Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, and monkeys do too (if they have a gun). — Eddie Izzard
I exited the freeway 20 or so miles east of San Diego. Noting the prevalence of Bush/Cheney stickers affixed to the bumpers and rear windows of the cars around us, I turned to David and said, “Yo, Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Hillcrest anymore.” No sooner were the words out of my mouth than a lifted truck pulled ahead of me, a proportionately large pair of flesh-colored truck nuts swinging from its undercarriage. “I believe we’ve reached the heartland,” I said with a sigh, “where even the toys are boys.”
When it comes to masculine gizmos, the pistol is testosterone made tangible. As I thrust my Mini Cooper up a rugged dirt road toward the shooting range, I questioned my decision to fire a gun for the first time. I didn’t really have any interest in handling what I considered to be a little death machine, but when my friend Patricia invited me to join her and a group of women at First Shots (a program designed to introduce gun-free folk like me to firearms), my curiosity eclipsed my apprehension.
A few years ago, my sister Jane underwent training to earn a gun-totin’ license so that she could gift her husband with a new gun for his collection. I asked Jane for tips before heading out to the range, and the petite sales-mommy advised, “Lock ’n’ load, baby. And wear your goggles.” Unfortunately, as I’d later learn, those goggles don’t fit over my glasses; I ended up with the bikini version of eye protection, with only the critical parts covered.
My brother-in-law Brad possesses one gun, issued to him by the California Highway Patrol. Whereas Jane seems blasé about the weapons (mostly because they are kept in a heavy-duty safe), my sister Jenny straight up dislikes them. “They scare me,” she told me. “Even looking at Brad’s gun, I feel like it might go off and hit somebody. Just one mistake and somebody’s dead.” I asked my dad, a Navy man, why he’d never kept a pistol around. “I like them, they’re fun, and I have good aim,” he said. “But I don’t care if you put a gun in melted steel and cover it with concrete. With kids in the house, it’s too dangerous, and if anything ever happened to you girls I could never have forgiven myself.”
David and I greeted Patricia and friends in the dusty parking area inexplicably named Project 2000. Huge roaring machines lifted, sifted, and dropped gravel in the adjacent lot. Patricia, who’d been to the range before, led the way inside.
I was struck by the concentration of mustaches that awaited us on the other side of the door. At the end of the reception line, one of the ’staches offered me coffee and donuts. I regarded a table arrayed with guns, featuring everything from old-school revolvers to the latest semiautomatics, and then returned my gaze to the nice furry-lipped man. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to get me all jacked up on caffeine and sugar before handing me a gun. I might get all overexcited and shoot someone,” I said.
It didn’t matter that the guns on the table were not loaded; they still gave me the willies. My only experience with guns was seeing them in movies. As a general rule, when you catch a glimpse of a gat early on in a film, you can bet your bullets it will reappear at a crucial point to wreak some kind of havoc. I could see what Jenny meant. It was 9 a.m. My imagination had everyone dragging their bleeding bodies out of that place by noon.
“When people ask me why someone might need more ’n’ one gun, I say, ‘Why do you need more ’n’ one golf club?’” The man who had offered me coffee was standing behind the table o’ guns and speaking to the crowd. “There’s a different club, and a different gun, for every job you have,” he continued. My mind drifted to mobster movies. “You need one for target shooting, another one for hunting varmints.” Varmints? I was relieved I’d passed on the coffee, for surely it would have come through my nose upon hearing this guy, rifle in hand, unwittingly confirm a cartoon stereotype.
After we were shown how to operate a gun and urged to use “common sense” (Cheney must have missed that last bit in his training session), it was time to shoot. I began with a rifle, heavy enough to give me a hand cramp when I held it properly, perhaps because my “gun muscles” are underdeveloped. I was not surprised when my feeling of dread diminished once the gun was in my grip. It made sense that, like a soccer mom in a Hummer, I’d flush with a sense of security. What unnerved me was the spark of power that lit up my core. When I advanced to the semiautomatic pistol, I had the desire to put one in each hand and shoot at the wall repeatedly while running sideways.
Each of us first-timers was assigned a coach. Mine was a writer for American Cop magazine and a member of the San Diego Police Department. He was tall with an athletic build, bald, mustached (of course), and stood with the proverbial cop stance — feet hip-width apart, thumbs at his belt, and neck extended forward. My coach was cool, scoring me extra bullets when I ran out of the allotted ammo and giving me tips on how to improve my aim. I was proud to get one shot right in the bull’s-eye.
The shotgun caught me off guard. After the easygoing rifle, I wasn’t expecting the pigeon-hitter to recoil so violently. I was instructed to lean forward and put my cheek against the wooden handle, with the stock pressed firmly against my collarbone. The shock of the blast caused obscenities to fly from my mouth, blushing the cheeks around more than one mustache. A conspicuous, hickey-like bruise was quick to form on my neck. I imagined Sarah Palin back in her “abstinence” days: “No, Daddy, that ain’t a love bite, it’s just the kickback from my Browning.”