I’m a pacifist. I was challenged once to describe what I’d do in a scenario where one of my kids was with me, a “bad guy” was after him/her and there was a gun on the floor between bad guy and myself. What would I do? My answer was that I’d cover my kid with my body. This answer, for the 20 years since this conversation happened, has never changed.
I’ve never touched a real gun. I could never shoot someone. I doubt I could even aim a gun at someone.
Every American I know is disturbed by the level of gun violence in the US. Every single one. If someone owns a gun, it doesn’t make them less dismayed at the ways guns have been used to perpetuate tragedy. While it’s tempting to do the whole John Oliver comparison of Australia to US gun law thing, I see it’s like comparing apples with oranges. Australia has 10% the population of the US, and has never had a civil war. Most Australians see guns as horrific items. They are uncommon. Since moving to the US 6 years ago, I’ve become familiar with what guns represent to many people here. Guns are not seen as a tool of violence in the same way they are in Australia. Guns are written into the identity of the US through the constitution. For many people, they are an everyday symbol of freedom, liberty and as tightly woven into what America is as apple pie, baseball and Thanksgiving. I have written before about asking about guns if your child is going to someone’s house on a playdate, but I’ve been told that when you grow up with guns, you don’t ask. You assume there are guns. And you assume they’re managed appropriately, and you teach your kids not to touch them. And it’s not a big deal.
Normal people in the US own guns. The nice lady next door. The older grandma down the road has a concealed carry permit for the handgun in her purse. I have quite a few friends who have guns. They’re not open carry exhibitionists, but they like guns, own them, and use them for everything from sport to personal and family protection. Of course, to me and to many Americans protection would mean less guns, but to a good many other very normal American people, protection against the threat (a robber, killer, zombie, whatever) is their own responsibility – and it’s something they feel having a gun supports. Because I think they expect the threat to be realized at some point. Probably soon.
I decided I wanted to hold a gun and fire it.
Why on earth would a pacifist, gun-freaked-out woman like me, who’d rather sacrifice herself than pick up a gun to use against someone want to do that? Well, I’ve been doing some work in thinking about material things, and what they mean. Of course a gun is just metal (or printed plastic – ugh), and I touch lots of metal things all the time. In fact I drive a metal-based thing, my car, AKA The Donald – which can be lethal like a gun. But guns carry so much more meaning for me – terror, violence, destruction, grief. And then I realized that for many of my American gun-owning friends, these metal things carry so much meaning to them too – life, liberty, justice, patriotism, America. I wanted to better understand that connection, and I thought a good way to do it was to experience it a little, in an awkward Aussie pacifist goes to the gun center mecca of Colorado way.
I am very blessed that one of my mom gun-owning friends was happy to take me to Centennial Gun Club, and let me fire her guns (yep, that’s a plural). Here’s how it went.
Jo shoots a gun
I nearly chickened out. The night before, I considered sending my pal a message saying I couldn’t do it. I was nearly nauseated at the thought I’d actually shoot a real gun. But I then thought, wow, that’s exactly why I need to do this. This was kind of like research – an unknown, a challenge, that you can’t do halfway. You have to just go to it and experience it as it happens and deal with it as the reactions happen. I made myself feel better by reminding myself this was not about deciding if I liked it or not – it was about understanding it more. Doing this to better understand America and how people who have guns ‘see’ them somehow made this a far more accessible venture for me. I also ensured I thought of it as a way of observing myself as well as the others. I would discover more about how I saw guns, as well as how others did.
I got to the gun club and was not surprised by the average, everyday people – even families with little kids – wandering around the very nice facility. After all, I knew this is what was normal for many. It’s why I was doing this in the first place. I’d have been surprised if the place was full of bikers and riff raff. (Being a member of the Gun Club is expensive. My friend described it jokingly as “The Redneck Country Club.” Membership levels are called Patriot and Statesman. This is America, yo.) There was a family who came in with a picnic basket. Mum, dad, little girl, little boy. Out for a night of shooting at the range.
