Why is anyone surprised by how heavy a handgun is? No one is agog when a knife is sharp or a car is fast. A gun should be heavy. A handgun, if used correctly, shoots a bullet so hard that it slams into a person, bores through layers of skin, fat, muscle, veins, and bone and exits out of the other side of the body. Something that powerful ought to feel heavy, profoundly heavy. It should have the weight of the world bearing down on it.
There is a picture of an ersatz Yosemite Sam on the door, an old prospector with a grey beard and pistols, admonishing me that loaded weapons aren’t allowed on the premises. The door is surprisingly flimsy. Even with iron security bars, it swings as loosely as a door to a back porch. Throughout the store the wild-west motif prevails in the roughly-hewn wood floors and cowboy boots several of the staff members wear. Bull’s horns and leather holsters hang from the walls.
Every gun shop has the word “gun” in its name. Vagueness and nuance don’t walk through the front doors of gun stores. PopGuns isn’t just called just Pop’s. They never leave a shadow of a doubt as to what is being sold. Protection, fear, violence and pacification. Like steakhouses are to family buffets, so is the gun shop to the department store or sporting goods chain that just happens to sell firearms. You don’t go into a steakhouse for fried chicken, and you don’t go to a gun store for toilet paper. I want to shoot a gun and PopGuns will rent me one and let me fire it at their indoor shooting range, so that’s where I go.
Hours after I’ve left PopGuns, I can still smell the firing range. My fingers still carry the industrial odor of metal polish that keeps the brass bullets shiny and gleaming. But the sulfurous notes of the gunpowder stay with me even more. I catch hints of it when I run my fingers through my hair and when I breathe deeply. A black stain on my index finger smells like a combination of fireworks and cooked meat.
Gasoline and gunpowder are the two most powerful olfactory sensations I’ve ever experienced. The scent of a potential mate, the whiff of autumn approaching on the September wind, neither come close to the two flammable fathers of infernos and firearms.
Cut grass comes in third. It’s smell is vegetal and insistent, the nose always knows when a yard has just been mowed. I spent the summers of 1989-1992 filling lawn mowers with gasoline, cutting grass, and listening to gangster rappers boast about “spraying AKs” and filling the air with “flurries of buckshot.” I was a suburban white kid and hardcore rap was an easy way, perhaps the easiest way, to rebel and convince myself that I wasn’t bound for the same anti-gun and violence philosophy that my parents held so deeply. Fifteen-years later, and I am just as turned-off by broad interpretations of the second amendment as my parents and just as unwilling to own one as they were when I was a teenager filling my ears with tales of drive-bys in South Central.
Kenny is the clerk who rents me the Glock. He is three-hundred pounds if he weighs an ounce and carries a stainless-steel Smith and Wesson in a hip holster on his right side. Initially, my intention was to rent a shotgun and see just what a flurry of buckshot felt like, but PopGuns doesn’t rent shotguns, only handguns and small caliber rifles. I ask for the feature player in numerous other seminal gangster rap songs, a nine millimeter. Kenny shows me two models, and according to him, “The Glock is more fun.”
A rectangular barrel approximately 7 inches long and a contoured hand grip comprise the body of the Glock. It uses an ammunition clip that holds seventeen bullets. There is no other way to describe the color: gunmetal black.
I don’t mention to Kenny that this is all part of an experiment, an immersion exercise, for an essay. At no point do I say, “And by the way, I’ve never in my life fired anything more powerful than a bb gun, one that couldn’t break the skin from an inch away.” I want the experience to be as unobserved as possible, no hand-holding except in matters of physical safety. Not to mention that the shaggy-haired white kid with earrings, a sarcastic thrift-store t-shirt, and a sudden interest in handguns doesn’t inspire confidence in anyone anymore after Littleton and Paducah and, well, all the others.
As I wait in line, a man in front of me finishes buying his new weapon and enters the firing range. While the man is signing his last of three receipts, Kenny plays his stereotype to a tee when he makes a rasping observation about how much information the store must collect before they can sell you a gun. They joke about DNA swabs, thumbprint scans, and barcode tattoos. I was just waiting for the words, “cold, dead hands.”
The amount of information required to simply rent a gun for the afternoon, rather than purchase it, is hardly cumbersome: a driver’s license. That’s it and you’re shooting. I receive the Glock and my boxes of range ammo. The gun is stored in a plastic case that might be mistaken for a cordless drill or a set of hair-clippers. I explain that I’ve never loaded this type of weapon, and Kenny shows me how to slip the bullet into the magazine, under two little metal ridges.
“Don’t press the bullet into these, slide it under them.”
“Why? Are they sharp enough to cause it to fire?”
“It’s happened before,” Kenny tells me. “Not here, but I’ve heard tell.”
When you enter the shooting range, you must be wearing eye and ear protection. PopGuns provides large noise-dampening headsets for hearing protection. At any other time or place, I might spend a few minutes worrying about how frequently the establishment sanitizes the communal head gear, but the three-pound weight in my hand commands my attention. My vise-grip on the carrying case is almost comical. Almost.
