d wanted, felt utterly impossible for me to do. I could conceive it, but I could not conceive of my body actually doing it. Or maybe I could, and it was all too short a leap. So it made the fact that after having fantasized about it and planned it and decided to do it and getting up to the brink of it they would actually go through with it even more difficult to understand. Any idea I might have had about such a person went out the window and I realized I would never be able to get into their head. The novel I was writing went out the window too as I fired the AR-15, obliterated along with the target.
Scott was giving me everything of himself, I felt like his star recruit. Praise, encouragement, enthusiasm, attention—we do not give each other enough of these and Scott was giving me every drop of his. Others were noticing. I felt them looking at us, seeing this man raving over another, wondering who I was, was I somebody, I must be somebody. And they were right, I decided. They were goddamned correct: I was somebody. I felt taller than I was, more handsome than I was, more full of vigor than I was. More capable and more proficient and more worthy of trust. More self-determining. More American. I would change after this, I decided as Scott now gave me the .38 revolver to try, which kicked hardest and boomed loudest of all. I would change. I would move out of the city I lived in, because you cannot own a gun legally in the city, and I needed a gun. I would move somewhere where I could have a gun, where I could be ready to shoot the enemy in a place on his body that will kill him even if my accuracy fails. I would be happier armed. For I would have a say in what happens to me.
When we were done, Scott gave me the bull’s-eye I had made a neon green mess of and packed up his guns. I stood there dripping sweat, catching my breath.
We left the gallery, stepped back out into the waiting area. It was so quiet, when the door closed behind us. We took off our earmuffs, but that did not make it any less quiet. It felt dull, dead. “Seriously,” Scott said, “you are really, really good at this. Better than most their first time.”
The parking lot outside was no less silent, no less dead. It was late in the afternoon, dusk approaching. Scott pulled his hat back down over his face. I was coming down, I realized. I did not want to be alone again. We shook hands, I held on a beat too long, asked what he was doing now, if he wanted to grab a beer. He declined, said he had to get home, his daughter was there, this was his weekend with her. Scott said the reason his wife doesn’t mind about his dry firing is because she doesn’t live with him anymore, because she is not his wife anymore. He lives alone now. They have a little girl and he has her every other weekend, and this is his weekend with her and he had gotten a sitter for a several precious hours while he went to shoot guns with me, some guy he does not know. I let go of Scott’s hand. I could not let go fast enough. Why did you do that, I said. He said he wanted to, it was important, it was extremely important. I had let go of his hand but I wanted to let go of more. I wanted to get very far away from Scott, very far away from guns. I knew I never could, even if I never touched one again.
And I knew what shooting was like. I may have had to start over on my novel, but I knew what lonely story I would now tell instead.