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The way of the gun

Making my way into the strange and alluring subculture of gun ownership

John Katsilometes

It’s all about the click.

The click is the unmistakable, audible signal that you are handling a firearm. And nothing clicks like a gun. Like the cheeky cluck of the tongue a person makes when winking, the gun click is the snappy show of confidence that you are comfortable with this weapon. Before you aim, before you press the trigger, before the paper target ripples, the gun will click. It might be the pump action of a Browning 12-gauge Cynergy Classic Trap shotgun, the sliding bolt of a Winchester Wildcat .22-caliber rifle, the heavy thunk! from an Armalite M-15 A4 Carbine magazine as it’s jammed into place, or the simple cocking of the hammer on a classic Colt .45.

So many firearms. And they all make that sound.

CLICK!

My 9-millimeter Beretta GX4 Storm semiautomatic clicks in two parts, as I pull back the slide to expose the chamber and advance the bullet and again as the slide jerks back into place.

CHA-CLICK!

That sound makes my girlfriend wince and sends the cats scrambling from the room, instinctively aware that the sleek black instrument in my hands was built to kill.

The gun makes another, more violent noise, of course. But the click, that sets the scene. As Clint Eastwood, portraying Dirty Harry Callahan, grimaced and asked, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” he performed a single, foreboding act with his weighty .44 magnum.

He drew back the hammer. Click!

****

When I first moved to Vegas I had a buddy named Buddy, which is not his actual name but what I am calling him for reasons that will become obvious. Buddy once pulled his small silver pistol on me during a drunken night of pool-playing at Boomerang’s sports bar and nightclub. I knew Buddy “carried,” and he strutted around with a discernible and exaggerated sense of self that the gun had apparently instilled. Buddy wasn’t quite as funny as he seemed to think he was, not nearly as smart or handsome, and I blamed the gun for that. If he were ever seriously challenged intellectually or physically, Buddy knew he could just brandish his piece.

Which, on this night, he did.

One night a group of us met to shoot (pool), and Buddy arrived wearing coveralls that doubled as shorts. Summeralls, I guess you’d call them. He walked in like he owned the place, talking his street-smart “yo”-peppered Buddytalk. I couldn’t stand the hilarious dichotomy of his lingo and wardrobe, so between gulps of a Tanqueray and tonic I spat out, “Who are you? The lost Clampett?” Under the conditions—the bar’s and our own—it was a funny and contagious comment. For much of the night Buddy was Jethro, then Jed, then Granny, then Elly May. The ridiculing was relentless, cascading on Buddy from all sides. He was obviously unhappy, distractedly scratching on easy shots at the 8-ball and glowering at the embarrassment.

We returned to the bar in full regale, and Buddy squeezed into the spot between me and the bar stool at my left. He put his face up close to my ear, and I felt a hard poke into my ribs. “Who’s the Clampett now?” he asked. I looked down and pressed against my person was Buddy’s silver-plated handgun. Stunned and not knowing what to say, I started laughing. And so did he.

For years after, I have felt that anyone who carries a handgun is, at the core, crazy.

****

Aside from a .22-caliber rifle I fired at nut-hoarding squirrels on my family’s almond orchard near Chico, California, I’d never held a gun, let alone owned one. Similar to how some felines don’t have the gene that makes them crave catnip, I didn’t seem to be hard-wired for firearm ownership. Guns make me nervous. But talk to a gun owner, and you get a sense they have grown to love the undeniable rush of adrenaline—what I have come to call the Gun Buzz—they experience when handling a firearm. Servicemen (and women) talk of the “phantom” sensation they feel after they have been discharged from active duty and thus no longer carry their weapon.

One newfound friend has told me that for months after ending his military service he continued to walk with the same gait—his right arm swinging wide—that he had when carrying his sidearm.

After a while, I wanted to know what that felt like, to develop such a personal relationship with a deadly weapon. I was also eager to learn about the culture of gun owners, the segment of the population so strongly attached to their firearms that they have organized and galvanized solely to protect and pursue that right.

Maybe, I would find, they are not crazy. Armed, and at times dangerous, I would find out.

****

It is the weekend before the Fourth of July, and the warm feeling of freedom hangs in the air at the Cashman Center, where people hustle in and out of the convention hall carrying bulky, gun-shaped tote bags. Organizers of the Las Vegas Gun Show expect about 5,000 visitors to their three-day swap meet of armaments and accessories. Most shoppers are repeat customers who work the spacious convention center with ease, bounding from table to table while browsing for firearms, accessories and pressure-sealed bricks of beef jerky. The National Rifle Association registration table is positioned near the entrance/exit to the restrooms, an ideal spot for heavy traffic. I’m told I can join the NRA for $35, on the spot. If I do sign up I get a black hat with the powerful NRA logo stitched across the front in bold, gold letters.

