When I told my family and friends that I was leaving London and moving to America, many of their first reactions were about firearms:
“Aren’t you worried about all the guns?”
“What if you get shot? I heard they won’t take you to hospital unless you pay the paramedics.”
“There’s no way I’d live in a country where just anyone can carry a gun.”
The truth is, I was worried about guns. In 1995, there were 223 million civilian firearms registered in the United States. That’s almost one gun for every citizen in that particular year – and that’s not counting the illegal, unregistered weapons. Who knew how many of those were out there.
However, my concerns about firearms were tempered by the fact that I wanted to get to know my girlfriend Nicky’s brother, Tommy a little better. Something of a survivalist, Tommy is convinced that martial law in the United States is inevitable, and he has a detailed, strategic escape plan for when the economy implodes and people return to a way of life not seen since the Old West. A firm believer in the Boy Scout motto, he even has a “bug-out” bag in the trunk of his car for such eventualities. He had offered to take me shooting with him, and when the opportunity finally presented itself one weekend, I told him I’d love to go.
We missed the entrance to the shooting range, driving past the unassuming dirt driveway nestled between two small houses in southern Massachusetts. I thought we would hear the range long before we reached it: a cacophonous battle against stationary enemies, waged throughout America by suburban warriors in a state of perpetual readiness. In my mind, we would approach the range like soldiers riding into battle in a black Volvo sedan, the whip-crack reports of gunfire growing louder as we approached.
The only sound was the wind through barren trees.
“I think we missed it,” said Tommy. “This isn’t the range I usually go to.”
He turned around in a driveway and guided the car through the gap in the rusty chain-link fence that circled the perimeter of the club. As we pulled into the parking lot, my eyes were wide, my palms clammy. There were a few old, battered pickups, a black Ford Explorer and a couple of Jeep Wranglers parked in the dirt expanse that served as the parking lot. Three men dressed in flannel shirts, faded jeans and work boots stood laughing and talking by the rear of the Explorer. As Tommy parked the car, they fell silent and stared at us, their gaze resting briefly on Tommy before settling on me. I had dressed as casually as I could, figuring that a plaid shirt, jeans and a Red Sox cap would allow me to enter the inner sanctum of the clubhouse unnoticed.
We got out of the car and retrieved the long, pea-green rifle case from the trunk. I hoped that Tommy’s bumper sticker featuring the emblem of an eagle bearing crossed rifles, the symbol of the National Rifle Association, would send a message to anyone watching our approach that we too were enthusiastic supporters of the right to bear arms. The other sticker, the coiled rattlesnake of the Gadsden flag, would hopefully lend us further credibility.
The men surrounding the Explorer never took their eyes off me as we walked toward the clubhouse. I felt their expressionless gaze watching my every step, my chest tightening with anxiety and panic. Tommy carried the rifle. It fell to me to hold the scuffed, black leather Sony bag that had once contained a small camcorder, now bulging with nine millimeter rounds for Tommy’s Ruger SRC and the slim, deadly-looking 7.62 rounds for the 1943 Mosin-Nagant 91/30 rifle in the green case. The rifle that was manufactured in a factory in the former Soviet Union the same year my father was born. The rifle we would soon load with live ammunition and take turns firing.
We approached the squat clubhouse slowly, Tommy taking the lead. The structure was built from gray breeze blocks and had no windows. The once-brilliant white paint covering the wooden beams that ran along the guttering of the building was peeling off in large flakes. A small chimney puffed pale blue smoke into the frigid November air.
A man who looked to be in his seventies, dressed in faded gray coveralls and a matching baseball cap, was working outside, cutting wooden pallets down to size with a small electric handsaw. He paused to glance our way, nodded almost imperceptibly, before returning to his work.
There was a large, steel door in the middle of the front wall of the clubhouse. At eye level, a bright blue bumper sticker read, “Crime Control, Not Gun Control.” Tommy held the door for me, and we stepped inside.
The clubhouse smelled like a garage, filled with the musty odor of stale cigarette smoke and antique shops. A dirty, sagging couch was positioned against the left wall, and two men sat watching a tiny television perched atop a dented steel file cabinet in the opposite corner of the room. A pair of deer heads was mounted as hunting trophies on the far wall, their dead, glassy eyes watching me. The large rug covering the rough floorboards was worn down to threads, the pattern faded and barely distinguishable. An old wooden desk sat in the corner to the left of the door, its scratched surface buried in newspapers, paper targets, empty ammunition boxes and flyers for local businesses selling oil changes and farm equipment. Yellowed calendars with curled pages hung on the walls, bearing images of bored-looking women wearing bikinis and false smiles, draped over tractors.
“Gonna squeeze off a few?”
