A few weeks ago, I found myself in a field with four men, four pistols, three rifles, and several hundred dollars worth of ammunition.
Luckily, the experience was voluntary. When my friend offered to teach me how to shoot, I stuck to my 2013 resolution of saying yes to trying new things despite my reservations. Although I love a good action story—Dana Scully and Olivia Dunham come to mind as some of my favorite fictional, gun-wielding women—I had never actually touched a gun, and the thought of doing so terrified me. Aside from movies and TV shows where guns are depicted as convenient solutions to all those pesky bad guys, the only other place I had encountered guns was in the headlines. Newtown, Virginia Tech, and Trayvon Martin all came to mind as I gingerly grasped the cold, heavy rifle that my friends handed me, eager to teach me how to shoot. As they corrected my stance, I tried desperately to remember what kind of gun killed Trayvon. It was probably not too different from the pistols that lay on the edge of the tarp my friends had spread to catch spent ammunition.
On top of those reservations, I had returned the States from Scotland only a week earlier. Living abroad for four months gave me the chance to see the States from an outside perspective. I expected to encounter stereotypes about Americans, and sure enough, I hadn’t been in Scotland for a full week before an Australian traveler asked me if it was true that everyone in America owned at least a few guns. Although to my knowledge no one in my family owns a gun (with the exception of one uncle who works in law enforcement), a map designed by the Guardian’s Simon Rogers shows that we’re in the minority. According to Rogers, approximately 70 out of every 100 Americans own a gun. By comparison, between zero and 10 people out of every 100 own guns in the U.K. In Dublin, the Garda (Irish police force) do not carry guns in hopes of making criminals feel less threatened and thus less inclined to pack heat of their own. It felt so good to be home in Virginia, standing in a field of yellow winter grass in the bright sun, but after seeing the others live, I saw my home with a more critical eye.
To qualify to own a gun in Virginia, you must meet a series of requirements, including a background check. If you’ve committed a felony, had a restraining order filed against you, been addicted to any substance, or been deemed mentally incapacitated, the state will not grant you a permit. Despite these precautions, accidents and incidents still occur. Just last spring, a man entered the Charlottesville Kroger where I normally fill my prescriptions openly carrying a loaded AR-15. Although no violence occurred, I can only imagine an overzealous bystander (perhaps also armed) stepping in and creating tragic consequences.
With all of this information weighing on my mind, I hesitated to depress the trigger. I have virtually no upper body strength and arms like noodles, and the gun felt heavier and heavier as I tried to align the shot. “Exhale and steadily depress the trigger,” my friend’s brother advised, surprising me out of my preoccupations. “It should be a surprise to you when it goes off, don’t jerk it.” He grinned. “You’re going to have the flinch, I can tell.”
I did flinch terribly and hesitate between shots, but the day ended up being a lot of fun. Later that day, after a bonfire and a few beers, we escaped the cold by watching “Fargo” and “Reservoir Dogs.” As I watched gun violence play on the screen, I reflected on my day of shooting. For all of my grim hand-wringing, shooting ended up being about loud noises, being outside on a beautiful day, and one of my own passions, history. For collectors, guns can provide a tactile connection to the past. To know that your grandfather defended his own life in Iwo Jima or long ago, your family had fought in the Civil War with the same gun you hold in your hands creates a powerful potential for understanding.
My mind is still made up—no matter how careful you are, gun accidents can still happen. I still strongly believe that no one needs semiautomatic assault weapons. But while I would not consider myself converted to enthusiasm about guns, I have to admit that in the context of a sunny afternoon in a safely isolated place, shooting isn’t the worst pastime I can think of. I even learned that my gun-enthusiast friends agree with my views to a greater degree than I expected. “I’m all for gun laws,” they said again and again throughout the day, “As long as they don’t take away my hobby.”
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