When I was much younger, maybe 5 or 6 years old, my grandfather watched the movie "A Christmas Story" on television. And I know AMC broadcasts it all the time now, but this was the late 80s. A movie playing on TV was a Very Big Deal.
My grandfather loved "A Christmas Story." He was not really a man who showed an excessive amount of emotion or humor — I never saw him joke around or play pranks. But he laughed uproariously at "A Christmas Story." I remember this vividly, even at such a young age, because it was hard for me to connect the image of my serious grandfather genuinely laughing.
For Christmas that year, as a joke gift, his wife bought him an authentic Red Ryder BB gun. He loved it.
My childhood was spent surrounded by the mountains of West Virginia. Our house was on a sprawling amount of land perched atop a mountain. Those of us who lived there merely called it “the hill,” as in “I’m going off the hill, you guys want anything?”
Friends of my grandfather would come to our house during hunting season, their shotguns black and shiny, their orange vests bright. They would situate themselves in the forest that surrounded our house and throughout the day, I would hear the low booms of a shotgun going off. If the hunters were lucky, they’d sling a deer carcass in the bed of their pickup trucks at the end of the day. I was always incredibly sad to see the slain deer. These were the deer I had spent the summer watching from our deck, the deer who leapt away when they saw me traipsing through the blackberry bushes, the deer who snuck into our garden and ate our vegetables.
It was around this time that my grandfather offered to let me try shooting his BB gun. I eagerly accepted because it was a gift that had made my grandfather happy, and I wanted to be a part of things that made him happy. It was as simple as that.
We went outside on the deck where my grandfather had set up a row of Old Milwaukee beer cans. He showed me the hole where you pour the tiny silver BBs into the gun to load it. He cocked the gun, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. I didn’t see the BB come out but I did see a beer can suddenly fly over the railing.
He handed it to me and I started shooting.
I haven’t touched a gun since that day. Shooting a BB gun wasn’t traumatic or anything. I hope you weren’t expecting a “and then I shot myself in the foot” story because that’s not how it ended. I shot some BBs at some old beer cans. I hit some of them. When it started to get dark, we went inside and ate dinner. The next day I had forgotten about the gun, and my grandfather never brought it up again.
Recently I was browsing through an infographic book when I came across the fact that there’s nearly one gun for every person in the United States.
“ONE GUN FOR EVERY PERSON?!” I spluttered to my boyfriend, Jim. “THAT CAN’T BE RIGHT.”
“Ehhh, I don’t know,” he responded. “It could be. I mean, how many people do you know who own guns?”
I thought about it. It wasn’t the majority of my friends, to be sure, despite my West Virginia upbringing. But my friends who do own firearms mostly own multiple ones, so that sort of cancels out the non-gunowners.
Sometimes when I think about things that I haven’t tried that a lot of people have tried, I wonder if I am missing out on anything amazingly fun. According to my Facebook feed, running is amazing. I’ve never actually tried running, and maybe I’d like it. I could pair it along with Crossfit, having babies, foie gras, veganism or doing drugs.
The reason for this is because I can suffer from massive bouts of anxiety when I think about trying new things, even something as mundane as going to a new restaurant. I want to be adventurous and spontaneous, a fun girl who can travel to Thailand without months of planning. But every time I think about doing something outside of my comfort zone, I freeze up and think of nothing but all the things that could go wrong.
So it was a little bizarre that my latest “I’m gonna try this thing that everyone likes” adventure involved shooting a gun.
Saturday morning, I told Jim that I wanted to go and shoot a gun that day. I don’t know why I said it. The idea had been floating around my head for a few months, but it wasn’t until I actually said it out loud that it became real.
I started voicing my fears to Jim before we left.
“What if I mess up?” I asked.
“Just don’t point the gun at your face, you’ll be fine.”
“What if I accidentally point it at like, my stomach?”
“Eh, you’ll probably still be fine.”
I gasped at this. Years of watching television and movies have taught me that being shot in the stomach is a terrible, painful way to die.
“Is there a hospital close to the range?”
“Did you just say that to shut me up?”
We pull up to the Maryland Small Arms Range near Andrews Air Force Base. It’s a large concrete building in an industrial area. Jim parks behind the actual range and as we walk the 100 feet to the door, I hear loud shots coming from inside the building. They are nervewracking, these booms, and they almost make me turn around and just go home. But I keep walking.
This is exactly the point when I start thinking that this whole thing was a bad idea.
Inside, the clerk is incredibly friendly. He explains how everything works: I rent a lane for $20 and a gun for $7. Added to my tab are a box of bullets, a couple of targets and two pairs of earmuffs. The clerk recommends a Glock 9mm pistol and casually removes it from a case and drops it in a plastic bin.
