We went to a gun range last night, out in PoCo. It was strange. I haven’t been to PoCo since I was a kid, having dinner with the Mennonite portion of my extended family and failing to understand what “saying grace” was all about.
We drove for an hour out of Vancouver, the idea of shooting a kind of ambient haze at that point. My partner Michael picked me and our friend andrea up from work to do this, because it was Michael’s birthday. He chose it because he wanted to understand what holding a firearm was like, particularly because he feels it’s important to do so if you want to have an opinion on something like gun control.
It wasn’t until we pulled into the parking lot that the ambient haze coalesced for us and we started to understand what we were undertaking. Holding a gun. Pulling a trigger.
To get into the building, we had to patiently wait for them to buzz us through, into an open reception area with glass cabinets—the kind that might hold jewelry, expensive watches—filled with guns, delineated by make and model. Little cardboard signs. We stepped in and someone asked us if we were here to shoot, if this was our first time, could we please fill out these waivers. Have a piece of photo ID ready. We read, bristling at the typos and certain clauses (loss of life), we signed, we were assigned a little paper ticket with “46” printed on it. Pick your target: Classic Outline of Human Body, Dog, Hello Kitty, Zombie. We picked Zombie. Choose your guns: two hand guns (Colt 9mm, Sig Sigauer 9mm) one shotgun (firing “birdshot”).
Sit and wait. It was Ladies’ Night—andrea could shoot for free, but we opted to split the cost three ways because it was Michael’s birthday. Mothers came in with their twelve-year-old sons, a nineteen-year-old boy and girl were waiting for their date to begin. Someone brought in a gangly brown dog who snorted and sniffed around, saying hello quite casually amid muffled bangs.
Another guy brought us—and the couple on what sounded like a second date—into a little room. This guy ran us through basic gun safety, how to hold it (always facing down toward the target, always pivot it from side to side in your hand, keep your trigger finger on an indent above the trigger, never on the trigger). How to load it and unload it. How to cock it. How to loop your thumbs around each other. Not to panic if a spent shell flew down our shirts, always put the gun down before doing anything else. He used a real gun with fake bullets, we used a plastic gun without moving parts. We watched, andrea held the fake gun alongside the other girl. I was nervous, felt it in my stomach, little exploding butterflies. I didn’t have a chance to hold the plastic gun, would I remember all the details? Would something slip my mind?
After that, we left the little room and a chaperone came up to us, a guy with the kind of dorky glasses I used to wear in high school, a nice guy with a broad face named Terry. We would have to wear ear-phones. We wouldn’t have to wear safety goggles, because Michael and I both have glasses, although andrea would. He had a pair of neon green earplugs tied together with a stretching, neon string—why couldn’t I have one of those, instead of the ear-phones that threatened to compress my skull?
Terry guided us through a little antechamber with lockers and then into the actual gun range, the floor thick with spent shells. which felt like a haphazard bowling alley built into someone’s garage. Partitioned booths running down the room, with the experienced gun-owners on our left in a cluster, the newbies directed to the other end.
Terry ran through safety with us again and stood there, talked us (well, yelled—the room was full of men talking loudly to people about guns, to be heard over the earphone muffling and the persistent bangs) through the action, made sure we didn’t point the handgun the wrong way. Michael went first, asked in detail about the safety features both handguns. Michael wanted to stop after his first shot with the first handgun, but kept going, to empty the magazine. Then andrea went, and she said as soon as she started her mind was screaming the entire time. I took my turn with clammy, shaking hands—I lined up my shot, and pulled the trigger, there was the bang, and a burst of fire, a momentary flash.
Keep going, keep going.
Michael ended up finishing the handgun rounds and andrea declined to try the shotgun. The two of us each took five shots on the shotgun, pumping it in between, holding it as Terry showed us, the butt braced against the meat of our shoulder (Michael would have a bruise the next day), birdshot bursting against the Zombie target over and over, leaving wide holes. While the handgun was terrifying to hold, the shotgun felt more solid, stable, with one finger on the trigger while my other hand held up the barrel. It felt more grounded.
We didn’t use up all our ammunition. The three of us left pretty shaky, glad to have done it but glad to be out of there. Terry argued, was concerned we weren’t getting our money’s worth, but we politely declined. Before we left, I grabbed a spent shell from the floor, thumbed the empty space where the bullet used to be, slipped it into my pocket. It’s sitting on my desk right now, next to a deer bone I found on a hike on Salt Spring a few years ago, the beginnings of a macabre little collection.
I got nothing of the feeling of power people occasionally talk about having when they hold a gun—it was just nerve-wracking, an actual death-machine in my hands, shells leaping through the air, tinging against the concrete floor. Something could go wrong kept pumping away in my head the entire time.
Nothing fundamentally changed about how I feel about guns. They freaked me out before, they freak me out now. A friend of mine from Kansas remarked that the attitude was completely alien to him—he hasn’t shot a gun in years, but my attitude would probably be ridiculed where he comes from, the idea of being “Grossed the fuck out by guns” isn’t even an option there. I can see the value of owning one as a hunter, but not really for any other reason. It was interesting to do, to experience, but I don’t feel any inclination to do it again; something about seeing that little explosion sealed it for me, that it was a power or a danger I shouldn’t have contact with, a fire I have no desire to have wedged between my fingers.