Thursday, February 27, 2014

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.

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