I'd always been rather proud of the fact that in my
26 27 years here, I'd never touched a firearm. Heck, I'd barely ever seen one that wasn't in a police officer's holster (or hands, if you're in Mexico or Cuba). I don't like guns. I never have, and I probably never will. The American obsession with them, however, fascinates me... the whole idea that gun ownership is a right is something that I'll never quite wrap my head around. What's more, is that a gun is a pretty lame way to kill somebody. Although I don't think I'd ever have the will to actually take someone's life, if it came down to it, the least I could do is to use something a bit more classy, like a throwing axe. Or a poison dart.
Anyhow, I've been known to be a pretty serious PC gamer in the past, mostly with "First-person shooter" type games where you and some squad members walk around and hunt down the other team. But how similar is firing a gun in a computer game to firing one in real life?
So, last week in Las Vegas, I was a little hesitant when my cousins Rami and Ramon
asked me told me we're going to a shooting range. I decided to go along with it though. I'd be popping my gun-virginity cherry, to be sure - I was hoping to save that for someone special. But the way I figured, is that I'd never really fully understand the mind of your average gun-happy American until I became your average gun-happy American. I guess I agreed to fire a gun for much the same reason that I occasionally read right-wing blogs: because I hate myself it's easier to make a case for what you're saying when you've seen both sides of the coin.
Now here we are, arriving at this inconspicuous gun shop / indoor shooting range, which may very well have been a fast-food joint in another lifetime. Walking in, you've got the bigger guns across 2 walls, behind glass counters which also house smaller firearms, a few aisles of "gun accessories" and another small room for literature and cases. Finally, through a a thick glass window behind one of the counters, you can see people firing at targets, with the firing range supervisors standing behind them. You can hear the occasional "thump thump", coming across dull, dry and quiet through the thick glass. I remarked that it almost sounded like a heartbeat heard through a doctor's stethoscope.
Now, when I hear "gun" range I usually think of "handgun" range. Kind of like the one Magnum PI used to drive to in his Ferrari 308. I didn't really think that you could fire a fully automatic machine gun at a normal shooting range, even in the U.S., without showing so much as an I.D. card.
I was wrong.
We signed our names on a sheet of paper to enter the queue which already has about 15 people waiting, and after a few minutes, the guy behind the counter yelled them out. "Ramon! Rami! Steven! Choose your weapon." I had no idea what I wanted to fire. Truth be told, I didn't "want" to fire any of them. I was looking at the smaller guns under the glass for a name I'd recognize, like "Beretta 9mm" or "Colt .45". I certainly had no intention of firing any of the bigger guns, and definitely not a full-auto. I would have downright refused to use an M-16 or any of the other American military-issue carbines. But before I had the chance to say anything, my cousin Ramon - who owns several guns himself - yells back "Ak-47!" About 5 seconds later the salesguy lays down 3 banana clips containing 25 rounds each onto the counter. Ok, so I guess my first gun will be a fully-automatic AK-47, the gun that changed the world... the gun of a thousand revolutions.
Waiting in line to pay - the price is $25 for 25 rounds - we now also have to choose our target. I always thought that a target is basically a crosshair, or an "x marks the spot" or something like that, but no... looking up at the wall, I see that I have a choice of realistic-looking human beings to fire at! Let's see here... Mexican guy, Mexican guy, Mexican guy holding a white woman hostage, Mexican guy, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, Arab guy hijacking a plane holding a white woman hostage, Arab guy, Arab guy. Hmmm. I was tempted to ask "Where are all your George W. Bush targets? Sold out that fast huh?"... but I restrained myself.
- "Excuse me? Can I just, like, have a crosshair or something that doesn't look like a human being?"
- "Oh sure, we've got these too." (Salesguy goes to the back, brings back a paper target, blows the dust off of it. The target is actually the outline of a human body, with clearly identified human organs - heart, lungs, liver, brain...)
One of the white guys waiting in line behind us exclaims "Cool, they have Ak-47s? I've always wanted to try one of their guns." He also selects the Ak-47 - the weapon in the living room of many an Iraqi household - and chooses Saddam Hussein - who was executed by hanging two weeks prior - as his target.
