02/06/2013 06:50 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

Crazy About Guns

I've been told I have a very expressive face. I don't know about that, but I do know that I replaced the adolescent eye-roll with the Stephen Colbert eyebrow raise™ years ago. So I can only imagine what my face was doing when I walked into my friend's kitchen and saw several hand guns, loaded 20-round clips, and stacks of boxes of ammunition over the island.

I spent my winter break in Scottsdale, Arizona with a close friend and her family. For me, these visits are also anthropological studies. Arizona, at times, felt more like a foreign country to me than the European countries I've visited, and not just because the terrain is reminiscent of pictures from the Mars rover. Welcome to the Wild West. You need only be 16 to buy fireworks. Leave your rifle at the entrance to the restaurant (a pile of weapons by the door of a restaurant with a bar; what could go wrong?). NObama, no way, I'm with Mitt!

It's taken me until now to blog about the experience of living like an Arizona native for a couple of weeks because encapsulating the experience in a blog post seemed so daunting that I hit a solid wall of writer's block, which, naturally, waited until I was trying to sleep to come crumbling down like it was Berlin, 1989 and Reagan had just looked at me askance.

Then I finally placed that strange hybrid sense of shock and déjà vu I felt when I walked into that kitchen and saw the guns. The shock came because I'd never seen a gun in person that wasn't in an officer's holster. And the familiarity came because I'd seen that movie. Lots of them. This is the part where the courageous good guys form the resistance to some great evil. The men resignedly stuff the guns down their pants (this seems like a ludicrously terrible idea, men). Maybe they pull off a Robin Hood heist. Maybe (probably) Bruce Willis is involved. Maybe, in a shower of an improbable amount of blood, Django rescues Broomhilda. It may have been a lingering effect of watching Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace in the same week, but I half expected Daniel Craig to appear, leaning against the refrigerator, muscles straining against tight short sleeves as he jams a magazine into his SIG P210 (thanks, Internet Movie Firearms Database, a thing that exists) with his lips pursed.

Instead, we watched a brief safety video by the Scottsdale Gun Club and I hit the ground running, unloading the expensive hollow-point bullets from a 9mm and replacing them with less-expensive bullets for target practice. We put the guns in carrying cases beside 20-round magazines, hopped into a truck, and stopped by the gigantic Bass Pro Shop (it was described to me as "Disneyland for rednecks") on the way to the range. Camouflage and black lace negligees. This is why the terrorists hate us. There was no shortage of people ready to tell me that the bare shelves and empty racks on the walls of the gun section were empty "because of Obama."

I wandered off to look at crossbows. It occurred to me that the only times I'd ever had to use that word was when reading Harry Potter (Hagrid has one), and when a bizarre Driver's Ed video proclaimed that pulling over in a fit of road rage is a bad idea because the other guy might have a crossbow in his trunk.

I'd like to recant my numerous past statements vociferously denying that no liberals hate America. Because I was assured that this is the "real" America Sarah Palin et al. are always prattling on about. If New York isn't the "real" America, and if the caricature of red state America is, maybe I do hate it a little.

The problem I have isn't so much the people who are crazy about guns, it's the people who are crazy near guns. And I'm concerned about this otherization of "craziness." At one point, I took medication to regulate a possible anxiety disorder and/or depression. In one of the cruelest ironies (Alanis Morissette-take notes), the medication that is prescribed to treat depression can cause suicidal ideation. And though I don't currently take medication, or struggle with anxiety daily, I know how close to the edge we all are, albeit some more than others. Conflating mental illness with "craziness" with violent tendencies is offensive and inaccurate. But so is saying other people are "crazy," that other people feel suicidal or homicidal, that you, that I will never be in a delicate enough place, even for a moment, even influenced by traumatic events or substances used or abused, that if you, if I had a gun on hand, would never act crazy.

I'm afraid of guns, but that's not really it. I'm afraid of the people. It's not just the fact that I don't believe most people are really competent enough to defend themselves with guns, which I think I made pretty clear.

Firing at targets was fun. The smell of gunpowder and the noise, not so much. But hitting the target is satisfying. I was disturbed that the gun club took our word for it that we'd watched the safety video. I was disturbed that people brought infants to the range. I was disturbed that the AR-15 was booked all day. But the scariest thing was the degree of incompetence I witnessed there. People who didn't know how to safely pick up a gun were being yelled at to be heard through their ear protection. "NO, NO!" a man yelled at his wife, who began to turn the gun toward herself to look into the chamber when she had a hard time cocking it (I was surprised by the resistance, too). "Don't point it at yourself, ever."

It's advice the safety video gave us. Yet, when it's not established habit not to, you might look into the barrel to see why something feels stuck. You might forget about the bullet in the chamber when you unload.

On the other hand, I was a good shot. A natural, according to nearby observers who were told it was my first time. And how did the elderly gun safety teacher hanging around behind the lanes react to that? He said "Wow! Don't try to rob this little lady," he said. But that isn't how it works! It took time to grasp the gun correctly and get my stance right, and thirty seconds of squinting to pull the trigger. Would I have those luxuries in an attack? I'd be shaking like a Bloomberg in the Jezebel offices. And falsely inflating my sense of my ability isn't going to make anyone safer. And it made me wonder--how many of the people wandering around with Glocks on their hips have a false sense of their abilities? I suspect many of them, with their John Wayne ideas about manhood.

For all my fear, though, I realized I wasn't nearly as scared as my friends, or any dyed-in-the-wool red state American. I'm afraid of guns, but they're afraid of everything. Socialism. Obama. Muslims. The government. Moral decline. The apocalypse. Immigrants. Tofu. They're even God-fearing.

It's safe to say I have mixed feelings. I enjoyed shooting, think Christmas is A-okay, and had a nice vacation. I also met members of Joe Arpaio's posse, read The Harbinger, and drove a pickup truck that gets less than half the mileage my sedan gets. Essentially, I climbed Bullsh*t Mountain without a harness, and experienced true exhaustion when I took in the view from the summit. No wonder we couldn't find common ground. They're not even on the ground. They're in the clouds, and boy is the view bleak from up there on the summit of Bullsh*t Mountain.