Guns Are Not Just For Men
What I learned from firing a gun.
Feeling the surge and recoil in my hand, I am brought back to the first time I hopped a freight train. My pack was already tossed into the belly of the boxcar, as was my friend's who was yelling for me to climb in. Running alongside the train, I placed my hand on the floor of the car, almost shoulder height, and the train shook me with mystery; the seething energy of the beast touching my hand could never be stopped by any effort of my own. This was a rite of passage. There was no looking back once I got on.
"You can't take a shot back," my coach had said, "after the bullet has left the barrel." We were at the gun range, just a few minutes passed graduating from a Walther .22 pistol. I had a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver smoking in my hands and I was still spooked. "What are the Four Rules?" she demanded, and I recited them like a canticle to lower my heart rate. She made me memorize the Four Rules before she even let me see a gun, which was, in hindsight, somewhat problematic because I didn't know what I was talking about with these rules. Now I understood them, the trigger and the front sight, and I glanced at the other guns set before us with a newfound respect. Next was a Berretta 9mm, then a Glock .40 caliber, and finally a .45 caliber Taurus 1911. "That's the real handgun we're working you up to," she had ominously told me.
One evening, after being called ignorant during what I considered a political discussion, I had asked her to show me about what I didn't know. "We're starting you off small," she said, "and we're starting you tonight." Starting meant getting rained on in her backyard shooting various objects off overturned buckets with a bb gun. "It's a Red Rider," she said, "Like Ralphie's in A Christmas Story." This was an apt comparison for such a cartoonish experience, without even the danger the movie had threatened.
Two days later we were at the range. The Walther .22 had been easy, like a loud Red Rider. The .38 revolver, however, shook the walls like thunder and I had frozen. "Cock the hammer again," she said.
"You said 'cock'," I giggled nervously, and she gave me a dirty look.
"This is serious, Yasi," she told me. "You're holding a loaded handgun. We don't fuck around with loaded guns. We are far beyond the fucking around phase of this. Stand up straight, cock the hammer, and hit that target." This is when I began to regard her, my friend, as my coach.
I stared at the suspended paper target halfway down the lane, a single hole shot through it, a hole outside even the largest circle of the bull's-eye I'd aimed for. I held the gun in front of me, bringing myself to feel eerily at ease with its ergonomics, and I remembered how it had felt lifeless when i first picked it up, like handling a Hollywood artifact--ruby slippers, or a sled named Rosebud. Really it was little more than a hunk of mechanized metal. After the Walther .22, my coach had me pull back the revolver's hammer and dry fire a few times. Snap snap snap; as easy as that. After a .22 I thought I had this gun thing down. Then we loaded the revolver and I squeezed the trigger...and i write this with all honesty: my life hasn't been the same since.
When we left the range I saw my new reflection in the range master's smile. This range master, a one-armed woman named Julie, worked guns with a hand and a hook better and faster than I could with two hands. Her smile noted a change in me I was just beginning to understand.
The next day we were out in the hills beyond Estacata with handguns, a shotgun, and a few rifles. A light rain sporadically anointed my induction to what was called "real gun culture", mud soaking through my shoes. "These are the real guns," my coach said, her girlfriend ratcheting levers and loading the long guns behind her.
"What about the Taurus, the Taurus .45," I asked, trying to remember my notes from the day before.
"Long guns," she said definitively, as if I'd have been a fool not to have already thought of "long guns" as the answer to my inane question.
A group of young men were shooting and (what I guess is best described as) hollerin', casually plinking (that's a word I learned) away at targets in the dirt off to our right. I have to admit I was very wary of these men, and wary of being outside the bubble of my liberal city life. I'm a small woman of Middle Eastern descent, and I always considered racism (if I ever considered this consciously) as posing the biggest hurdle between me and what I've perceived as American gun culture. The recoil of that .38 Smith & Wesson at the range in the city addressed a feeling of helplessness I had been carrying since even before the World Trade Center towers fell in New York, and seeing white males shooting guns out in the country revitalized my instincts of self preservation.
However, those men regarded us with furtive respect and even the attraction I've felt from men while I've engaged in what are often considered male-dominated activities. It was the same interest men have for a woman skateboarding, a woman in a comic book shop, or a woman walking down the street with a guitar case in hand. I reminded myself how every man I had met on my freight train hobo trip regarded me as a woman long before taking note my race.
"If you're a radical," my coach says, "times will come when you need to back up what you stand for." My memory shot back to that old sticker picturing a woman aiming an AK-47 and an elegant circle-A; "Keep your laws off my body," is its caption.
Her girlfriend hands me a shotgun. "The first round is 7 shot, then 4 shot, then 00, then a magnum slug."
"I don't know what that means," I say.
"I know," she says, "but you're about to."
She puts the stock to my shoulder, tells me to lean into the gun, and very soon I learn the difference between shotgun loads. After the recoil of a 12 gauge magnum slug, her .223 AR-15 feels like a toy and even the.30-06 bolt rifle is tolerable. I'm a pretty good shot, too, once I get over the jitters.
"Don't flinch," my coach says. "The recoil's going to hit you anyways so you might as well make your shot." I can feel the bruise in my shoulder already numbing. Also, underlining this toughing up, I feel an overwhelming life-sense of general capability. With rifle in hand I'm an undeniable force in the flow of all forces of nature. After shooting a gun, a feeling of awareness and confidence still surges through every aspect of my life. Helplessness is no longer inevitable.
"As I told you the other night, this is not a political debate," my coach says. "This is pure life. This is a right beyond any law, or boarder, or Constitution. It's a right of existence and of defending your existence. If you need to convince somebody of their right to existence, of everybody's right to existence, just put a gun in their hand. Galileo's persecutors refused to look through his telescope. See if any of those boys over there dare look down at you now."
I literally shuddered at hearing this, not even caring about the men anymore. I realize it will be different now, when a man feels he can get away with leering at me on a bus or takes advantage of my general social conditioning to feel unsafe. We talk radical politics, and about Anarchy, and Feminism regularly, my coach and I, but before I could always dismiss her "gun thing" as eccentric.
Modern firearms, as my coach says, are the great equalizers.
* * *
So I am at a crossroads where I never expected to be, especially not after the recent mass shootings. Reeling from grief and reverence I was hesitant to take up my friend and coach on her offer to show me what I didn't know, but it was ultimately out of respect that I did finally open up to her. I don't know where I stand on gun control or gun bans, but I'm informed further now by this brief glimpse of how it feels to be empowered, to have a sense of existence with less fear. I have a sense of myself as an assertion where before there may have been only entreat, or a question, or cowering subjectivity.
While working this all out for myself, there is a larger politicized debate about guns currently shaking the media. I'm not a convert to any side, but having had my eyes opened to a larger scope of the debate, what I am relearning is that real stances can't be based solely on what we imagine in our heads. The empirical will usually trump the abstract.
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