Thursday, February 27, 2014

Guns - Part 2

My formal introduction to guns came with a few tears and a lot of anxiety.  As the lesson began and my teacher laid the unloaded weapon on the table, I quivered with the fear of deadly unpredictabilities.  But by the end of the hour, I could coexist with an unloaded handgun.  I even touched it.

Lesson number two took me all the way from touching the unloaded Glock to pulling the trigger on a practice round.  Because I understood the mechanics of the hand gun, felt reassured that every safety precaution was in place, and knew how to ensure any gun I picked up was unloaded, lesson number two didn’t provoke my previous fears.

I learned how to load the magazine, use the proper grip, rack the slide, and check if a round is in the chamber.  I learned proper stance and trigger control, how to aim, and finally, how to breathe when firing.  Because these were practice rounds, I successfully completed all of the steps dry-eyed and calm. 

It isn’t hard to use a gun.  It isn’t complicated or even dangerous when done correctly.  If there were nothing lethal about it, I could easily have mastered it at age 8 or 9.  But add in the fact that a handgun can take the life of another human being, and everything changes. The process of learning skills historically meant to harm people creates an inner turmoil in my chest.  On the one hand, I can pace through the mechanics and follow the procedures like any good student.  I am smart and not overly clumsy.  On the other hand, it puts my soul off-kilter to pursue proficiency in a deadly act I will never commit.

I will never kill another human.  First of all, I don’t believe I will ever find myself in a position where that is a reasonable choice.  Second, even if I did, I would never be able to know, with 100% certainty, beyond even a flicker of a doubt, that killing someone is the best course of action.  I believe that there is almost always another alternative.  To perform an act so final, I would need nothing less than a direct command from God (if I believed in God).  And even then, I am going to insist it be notarized and countersigned by at least two other deities.

I just don’t trust myself to know everything, and that is what I require before I would be willing to take a life.  I would need to weigh every possible factor, from what the perpetrator had for breakfast to which direction the wind was blowing.  Therein might lie an alternative to killing. I would need to know every possible outcome of the situation.  To be omniscient, to know that killing this human being now is the best choice, is impossible.  It can’t be undone, the snuffing of a life-force born from the mysterious spark of nature.  I am not god, nor do I want to be.

By the end of lesson number two, I probably was skilled enough to clumsily fire a bullet into the body of a bad guy (a slow bad guy), but that doesn’t mean I was any closer to doing it.

This educational undertaking, however, would not be complete without firing a live shot.  That is why I decided to accompany my teacher to an indoor firing range and shoot for real.  Seeing how smoothly the second lesson went, I thought I was ready. 

At the range, I filled out the paperwork and donned my ear protection and safety glasses. I looked through the bullet proof glass at a row of mostly middle aged men, each in their own booth, firing away at paper targets on the range.  I started to balk.  Those were real men firing real ammo.  Death was only one crazy person away.  But I swallowed the lump in my throat and soldiered on, silently willing myself to follow my teacher inside the interlocking, soundproof doors connecting the range to the lobby.  

With each step, I noticed my blood pounding in my temples.  My breathing grew shallow and weak.  As I stepped onto the range, the true volume of the firing weapons attacked my ears like a thunder-strike. The piercing explosions made me flinch over and over.  My body jerked and jumped with every blast.  The noise was so loud and so sudden, I burst into tears.  

The deadly banging of the firearms had sent anxiety jolting through me, flipping some kind of regression-switch that made me cry like a baby.  My teacher was concerned.  He looked at me, but I wouldn’t meet his eyes.  I tightened my hearing protection and sat down, twisting my legs and arms into a tight protective pretzel as I waited for my body to get used to this scary new environment of noise and confusion.
My teacher took care of everything for me, checking each gun and neatly laying out the weapons and their corresponding magazines on the shelf in our shooting booth.  As he worked, I dared to look at the row of men shooting from their individual booths.  They were all men.  Some in their 50s, others in the 20s.  Most wore jeans and plaid flannel.  Many had pot bellies.  All of them were intensely focused on their activity.  I felt completely out of my element: insecure, weepy, sensitive…female.

