How to Shoot a Gun
By JOE NOCERA
Published: January 11, 2013
It was the middle of the workday — a bright, chilly Wednesday afternoon in Lexington, Ky. — but Bud’s Gun Shop was crowded. Why was I surprised? The combination of President Obama’s re-election and the Newtown massacre has caused gun proponents to stock up, fearing, against all available evidence, that the federal government was about to crack down on gun ownership. As I opened the door, I felt like a teenager about to buy a condom.
My plan was to shoot a gun, something I had never done before. I thought it would help me understand why gun owners are so passionate about their deadly possessions.
The daughter of a local friend, Don McNay, offered to accompany me. Gena Bigler is the chief financial officer of her father’s financial firm, a personal finance columnist and the mother of two. Gena, Don said, is “very liberal in all her politics, except pro-gun.” Just like his wife, his ex-wife and many other women in Kentucky, he added.
Bud’s Gun Shop was cavernous, with scarcely a square inch of wall space that didn’t have a gun on it. As we headed for the shooting range, I asked Gena why she liked guns. “In the Old West,” she said, “the gun was the great equalizer. I think for women that is still the case.” The first time she shot a gun, she told me, she was 8.
“Let’s start easy,” Gena said as we approached the shooting range. At the counter, Dave, a retired policeman who served as the “range officer,” brought out a Ruger Mark .22 semiautomatic handgun. It was a gun that a newbie like me could handle, he gently suggested. A box of bullets in hand, we headed out to the shooting range.
The target was a bright green human silhouette. Gena and I took turns shooting. It took awhile, but once I got the hang of it, I stopped worrying about the shape of the target and focused on hitting it. The .22 made small bullet holes. Gena told me that when she used to shoot in the woods, you could see the enormous damage guns could do to a tree. “I think children need to be better educated about guns,” she said, “so they’ll understand better what a gun can do.”
We next moved to a .45 semiautomatic handgun. “Do you want one that shoots really well, or do you want one you can hide?” asked Dave. He gave us a Kimber. Its manufacturer describes Kimbers as “no compromise, purpose-built pistols.” Certainly from my point of view, it was more difficult to ignore its purpose than with the .22. The bullets made much bigger holes, fire often came out of the barrel, and it had a big kick. It was meant to kill people.
The gallery was filling up. I saw two women shooting handguns, three young men sharing an assault weapon and a man who needed crutches taking target practice. The only noise you could hear was the pop, pop, pop of guns being fired.
Finally, Gena and I rented a Kriss Vector, a shiny black assault weapon. The man who handed it to us called it a “P.D.W.” — or personal defense weapon. “This gun is made for something like the Secret Service,” he added. Dave looked at the gun and smiled wryly. “Blast away,” he said. The gun had a 30-bullet magazine, which I emptied as quickly as my trigger finger would allow. It took, literally, seconds.
Using the assault weapon was a frightening experience. Even Gena thought so. “I don’t see why anybody would need a gun like that,” she said. But when I asked her whether such guns should be outlawed, she didn’t hesitate: “That’s the beginning of the slippery slope.”
Did I discover on Wednesday afternoon why shooting a gun appeals to so many people? Not really. But I did get a glimpse of why it will be so difficult to change America’s gun culture. You can say until you’re blue in the face that a gun owner or his family is far more likely to be hurt or killed by that gun than an intruder. But people like Gena — decent, honorable citizens who grew up around guns — will never believe it. They will always think of guns as the great equalizer. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer, Kentucky, which has some of the least restrictive gun laws on the books, has no intention of tightening its laws after Newtown.
A few days later, I called Bud’s Gun Shop to ask Dave what he thought about the renewed effort to regulate guns. In his calm, unflustered way, he said he thought the problem was mental health care, not guns. “People have rights,” he said.
In the background, I could hear the pop, pop, pop of guns going off in the shooting range.