One of your palms grips the handle. The other presses up against the butt. Steady your arms. Line up the sights. Click goes the hammer under your thumb. A clammy forefinger starts to pull back on the trigger. You suck in a deep breath and...Ka-WHAM! Everything from your belly button to your scalp shudders with the recoil. Organs jostle. Eyelids involuntarily blink. Your brain sloshes around in your skull, convinced an F-16 just broke the sound barrier inches from your face. A dragon's breath of muzzle flash momentarily blinds you through your goggles. Endorphins flood every capillary in your being. Your nostrils fill with the smell of cordite. You gasp, finally letting the air escape your lungs. Then laughter bubbles up through your throat - giddy, uncontrollable laughter. Your arms slacken. The laughter subsides, replaced by a plummeting jaw, an overwhelming sense of wonder at the sheer power and violence of it all. If you've ever shot a .454 Magnum, you know exactly what I'm talking about.
Now let me come right off the bat and say that I'm a strong advocate of gun control. In fact, I'm the NRA's worst nightmare. I don't merely advocate heavy gun regulation; I'm for outright prohibition. I think all handguns and assault weapons should be outlawed, reserved exclusively for the military and police. As for rifles and shotguns, I think they should only be allowed for purposes of hunting and self-protection from wild animals in rural areas. Any argument along the lines of "Guns don't kill, people do," is bogus as far as I'm concerned. People couldn't kill other people with guns if they didn't have guns to begin with. And the 2nd Amendment is an anachronistic relic of a bygone agrarian society that feared Native Americans and invasion from larger countries - it simply doesn't apply to 21st century America.
So what was I doing with a .454 Magnum in my hands? The story goes like this. Last week I was in LA for business (I write screenplays for Hollywood to pay the rent), and I was sitting around on a patio with some buddies enjoying a tranquil Saturday afternoon. As we made plans for dinner one of my friends, Noah, looked at his watch and said, "I'll meet you guys at the restaurant. I gotta head to the firing range first." We all looked at him perplexed. Noah is a gentle soul - mellow, thoughtful, kind - the last person you'd expect to see packing heat. "The firing range...?" I asked. He explained that a group of his pals had formed what they call the "Super Adventure Club" and every few weeks they get together for some sort of "adventure." Mostly these excursions are nothing more than harmless camping trips or hikes. But this week they had decided to visit the Los Angeles Gun Club and shoot bullets at flimsy pieces of paper. Before I could check myself I blurted out, "Can I come?!" And that was that. Next thing I knew I was in a packed car full Super Adventurers careening down the 101 toward downtown Los Angeles.
I can't say why I was so eager to join in. The only gun I had ever shot in my life prior to that day was a measly .22 rifle in the Boy Scouts when I was twelve. And a .22 is only one small step above an air gun, so it's not like it gave me a life-long thirst for major firepower. But eager I was, despite my strong political beliefs to the contrary of such behavior. Maybe it was pure curiosity. Or perhaps I did harbor some deep, shameful lust for weaponry - not from the Boy Scouts, but from video games. Truth be told, I'm a video game freak. I refuse to buy a PS3 or Xbox for my home for fear that it might ruin my life. I think I would cease to accomplish anything productive, would quickly dispense with all human contact, and would very well end up with a nasty case of arthritis in my over-used digits from constant gameplay. At home I mostly stick to online Scrabble, or chess or Risk - games I find far less addictive than the spectacular games created for consoles these days. But, whenever I get the chance I head over to my friend Kyri's house to play his PS3. And there I gorge for hours and hours on a smorgasbord of Grand Theft Auto 3, Fight Night 4 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. I kill, I maim, I delight in the blood-thirst of my inner cave-man. I'm not proud of it, but I keep going back for more. Why the attraction to high-jacking an old lady's car, or boxing a man senseless, or tossing hand grenades in suburban Virginia? I mean, I'm a pacifist after all. I'm against the war in Iraq, I abhor real-life violence, and as I stated above, I couldn't be more opposed to the use of handguns. Maybe going to the gun range was a way to confront my hypocrisy head-on.
