I shot an AK-47 named Wolf once. I think often about guns and why I dislike them, even though I grew up shooting BB guns beside lake cottages, but I’d never laid a hand on a lethal weapon before, despite the fact that my step-father of 20 years was a card-carrying NRA member with a weathered “Charlton Heston Is My President” sticker adhered to the steel bumper of his Ford truck. I don’t know exactly what I wanted, but I knew it involved a shooting range, and some friends took me to the LA Gun Club, where I shot the AK-47, a revolver, a rifle, and a standard handgun.
There are rules at the Gun Club. Of course there are. One has only to hand over an ID and sign a waiver to the pleasant man at the counter, and within minutes, you receive your weapons and ammunition, all placed neatly into a red plastic tote from Bed Bath & Beyond. You are then allowed into the range, a lane assigned to you with the same system as bowling alleys. Even with the ear protection firmly in place, the ceaseless firing of weapons shook me so hard I had to fight the urge to cry. A couple on a date stood in the lane beside me, while my friend loaded the revolver. He was very sweet, had experience with weapons, and gave me some tips on safety and marksmanship. I took a few shots, felt the recoil and realized the action of shooting was not in slow-motion, was much quicker than I had ever imagined something that could cause so many important events in our history could be. When all bullets had been shot, I released the gun to a safe spot on the counter, and my friend reloaded and took his own shots.
When we shot BBs as kids, our targets were empty PBR cans from my step-father’s daily rations. Our sole purpose in shooting the BBs was accuracy. It was a game like any other and one that could be no less violent than baseball with all safety precautions in place. It was, I will say, a fun gun game. In the firing range, upwards of thirty poster targets paper the walls, from which you’ll choose what you’d like to shoot at and tell the pleasant man behind the counter. A creative array of zombies, terrorists with turbans, and men with knives who look like they sell hotdogs in Chicago hiding behind dumpsters are available as targets, but every single one of them displayed at least the very vague outline of a human. There were no paper targets with can-sized images of PBR. I very much wanted one of those right then. The beer, not the target.
I watched my friend empty the cartridge in the handgun and hugged the sound mufflers to my ears. I breathed deeply the same way I had as a child in Michigan when the winter wind chill at the bus stop was too much to bear, and the only way to survive the wait was accepting the cold into yourself and allowing it to live there, because it was only temporary. My friend came back and asked if I might want to shoot the AK. I did. And I didn’t.
He loaded a new cartridge for me, stood me at the threshold and told me to take my time, to fire only when I was ready. I appreciated his patience. For a good 20 seconds, I sized up my target, remarking how heavy the Wolf was in my hands, how it was heavier than my boyfriend’s cat, and then my mind drifted in split seconds to what the differences between live weight and dead weight really were, and in this time, the two men beside me had loaded up a shotgun and taken aim. At the exact moment that my finger glanced against the trigger of the Wolf, a voluptuous boom fired above and beyond all the other guns, and when my bullet fired, a rain of shotgun shells jumped up from the stall beside me, one after another, clipping my face and head, and I froze and held the Wolf’s butt into my chest, staring at the hotdog salesman yards ahead of me. I missed. The men beside me laughed and reloaded. And while I’d been able to breathe in the gunpowder from the revolvers and turn their zips into hard kisses in my head, I could not shake the rifle, its longing to be bigger and louder than the others and shred its target into strips of crepe paper. There was no marksmanship to it.
I told my friends I wanted to take a break, didn’t think I could shoot anymore that day. When I stepped behind the stalls, the pleasant man from the counter sneaked into the range with a broom and ran along behind the stalls to sweep back all the spent shells into organized piles. He saw my vacant stall and the AK-47 without an owner, stepped up, loaded, and took a round into my target. He was a very good shot. When he was done, he put up a finger to me, like, “Hold on a second,” and ran back to the front of the store. When he returned, he had another few free rounds of ammunition for me. I said, “No,” but my friend took the rounds and made use of them. I could see how happy all of this made the man from behind the counter. This was his hobby, and when people go on TV to advocate the outlawing of guns, he probably gets sad. It’s not that people are telling him what to do that makes him sad, but that people don’t take the time to understand the thing he loves. I see this same look on people who wear “Legalize It” shirts.