The irony is lost on him.
We're guided to the door at the back of the room where we don our ear protection and goggles (which thankfully fit over my regular glasses). These ear muffs are great, I couldn't hear someone talking to me unless they were yelling at me at the top of their lungs. The three of us walk into a "half-way room", close the door behind us, and then can open the door in front of us. This is done to suppress noise from the firing range going into the main store. As we walk into the main part of the shooting range, the first thing I notice is how loud it is. Even with the ear covers, I can clearly hear the very loud "pop" of every gun being fired. I can feel it too, much like you can feel the bass of a techno song at a nightclub. Against my will, I jump a little everytime someone fires something from one of the bigger guns. It's that loud. The other sound is the "ching ching" of the shell casings constantly being ejected from the guns onto the walls and floor. If I closed my eyes, I could've been at a loud techno club with a cash register constantly being opened.
The guide gives us a 30 second walkthrough of how to stand, how to brace the weapon against your shoulder, how to rest your cheek against the stock of the gun, look down the sights, fire only in short bursts, and aim slightly lower than your intended target so that the recoil aims the next couple of burst shots a little higher. He also hangs our target upside-down, for a reason I forget but which had something to do with the recoil.
Ramon goes first. He's done this before, so he looks pretty comfortable in his stance, and fires in short, controlled bursts at the target. A few seconds go by, and his clip is empty, the target comes back, and he didn't miss a single shot.
Next up is Rami. He looks a bit more gangterish in his stance, but he still manages to hit the target on almost every shot.
Ok, my turn.
The supervisor loads my clip into the gun, and steps away. He presses a button to send my target into the range. I hold the gun like he told us to, lean forward, bend my knees a little, rest my cheek on the gun's stock, look down the sights, and touch the trigger with my finger. Then I squeeze it.
The muzzle flashes, the gun vibrates violently against my shoulder and cheek, shell casings fly against the wall and land on my shoulders, and the scent of gunpowder fills my lungs. I can't see what I'm hitting from this distance, but I'm roughly aiming at the blue upside-down humanoid hanging in front of me. I'm caught off guard by the recoil, and the gun barrel rises more than I'd like it to. I see the dirt behind the target cloud up every time I pull the trigger. I repeat this procedure a few more times, until pulling the trigger no longer yields the loud sound of the bullet firing, but instead a "clickety-click" of an empty clip. I'm not sure whether I'm relieved or disappointed. I wanted to keep firing, to keep stimulating all my senses (well, except for taste), but I also really, really, wanted to stop.
I put the gun down onto the ledge, retrieve my target, and we leave back into the main part of the store.
So, was it like a video game? Well yes and no... the muzzle flash, the recoil, the "point barrel at bad guy, pull trigger, bad guy falls" mechanism were all things that I have to say weren't very different from a game. I don't "respect" guns any more than I did before, nor do I understand them more than when I was just firing virtual ones at virtual polygon enemies. What was different? Well, the actual feeling of the recoil pulling the barrel up, forcing me to struggle to keep it down, the feeling of shell casings flying out of the gun and landing back on me, the loud sound, and the awareness that this long bullet was flying out of my gun and hitting this dirt mound at incredible velocities. The biggest difference to me, however, was the interface. When I play these games on PC, I use a mouse and keyboard. Well, a trackball actually. I aim where I want the barrel to be pointed with a crosshair using the mouse, then click the left mouse - pulling the trigger - to fire the weapon. The bullet goes where my mouse is pointed. Now, though, I have to look down the gun's sights, and pull the trigger when my eyes agree that my target is aligned with the sights. The difference? Well, I didn't really do so well on the target. It's kind embarassing so I won't go into details, but let's just say that if I had chosen the target of the Arab guy hijacking the plane, all the passengers would be dead and the hijacker would still be standing.
Am I glad to have gone through this experience? Yes, I am. Would I ever feel like doing it again? Well... I think I'll stick to games. I've proven to myself that I am not made to handle a gun. All in all, I think that's a pretty good thing.