The man’s voice startled me. He was in his mid-to-late forties, wearing a John Deere baseball cap and an orange vest worn over a checked shirt. He ambled through from an office adjacent to the main room of the clubhouse. I hesitated, trying to think of something to say, before realizing he was talking to Tommy. After he flashed the man a cursory display of his permit, Tommy and I signed the guestbook, a photocopied sheet attached to a cheap clipboard, with one column for our names and another for signatures. A few names were scrawled above ours in blue ballpoint.
The owner gave us a roll of paper targets before wandering back through to the rudimentary office. Tommy handed me the targets, and I opened the door. Another bumper sticker, this one a vivid red, was affixed to the door at eye level. It read, “I’ll Forgive Jane Fonda When The Jews Forgive Hitler.” The cold air rushed to meet us as we left the warmth of the clubhouse.
The ground leading to the firing ranges sloped gradually. The hard earth beneath our boots became coarse, like walking across a gravel driveway. I looked down to see hundreds of spent shell casings strewn across the ground all around us. Although it hadn’t occurred to me before that nobody would bother to sweep the dirt outside a brick clubhouse where men gathered to shoot guns, the sight of the spent rounds struck me as almost vulgar. Some were fresh, others rusted from countless days of rain.
A few other men stood to our right. A wooden sign, nailed to the trunk of a nearby tree, read “No Firearms Larger Than 9mm.” As Tommy removed the Ruger from its case, I stood and watched the others fire at the targets set up at varying distances down range. Beyond the targets, the ground rose sharply in a low hill, and as I watched, rounds that missed their mark peppered the loose, dry earth of the mound, the sound like golf balls landing in a sand trap.
“These rounds are standard range ammo,” Tommy said as he loaded the bullets into the Ruger’s magazine. “Whenever I carry it with me I use hollow-points, but these are perfectly good for target practice.”
“You carry your pistol around with you?” I asked, transfixed by the satisfying, muted clicks of the rounds settling into their place in the clip. “Don’t you need a special permit for that?”
“Well, no, not really,” Tommy said. “As long as I have it on my person, it’s covered by my license.” He slid the magazine into the grip of the pistol. “I can’t keep it in my glove box while I’m driving or anything. I need to be able to reach it at all times. Want me to show you how to hold it?”
He demonstrated the correct way to hold a handgun; hands together, balls of my palms touching, right hand cupped by the left, thumbs brought together to the left of the slide. The Ruger was heavy enough that it didn’t feel like a toy, but was light enough to rest comfortably at eye-level. The knurling of the pistol’s grip pressed against my right palm, the cold steel of the slide against my index finger.
I looked at the gun clasped between my hands. It looked absurd, somehow, as if I were looking through someone else’s eyes. I was struck by the singularity of purpose with which it had been made. The mechanics of the weapon both fascinated and repulsed me; that men had devoted such effort and conscious application of human ingenuity in the creation of a tool made solely for the purpose of killing.
It was the last thing I ever expected to find in my hands.
Easing the safety down, I stared through the small groove resting atop the pistol’s slide that served as the sight, and took aim at the heart of the target that stood downrange.
“Remember, it’s a double-action trigger, so you’ll have to squeeze a little harder the first time.”
I held my breath, mentally replaying scenes from movies where patient instructors told rookies to squeeze the trigger, not pull it. The sight hovered over the target, and I fired. The sound of the gunshot was brief: quick enough that I could hear the spent casing take its place among the ammunition graveyard at my feet with a light, metallic tink. The recoil was gentle, much weaker than I had expected. I looked around, sure that all eyes would be on me, that I had been discovered – but the other men continued to stand with legs planted firmly apart, focused entirely on their own passive opponents.
The trigger offered much less resistance as it had for the first shot as I fired steadily at the target again. I had expected the sound of gunfire to be frightening, but the rhythmic shots punctuating the still morning air was almost hypnotic. Although it felt as though I had only fired four or five rounds, the pistol gave a dull click as I shot the tenth round in the magazine. I placed the Ruger on the wooden, waist-high stand in front of us and stepped back from it slowly, simultaneously sad and relieved that it was out of my hands.
Tommy stepped forward, eased the safety back up and ejected the clip. I took a pair of binoculars that he had set on the waist-high wooden bench in front of us and examined my handiwork. A cluster of small holes peppered the upper right of the target. Had it been a real assailant, many of the bullets would have passed harmlessly over my attacker’s left shoulder.
I wanted to be Al Pacino in Serpico, fighting corruption on the mean streets of New York; Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven, defending a helpless Mexican village from rampaging bandidos; Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, taking out the trash in the City by the Bay.
Instead, I’m a Star Wars stormtrooper, firing round after useless round at the fleeing rebels.