The conversations are unambiguous and loud, as if conducted by gun owners suffering from damaged hearing. A woman—and there are hundreds of women at this show—startles me by calling out, “Duncan Hunter for president!” She sits behind stacks of undisturbed Duncan Hunter T-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons, a fitting tribute to a bottom-rung candidate. Next to the avid Hunter coalition is a group asking me to sign a petition to protect our borders. “Are you interested in enforcing the immigration laws as they exist?” a guy asks. “I’m here legally,” is the only response I feel she needs to hear. It seems we’re talking about a single, specific brand of illegal immigrant here—those from Mexico. Around the corner from the petition-seekers is a booth displaying white T-shirts with black letters, trumpeting quite clear anti-Mexican slogans. “Every Juan Go Home,” is one. “How much for the shirts?” I ask the white, mustachioed entrepreneur manning the table. “Twelve dollars,” he says. “But I’ll let ’em go for $10. I’m not taking any home with me.” I don’t ask where “home” might be, but I’m sure it’s somewhere north of the border in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

As I scan the floor I see a sea of guns. Housed safely under glass are scores of rifles, shotguns, semiautomatic handguns, even air pistols and rifles. Signs boast of offering .50-caliber firearms and ammunition. Rifle stocks for the ladies are painted in an array of wild colors and psychedelic swirls, Haight-Ashbury meets Smith & Wesson.

One guy meanders through the crowd while hoisting a handmade sign pleading with someone to buy his 9mm Glock for $475, which might be a good deal, but I have no idea.

There seems to be a single-minded hostility shared by the souvenir hawkers. Offered for sale are T-shirts depicting Hillary Clinton’s image and the phrase “Life’s A Bitch—Don’t Vote For One.” The wrath is not reserved for the former first lady; the American Civil Liberties Union is also a delicious target. “ACLU—Atheists, Communists, Losers Union” proclaims one bumper sticker. And Greenpeace? No! It’s “Green Piece,” featuring a handgun painted green. I buy one of those, for the rather clever play on words, along with three key rings equipped with hollow-point 9mm bullets. Great stocking stuffers.

But I am not here to merely smirk and observe, and that’s why I feel so very out of sorts. Before I leave, I want to buy a gun, and my discomfort in considering what (and how) to make that purchase is nakedly obvious. I have walked this floor for more than a half-hour and, while those around me are called out like pedestrians at the midway at the county fair, I am virtually ignored by anyone hawking a firearm.

As my girlfriend so simply notes, “They know you’re not one of them.”

I finally step up to the glass cases of firearms offered by Citadel Gun & Safe of Las Vegas. I recognize the name of the business because it is a neighbor of Tommy Rocker’s on Dean Martin Drive. A kid young enough to be my son asks if he can help me.

“I am a first-time gun owner. I mean, not yet. But I hope to be. By the time I leave, I will be,” I stammer. “I want a handgun, one that I won’t have to upgrade. I want it to be a 9-millimeter. The Beretta looks good.”

I choose Beretta over Glock, the other handgun-maker I’d considered, because the Beretta is lying right there in front of me. (I later learn of a spirited rivalry between Glock and Beretta, which can be compared to the Coke-Pepsi soda war and the Ford-GM rivalry among vehicle owners.)

The young rep hands me, butt-first and properly, a stout Beretta GX4 Storm. He says something about the ambidextrous safety mechanism, but it doesn’t register as I am eager to get the gun in my hands. I grab the weapon and, experiencing my first Gun Buzz, squeeze the trigger.

Click!

Whoa, cowboy.

“Don’t squeeze the trigger with the clip in,” the kid says.

“I think I have committed my first faux pas,” I say.

The attempt at brevity is a dud. But my young sales rep counters with, “Do you want to buy that gun?”

“Fire it up.”

****

The weapon, case and three 17-round magazines cost $560. I fly through my federally mandated background check (in which the authorities confirm my nonfelon status, and I inform them that I am not a narcotics-abuser or an insane person).