I hand him my drivers license and credit card and all of a sudden, I am the proud temporary owner of a lethal weapon for a mere $7. He takes us to a small area just outside of the shooting range. The magazine slides out and he instructs us how to load the bullets into the gun — we can have up to 17 rounds in each magazine. He clicks it back into place and shows us how the barrel jerks back when we fire, so we have to be sure to keep our thumbs away from it.
I am terrified. My brain is telling me that this is not a good idea. But I’ve already come this far, and I’ve already paid for it. If I turn around, I’m $50 in the hole. That’s like, four pizzas.
I put my earmuffs on and go into the range. It’s empty, luckily, aside from another range worker who is using a pushbroom to sweep hundreds of empty shell casings into a grated area that’s shiny with spent ammunition. He smiles at me.
Not sure what gave it away. I assume that I am acting like a terrified deer, jumpy, my eyes wide, my pulse racing. Or maybe it’s that I keep putting at least 5 feet between myself and the gun, heavy in its basket. Jim is merrily loading bullets into the clip and I am doing nothing but standing there mutely clutching our targets in my hands.
“Did you drive here?” the attendant asks me.
“Well, yes, but I didn’t drive,” I respond.
“Doesn’t matter,” he says. “Did you know Maryland drivers are 50 times more likely to die in car accidents than by guns?”
I make a mental note to myself to look up that fun fact when I get home from this experience.
He leans his pushbroom against the cinderblock walls and reaches up to adjust my earmuffs. “There,” he says, gently twisting the cups. “Gotta make sure they’re tight.”
I am touched by his concern, but this Hallmark moment is shattered by the roar of the gun firing. Jim has started shooting at a target, aiming for the head. He’s pretty good at it for someone who doesn’t shoot guns very often.
I am frozen, hiding behind one of the bulletproof dividers, watching tiny holes form in the paper target. There’s a circle of red on the target right where a man’s heart would be. I briefly wonder if they make these targets in female silhouettes but then cringe thinking about lines of men shooting paper women.
Ten bullets in, and Jim loads another ten in the clip. He motions at me to come and have a go.
It takes me eight tries to pick up the gun.
Each time, my hand gets closer. Sometimes my hand touches it, but then I quickly pull it back. My peace-loving brain cannot process this information — there is a weapon on the table that people use to kill other people and not only am I supposed to touch it, I’m supposed to FIRE it.
Finally, I pick it up.
It is heavy, much heavier than I thought it would be. It smells like metallic smoke. I raise it up. Jim tells me to look through the sights and aim for the red. He tells me I can do it, that he believes in me. My boyfriend is nothing if not overly supportive. Before I realize it, I’ve squeezed the trigger.
I see a flash and my hands jerk back, the gun falls sideways. I immediately set it down on the ledge and shake my head no. I want nothing else to do with this. I feel tears starting to build in my eyes and I tell Jim to just finish shooting the box of bullets so we can leave.
And he does. And we do.
On the way out, the clerk hands me my license and credit card. I sign the receipt.
“How was your first time?” he asks.
Jim chuckles and says that maybe shooting is not for me. I appreciate him answering for me, even though I normally hate when he does it, because I have absolutely no idea how to respond. I don’t want to tell the clerk that I hate his pastime. That the thought of shooting a gun again makes me want to vomit. That I think all guns, not just assault weapons, should be heavily regulated or, better yet, just melted down and made into federally-funded art installations in parks nationwide.
But I don’t say that. I don’t know how to say that. Guns are a fiercely debated topic in this country. Many people who have very normal, everyday lives happily participate in gun ownership and gun shooting. This is a hobby, and who am I to judge somebody for having a hobby that I don’t like? I have lots of hobbies that people might not necessarily enjoy — modern calligraphy, mainlining CW shows, collecting mascaras. I assume people don’t think I’m a terrible person for watching The Carrie Diaries every week.
Of course, people aren’t killed by young Carrie Bradshaw.
So I’m conflicted.
And I also have to admit, I was a little disappointed. I thought I would feel empowered. But shooting a gun didn’t make me tap into the inner badass that’s lurking inside me. I didn’t feel powerful. I didn’t feel less stressed.
Really, the only thing shooting a gun taught me was that if there’s ever a situation where I will need to shoot guns, like a zombie apocalypse or alien invasion, then I am not equipped to handle a firearm. Cans of tuna, blankets, and a detailed explanation of the Veronica Mars canon — that’s what I can offer a survival group. Those are my strengths.
And it’s nice to be reminded of that sometimes.