On most occasions, I do not pay attention to my gender.  I assume I am just as qualified to do whatever it is I am doing as the guy next to me.  Sometimes I am better than the man to my right, sometimes worse than the one to my left.  I compare my performance only against my own expectations.  But how many men cry upon entering a firing range?  If these guys weren’t so focused on destroying the paper targets in front of them, they might have looked at me and rolled their eyes.

I saw, in my somewhat hysterical state, people pretending to conquer other human beings with the power-hungry twitch of a finger.  In this activity there seemed to be something inherently male.  These men were enthusiastic, dedicated, focused, set on killing that paper outline of a perpetrator.  I felt at a disadvantage because destroying things is not in my nature.  I did not bring to this endeavor a desire strong enough to blanket the fear of so many flying projectiles so close, such loud explosions, over and over.  

Red flames flashed from the muzzles of every gun fired!  I was astounded:  I had thought that just happened in the movies.  It certainly added to the seriousness that this experiment was about to become.  I myself was about to send flames flying, create deafening explosions and destroy things.   

My teacher approached me and asked if I was ready.  A little wobbly and unsure, I stood and stepped up to the shooting booth where an arsenal was laid out in front of me like a metal buffet.  From left to right, there was a Ruger 22/45, a Glock 19, a Smith & Wesson M&P Compact .40 and a Bersa Thunder .380, each grouped with 2 or 3 loaded magazines at the ready.  He suggested I start with the .22 caliber because it had the least recoil.  

I looked at it; I touched it; I got used to it.  I picked it up and slowly went through the steps I had learned in my lessons.  I placed the magazine in the grip and tapped it, then pulled lightly on it to see if it had seated properly.  I chambered a round by racking the slide.  I wrapped my right hand around the grip with my index finger straight, below the barrel of the gun and well above the trigger.  I wrapped my left hand below the right and created a tension between the two to hold the gun firmly in place.  I squared my hips and set my feet shoulder width apart, then leaned forward with both arms straight and rigid in front of me.

The target paper was 5 yards away.  There were five black target faces on it with red bull’s eyes.  I lined the sights up on the center one, closed my left eye and brought the front sight slightly below the red circle in front of me.  I held my breath, wondering if the noise and the force of the explosion would jolt me as badly as the noise had when I walked into the room.  I decided there was only one way to find out.

I moved my trigger finger down onto the trigger and lined up my sights again. I squeezed.

The trigger moved, but nothing happened.  I squeezed harder, thinking I was doing something wrong.  Nothing happened.  I immediately laid the gun down on the shelf, afraid that it might explode belatedly.  My teacher tested the gun and concluded that it was malfunctioning.  This sent a trickle of “I told you so” creeping into my mind.  “Even if you are super vigilant, you can never be 100% sure!” I told myself, a concept I sometimes take to the extreme.  This is what scares me about handguns: there is no guarantee of perfect safety.      

But I looked around me.  There on the firing range, with a barrage of used shell casings flying like popping corn, muzzles spat red flames and serious, focused men sweated.  The sheer certitude that permeated the room wore away at my impossibly high standard.  These guys were willing to accept slightly less than 100%, and so, I decided, I was too.  This change allowed me to move a little more freely.  I no longer jumped at every shot.  I had grown acclimatized to the environment, surrendering to the general consensus of every other sane person that this place, this activity, was pretty safe – as safe as you can get with 24 loaded guns in action.

I moved to the Glock 19.  This is the gun I had practiced with.  I popped the mag into the grip and racked the slide, going through the same steps as before.  Except this time, when I was finally ready to see if I could make a bullet exit the barrel and hit the piece of paper in front of me, I did.  My squeeze was met with a noise - not as loud as the other guys' guns - and a small black circle appeared on the white paper.  It was the only evidence that anything had happened at all.
That worried me.  I put the gun down to think.  I had just shot my first bullet and the only result was a small hole in a thin piece of paper.  No one screamed.  No one bled.  The gun didn’t jump out of my hands.  The force didn’t knock me backwards.  It was way too easy.  So easy that one could get complacent.  I took a deep breath, conferred with my teacher and reached down to continue.

