The Day I Went to the Gun Range

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.

Yes, I wore makeup to the range. I didn't know what the dress code was.
Yes, I wore makeup to the range. I didn’t know what the dress code was.

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.


  • Proud of you and absolutely adore this post. Being American, I can say that I don’t feel the need to have a gun, but I do respect the right that I COULD own one if I felt inclined.

    Scary things have been done with guns, but empowering only a few and prohibiting the many from owning one seems like it could lead to other scary things on a different level. I don’t know the right answer.

    But I do know you ARE lucky to have such a kick ass woman for a friend. 🙂

  • The AR-15 isn’t actually all that different than the 0.22LR you were shooting. They’re both semi-automatics, so one trigger squeeze means one bullet leaves the barrel, no more and no less.

    The AR-15 fires a 0.223 caliber round – pretty close to the 0.22LR and still less than half the caliber of the 0.45ACP you fired. (The main difference is that it’s a high-velocity round; both the 0.22LR and 0.45ACP are subsonic, as is typical for pistol ammunition.)

    But just because it looks scary sites not mean the AR-15 is any more powerful than other rifles. In fact, had your friend had you fire a full-size rifle (30-06, 0.308Win, etc.), your shoulder would have been quite sore the next morning. Not so with an AR-15.

    The primary reason it’s normally not used for deer hunting isn’t that it’s too powerful. Quite the opposite. The AR uses an intermediate cartridge: bigger than pistol, smaller than a standard rifle. So unless you’re very close or an excellent shot, it typically isn’t big enough to ethically take down a deer with one shot. Most deer hunters use either a shotgun firing a slug or a full size rifle for this reason. Animals commonly hunted with AR-15’s are mostly varmints (eg., prairie dogs) and predators (eg., coyote).

    There are a variety of things about the AR-15 that make it the Ferrari. It’s accurate, light, has very little recoil, can take quite a bit of punishment so long as the action is kept clean, and is easily customizable. But the guts of the gun are not inherently different than any other.

  • Exactly what Levi Boldt said. This notion that the AR-15 is that super powerful rifle came from the right. Its quite a underpowered firearm compared to so many others out there.

  • Glad you got a little trigger time and managed to overcome your unreasonable fear of guns (You’re orders of magnitude more likely to meet your death in a motor vehicle.).

    But about your self esteem issues…See I’ve done the math and my life, let alone that of my children, is worth many times that of a savage who has decided to take anything he wishes from me by force. Be it robbery, rape, revenge, or a random act of violence those who offer the threat of death or great bodily harm to me and mine has made a conscious decision to sever the social contract. I didn’t go looking for him with murder in my heart. He came looking for me.

    How you can feel not only morally justified, but self-righteous, over the prospect of forfeiting the life of yourself and your family in exchange for the life of such an evil person frankly escapes me.

  • Wow Bruce. Anyone who knows me in any way knows I don’t have “self-esteem issues.” I simply have trouble with the thought of taking a life, no matter the context. Perhaps a little more humanity would be a good thing in the world.

  • You have decided your life, and that of your children is worth less than that of an evil savage. That’s not a self esteem issue?

    And how does it serve “humanity” to allow you, who seem like a nice person, to die so that some violent felon can continue to victimise others? Or to allow your children to die because your defensive strategy is to lie in a ball on the floor and hope for mercy from the merciless?

    Yesterday, in Phillidelphia two men in their late 60’s were leaving a gun range(!) when they were mugged for their wallets, guns, and cells. In spite of their compliance, one of the muggers shot one of the men in the groin. He is in critical condition. Why? They complied. They were no threat to two armed assailants. Perhaps they like to watch others suffer?

    Wonder what they would do to a mother cowering in fear over her defenseless offspring? And under what formula are their lives worth more than that of your children? Your children! In what universe do I need “more humanity” for my unwillingness to sacrifice my children on the altar of moral superiority. Their right to live surpasses that of any number of human predators.

  • ‘Wow Bruce. Anyone who knows me in any way knows I don’t have “self-esteem issues.” I simply have trouble with the thought of taking a life, no matter the context. Perhaps a little more humanity would be a good thing in the world.’ Humanity does not mean rolling over and letting Nazis rule. Sometimes it means fighting and taking lives. If a man is poised over your child’s crib with a knife and you’re across the room with a gun and you don’t use it your baby dies and the man lives. That is what real pacifism means. But as far as ‘humanity’ is concerned, or what is morally right, we are sometimes called upon to do terrible violence so we and other innocents can survive. You already pay people (police) to do that on your behalf. Is it morally right for you to pay other people to do things for you that you think are immoral? Would you really rather police had no firearms, and accept the increased death toll as a result?

  • Bruce, this post was all about exactly the opposite of what you’re attempting to do. It was about taking a step back from judging, and instead learning more about the things that are difficult to understand from my own moral compass. You’d do well to also take that into consideration. I do not believe any person is an embodiment of ‘evil’. I do not call people ‘savages’. When you use rhetoric like that, you stop having a conversation. This post was not to introduce an argument about my pacifism, it was to create a more balanced consideration of the meaning of guns, how I see them, have seen them, and how others, like yourself see them. However, I’m understanding that those who are determined to be abrasive in their responses here see other humans, all the time, as the enemy. (Note, I don’t find you that abrasive. I have a pretty thick skin. Others, however, have decided to try and ridicule me and my decisions. Their posts won’t be approved.) Thanks for your input Bruce.

  • You go girl! I too was a gun virgin until our friend enlightened us about the wonders of Centennial Gun Club.. I didn’t have a fear of guns more of an awe and respect for them and always felt like I should know what to do if that gun lay between myself and the guy who was after my babies.. I would grab it and shoot! I’m sure I would now…

    That 45 was a monster for me too.. the 22 seemed a little small and I suppose there’s a mama bear gun that would be just right! I’m so proud of you that you faced your fear and learned about guns… I was a pretty good shot too in fact I just turned up my paper plates with all the holes in them..

    Sorry about the trolls.. 🙁

  • I was thrilled when Jo asked me to take her to the range as I see a chance to educate anyone on gun ownership as a privilege. To have someone who is, quite literally, foreign to both our country and the culture in which guns are a normal, everyday thing want to truly understand why this is so very important to me and many gun owners was something I did not take lightly. Nor did she, as she eloquently wrote about.

    I’m confused by the hateful things being said here. Aren’t we (gun owners) misunderstood and vilified enough? Why would people feel the need to disparage what I think is a very well written, balanced piece by someone who reached out into our world to understand and turn it into something ugly? Shouldn’t we be celebrating anyone who is willing to not judge us because we hold true to our American values through gun ownership?

    PS-I’m not a long barrel shooter. My son and husband both corrected me on the AR-15 uses. Oh, I actually admitted I needed my husband’s guidance on that. Hell may have just frozen over.

    But, seriously? She is trying to understand and is a damn good writer. Commenters, please stop trying to make this into something it isn’t.

  • I wish more people would have this type of courage. I’ve been shooting for many years and thank God, I’ve never had to use a weapon in a self-defense situation. But I’d rather know how if such a situation ever comes up.

    And don’t worry I wear makeup to the range also. 😉

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