Discovering the joy of a semi-automatic


It’s 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, and I am at a target shooting range trying to learn how to fire a .22-caliber revolver.

“Well, first you have to pick it up,” Sasha Volokh tells me, pointing to the silver gun lying on the ledge.

I’m nervous, so I fumble with the revolver. I can’t figure out how to hold it, so I try to do the casual Law & Order grip. But then realize that everyone I’ve ever seen on TV is right-handed. I’m not.

Sasha patiently shows me the correct hold, and we practice loading the gun. His manner is matter of fact even though I’m not good at keeping my finger off the trigger. Finally, Sasha moves back and tells me to cock the hammer, aim at the bull’s eye and pull the trigger.

After a few false starts – I need two thumbs to cock the hammer – I manage it. To my relief, the revolver fires like a cap gun and barely kicks back.

Since I’m using an old target, I can’t tell if I’ve hit anything. At this point, I could care less. I’m just happy I managed to fire the gun without dropping it.

HLS’ Newest Hobby

I am spending a day at a New Hampshire firing range with about 15 HLS students interested in target shooting — a group that, under the guidance of Sasha Volokh, hopes to form into HLS’ first target shooting club.

“I decided to start up a club last year,” Sasha explains. “I had already taken some classmates of mine shooting, and also I put up a trip to the firing range at the Public Interest Auction, and I just thought this would be a fun thing to do on a more regular basis.”

Sasha says he was unsure how students would respond to his plans for a target shooting club.

“I know that because of the political climate of the school that a lot of people are anti-gun,” he says. “I was expecting some amount of antagonism or hostility to the idea of having a target shooting club. And I was very pleased that, while people still disagree on gun control and the Second Amendment, that no one has come up to me and said, ‘Why are you even having this club? It’s inappropriate,’ or anything like that.”

Though the club has not yet been approved by the administration, Sasha has received expressions of interest from about 70 students.

“I’m very pleased with the amount of interest,” he says. “I really had no idea how much I was going to get.”

Stepping It Up

The guns are stunningly loud, and the sound of so many firing in an enclosed space is a little disorienting. I can’t imagine what it would be like to hear a gunshot without the ear protection we’re wearing.

Once you get used to the noise, though, target shooting is a lot like playing darts. When I aim well, I get the same sense of satisfaction as when I win a game. The only difference is that, here, the darts are bullets.

Nor are my classmates the gun-toting loonies I was hoping for. The firing range itself has its share of interesting folks — a skinny teenager emptying a clip into a human silhouette at the end of the range gives several of us the creeps. A couple of HLS guys purchased targets with bin Laden’s photograph over the bull’s eye, but for the most part, my HLS companions are astonishingly normal.

After getting comfortable with the .22s, Niki Christoff urges me to step it up a notch and try the 9 mm semi-automatic handgun.

“It’s a totally different experience,” she says.

“Ask Lisa [Giroux] to show you,” she continues. “She’s really comforting and maternal.”

Guns and maternal women? Not something I’d put in the same sentence, but hey.

Lisa is, indeed, comfortingly maternal as she shows me how to load the clip. The 9 mm has a much more powerful feel, more kick back and more noise. Somehow, it’s more satisfying.

My shots all fall at the bottom of the bull’s eye. Lisa says it’s because my brain is anticipating the kick back and pushing my aim down.

There’s more to this shooting thing than I expected.

The Great Divide

After about two hours at the range, members of the as-yet-unofficial target shooting club adjourn to a local steakhouse.

During lunch, several students ask me not to disclose that they own guns. They cite the value of the guns as the reason, but we all acknowledge that there is a deeper issue — that some classmates may not understand.

I confess: I am, or was, one of those people. If one of my classmates had told me last week that he or she owned a gun, I would have been more than a little alarmed.

“You shouldn’t be alarmed until they offer to show you the gun,” Jeremy Anderson jokes.

I suggest that my reaction may be because all this is new to me.

“I think everyone here grew up around guns,” Niki agrees, looking around the table. “My mom is a kindergarten teacher, but she carries a .38 in her purse. It has a mother-of-pearl handle so it’s kind of a feminine gun. My dad and most of my family hunt a lot, and my great-grandfather actually shot polar bears in Alaska. So there’s a lot of boar’s heads hanging on walls and stuff.”

She continues, laughing: “I didn’t think it was weird until I came to college and realized that other people’s families didn’t have boar’s head’s hanging all over their walls.”

What we have here, I realize, is a cultural divide.

Before Saturday, my gun experience was of the Hollywood variety — stars like Arnold Schwarzeneggar and Bruce Willis firing with a gun in each hand and forgetting to aim.

For liberals who grow up in suburbia, guns become news when some 80-year-old man takes aim at his postal carrier (or the postal carriers at each other). Stories of family members accidentally killing each other and of students gunning down their classmates make the NRA’s claims that guns are an integral part of the “American way of life” less than convincing.

But, I am beginning to understand, a substantial section of the American population comes of age in rural areas where hunting and target shooting are widely accepted pastimes. (And, for a few, a source of food.)

Not that there isn’t a “soldier-of-fortune” quotient to this whole shooting thing, as one of my companions pointed out.

When we were leaving the range, the guy behind the counter had pulled out a .45 semi-automatic handgun equipped with a silencer and laser sighting, and rhapsodized about its capabilities.

“Just imagine coming up out of the water with this thing …,” the guy had said, getting a far-away look.

Once in the car, I asked the others whether there was any legitimate purpose for such a gun. The consensus? Laser sighting — maybe; silencer — no way.

“A lot of these people, they will never be Marines,” Jeff Rowes said. “So they come down here and pretend what they would do if they had a chance. These guys won’t get to shoot Osama bin Laden, so they pretend.”

For many, ego must also play a role.

When we first arrived, Niki and I looked into the range through a window and saw a 300-pound, tattooed guy firing what could only have been a .45. With every cannon-like shot, flames shot out from the end of the barrel about six inches.

After he finished, the man turned around and caught us watching him. He gave us this “yes, I am ‘The Man'” kind of smile.

But even more alarming, less than an hour later, I caught myself feeling almost as cool as I slid a clip into a semi-automatic pistol. I felt a little like Rambo myself.

Knowing the Enemy

“I think it’s very important for both pro-gun people and anti-gun people to go shooting, because the anit-gun people should know what it is they want to ban,” Sasha says when I tell him about all I am learning.

After her first day of shooting in six years, Niki agrees: “I learned alot about semi-automatics and the different calibers and everything.

“I kind of had a misconception about them,” she explains. “I thought I was always against semi-automatic weapons, but then I went and shot one and realized tha
t they’re the only fun ones to shoot. The revolvers were big and clunky.”

For those of us advocating gun control, Sasha and Niki may have a point. It’s hard to come up with workable solutions to the gun control issue when I don’t know anything about the weapons I’m trying to regulate.

In the End

I came out of this experience with a new appreciation for gun-owning Americans. Target shooting is a real sport, and a fun one, at that.

That doesn’t mean that guns aren’t used by many for suspect reasons and in unsafe ways. But while I will continue to press for more stringent controls, I’ll think twice about the limitations those controls might put on Americans who have gun-related hobbies.

For the first time, I “get” target shooting. I even brought my target home and hung it on the fridge for my roommates to admire. And, if invited, I might go again.

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