I shot 10 to 12 rounds before I grew a little shaky from the concentration of focusing so intently.  I took a break, placed my gun on the firing shelf, and we flipped the switch to bring the target back to us where we could see it better.  My shots, all except the first one, were relatively close together, most of them in the outer black circles of the target.  One was in the red.

My teacher took his turn while I rested my brain.  We shot a few magazines worth, and my tension steadily dissipated.  Then, my teacher unzipped his rifle case and placed a beanbag support on the firing shelf.  He loaded XX cartridges into his Smith and Wesson M&P 15-22.  They were much smaller than the handgun rounds.  He sent the target out to 25 yards and emptied a mag into it.  When the paper came back, the shots were uniformly high, so he adjusted the sight.  After a while, he invited me to try it.  

The rifle was configured like an AR-15, with a red dot sight. It was a little longer than my arm, made from plastic and steel like the others, but with numerous unfamiliar parts and switches that I made sure not to touch.  I sat down, placed the handguard of the rifle on the support and I sighted the target at 15 yards.  I pressed the butt into my shoulder, lined up my hands and set the little red dot in the sight on the bull’s eye of the lower right hand target.  

I squeezed.  There was no recoil.  The rifle was even easier than the handguns.  My teacher said, “Wow!”
I kept firing and got in about 10 shots before I wanted to rest again.  We brought the target back in close and he pointed to the hole in the red. 
“That was your first shot,” he said proudly.

I have to admit, even though it was probably luck, I was proud too.

Guns - Part 1

I have a newfound love of all that is different and new, not because what I already know isn’t good enough, but because not knowing as much as possible is not good enough.  I know all about the beliefs I have now.  I am very familiar with what I have thought and how I have interacted with the world up until today.  Now it is time to learn what it is like not to be the me that I have been for all these years.

To understand things anew, I need to try new things. To make the impact significant, I have to choose areas with significance.  This is more than just switching to a new brand of cereal or buying into a different fashion statement.  I have to go straight to my core beliefs and challenge them seriously; really test my assumptions.

Impact also depends on emotion, so I have picked something that scares me to death: guns.

Before today, the old me held the belief that guns are bad, no matter who carries them or how they are used or protected or stored. Handguns are made to kill people, and that is bad. Handguns are a threat to me and my family, and that is bad.  I have gone so far as to cross the street when I see a police officer with a weapon on her hip. Like leprosy, their mere proximity made me feel unsafe.

But today, I am discarding all prior judgments and conclusions.  Today, guns are neither good nor bad; their existence neither increases nor decreases my safety; killing people is neither a sin nor a blessing. Today, handguns no longer embody derogatory, aggressive insecurity.  They are simply another device I pass by in my daily life – coffee maker, bicycle pump, Smith and Wesson.   I am opening my mind to the possibility of changing a strongly held belief that may or may not need changing.  It’s a check-in, a re-evaluation to find out if 44 years of life can alter my perspective, soften my hard stances, allow me to get outside myself and maybe even be someone else.

So, with some trepidation, I asked my gun-owning friend to introduce me to a handgun and be my teacher.

My fear of handguns is not irrational.  Chances of death by handgun go up dramatically when there is a handgun in the house.  Any other tool, if mishandled, doesn’t have quite the potential for unintended harm.  It isn’t the armed criminal that puts me on edge; it’s the careless, overconfident or forgetful friend that gets my heart to palpitating.  Numerous tragedies occur because of unsafe handling, or storage, or a lack of vigilance, or just plain ignorance.  Consequently, this endeavor – my education in guns – may serve a second purpose.  I will no longer be completely ignorant.  Perhaps in some small way, I can contribute to the collective wisdom on gun handling, and just maybe decrease the chances of a senseless gun accident.

That is, if I ever get past my visceral aversion of picking one up.