A gun that shoots a bullet is meant to harm a person, and when someone makes the argument that it’s all in good fun, that it’s about marksmanship, something akin to enjoying a round of golf, I would suggest that person take a good look at the target that lay ahead of him and tell us what he sees. If he sees a PBR can, he may have a point, though BBs would still be sufficient for hitting that target, but if he sees a human, he is not a marksman, he’s a killer in training with a smile having a great time with technology that was never meant for fun. When I went to the LA Gun Club, there were literally hundreds of other people that came in and out of the range to shoot guns for fun, and there are thousands more across the US who did the same that day, but I wonder how many of them wondered why the only targets they were offered featured humans. I’m sure there were some deer targets somewhere as well (I have further thoughts on hunting that I won’t talk about here), but in my case at the very least, it was all humans.
I don’t enjoy taking fun from people, but I think there are sacrifices that people must make to ensure the safety and happiness of the population at large. While I was in San Francisco over the weekend, a friend recounted a story of a court-ordered AA/NA meeting he had to attend and the man who sat beside him saying, “Man, when I smell crack, it is on.” In fact, that man loved crack. He’d prefer to do it everyday if he could, but there is the little problem of the law and what crack does to a person after long-time use when said person has lost his ability to care for himself. Actually, crack and meth are very similar statistically to the use of guns as weapons. Looking at the data, over 95% of Americans who’ve tried crack or meth did not become addicted, and many of those people who did try used the drugs recreationally only a few times in their lives. Most people who shoot guns will probably not go on to kill other human beings, but giving easy access to such things increases the likelihood that someone will abuse them if you look only at the numbers. In defense of crack and meth, the people these substances hurt the most are the users, while guns most often hurt everyone but the user. Also, I never thought I would write the words, “In defense of crack and meth,” but that is how much I believe in the banning of guns, even after–or especially–having shot several of them to better understand their appeal.
You know what? Shooting guns is probably a fucking amazing experience for some people, and it probably gives them great joy, perhaps as much joy as crack gives the aforementioned NA attendee. And I would be sad to see that joy gone from people, but their happiness comes at the expense of other people’s lives, and I think we forget that when we become accustomed to gun violence and death. In the United States, we have the responsibility to look into the cause of any one person’s death and examine that cause to determine if that single death warrants legislation. This is how we deal with pharmaceuticals. That so many people die from gun violence everyday, yet none of their lives seem important enough to warrant a thorough investigation into the cause–guns–is only more evidence of how far we’ve strayed from our morals and principles. One man’s happiness cannot be tantamount to thousands of others’ safety and right to happiness. I write this a day after the police fatally shot two men only three blocks and two hours from one another in unrelated incidents in Anaheim, California, then decided to shoot haphazardly into a crowd of women and children who came to protest the violence, when that same day, the military conducted secret blackhawk chopper drills with the LAPD over my house, where eight helicopters buzzed my home at close range, men in uniform brandishing guns from the open door frames, for a period of 12 hours straight. And then, of course, the Batman tragedy.
I know that nothing I have to say is new. But in the past 24 hours, I have seen far too many guns. I’ve seen them on the television, the internet, and hovering above my home, and while these weapons were clearly used for the purposes of murder, intimidation, and for the practice of “urban warfare” (this is what the LA Times told me about the drills), they are the exact same guns people are using for fun only two miles away from me at the range. Intent, yes. Intent makes all the difference. The next time I walk down skid row in downtown LA, I’ll make it a point to ask the wiry men and women with crack pipes nestled in their shirt pockets if their intent in smoking that crack is to “have some fun and not hurt anybody.” And if I ever go back to the LA Gun Club and get a chance to ask those folks looking down the barrel of their rifle at that two-dimensional black-and-white human, I’m sure they’ll say the same thing.
From this moment on, when I see people spouting pro-gun bullshit on their internet soap boxes of gun fun, I will make it a point to write, “I totally agree. Let’s legalize crack!” because to me, in a distant and abstract way, this is what they are saying. They are saying, let’s all have some fun, and if people can’t handle our kind of fun, then good riddance to them. Let’s throw heroin in the mix as well, cuz honestly, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot Up sounds pretty good, right?