In my writer’s group there are two gun nuts: one, a large bald tattooed guy, set off my instincts immediately. But, that could be that he’s large and tattooed. I didn’t actually notice the gun until Saturday, when he brought it out to show the group. The second is a fifty-something woman with short, gunmetal gray hair. Her father made her do gun drills at age thirteen. And – let’s call her Em – Em also offered to take us girls in the group on a field trip to the gun range – for accuracy in writing, she said. Since this occurred after she chewed out the tattooed guy for inaccuracies, probably it was a girl power moment. Either way I thought, hey. When else am I going to get this kind of chance? It’ll be good for me. So I showed up.
It should be noted that I was terrified. Not in the abstract, talking about it. But when I signed the waiver that listed all the bad things I was not going to sue for, when I put in the earplugs, and then, when I stepped through the two sets of doors. In that first moment, hearing the crack, crack of the .38s and 9 mm guns, I was nervous but okay. Then, a guy with a .45 shot off two rounds – WHOOOMP, WHOOMP. It was the kind of sound that hits something in the back of your head, that says HIT THE FLOOR. NOW. I cringed, every time that sound rang out in the enclosed space. Because the range wasn’t very big – eleven 3′ enclosures in a row, with maybe four feet clearance behind them. And ahead, nothing but concrete. The sound echoed off the walls and slammed into your chest. It was everything I could do not to run.
Gunshots smell like concrete, burned ozone, and sulfur – a little bit like decrepit color copier after a 200-page job. Only brighter and more overwhelming. The other girl who came with us couldn’t stay in the room – she said the smell of the gunpowder made her overwhelmingly nauseous. So she stayed behind and watched us through the two-inch-thick bulletproof glass. While I, with no one else to distract me, cringed with every shot of someone’s .357 and stepped up to face my fear.
This was the real deal, I thought, I could kill something with this – or me, maybe. It looked so harmless, like a matte-black version of some of the toy water pistols I’d seen as a kid. But it wasn’t – it was instead a gadget designed to throw a bullet hard and fast enough to kill someone. And the .357 revolver I was supposed to be shooting was designed, as Em said, to stop an islander in light body armor hopped up on a drug – immediately. You shot him in the arm, you broke his leg. You shot him with the more conventional .38s, he kept coming.
Like handling a cobra for the first time, I took the gun Em handed me. A revolver, a .357 loaded with .38s. Double action – so, painfully careful of the muzzle of the gun, I pulled back the lever on the back of the gun. And shot. Almost dropping the gun. It kicked – *hard.* So I stepped one foot back and braced. Tried it again, lining up the two sights on the top of the gun carefully. This time I hit the target. I shot again, without pulling the lever back, and missed. More kick. I’d have to adjust.
I handed the gun back to Em more carefully than I would have handled an infant. And I took the semi-automatic 9 mm with the same care. Adjusted my grip when told – didn’t want the back of the gun to hit me, thanks but no thanks. And tried it this time. And missed, two clips and sixteen shots in a row, slowly coming closer and closer until I hit the third ring of the target circle. Stood back while Em took the gun and took another turn herself. Of course she was better than me, even loading the gun with .357s. This was to be expected. I went out of the room to get a pair of earmuffs to go over the earplugs – maybe without the noise making me jump every two seconds, I’d do better. I did, actually.
Slowly, over the course of an hour and a half, I learned to get the 9 mm rounds on the body part of the target every time. Some shots better than others, but I learned. Holding on with two hands – one shooting and one supporting the bottom – and bracing with all the strength in my upper arms, I learned. And all the while, my adrenaline-soaked brain had to deliberately turn off the sound. The smell. And focus.
It was like learning to drive a two-ton metal box otherwise known as a car. A lot of power, a lot of potential for damage, but ultimately under your control. It did what you told it to, no more, no less. And all the lethality it contained wasn’t going to bite. Wasn’t going to do anything – unless you told it to. That realization, and a lot of white-knuckled breathing, made me slowly lose the fear. And made me realize that, given sufficient motivation, I could do this. That feeling – and the experience of shooting, loading and emptying the guns – made the whole trip worth it.
If in the real world, I’m probably better off throwing rocks, running, and barricading myself behind a thick door with heavy furniture, well, creativity in survival is a good thing. But from a writer’s perspective, this one was a success. Thanks, Em. I may go again.