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Austin Chronicle A Way With Guns

Not at Home on the Range

By Kevin Wood

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  Last week, my father and I went to a gun range -- you know, where people go to practice shooting their guns. This particular range, just outside of Houston, is outdoors, and on this particular day, the sun was still shining brightly when we arrived late that afternoon. Dad wanted to sight in his deer rifle, something he tries to do each year before hunting season. "Sighting" in gun-speak means firing the rifle at a target to make sure that the scope -- the small telescope which helps the shooter aim -- is correct.I had never been to a gun range before and tagged along out of equal amounts of curiosity and boredom. I hadn't even fired a gun since I last went hunting in high school.

In my experience, shooting a gun before experiencing life's other natural rites of passages seemed, well, completely natural. You see, I owned my first gun before I turned seven. It wasn't that exciting, really, now that I think about it. That year for Christmas, my dad gave me and my twin brother BB guns as gifts. I don't remember feeling any of the exuberance that Peter Billingsly's character Ralphie had in A Christmas Story. I wasn't afraid of the gun either; I just didn't know what to do.

A BB gun is long, like a rifle, but smaller and lighter, and shoots tiny spherical bullets at low speed, relative to other guns. They are made for youngsters, really, for target practice. That Christmas, my dad showed me how to close one eye and aim the gun at pecans in my grandfather's tree. For a while after that, admittedly, the gun sat in the back of my bedroom closet. When I was a little bit older, Dad would set up an old box behind the garage and put empty aluminum cans on top for us to shoot at. It was kind of fun; we could hear the ding when the BBs struck the metal, so we knew if we had a hit. I didn't really know why we were practicing our aim anyway, but it was fun.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, most of the boys we hung out with had guns, too. Most of their dads, like mine, were hunters. Some had guns even before I did, like it was their birthright, and pretty much all of us had guns by junior high. During my eighth-grade year, a new kid moved in around the corner. One time he convinced us to have gun wars in the woods behind his house. I don't think the war game struck any of us as dangerous or even unusual at the time. After all, most of us had guns that weren't even powerful enough to penetrate the skin. Most of us, that is. We attempted to set a few basic rules -- no shooting at the head, it was a good idea to wear jeans and long sleeves, and if you got hit, you were out.

Like I said, we didn't think much about it; it was just a game. The boy who lived across the street from me -- the kid everyone picked on -- wore shorts that day. And as it turns out, the new kid had a stronger gun and shot my neighbor in the leg. He ended up with a bullet lodged in his shin. Of course, the parents found out, and my dad gave us a stern lecture about gun safety.

That same month, he bought me and my brother new pellet guns as birthday gifts.

When I was 15, I went hunting for the first time. My dad had taken me and my brother hunting in West Texas, somewhere near Bandera. "First blood" is what hunters call a boy's first shoot, and that trip, I shot my first deer. The men wiped the deer's still-warm blood on my face and took a picture of me standing with the dead animal.

"Do I smile?" I thought.

Dad sure looked happy for me. I think the look on my face was more one of bewilderment. My dad really enjoyed going hunting, and got pretty excited about bringing us with him. It was his way of bonding with me and my brother, I think -- some primitive refuge-in-the-wilderness ritual or something. I went hunting with my dad a few times after that, but the last time I shot anything was before I even had a driver's license. I haven't gone hunting in several years now, but Dad still invites us every fall.

We arrived at the shooting range near closing time, but there was no shortage of people left practicing their skills. We paid the lady who checked in customers -- she was the only woman there -- and she gave us a few torn generic tickets. Five dollars per ticket for each gun we intended to shoot, and we could shoot as much as we felt like until they closed. Customers brought their own bullets. Men of all ages, some also with sons, sat side-by-side against a worn, wooden backdrop. They faced a row of targets placed against bales of hay and an embankment about 80 yards away. They sat down or kneeled at the backdrop and alternated between peering through their gun scopes to shoot and through binoculars to see their target shots in the distance. A young teenage boy with a reflective orange vest on was wandering around, and he pointed us to an aiming spot on the rifle range and took our tickets.

We walked over to the backdrop, my dad with a heavy plastic carrying case and a smaller canvas bag, and me following behind with one hand in my pocket and the other carrying a box of bullets. He laid the case next to him on the rotted wood, and I helped him remove the two heavy rifles. Gunshots continuously fired around us with no particular rhythm. The gun range required ear protection, and we brought those ourselves, too. They looked like oversized, heavy-duty headphones, only they were camouflage green. They did little to muffle the nerve-frazzling pops from every direction.