“Maybe the sight’s a little off?” I said quietly.
Tommy hesitated. “Yeah, maybe. I’ve been meaning to get a scope for it,” he said, returning his attention to reloading the magazine.
We took turns, my shots inching closer to their intended mark with every clip. Tommy allowed me to load the pistol after a while, and I relished the click of every bullet I placed in the magazine. The procedure was a ritual: structured, orderly, disciplined. I began to admire the way the mechanisms and moving parts of the gun worked together as a whole. After two more clips, I approached it not with fear and trepidation as I had when we first arrived, but with the respect that an experienced sailor has for the ocean, or the way a handler approaches the dens of the big cats at a zoo.
“Want to try the rifle?” Tommy asked as he replaced the Ruger in its case, a small black metal box that resembled the fireproof safes people kept their passports in beneath the floorboards of their homes.
We left the small caliber range and walked back toward the clubhouse. The range to our left was for larger weapons; the still fall morning was pierced by the rolling, hollow boom of a .50 caliber sniper rifle. The man firing the rifle sat in a steel folding chair, rusted by the rain, just like the rounds beneath our feet. He wore a trapper’s hat, aviator sunglasses with yellow-tinted lenses and a hunting vest. I watched him while Tommy removed the bolt-action Nagant from its case, admiring the shooter’s singular focus on nothing but his target.
After demonstrating how to load the slender, copper rounds into the chamber, Tommy showed me how to work the bolt-action lever of the rifle. As I embraced the weapon, easing it into the crook of my shoulder, Tommy took a couple of steps back. The rifle was heavy, but not cumbersome; the weight made it feel more real, more deadly. In my mind, I saw Soviet soldiers clutching these weapons to their chests in muddy trenches outside Voronezh, clinging to their rifles in the absence of all hope or reason.
The sight was even more rudimentary than the notch on the Ruger had been: a thin, protruding strip of metal that ran along the top of the rifle’s wooden stock, aligned with a circular metal cylinder on the end of the barrel. The solid physical presence of the weapon lent it an air of brutality compared to the sleek, lightweight elegance of the pistol.
Braced for the recoil, sight aimed squarely in the center of the target, I squeezed the trigger. The kick was enough to jerk my arms back as the weapon bucked. The sound was glorious; a sharp, explosive crack fired across the muddy expanse of a long-forgotten battlefield. The acrid tang of the gunpowder smelled like the burnt, metallic odor of discarded fireworks.
Just like Tommy had shown me, I pulled the bolt back toward me, and then sharply to the left before sliding it back to the right and pushing the bolt forward into firing position. Shooting the Ruger had felt almost mechanical, but this was different. The weight, the heavier sound of the shot, the physical effort of the bolt-action lever – it felt natural, more organic: an extension of me, more than just a mere weapon.
The target was considerably further downrange than it had been when we were firing the pistol, but looking through the binoculars at my shot, the larger hole was like the fuzzy blot of a permanent marker left on a sheet of paper for too long amid a peppering of pencil dots. Seeing that bullet hole in the wooden frame was exhilarating, my heart quickening in my chest.
As we took turns firing the Nagant, the concept of guns began to take on another reality for me. Since I was a teenager, I had abhorred weapons. I thought of them as needless instruments of death, deserving no place in civilized households. But as we loaded and fired the rifle, my shots inching ever closer to the target’s head and heart, I began to wonder if perhaps I had been wrong. There was something pure, something right, about the focus, the discipline, even the unspoken camaraderie between the men at the range.
Despite growing comfortable handling the rifle, I felt the dull shame of jealousy raise in my chest and the warmth of embarrassment flush my cheeks. I thought of the suspicious expressions of the men in the parking lot; I wasn’t one of them, and likely never would be, no matter how many guns I owned or how often I came here to shoot. I was different, foreign; a stranger, my presence merely tolerated.
Examining the box of shells, I saw that only a handful remained. I loaded the rounds into the rifle slowly, took aim more carefully, and paused for longer intervals between rounds. After the last shot had been fired, the spent shell ejecting as I worked the rifle’s bolt, I felt the sudden sadness of a child who realizes that the birthday party is over; that the fairground ride is slowing to its inevitable stop.
After placing the rifle back in its case, we walked back to the clubhouse, targets rolled up beneath my arm like souvenir posters. We left the pock-marked wooden frame with the old man outside, who was still working. He didn’t look up as Tommy propped our frame against the side of the clubhouse.
Walking back towards the car, I scribbled a note to myself in the small black notebook in my inside pocket to look into whether I could apply for a permit of my own. As we drove away, I hoped that the men who knew this place as a second home would some day allow me to come back.