The Super Adventure Club (of which I was now an honorary guest member) consists entirely of writers, all of whom suffer from varying degrees of dorkdom, myself certainly not excluded. Besides Noah and me were the following motley crew: Mike - a tall, gangly, bespectacled man in a plaid flannel shirt - had organized the outing. Ostensibly he was doing "research" for a pilot he had been hired to write about a "spunky female CIA agent." His hope was that the firing range offered AK-47s. Rick was a quiet, soft-spoken fellow with a perpetual grin, the sort of guy whose neighbors you could picture saying, "He kept to himself, but he seemed so nice. I never would have thought in a million years he ran a dog-fighting cartel out of his basement." Mark was a friendly chap who worked for a British video game company (and wrote animated movies on the side), both of which gave him high marks in my book. And David, perhaps the hippest among this decidedly un-hip dirty half-dozen, originally hailed from South Brooklyn and was the only one among us to have shot a variety of guns before.
As he explained in the car, David was keen to price some shotguns at the firing range. He wanted to buy one to keep in his home for self-defense. This raised the hairs on my neck, mostly because David and his wife have a small child in the house. "Are you really that worried about somebody breaking in?" I asked him. He got dead serious. "I'm very, very worried," he replied. "You'd be an idiot not to be." Mark suggested that maybe he should buy a taser gun instead. "But that only lasts for a few minutes," said David. "And who know how long it will take the cops to get there. I would have to keep tasering the guy. I'd be torturing him." Mark scoffed. "So it's better to just kill him instead?" he asked. "No, to deter him," replied David. "The sound of that shotgun clicking would scare anybody off. But yeah, if it doesn't, I'd kill the guy. Anything to protect my kid." Now the notion of a loaded shotgun being in the same house as a small child makes my stomach turn. But however much we tried to convince David that his logic was faulty, he'd have none of it. Reason and statistics can't sway a mind like this. Here they are, however, in the hopes that they may sway yours:
A spreadsheet from the National Center for Health Statistics (which I obtained from the NRA website of all places) shows that over the last 25 years, deaths caused by guns accounted for approximately one-fourth to one-third of all non-natural deaths in the U.S., depending on the year (on average about 30,000 per annum). The only cause of death which outnumbered fire-arm related deaths was motor vehicle fatalities. Death by gun outnumbered falls, poisoning, suffocation, fire and medical accidents. And in every single year, of those deaths caused by firearms, more than half were the result of accidents or suicides rather than homicides. All of this to say that guns cause a lot of death in our country, and if you have one in your home, it's statistically more likely to be used for suicide or cause an accident than protect you from intruders. Don't believe me? Take a look at the spreadsheet for yourself here.
The Los Angeles Gun Club is located in semi-industrial wasteland in downtown LA It's surrounded by drab warehouses, empty lots and even emptier streets. The last thing I was expecting when we stepped inside was a lively, festive atmosphere. But that's exactly what it was. Scores of people filled the joint - most of them young, some on dates, some in big clumps of friends. It felt much more like a bowling alley than a firing range. There were folding tables where you could sit an enjoy a soda or juice (alcohol was not permitted) and a lounge area where you could watch movies (they were playing Goonies - I shit you not). We Super Adventurers were told there was a 45 minute wait before we could shoot. So we put our names on a list and walked over to the interior windows which overlooked the range itself. With our faces pressed up against the glass we were reminded this was not a bowling alley after all. A dozen or so folks were lined up in adjacent booths firing away at paper targets, just like in the movies. But unlike the movies these were not FBI agents or hardened cops. They were regular Joes and Janes, just like you and me, and most of them looked like they had no idea what they were doing.
While waiting for our turn, we gawked at the display case full of guns available to us. We decided to go for a tasting menu which we would share among us: one .44 Magnum, one .454 Magnum, one Beretta, one .38 Special, one shotgun, two bolt-action rifles and a partridge in a pear tree. Next we chose our paper targets. There was a large assortment ranging from traditional bull's eyes to James Bond types to buxom female zombies. I decided on a simple human silhouette within which all the vital human organs were outlined. If I managed to hit the thing at all, I wanted to know whether I hit a spleen or a kidney. Finally we had to fill out the necessary forms. You might think that for an arsenal like ours, we'd be signing stacks of documents, submit ourselves to blood tests and be required to go through hours of psychological evaluation. Unh-uh. All we had to do was show a photo I.D., give our thumbprint and sign a single flimsy piece of paper swearing we weren't drug addicts or insane. Of course, if we were drug addicts or insane, or both, I doubt any of us would have admitted it. But that's okay, because with a simple signature the gun club was willing to take our word for it. The clerk placed our guns and ammo on the counter then gave us a brief - and I mean very brief - explanation on how to load and fire our weapons. It all took less than five minutes. I'd say about 45 seconds per gun. "Any questions?" the clerk asked at the end of his little spiel. We all shook our heads, pretending we had absorbed everything he had said. And voila! We were ready to pump some lead - at least according to California state law.
