“I did, after all, have weapons. And I liked to shoot them — especially at night,
when the great blue flame would leap out, along with all that noise
…and, yes, the bullets, too. We couldn’t ignore that.
Big balls of lead/alloy flying around the valley at speeds up to 3700 feet per second….
But I always fired into the nearest hill or, failing that, into blackness.
I meant no harm; I just liked the explosions.”
— Hunter S. Thompson,
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream
I like guns. I don’t own one, but I’ve shot a few, and I definitely see the morbid appeal in them. There is something strangely stimulating about holding an object that is capable of that much destruction. For me, the thrill doesn’t necessarily lie in the power to destroy — it lies in the personal responsibility to restrain and control that power. I’m just a 30-year-old writer with no kids, so holding a gun is the most responsibility I’ve ever had.
Make no mistake; I’m by no means a gun nut. I just believe people have the right to defend themselves and their homes…but not with an assault rifle. And certainly not with a concealed weapon worn on the hip, like some sort of broke-ass John Wayne vigilante. These views would be considered moderate in many parts of this country, but in New York, a city where legal gun owners are demonized almost as much as people who drink extra-large sodas and smoke, I’m seen as somewhat of an extremist.
And during tense times like these, following the senseless shootings in Northern California, at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, and in Ottawa, at the Canadian Parliament, my opinions become even more scrutinized by my fellow liberal friends. Apparently being pro-LGBT, pro-choice, and yet pro-responsible gun ownership does not compute in their marijuana-addled brains. So, I remain an awkward anomaly.
My interest in firearms is not a carefully conceived political stance; it materialized quite unexpectedly. My first experience with a gun of any kind didn’t come until I was 24, while I was visiting Las Vegas, appropriately enough. I took a trip there with my cousin for his 21st birthday, and as part of our celebration, he arranged for the two of us to spend an hour shooting guns at a firing range some miles off the strip.
I remember walking in and feeling instantly out of place among the local Clark County gun enthusiasts milling about the front part of the indoor range. They, grizzled longtime shooters. I, a Yankee hipster looking for a cheap thrill while on vacation — a fun day excursion from my cozy room at the Riviera. Even my cousin, a Long Islander, had more experience with projectile weapons.
I approached the counter, where the guns were selected and ammunition bought. A bearded man wearing a trucker hat — a stereotypical “gun guy” uniform if there ever was one — asked me for my identification. He instructed me to sign a waiver, absolving the range of any and all liability if I should shoot myself, or, an even more terrifying prospect, if one of the other trigger jockeys should turn their weapon on me for some damned reason. Or, perhaps in case of a more mundane death — like the ceiling caving in as a result of shoddy construction work. Imagine the irony: walking into a place to shoot a deadly weapon, only to meet your demise via a chunk of drywall to the head…all because some desert-weary contractor missed a nail.
My cousin selected an AK-47. I, on the other hand, went with a more modest-looking handgun. The man behind the counter sold me a box of ammunition, handed me back my driver’s license, and then pointed to the door that led to the gun range. I expected some kind of training before being turned loose — a crash course, a brief lecture, a brochure, anything — about how to operate the lethal piece of metal in my hand. But there was none. Startlingly, the only thing one needs to be permitted to fire a gun in the state of Nevada is a face.
We walked through the door.
Luckily, another employee was there inside the gun range to help us load the weapons. I watched intently as he pushed the rounds into the clip, then I took over the task once I felt like I got the knack of what he was doing. Once I was fully loaded, I nervously pointed the firearm in the direction of my target, which was hanging from a pulley system some yards down the range. It being 2008, and with the Iraq War still fresh on everyone’s minds, I had selected a target that had a likeness of Saddam Hussein printed over the bullseye — a real crowd pleaser among the range’s decidedly conservative clientele.
I held my breath and fired off my first round. The gun kicked back with more force than I had anticipated, and emitted a pop that shook my nerves despite the protective headphones I was wearing. The shell casing flew out of the top of the weapon and streaked perilously close to my head. Apparently all those buddy cop movies and TV crime dramas I’d watched failed to illustrate this particular aspect of gunplay. I exhausted the rest of the clip into the target. Then another. Then another. And another, until we ran out of bullets.
The most alarming thing about the entire experience was that I liked it. I liked it a lot. And not only did I like it, I actually wasn’t half bad at it either. When I retracted the target to inspect it for damage, I saw that I had scored at least three of what gun folk call “kill shots” on Saddam. I was impressed by how easily I had neutralized the former Iraqi dictator, even though he had been dead for two years, executed by his own countrymen. Whatever. There’s no statue of limitations on defending ‘MURICA.
Out of all the sensory experiences from that day, the one thing that has stuck with me in the years since is just how heavy a gun is in real life. You see people whip them around as if they were nothing on TV and in movies, but in reality, they have a deceptive amount of poundage to them.
The gun I used that day felt very heavy in my hands, but it didn’t bear the weight of every school shooting headline, nor did it carry the perverted agenda of the NRA on its back. It wasn’t emblematic of the collected woes of a desensitized nation. In that moment, it was just one gun operated by a nervous twenty-something from New York City.
I didn’t come to shoot that day as some kind of political statement. I came to have fun.
“I just liked the explosions.’