After that, I am told that after the required three-day “cooling off” period—actually four, because by some measure of irony the gun store is closed July 4—I will be the legal owner of a Beretta Storm. It doesn’t matter that I have not proven to anyone that I actually know how to operate this weapon. In fact, I verified my ignorance during its very purchase. As I stand to leave, the guy who administered my background check asks if the Storm is my first gun. I say it is, and he says, “You’ll love it. You’ll want to sleep with it.”

“Oh?” I say. “I’ll remember that.” I walk out of the gun show in raging Gun Buzz, still in disbelief at how easy it is: I now own a gun. I am one of them. It is my right.

****

I “cool off” for four days, making sure not to reheat—applying uncommon patience while driving the Vegas streets and avoiding obnoxious Yankees fans wherever possible. I need to be good and cool when I pick up this gun at Citadel, not because I am concerned I will be angry enough to actually fire my Storm, but because after my ignorant display at the gun show I don’t want to unnerve anyone on the Citadel staff. The business is a lot like its own gun show, actually, offering scores of firearms of all varieties, along with tactical gear, optics, holsters, eye protection, ear protection, boxes of ammunition and, of course, safes. I get it: The safes are largely for the guns. It is an overt reminder of how to safely store firearms (note to self: price safes).

At the counter, I display my receipt, driver’s license and gun registration card. I am about to turn over my United Blood Services and LVAC membership cards, just to be sure I’m adequately identified, when I’m finally handed my blue box of Beretta. Like John Travolta opening the mystery box in Pulp Fiction, I gaze transfixed at the Beretta after unlocking the case. “We happy.” Then I hustle off to buy three 50-count boxes of American Eagle 9mm bullets. “You’ll be back in no time,” one of the Citadel employees says, adding that ammo runs out fast. He also says that it will take at least 300 rounds to “break in” the gun.

“Three hundred rounds?” I say, genuinely surprised at that number. That’s 300 more times than I have fired this gun, or any handgun, ever. The only experience I can relate to this one is when I first saw a 36-pack of condoms and was stunned at the number of condoms one could purchase, all at once; it might as well have been 36,000 condoms. “Is that a lifetime supply?”

So, clearly, I have some work to do. Before I leave, I ask the Citadel rep what I can expect as a new gun owner.

Without hesitation, he says, “Empower-ment.”

****

Ron Drake is an imposing, even heroic, figure. He stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 280 pounds. I know this because those are the dimensions listed on his Carry Concealed Weapons (CCW) permit, which he has showed to me during a six-hour training session, after which I will also be qualified to carry my Storm in a concealed fashion.

Big Ron is something of a biathlete in his career path—he’s a certified public accountant and a state-licensed CCW instructor. His business card proudly displays the stars and stripes, and also a bald eagle. His office is adorned with statues of eagles, paintings of eagles, and also three fire helmets. He spent much of his career as a fire-department paramedic, saving lives before saving folks from financial ruin and firearm ignorance.

“Before I give the test, I need to know if the person knows a bullet from a toenail,” he tells me. I can at least make that distinction, having been a foot-owner for 41 years, but I have never fired the gun I aim to carry.

Big Ron blocks off a good part of the morning and afternoon to teach me safety.

“I’m going to teach you how not to get into a gunfight,” he explains as I straighten in the seat across his desk.

I am tested in two parts. First is the written exam. Big Ron makes it clear that I must pass this test, explaining first the “golden rules” of firearm safety: Always treat the gun as if it is loaded while visually inspecting it, always point the firearm in a safe direction, keep your finger off the trigger and keep firearms unloaded unless necessary. He explains that “necessary” varies from individual to individual, as many guns are stored in loaded condition, so adhering to the first two rules is paramount. I have already broken both before ever firing the weapon.

We go over it all: Store ammunition in a place separate from the gun. Don’t carry the gun into any government facility or public school. Make sure you know what is behind a target before firing. When pulled over by law enforcement, notify the officer you are legally carrying a concealed weapon (“They’d rather you tell them than find out for themselves,” he says). Big Ron stresses the importance of understanding the ramifications of using the weapon—for example, is your life at risk if a 16-year-old kid is stealing your DVD player? Should you draw or fire the gun if you observe a person being beaten up? Should you draw and fire at someone coming at you, threateningly, from a distance of 21 feet?

“Gun-fu beats kung-fu, every time,” Big Ron says, but adds that if someone is bent on attacking you from a short distance (21 feet, for example) you are not likely to have time to draw your weapon. Learning other hand-to-hand forms of self-defense is a good idea; so is being 6-5, 280.

