Alexandra Duncan

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Feminism.


I spent four hours today learning about guns. Not reading books about guns or gleaning information from episodes of Mythbusters, but buying ammo, having a crash course in gun safety, and then shooting a Glock 9mm and a .22 caliber revolver in the midst of the heat and smoke at the local firing range.

What was my bleeding-heart liberal ass doing at a firing range? Research. 

Normally, when I do research for a writing project, I spend a lot of time with books, documentary films, and Google Image Search. When I took on Theodora Goss's Y.A. writing challenge at the beginning of the summer, I knew vaguely what I wanted to write about, but I hadn't given it a lot of careful thought or preparation. I jumped in with the first, most dramatic image that came to mind: a girl looking down the barrel of a rifle. She would be a sniper, I decided as I wrote, tough, competent, and self-sufficient. I blazed through my first two chapters, and then showed my early draft to Jeremy.

"So, what do you think?" I asked the second he looked up from my laptop.

He frowned. "It's good." He hesitated. "But it's pretty clear the person who wrote this doesn't know anything about guns."

This is entirely true. Before this weekend, my sum total knowledge of guns was that they were loud and shot bullets, that they had a trigger and a muzzle, and when you fired them, there was something called kickback. So, I called my friend Max, who is my go-to person in case of zombie apocalypse, and asked him if he'd teach me about guns. I knew I could learn the names of the types of firearms and their components from books, but I decided that actually learning to safely load and fire a gun would help me more accurately describe the experience than hours spent absorbing that information second-hand.

A brief pause here while I explain that having both grown up in the rural South and having lived in cities, my own feelings about gun control are complicated. I understand their cultural and practical significance in rural areas, but I also recognize the role they play in violent crime and death. I have nothing but fear and respect for firearms. I understand why people want them, but I've never felt the need to own one. I'm pretty sure I would accidentally shoot myself in the foot, or worse, the head, if I had one lying around the house. And honestly, I probably never would have visited a firing range in my life if I hadn't decided I needed to do some real-life research in service of this novel project.

Still, I've heard people talk about shooting a gun for the first time -- about what an exhilarating rush it is, about the surge of power you feel when you pull the trigger -- so I was a little worried I would like it too much and turn into an adrenaline junkie/gun nut. Either that, or the experience would be too overwhelming for me and I would have a panic attack and have to go breathe into a paper bag in the parking lot.

I started my day by driving to Wal-Mart with a piece of paper in my pocket telling me what ammunition to buy: 9mm Winchester white box and .22 long rifle. (That's right, you can't buy beer on a Sunday morning, but you can buy ammo for an semi-automatic handgun.) This meant absolutely nothing to me, but I managed to maintain the illusion of competence until the clerk at the Wal-Mart sporting goods counter asked me if I was using the .22s for a rifle or a revolver.

Now, I know the basic difference between these two kinds of guns.  A rifle is large and has a long barrel, and a revolver is smaller, a handgun. But at that exact moment, all of this information flew out of my head.

"Uh. . ." I said, drawing the word out as I stared blankly into the depths of my purse.

She looked up from her register and raised her eyebrows.

"My friend is teaching me how to shoot," I explained.

"Ah." She smiled. "Okay, is it a long gun or a short gun?" She held her hands out far apart, and then brought them close to illustrate this concept.

"Short," I said.

You can see why I was having trouble faking my way through the first few chapters of the novel.

I met up with Jeremy, Max, and Max's wife. After about an hour of Max explaining the basics of gun safety and use -- I would never have asked him to teach me if he weren't so responsibly paranoid -- we went over to the firing range to shoot. As we pulled into the parking lot, the sound of gunfire already resounding through the building's concrete walls, I suddenly realized something.

"You know, I think we might be the only people here with an Obama bumper sticker."

Jeremy and I both laughed nervously. Then we followed Max and his wife inside to secure some ear protection and rent a lane. The people behind the counter were incredibly nice, and fussed over us "first-timers" like a trio of mother hens. We picked out targets -- a standard human silhouette and a rampaging zombie deer -- and opened the door to the firing range.

A blast of warm air rushed out at us, along with the smell of burnt gunpowder. The firing range itself looked like what I expected from watching numerous police procedurals on TV: a long, low-lit room with numbered lanes, runners on the ceiling that whisked the targets out into the hot zone, and a far, pock-marked wall. Metal casings littered the floor like peanut shells in a bar.

I fired the Glock first. It was terrifying. As tight as I held the gun, the recoil still jerked my wrist up toward the ceiling, and the dull orange burst of the muzzle flash took me by surprise. But the sound. The sound was the truly terrifying part. I didn't feel like I was shooting anything so much as ripping the air apart around me. I had absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the thing in my hands was deadly. I actually had to ramp up my emotions and make myself a little bit angry just to keep myself from losing control of the thing. I didn't realize my hands were shaking as I put the gun down, until Max pointed at them.

"You want to take a break?"

"Yeah." I stepped back under the air vent, where several stray casings had lodged themselves into the metal grate. 

Maybe it's all that Grand Theft Auto.
I watched Max, his wife, and Jeremy turn their targets into Swiss cheese until I acclimated to the explosions happening around me and managed to stop jumping every five seconds. Max's wife, a sweet, patient poet who does things like bring you plums to snack on when you visit her house, showed me how to load and use her revolver, which was slightly less frightening to handle. We took turns shooting, and I loosened up a little. Jeremy turned out to be frighteningly good with the Glock, even though he had never handled a gun before, either. He was placing his shots in nice, close groupings by the time we ran out of rounds. I told him that when the zombie apocalypse came, he could be the one in charge of shooting the zombies and I would just run.

Strangely, I didn't feel much of anything when I fired the gun, except surprise and alarm at the strength of the recoil. I didn't love it or hate it.  It was about as exciting to me as driving, which is to say, vaguely stressful and a little unpleasant. (I would rather take the bus, if I have a choice.) I had a great time, because I was with my friends and I was learning something new, but we just as easily could have been bowling for all my feelings about the specific activity at hand.

Jeremy, on the other hand, tapped right into that exhilaratingly powerful euphoria other people have described to me. He doesn't smile very often in regular life, but when he reeled in the target showing four neat bullet holes a few centimeters apart from each other in the silhouette's head, a gigantic grin spread across his face. I realize I'm making him sound a little creepy, but honestly, Jeremy is just a guy, having the reaction almost every guy would have to discovering an unexpected talent for firearms.

In the car on the way back, I tried to get him to describe how it felt to like shooting a gun.

He looked at me strangely. "How does it feel to NOT like it?"

It was a day for reinforcing gender stereotypes.

However, I'm glad I went. I experienced so much I never would have picked up from a book, like the concussive gust that hits your face when the person beside you fires, the amount of force it takes to load a magazine of rounds, or exactly how hard it is to aim and control a handgun. I don't think I'll be going back to the firing range, although Jeremy may have discovered a new (and dangerous, and expensive) hobby, but my time there reinforced the importance of first-hand, real life research. I'll definitely be doing more of it in the future.

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