Last week I found myself in a field in northeastern Ohio hunched over a loaded AR-15.
It started a couple of weeks before when my sister and her boyfriend stayed with us in Massachusetts. Her boyfriend learned that I’d never fired a gun before, and I could see the wheels begin to turn as he planned a shooting outing for my spouse and me next time we would be in Ohio.
I’ve got a lot of existential angst, and I sometimes find it a little too much even just to drive a car knowing that, at any moment, I could drive off the road; nothing’s keeping me in my lane but my own will. So, the idea of firing a loaded gun has never really appealed to me. But I also enjoy new experiences and challenging my fears, so I said I was in. We lined up my mom to babysit the kids the Friday we’d be in Ohio, and soon enough we were driving up to the outdoor range in my sister’s boyfriend’s pickup truck.
We didn’t start with the AR. We started with a brief gun safety lesson in the Gun Room of my sister and her boyfriend’s house. I held the Glock and my husband held the FNX and my sister’s boyfriend ran us through how to pop in the magazine and how to chamber a round (sans ammunition at this point) and how to make sure there were no more bullets in the chamber.
Then he started packing up, getting out one gun after another and putting them in a black bag.
“OK, so we’ll shoot the Glock and the FNX and the 0.38. Oh, and the AR, of course. Not this one, though. It’s all loaded and ready. It’s my home-defense weapon,” he explained, placing a large firearm back into the gun safe. “And the shotgun.” He handed the shotgun to me.
“It smells different from the others,” I said. “Kind of like oil.”
“It has a wooden stock,” he explained. “You have to oil it to keep it from drying out.”
The wood on the stock was smooth and chestnut-colored. It was actually quite pretty.
“Honey, where’s your 0.45?” he asked my sister.
“In the bedside table,” she answered, and in a flash I wondered if I actually knew my sister as well as I thought I did. I mean, I knew she liked their trips out to the firing range, and I knew she’d gotten her Concealed Carry Permit, but keeping a gun in a bedside table seemed to cross another threshold.
Watching my scientist spouse with his greying hair carry black, gun-shaped bags to the back of the truck was surreal—“You’re finally exercising your Second Amendment rights, Honey,” I joked—but not as surreal as it was to actually hold a loaded gun on the range.
The first gun was the Glock 9mm. My sister’s boyfriend complained about it a lot because it wasn’t acting right. It’s a semi-automatic so you shouldn’t have to pull back the slide to chamber a round between shots, but the Glock wasn’t acting semi-automatic. It’s also pretty difficult to pull back the slide. My spouse actually cut his thumb pulling it back because he had his hand in the wrong spot.
I didn’t injure myself, but my hands shook as I tried to sight the target. Even so, I shot best with the Glock, I think because it was my first gun and I hadn’t yet developed the anticipatory flinch that preceded each pull of the trigger from the second gun on.
The AR was the scariest-looking of the bunch. The civilian version of an M16, I found it a little intimidating both in looks and in reputation. I didn’t feel any less intimidated when I found how easy it was to shoot it.
I loaded the magazine into the rifle using a “beer can grip,” as my sister’s boyfriend instructed. He led me through turning the little safety dial to the semi-automatic setting and chambering the first round. (The dial indicated that there was a three-round burst setting (you can see it in the photo of the AR-15 below), but apparently that’s just for show. By law, guns can’t have the innards that can make them fully automatic unless you have special and very costly permits. Also, it wastes ammunition, which is probably why we wouldn’t have used it even if the automatic function had been active.)
I looked down the sight and lined up the little red light with the center of the target.
“We’re only 25 yards away from the target and the sight is set for 50 yards, so you’re going to shoot low,” the boyfriend had explained. By this time, we’d already shot four other guns, and I could never really tell where the bullet hit the target anyway. For one thing, the bullets went straight through the paper and tore up chunks of sod on the other side, which made it tough for me to know if I’d hit the target or just missed it entirely. For another, no matter how hard I tried, I could not keep my eyes open when the gun fired, even if I wasn’t the one firing it.
“We spend a lot of time training to reduce the flinch,” explained my sister. I hadn’t really thought of it as a flinch, just as an uncontrollable urge to shut my eyes when the bullet exited the gun, but I suppose that’s firmly within the “flinch” definition. “We’ll hand each other guns, and we won’t tell the other person if it’s loaded or not. That way, we can gradually shoot as though the gun is always unloaded.”
With the AR, I did seem to hit the target, although low, as the boyfriend had predicted. I was a better shot with that than I had been the pistols we’d shot so far. I thought about Newtown and Aurora and that ease of hitting a target the first time out with an AR-15 did not make me feel better.
Also, the rifle was very heavy. I gave the gun to my sister to fire the last few rounds because I just couldn’t hold the barrel up anymore.
With the shotgun, we used full water bottles as targets. My spouse shot first. He had five shells, and although he hit the bottle on the first shot, my sister’s boyfriend encouraged him to keep firing at it. We joked that he was really teaching that water bottle a lesson, but I admit, I found joking about live ammunition a little uncomfortable.
Then it was my turn with the shotgun.
“Don’t worry,” said the boyfriend, “we’re only using game shot, so this won’t have much kick. It won’t even have as much kick as the AR.”
So, I held up the long shotgun, pumped the forestock (with a chick-chick sound, like in the movies), and pulled the trigger. I hit the water bottle, but I also clanged my teeth together and felt pain in the right side of my chest where I’d pressed the butt of the gun. A little shaken, I tried a second shot. This time I held my jaws tight so my teeth wouldn’t bang together, but when I fired the gun, I felt lines of pain down the back of my neck.
“I’m done,” I said, handing the gun to my sister to fire the last three shells.
Although I don’t recall ever expressing anti-gun sentiments (my views on gun control legislation are fairly abstract; I can see both sides of the issue and long for open discussion about how to preserve the rights of citizens to own firearms while preserving the rights of everyone to not be shot), I think my sister’s boyfriend was trying to convert me into a gun-lover with this outing.
Back in my kitchen weeks before, he and my sister told me about their friend Kim.
“Kim’s, what? Five feet tall?” the boyfriend asked my sister.
“At most. She’s tiny,” my sister said.
“At any rate, we take her out to the range, and she gets out there and fires the AR, and when she’s done she’s grinning like crazy and saying, ‘This is so fun!'”
Knowing this was the reaction he seemed to expect from me, I tempered my negative response.
“Yeah, it’s not really my cup of tea,” I explained. My favorite part of the outing was looking through the grass to collect the shell casings so my sister’s boyfriend could re-load them.
Before we went to the range, I’d worried mostly about the emotional discomfort I might feel firing guns. There was a bit of that, but the biggest discomfort was physical. Although I liked the smell of the gunpowder—it smelled like the breeze after a fireworks display—I didn’t like not being able to hear with the protective ear plugs in. My wrist was sore from the kick of the pistols, my shoulder and neck were sore from the shotgun, and my arms were shaking from holding up all of that weight in a static position for so long.
On the drive home, as I tried to stop myself from thinking of every animal we passed—deer, cow, horse, and rabbit alike—“I could shoot that,” the thought occurred to me that my arms are conditioned for snuggling my babies, not for firing guns. Sure, I could do both, but there’s one I just like a whole lot more than the other.