Donning our goggles and ear guards we filed into the firing range with our guns. The sound inside was ten times louder than through the glass in the lobby. Even with ear protection I jumped a little every time a shot went off. We split into pairs, each pair taking a couple guns and a booth. Then we clipped up our targets and ran them down the electronic clotheslines about thirty feet away from the platform. Noah and I had chosen the .44 Magnum and the shotgun. We decided to start with less firepower and work our way up, so with shaking hands I loaded the Magnum's revolving chamber with bullets. Everything had felt pretty dreamlike and unreal up until this point - even comical. But now it felt extremely real, and there wasn't a single funny thing about it. I was placing live ammo into a weapon that had the potential to kill with the twitch of the finger. As I raised the gun and aimed through the sights I found it incredibly difficult to steady my hands. The muzzle seemed to be wavering all over the place, aimed anywhere but the target. I took a breath, tried to relax, and aimed once more. The sights seemed somewhat aligned. My hands - if not exactly steady - had at least stopped shuddering. I glanced back to Noah for reassurance. He nodded solemnly. I re-fixed my eyes on the sights, on the target, counted down to myself - three...two...one...
It was over before I knew it - the jolt, the flash, the smoke. I noticed the paper target was swinging slightly. My first shot had hit! A smile spread across my face. I looked back at Noah, who was smiling too. Adrenalin overwhelmed me. It was like I had just downed five cups of espresso. I discharged the rest of the chamber and then retrieved my target. I inspected it closely while Noah took his turn. Three shots to the right lung, one to the ribcage and one to - according to the target - the medulla oblongata. I took a strange sense of guilty pride from this. As I watched the other Super Adventurers firing their respective weapons, I found myself impatient to try out all the other guns. Over the next hour I got my wish. Each gun seemed to have its own personality. The Beretta was smooth and (relatively) quiet. The shotgun was big and sloppy. The .38 Special was neat and functional. The bolt-action rifles were like Mack Trucks slamming into your shoulder. And the .454 Magnum, which I described at the top of this article, was pure power and violence.
We just couldn't get enough. When we ran out of ammo, we'd run back to the counter in the lobby to get more. Noah and I missed the dinner we had planned with friends. Our cell phones went off and we ignored them. All of us were under some sort of perverse spell. All we wanted to do was fire our weapons over and over, and then fire them some more. When reason finally kicked in and we realized we might have spent hundreds of dollars by this point, we reluctantly called it quits. But when they rung us up at the counter I was astonished - our bill only added up to about 30 bucks each. For the price of a movie and large popcorn we had shot guns deliriously for an hour and half.
On the drive back we were all punchy with excitement. "Did you feel the kick of that bolt-action?!" "Man, that .454 packs a wallop!" "We definitely have to go back!" Apparently we're not the only people to have had an experience like this. Later I looked online and, believe it or not, the Los Angeles Gun Club has 52 reviews on yelp.com. Here are some excerpts (any mistakes in grammar, spelling or logic are not my own):
"Sweet place to let off some steam."
"If you feel like you really want to shoot someone or like angry, just come here and do this, you'll come out feeling better!!! Release all your anger here!!!"
"I came here with a date once and it was fun!...Checking out the scene and the guns being fired by women! Women and guns seem to go hand in hand--very sexy indeed!"
"Fun place. I probably wouldn't be too comfortable working at a place like this though...'Hi, welcome to the gun club, are you emotionally or psychologically unstable? You suuuuure? Okay, I guess I trust you. Here's your pistol!'"
"Me like gun. Gun shoot go bang. Gun shoot go bang, however, is fucking expensive. Get the .44-- the most kick for your money, no pun intended."