"I need a cigarette," I thought.

I felt completely humbled standing at that shooting range, and also a little maddened, surrounded by complete strangers who could instantly blow my head off with a turn of their shoulders.

My dad had just bought a new pistol; that's what he carried in the canvas bag that afternoon. He was pretty excited about it. I had never shot a handgun before. I wanted to be excited for my dad about his new gun, so I decided I would try it.

Next to the rifle range where the men fired their deer guns was the handgun range. We found the guide again, and my dad left his rifles for a few minutes while we went to the adjacent range with the canvas bag. The handgun range was smaller, and there was less distance between shooter and target. There wasn't much else distinguishing it from the rifle range, except that you couldn't sit down to shoot, only stand.

My dad pulled a plastic case from the bag, and he opened it to reveal a small, black 9mm pistol. Dad showed me how to load the bullets in the gun -- 10 greasy, inch-long bullets -- and then he walked back to the rifle range. He knew I was familiar with guns, and I guess he trusted me.

Our teenage guide walked us onto the handgun range and exchanged the spent targets. He put up a fresh piece of paper with a bull's-eye painted on it so I could judge how accurate I was at shooting. Then he walked away without a single word. It seemed awfully weird to me. This kid had no idea if I knew how to shoot the gun. I was wearing a torn T-shirt, a baseball cap, and shorts that afternoon, and probably looked about 16. I guess I looked, well, his age.

I couldn't help but compare shooting a handgun to hunting, because that was my last experience with a gun. To me, holding a hunting rifle suggests that, perhaps, we're just participating in the food chain. Using a rifle is our way of saying, "God gave me the craftsmanship to make this tool that can help me get food -- just like God gave the cheetah speed for chasing and the snake its venom for numbing." At least that's how most hunters I know see it. But with this pistol, which literally fit in the palm of my hand, I couldn't really imagine capturing tomorrow's dinner. What I could imagine -- and this is certainly why my dad bought it in the first place -- was shooting an intruder at point-blank range in the stomach and having his guts spill out on the kitchen floor.

It's hard to explain the feeling of holding a pistol to anyone who hasn't done it. Your hands feel awfully soft -- I caught myself thinking -- when you hold a piece of metal made for tearing through the very flesh that molded it. Besides that, the other difference between this and hunting is that you can also shoot a pistol single-handedly. I tried it. Now, I know that a deer rifle or a 12-gauge shotgun is no less deadly. After all, I once killed an animal that weighed much more than I do -- with a rifle. But carrying a heavy, three-foot weapon seemed somehow different than holding a deadly weapon that fits in your pocket.

The scary part is, we all know that's what handguns are for -- injuring other people. Hurting our own kind, really. There was so much power, and it was so instant, and so permanent, and so completely easy. Ten bullets easy. Clearly, in my baseball cap, feet spread and arms extended, squinting at the distant bull's-eye, I was practicing the art of potentially killing a person. And strangely, no one at the shooting range seemed to give any thought to me standing over there, alone, and firing bullets at will.

"I'm shooting a goddamn pistol!" I thought. Who says I'm discriminating about whom I'll choose to shoot with it? At least the dads and sons at the adjacent range, firing their hunting rifles, gave the image of shooting something foreign or at least inhuman. With me, there wasn't even that pretense.

I shot a single round, 10 bullets, and carefully put the gun back in its case. I walked to the parking lot and put it in the backseat of the car, then went over to a picnic table behind the rifle range to wait for my dad.

The sun was beginning to set in the west, behind the targets, and I pulled on my sunglasses. I noticed a young boy staring at me. I had those silly ear protectors hanging around my neck, and I guess it kind of looked funny, but he didn't really look amused. He kept looking from me to the handgun range, and then back at me, and I realized he had been watching me shoot. He sat on a tree stump next to a black Labrador, waiting for his dad to shoot his gun. I had seen him earlier when we arrived, only then he was the one shooting. He looked pretty awed by the huge piece of metal his dad had put in his hand, and the gun practically knocked the boy from his seat when he shot. The look on his face then hardly compared, though, to the way he looked at me now. He had seen me fire the pistol, and as he sat there, petting the sleeping dog, he looked terrified. His droopy eyes blinked quickly in the glare of the late-afternoon sun. I tried to smile in his direction and walked over to pet the dog. But quickly, the boy stood and ran over to his father. His father looked slightly annoyed by the interruption, but turned to hug the boy briefly. Next to them lay three long, shiny rifles. A deafening "pow" from behind reminded me not to take off my hearing protection so soon.

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