Loading the magazine reminds me of the coin holsters that parking lot attendants and ball-park vendors wear. Slip the bullet into the spring-loaded slot then press down with the next bullet until the entire clip is full. The quick and rehearsed directions Kenny gave me run through my head, tripping on each on other, falling in and out of sequential order, but I think I’ve got it.
“Line up the magazine in the handle of the weapon and apply pressure with the heel of your hand until it clicks. When you are in the shooting bay, point the weapon down-range at all times, holding it in your dominant hand. Keep your finger away from the trigger. Pull back on the top cover with your left, following through until the cover slips from your grasp and catapults forward to cover the barrel. No part of the barrel should be exposed if you’ve loaded it properly. Leave your finger off of the trigger until you’re ready to fire.”
I set my feet as if I’m about to run a race. Even though Kenny never mentioned the recoil, I know enough about physics not to stand flatfooted.
When you rent a gun, you also choose a target. Large pieces of printed paper, some with detailed pictures on them, they are relatively inexpensive. One dollar gets you the standard nebulous human shapes that cops use for target practice in every police procedural on TV. For two dollars you can buy a cartoon Mexican-Jewish guy holding a gun to a child’s head, a ski-masked assailant with gloved hands holding a knife to a blonde woman’s throat, or a Hamas gunman draped in a check-patterned keffiyah clutching an assault rifle. My delicate sensibilities would only allow me to buy the generic, fifty-cent circle. Apparently, when it comes to shooting, I’m the date who doesn’t eat shrimp because they still look too much like an animal.
I hold the target up to clip it into its motorized carriage and I notice that the largest outside ring, where the point values are the lowest, is almost exactly as wide as my chest. The points get higher as you move inwards towards the center. The fifty point bulls-eye is the distance across the average human head. Platonic shapes, I suppose. I hit the switch and the paper wafts in the air, speeding backwards until it stops twenty-five yards from my gun.
The first shot is stunning in its lack of fanfare. No visible muzzle flash, no ringing ricochet and not even a flutter from the target. With my ears covered, the gunshot sounds like nothing more than a modest hand clap. It takes a moment to even register that anything has happened. The gun didn’t buck backwards into my cheek or send me flying backwards into the bulletproof glass partition that leads back into the storeroom. My hands were visibly trembling as I prepared to squeeze the trigger, but the shot is still within two inches of dead center.
As I shake off the relative banality of the first shot and prepare to take the second, I realize I hadn’t warned the other two men using the range that I would be breaking the silence. I invent some kind of courtesy in my head, as if I’m on a golf course and before I fire the next round I say, “Firing.”
I call out just loud enough that the men two bays down can hear me, but not so loud that I actually sound like I know what I’m doing.
I try not to come any conclusions as I burn through the rest of the ammo. Three and four shots at a time, I think about how easy it is to get a hold of a gun. My accuracy goes down the more rapidly I take the shots in succession, but if I take less than five shots I can place them all “center mass,” as target shooting experts call it. If I were doing this for protection, each one of the first five bullets I fired would go thudding in to an attacker’s chest and upper body.
The absurd simplicity of the permit application process comes rushing to mind as I squeeze off more rounds. To keep a handgun in your home you need a permit. It takes three things to get that personal protection permit: A clean felony record, a thirty dollar money-order, and the strength of will to stand in line at the city-county offices in the middle of the day. You can imagine which of these three tasks is the most difficult.
I wanted the process to be more Byzantine, more confused, reminding me that my constitutional rights were being trampled upon, as the NRA tells me. But there was no such romance. Just a few inches of red tape and I can buy a gun.
It’s in the shooting where the drama is, the sturm und drang, but it’s all in my head. Over the afternoon, I use up two boxes of target ammunition. One hundred bullets and I don’t miss the paper target even once. Not when my legs start aching from the shooter’s stance. Not even as my forearms begin to tremble with fatigue. The pieces of lead just keep finding their home.
I kick the spent cartiridges that have collected around me forward, into the range area. The black floor of the firing range is littered with thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of shell casings. Kenny tells me that they clean up the range once a week.
The Glock is back in its case, the warm cartridge nestled into the padding next to it. I hand it back to Kenny and settle my bill. He doesn’t chit chat with me. Doesn’t joke about Chuck Heston, or any presidential candidates. I don’t get asked to join any range clubs, nor does he give me a frequent shooters card, buy ten boxes and the next box is free, and I am glad. This is not a fraternity I want to join.
As I walk out, I look at the hunting rifles on the wall bearing names like Remington and Winchester. They don’t threaten me. Maybe Westerns have inured me to these guns, or maybe shooting at animals just seems to make some kind of sense somewhere in ancient recesses of my hunter/gatherer brain.
No, it’s the one-hundred and ninety-nine dollar pistol in the case by the door that gets me. The least expensive gun in the place pops up just before you leave. If the rest of the Glocks and Rugers and Smith & Wessons were too steep for your wallet, then here’s the gun for you. Don’t leave empty handed.
I walk past the old prospector and his cartoon six-guns. He watches me as I slump into my car and lay my bullet-riddled target on the passenger seat, the smell of cordite still clinging to the air around me.