To my parents, peaceful people who raised me in a gun-free home on anti-gun teachings, let me assure you I’m the same pacifist I’ve always been. To my dear friend, who was less than enthused to hear I was going to a gun range and use one of a category of weapons created to kill and has had since to endure my somewhat enthusiastic retelling of events of the trip, know I’m not about to join the NRA and start building an arsenal.
Last week, for the first time in my life, I fired a gun.
I was raised by pacifist parents who worked for peace during the Vietnam War. From ages five to seventeen, I grew up in Detroit, a city where guns were nearly ubiquitous in parts of town and responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people each year (333 in 2012, with homicide totals of 714 in 1974, the year we moved to the city and 686 in 1987, the year I began college at the University of Detroit). By 15, I’d lost a friend to a drive-by shooting at a party. Guns scared me. I felt relatively safe in my neighborhood despite the crime statistics, safe enough to stay in the city for undergraduate and graduate school. Yet, in 18 years of living in the city, I never personally experienced a gun outside of seeing one on the belt of a police officer.
Hunting? I didn’t know any hunters. It wasn’t the pastime of choice of those in my urban, professional, middle class neighborhood, and I lacked relatives that found respite from the hustle of the modern world in the woods with a shotgun or rifle while searching for deer, rabbit, or some sort of fowl. My uncle fished, a hobby my father eventually took up, long after I was grown, but a hook is far being a bullet, and the soft whoosh of the cast of the fly fisherman is a whisper next to the blast of a firearm.
Then I dated a boy raised on a farm with a family of hunters. Being eighteen and fully aware of the absolute rights and wrongs in the world, I expressed my disgust at the process of stalking and killing animals, an argument that might have been made stronger while munching on lettuce and tofu than on the double cheeseburgers from McDonald’s we often sought after the university’s dining service closed for the night. But despite my uneducated opinions, I liked his family. They didn’t seem like monsters for all their hunting habits, and I was at least wise enough to spout off my uninformed opinions in front of a family that welcomed me into their home on many occasions for most of my college years. They might have guessed, however, telling me about the rabbit in the chili or the venison in the stew only after I’d started eating and was clearly enjoying the meal.
Twenty years later, my views of hunting mellowed. Meeting hunters who ate what they fell informed my feelings about the sport. While I’ve spent much of my adult life eating little or no meat, for many years, my primary motivations were health and sustainability related. The issue of killing animals, something people have done since the start for survival, wasn’t my primary concern, although more recently, awareness of factory farming has made me think about the life my burger had before it was burger, and I am disturbed. Hunting seems an honest way to relate to animals as food, requiring involvement in all the grisly bits before partaking of the creature. I don’t think I could do it, but I respect it.
The gun part of hunting still bothered me. Guns, invented with the purpose to kill, seemed, well, bad. They too often end up in the hands of someone not intent on making Bambi’s dad supper for the next few weeks and too often in the hands of someone angry, depressed, or just careless. They scare me. But last year, after hearing a friend talk about his hunting experiences and about shooting at the range for sport, a gun use I’d never considered, I wondered if perhaps I should have some experience behind my convictions. I asked my friend to take me shooting. Given the weapon he had at the time would’ve knocked me across the range, the answer was no. But a few days back, a year after my request, he offered a trip to the range to shoot his .22, a quiet weapon with no kick. I was in. Anxious, but in.
Seeing the weapon, however, brought pause. He’d shown me pictures online of what we’d be shooting, explained extensively about mechanisms and safety, and answered dozens of my questions, but seeing the gun unnerved me. Plenty of conversation later, I picked it up, feeling its weight and wondering at its power. A few more “dry” lessons and practice ensued before we headed out to the range.
The gun range. I’d not anticipated all the people who would be there. Oh, and I’d not considered that they’d also have guns of their own, some which looked like the ones in movies that I generally didn’t watch. I worked to pack away my imagination on that and focused on hearing instructions through my ear plugs. The range officer quickly reviewed safety and general rules of the range, a speech he gave countless times a day that fluttered by my brain far too quickly. We headed out to our station, and my friend unpacked his rifle.
Even with earplugs in place, the noise and sights surprised me. And all those people with weapons. Loaded weapons. I reeled my ever-ready imagination back in and focused. None of the sequence of preparing to shoot remained in my brain, and when my turn came to shoot, despite watching the shooter before me, I fumbled around. The only part of the instructions I remembered were those about breathing: Take a deep breath. Exhale. This calms and focuses you. Then take a breath in and let only part of it out. Hold your breath, aim, squeeze the trigger, and then release the rest of your breath. The breathing I could do. The shooting? We’d have to see.
It took me about halfway through the visit to relax enough to consistently remember the simple sequence of the steps before the breathing part. I stopped hearing all but the loudest of booms around me, focusing more on aligning the crosshairs with the target fifty yards away. After each shot, my friend would tell me where on the target I’d hit. I was continually surprised that I was hitting the paper, much less the target itself, and the bullseye in the second round was more mystery than practiced accomplishment. Even more, I was surprised that at the pleasure in the process, not so much in hitting the target as in the total focus required to make a successful shot.
So what have I decided about shooting for sport? Not much. One time out doesn’t make me a sports shooter, and while I might go again, it’s hardly my next hobby nor would I ever want to own a gun. While I agree with my friend’s refrain that guns don’t kill people, many people are still killed with guns. As hobbies go, gun ownership, whether for hunting or target practice, correlates with deaths that just shouldn’t happen. Calling the owners careless (and many may be) doesn’t go far enough, since that doesn’t bring back or repair those killed and hurt during unintentional shootings and suicides attempts. (For more information about gun ownership and suicide rates,see this study from the Harvard School of Public Health.) It’s a heck of a lot riskier than knitting, reading, and writing, my current hobbies, and not as soothing as a walk through the woods.
But I can see now what I couldn’t see before. It was satisfying and, ironically, peaceful. And while I’ve developed no love for weapons and only increased my awe at their power, I’ve gained a bit of understanding of why people shoot for sport, the original aim of the project. So does this pacifist shoot again? I don’t know. I’m working that over in head and heart.
Breathe in. Exhale. Breathe in again. Let it halfway out, aim, and squeeze. Hear the sound and wonder at the power. Exhale fully.