Okay, let me get something out of the way right now: I hate guns. They scare the hell out of me. The very thought of them makes me tense. So the last way I expected to spend this past Monday evening was at “ladies’ night” at the shooting range, firing a variety of guns — including an AK-47.
Let me back up. Like many Austinites, I’ve been worried by the recent attacks. Like many, I’ve been wondering how well I’d be able to defend myself if I ever needed to, and disconcerted that I’m not sure. And like many, I just hope I’ll never have to.
When I posted CultureMap’s recent story “Tips that could save your life” on Facebook with the comment, “Be careful out there,” an old friend, Nick, commented, “Be pragmatic out there” with a link to the McBride’s guns website. I found the comment unsettling, as I hate the thought of meeting violence with violence — of the “good guys” needing to own something more deadly than whatever the “bad guys” have. The suggestion made me feel less secure, not more.
After a few more comments and posts of his own about guns, Nick, who describes himself as “a bleeding heart liberal who loves assault rifles,” invited me to go shooting with him and his girlfriend, Amanda, to try it out and demystify firearms. And for some reason, I agreed. I think it was partially to take control of my fear, and partially because as a Texan; it seemed like something I should have tried long ago.
Despite — or perhaps, because of — growing up in a vegetarian household where he wasn’t allowed to own toy guns, Nick now owns “handguns of many flavors, several rifles (including AK-47s)” — note the plural there — “and a nice sniper rifle.” (Even he admits that AKs are not strictly necessary for protection, helpful as they will be in the coming zombie apocalypse.) Amanda grew up around guns, and also owns a few.
And they’re far from alone. According to the Small Arms survey conducted in 2007 by the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, at the time Americans owned 270 million firearms — or, about nine guns for every 10 citizens. It’s not easy to find information about the percentage of Americans who own guns, but estimates tend to fall between 25 and 35 percent of the U.S. population — way more than I ever expected.
“Introducing liberals to guns is like introducing conservatives to gays," Nick told me. "You take small steps until they realize there is nothing to be afraid of, and that they can actually be quite fun to be around. Start with a brunch, then work your way up to the San Fran pride parade.”
Though I couldn’t see myself participating in any gun pride parades in the near future, I was willing to give the experience a shot. (Yeah, that’s right. I said it.) Nick told me, “They sell guns there, so after your inevitable conversion to gun aficionado, you’ll want to budget some time for shopping.” I seriously doubted that would be necessary.
A few days later, we headed to Red’s Indoor Range. I was terrified. I tried to listen to Nick’s explanation of how to operate a Glock, interrupted by reverberating booms of gunfire. At first I stood back and nervously watched Nick and Amanda fire, trying not to get hit by the flying brass casings (Nick had recommended that I not “wear anything low-cut if you don’t like the idea of hot brass nestled betwixt your girls”). Everything about this place put me on edge: the loud, sudden explosions, the close quarters, the number of deadly weapons around me. The fact that I was allowed to shoot without even giving anyone my name.
When I was finally ready to shoot, I picked the Glock up anxiously — the first time I’d ever touched a gun. It was heavier than I expected. I held it how he showed me, aimed at the paper target, and slowly squeezed the trigger.
The kick startled me. It felt like my hands had been, well, literally kicked back. My heart raced. This was not for me. But after a few more shots, I calmed down. I began to know what to expect. And by the time I ran out of rounds, I felt something surprising: catharsis. All the anxiety I’d felt about holding this weapon in my hands, firing it, all the fear surrounding the attacks, the way my stomach would jump when I heard a unfamiliar sound or thought I saw movement out a dark window — it was released. Take that, paper cutout. Take that, douche bag.
I tried out a Browning handgun, another Glock, a .22 revolver, a .22 long gun and, finally, Nick’s AK-47. I was surprised that although the size of the AK felt unwieldy and awkward to me, it didn't feel drastically different from the others. I can’t say I got comfortable with shooting, but I began to understand it a bit better, and to feel the differences between guns.
Guns still scare me. They still feel unfamiliar and dangerous, and I cannot see ever owning one myself. But I do feel better knowing that if I were attacked and somehow managed to wrest a gun away from the attacker, at least I wouldn’t shoot my own foot off. I’d even like to go shooting again sometime. Hey, it’s kinda fun.
And Nick was right about one thing: I did need some time for shopping at the end, but it wasn’t for a gun. Before I left the shooting range, I bought a container of pepper spray. And one for my sister. For me, that’s enough.