My friend sat with me on the super comfy chairs, showed me some different types of ammo, and taught me how the bullets work. Clearly this was not going to be a walk in, pull the trigger, walk out thing. I was learning stuff. How cool am I to have this wonderful woman for a friend?!
Then it was time to check in, hand over my drivers license, put on the ear muffs and goggles, and head to the range. I’d been warned that the range can be loud – particularly if the person on the lane next to you is shooting a rifle – or something big. As soon as we went in through the two doors, the noise slammed through me. Boom. Boom. A guy was shooting a rifle with his son watching (I’d guess about 10 years old?). Every boom made me cower. I felt myself shrink with every huge noise. I was trembling. This was no video game. The BOOM was real in a way I’d never thought about. I thought of what that sound would be like in a school. In a theater. In my university. The man’s son watched me for a while instead of his father – clearly I was an unusual commodity. Fish out of water. Deep breath. Move down the line to our spot on the range. Away enough from the boom that I could stop shaking.
I was shown the guns and they were laid in front of me on the bench 45. 22. We’d shoot the 22 first, because it was easier to handle and didn’t have the kick of a 45. (See? I did learn things!) Gun safety was the name of the game the whole time. I was shown how to release the clip and load the bullets – it’s just like a Pez dispenser, and I’ve loaded my share of Pez, so I was pretty good at the loading thing. I had to check the chamber. I learned the right way to release the clip and lay the gun down. I learned not to pick it up and put my finger directly on the trigger – a thing I guess I automatically did from playing cops and robbers games from childhood or something. I learned how to hold it properly with my thumbs aligned.
And then it was time to shoot. The shooting was the easy part. The 22 was a semi-automatic, which meant I could just shoot one bullet after another, up to as many as I had loaded. I began with one. Then we loaded three bullets. Then I did a couple of five bullet rounds. After each one, I had to check the chamber to be sure it was clear, push the button to release the clip, and lay them on their side on the bench. The noise from the 22 wasn’t horrible. I was invited to try the 45, but instead chose to watch my friend. That gun was heavier, and just seeing the kick back as it was fired was enough to ensure I’d never want to really try it – it looked difficult and as though it would perhaps hurt.
It was fun, but…
After the first few times, I began to get decent at it. The highlight was hitting the X in the target from 30 yards. Seems I’m better at the longer distance than up close. Sure, we joked that if the ‘bad guy’ was trying to get me, he’d have time to get a cup of coffee while I got ready with the gun to shoot him, but gee when I had it ready, he’d be in real trouble.
I picked up a couple of shell casings. Souvenirs.
When we were finishing up, a man came in with a big piece of a machine. I was told it was an AR-15. The boom was back. This is a gun that even gun-loving everyday America has trouble with. The gun would rip apart a deer into little pieces, so it’s not a hunting thing. I asked my friend, “So… why?” She looked at me and said, “I don’t know.” Sidenote: An AR-15 was one used to kill 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania, which led to Australia’s gun buy-back and very strict gun laws.
But then afterwards, outside, we chatted more about that gun. And maybe I do have an inkling why. That gun was impressive in a way that gun likers would appreciate. While I was shooting The Donald of guns, people who are ‘into it’ like the Ferrari. Maybe it’s like monster trucks. I don’t know. But I do know that the guy firing that thing looked completely normal. Whatever that’s worth.
After it all
I really thought this would be my one and only bucket list type venture, like the 14-er I climbed. Do it once, tick it off, don’t look back. However, I am proud I went to the Gun Club. I am celebrating that not only did I go, but I learned a ton, and discovered I’m not horrible at it. I can see the sport of it. It would never outweigh the fear I have, and I could never have a gun in my hand other than on the range. But I could actually see myself returning. I can see it as a stress release for some, the same way others feel about the gym. That’s a heavy realization.
Another, heavier realization is that the semi-automatic 22 I used at the range is illegal in Australia. And that I’ve now seen someone use the type of gun that led to Australia’s gun laws. Banned. (And I’m glad it’s banned. That thing is terrifying.)
And perhaps the heaviest revelation was that if you remember the scenario I talked about at the start, where a gun stood between a bad guy and my family? I know how to pick up the gun, release the clip, and put it in my pocket.