And my personal favorite, which invokes The Beatles in a terrifying way:
"'When I hold you in my arms
(Ooooooooohhh, oh yeah!)
And when I feel my finger on your trigger
I know nobody can do me no harm
Because happiness is a warm gun, momma' With exactly these, among other, thoughts I walked into this powder-perfumed steel brothel of violent happiness (or happy violence). Either way is valid."
Scary, huh? To think that all these authors wielded loaded weapons at some point? To be fair, there are less enthusiastic and more coherent reviews for the gun club. But most of them tend to be on the frighteningly positive and nearly illegible side of the tracks. You can see the rest of them here.
Later that night Noah and I met up for drinks with some friends, including those we had ditched for dinner. Now I'm guessing 100% of these folks would characterize themselves as "liberal." They all voted for Obama. They all are against the war in Iraq. And though I haven't asked them, I would imagine most would be in favor of strong gun regulation. When I whipped out my target from the range, however (which by now had been nearly shot to tatters), they were all incredibly enthusiastic. "That's so freakin cool!" was the general timber of their responses. It turns out that some of them had actually been to the gun range before. And others were dying to go. Clearly I was not the only one suffering from a bad case of the hypocrisy blues.
With a little time to reflect, I must say that despite the visceral pleasure I enjoyed at the gun range, the experience only strengthened my anti-gun beliefs. The damn things are just way too deadly and powerful... and way too fun. The closest thing I can describe it to is smoking crack, of which I have first-hand knowledge (don't worry - I've been sober for nine years). I only smoked crack once, late one night with a one-legged stranger in Spanish Harlem who was generous enough to share his pipe with me. But that night seared itself on my brain. The high is overwhelming and instantaneous. You feel more alive than you've ever felt. And firing guns is exactly same. But like crack, the high is short-lived, and the only way to fight the crash is to fire back up. Crack is outlawed for a reason. And while the analogy isn't perfect, I'd say guns should be too. With crack you can only kill yourself. With a gun you can kill everyone around you.
Since returning New York, I looked up local gun clubs online. There are a lot of them within the city limits. But I didn't realize how easy it had all been in LA compared to here. New York City has extremely rigid gun laws (which I now take pride in) and you can't just show up to a firing range, sign a piece of paper and get handed a gun. It's slightly less rigid outside the city limits, but not by much. I looked up the gun laws in neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut and found them rigid too. If I wanted to repeat my experience in LA closer to home, I'd have to head to Pennsylvania, which has some of the more lax gun laws in the country, even more lax than California.
As you've probably guessed by now, gun laws are enacted more at the state and city level than the federal level. There are federal laws to be sure, but they have been passed infrequently and do little to curb the ownership of handguns. The most significant piece of federal legislation ever passed was the 1968 Gun Control Act (catalyzed by the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK). The bill expanded licensing requirements, restricted handgun sales over state lines, and prevented convicted felons, the mentally incompetent and drug users from selling arms (duh!). It also outlawed the mail order sales of rifles and shotguns. (Just think - you used to be able to order a rifle the same way you now order a book on Amazon). There have been several federal laws passed since, but the only major one enacted since the Gun Control Act was the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban (aka The Brady Bill) which outlawed civilian ownership of assault weapons and instituted federal background checks for those purchasing guns. These laws are not radical. They're pure common sense. The only shocking thing about them is how recently they were enacted. And big loopholes remain, such as the infamous "gun show loophole" which allows unlicensed gun sellers at flea markets and swap meets to sell guns without using the same background checks required of licensed sellers.
I can't say that my jaunt with the Super Adventure Club rid me of my hypocrisy. I'm still going to play ultra-violent video games at Kyri's house. And I can't promise that I'll never go to a firing range again. But what it did certainly do was place my formerly abstract beliefs into a very real, physical context. Having fired more than a few types of guns I can rightfully say that they're no joke. They're not something to be romanticized or celebrated. Whatever pleasure there is to be had from them is vastly overshadowed by their brute, vulgar banality - a few pounds of steel with the potential to destroy a human life in the blink of an eye. No adventure - super or otherwise - is worth that. I would gladly give up the opportunity to fire a gun ever again if Congress or the state legislatures had the balls to outlaw them. I would even give up video games.