The lesson began.  My teacher brought to the coffee table a black, neoprene mat covered in diagrams of weapon components and safety messages.  He placed a heavy black Glock 19 on the mat, slide open and magazine removed.  The sight of it sent a wave of apprehension through my body, but I didn’t blink or look away.  I watched it from where I was on the couch, getting used to its presence from afar.  It didn’t jump up and bite me.

My teacher named all the parts and opened and closed the slide to show me the mechanisms involved.  The fact that it had plastic parts was disconcerting.  How could something so serious be made from the same material as most toys?   He showed me how to check that a gun is unloaded, by sticking your finger in the chamber to see if a round was loaded, in through the ejection port to feel if there were any rounds in the upper magazine well, and in the bottom of the magazine well to see if a magazine was inserted; then visually checking the chamber.

As he finished his guided tour of the piece, I started to feel more comfortable.  I was 90% convinced that his repeated testing proved that there were no rounds inside.

Then, he showed me a single round from the gun that he wears on his hip every day and explained how a jacketed hollow point cartridge is built.  At the front is the bullet, a lead projectile with a hollow tip designed for maximum damage upon impact.  The bullet is seated in a brass casing, which also holds the gunpowder and detonator, called a primer.  When hit by the firing mechanism, the primer ignites, which in turn lights the gunpowder afire, sending the bullet whizzing down the barrel of the pistol.

After this description, my teacher immediately left the room and took the live ammo away.  Best practice says all live ammo needs to be in another room entirely when you are working with the handgun.  When he returned to the room, he carried a small handful of practice rounds and dumped them onto the neoprene mat in front of me. He assured me that these were inert and couldn't be fired.

Nevertheless, I had the impulse to count them and line them up on end, neat and under my control.  I did not want to let them out of my sight.  Some had an orange, plastic top.  Others were completely maroon from tip to base. These were practice rounds, he explained, designed not to do anything when struck by the hammer.  They didn’t have gunpowder inside.  They don’t even exit the chamber when the gun is fired.  That didn’t stop me from wincing as they rolled around on the mat like a haphazard collection of pocket change. 

As he loaded the plastic practice rounds into the magazine, I shrunk back, hiding behind his shoulder for protection.  Crazy freak accidents, caused by implausible scenarios, flooded my mind.  What if the manufacturer put powder in one cartridge by accident?  What if my teacher was color blind and the designated color for fakes was supposed to be blue?  What if there was a live round hiding somewhere inside the gun that we hadn’t found?  As ridiculous as the possibilities appeared - even to the crazy one who thought them up – the consequences could be dire.

My teacher inserted the full magazine into the grip with a thump and drew back the slide, loading a shell into the chamber. At this point, I was cowering and near tears with anxiety.  There was a round in the chamber of a gun within 2 feet of me.  It was the closest I had ever been to a weapon designed and ready to kill humans – to kill me.  The gun was loaded: loaded with immobile, plastic rounds, but nonetheless, I was working myself into an emotional frenzy.

And then, he pointed the gun at the densest part of the apartment wall, and he pulled the trigger.

It made a mechanical click, like any tool or toy might make.  Nothing flew out of the muzzle.  No white smoke drifted from his hand.  No big bang reverberated in my ears.  The round had done exactly what he said it would do: nothing.

After my heart rate returned to normal, the lesson sunk in.  I realized that it was not guns I was afraid of, although the heavy menacing look of a compact killing machine was daunting in its own right.  It was not people with guns that scare me – I could have been afraid of my friend turning crazy at that very instant and pointing the gun at me, but that thought never crossed my mind. It was bullets that scare me.  Once that totally benign piece of plastic and metal met its receptacle, I felt fear.

My irrational, persistent urge to count those little plastic containers clued me in.  I wanted assurance, certainty; a perfect 100% guarantee that a stray shell wasn’t hiding in the gun.  I feared, regardless of my intense precautions, that I would send one flying, burrowing and exploding into a fellow human being.

I think I will be able to pick up the gun during my next lesson.  But inserting real cartridges - holding in my hands the power to take a life – that won’t be easy.