What surprised me most about Handgun 101 was how quickly my mind acclimated. As I fired the 9mm pistol, my brain traveled from “fear of the deadly killing machine in my hand” to “surging adrenaline from noise and flashes” to “how accurate is my shot?” in under five minutes. Shooting became an activity, a goal, something to perfect.
This was not the reaction I expected to have when I fired a gun for the first time.
I’ve been familiar with arguments around gun regulations ever since I worked for a Democratic senator on Capitol Hill years ago. Reasonable restrictions have long been obvious to me: we can and should regulate objects whose only purpose is to kill. The right to bear arms is neither infinite nor superior to other Constitutional rights. I can talk about this for days. I have talked about it for decades.
I’ve also lived for 15 years in a New Hampshire community where I’ve encountered people carrying on the sidewalk, in the grocery store, at the strip mall. My kids have played in countless homes where guns are present. I’m surrounded by guns, but before last summer, I had zero actual experience with them. At a minimum, shouldn’t I have learned a long time ago how to unload a gun if I find one? Some might even say I had a credibility gap that needed filling.
And so, as the death toll in schools and other public settings mounted — and well before the shootings in Pittsburgh, Parkland, Santa Fe, and Jacksonville that refused to let us sweep guns from the forefront of our national conversation — I walked into this all-day class in Epping, New Hampshire, to learn for myself what it would be like to shoot a gun.
Justin inspected targets after one exercise and called me Wyatt Earp. This made me proud, until I remembered that I don’t like guns.
To reach my classroom, I walked past an American flag mounted on the wall, with bullets standing in for the stars. I sat at the rear of the room, on the far side of the rectangular table and listened to an instructor named Justin, a fit-looking, clean-cut man with short, salt-and-pepper hair and law enforcement experience. He seemed like a great guy to talk to over a beer, and also like he was not a guy whose house you’d want to break into.
Justin established safety as the theme for the day, telling us that if we left with nothing else, we should remember “Muzzle Management” and “Trigger Finger Discipline.” (These two rules essentially made up a Golden Rule of Guns: don’t be stupid with a gun in your hand.) Later, he shared his opinion that a “21-year-old shouldn’t be able to walk into Bass Pro Shop and walk out with a Glock [behind his back.] That’s ridiculous…There should be some minimal training to own a gun.”
His measured, consistent emphasis on safety opened me up to considering other points he might make. I mused that if more gun owners felt this way, there could be a chance of cracking open a dialogue. But throughout the morning in the classroom, I was also thinking, with equal parts excitement and dread, about the next part of the class: venturing onto the range. Part of me didn’t want to blemish my perfect record of having come this far in life without having picked up a killing machine.
Eventually, I joined my classmates in the frigid, warehouse-like range, where nine targets had been set up, aligned with nine tables at one end of the room. I found a position in front of a target and checked my equipment: goggles, ear protection, three empty magazines, a box of bullets, and, finally, a Sig Sauer P320.
My fingers fumbled to load the bullets into the magazines. The rest of the class waited for me, and I felt like an idiot. Finally, I was ready. We raised our guns, checked our grips, pointed at the targets, and shot.
As it turned out, my shot was pretty good. I’m not going to win any competitions anytime soon, but most of my bullets penetrated the form on the paper within an inch or so of where I was aiming. Justin inspected targets after one exercise and called me Wyatt Earp. This made me proud, until I remembered that I don’t like guns. But was I supposed shoot badly on purpose? It was the most uncomfortable I felt all day.
Back in the classroom, we offered Justin feedback on the day. I listened to my classmates talk excitedly about follow-up classes they planned to take, including courses where the targets are pictures of people. For everyone but me, the class seemed to be a piece of a structure they’re building. Momentarily, I saw myself in Handgun 102 and beyond, learning to shoot until my bullet holes layered one on top of another on a target. I could become a skilled markswoman. Surprise my friends. And build upon that point of common ground on firearms safety with Justin and some of my fellow classmates.
But I had learned something new and terrifying about guns that day: an act that I thought would make me feel powerful instead felt like a game. The pointing, aiming and firing consumed my mind. The rest of the world slipped away. It made me wonder what that deep immersion would do to someone untrained, someone whose brain was overcome with stress or anger, or jealousy or hurt, or desperation. I was in a basic class, shooting at a bullseye. But what if the targets had looked more like people? If my target actually was a person?
So I walked away from Handgun 101, remembering one thing above all: What the gun made me forget.