Big Ron hands me several pages of documents related to gun ownership and operation, the dos and don’ts of carrying the weapon and a list of concealed-weapons gear suppliers. In the stack is a “firearms refresher course,” a numbered tutorial of the type of funny/educational asides I will be hearing and reading as a new gun owner. No. 3 is, “Glock: The original point-and-click interface.” No. 12 is, “The Second Amendment is in place in case they ignore the others.” No. 14 is, “Guns have only two enemies: rust and liberals.” No. 24 is, “When you remove the people’s right to bear arms, you create slaves.” This is where Big Ron is coming from, philosophically, no question.

We roll through the test and I miss two out of 40 questions. I won’t give away which two (to keep the test’s content something of a secret), but one dealt with the consequences of firing the gun and the other addressed a hypothetical life-threatening situation. But the quiz mostly emphasizes common sense, and I pass it easily, and Big Ron hands me an official certificate, which looks a bit like the framed degree hanging in my optometrist’s office. All that’s left is the shooting test, and I am eager to finally fire what has until now been a $560 paperweight.

We are about to go shoot, a moment I have anticipated for weeks, when Big Ron takes a phone call. His daughter is going into labor. “How is she doing?” he asks. “Does she need chocolate? She might crave chocolate.” I ask Big Ron, who for the first time in my entire visit is smiling, if we should maybe shoot on a day when his seventh grandchild is not being born.

“We’ve got time,” he says, eager to fulfill his commitment to my CCW training. He tells me to meet him at American Shooters Supply & Gun Club at Arville Street and Spring Mountain Road. There, I have my required ear and eye protection (a combination that makes me look like some sort of pistol-packing Disney character) and am observing people firing all kinds of weaponry behind a thick Plexiglas-type partition.

Big Ron calls. He is delayed, having stopped at Summerlin Hospital to check on his daughter. “Go ahead and start shooting,” he says. “I’ll be there in about 20 minutes.” Start shooting? By myself? No way. Even after the tutorial, I can’t quite be trusted solo.

“I’m not shooting without you here,” I tell Big Ron. “I’m leaving nothing to chance.” I think I hear a chuckle at the other end and Ron says, “Sit tight and don’t touch anything. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

****

I am fully equipped, eyes and ears protected. The gun is out, in loaded condition, and Big Ron has positioned me into what is known as a “Weaver” stance, with my feet angled at 2 o’clock and my knees slightly bent. It’s unnatural to me, which Big Ron recognizes and cures by saying, “Quit standing like a girl!” But I settle in and feel pretty comfortable, Gun Buzz notwithstanding. My right hand grips the gun; the left wraps around in support. “Whenever you’re ready,” Big Ron says. The timing of my first shot is in my hands.

I close my left eye and line up the sight on the Storm on the “8” in the center of the target. I slowly squeeze the trigger and my view explodes in an orange blossom of fire and smoke. The gun jerks back, hard, and I flinch at the scent of ignited gunpowder. I lower the deflowered Storm and crane my neck to view the damage, which is satisfactory: The first shot has zinged a bit low and to the left, through the ring marked “9” on my silhouetted assailant. Good shot. Let’s have another.

Then the gun fires again, except I didn’t aim or (intentionally) press the trigger.

Whoa. Remember that finger-off-the-trigger rule. As I brought the gun to the ready position, it discharged low and to the left, clear of the target and, fortunately, any danger. Big Ron reminds me of all the rules, and adds, “Remember to breathe.”

Sound advice. That second shot scared the hell out of me.

I regroup and fire away at varying distances as Big Ron provides advice on how to secure my grip and set the sight on the target. I slip into a rhythm with the Storm: set-aim-fire-repeat. I score very well, for a total novice, 334 points out of a possible 360, which means that a motionless person with no arms or legs standing at a distance of seven yards would be in severe trouble if he pissed me off.

“I’m not just blowing smoke,” Big Ron says afterward, marking the score on my pockmarked target. “That’s really good. Usually you see holes all over this sheet.” I feel like I’m 10 years old again, playing Little League baseball, having just knocked one out of the park. There is talk of putting me to the test “under conditions,” while I am in full motion, and I have visions of blowing away live-action targets while running and rolling, Matt Damon-like, through a lifelike obstacle course. I’m really into it.

And I notice that, several minutes later as I clumsily turn the ignition in my car, my hands are still shaking. I am experiencing acute Gun Buzz. I have felt this powerful adrenaline rush relatively recently, in June when I met Paul McCartney after the one-year anniversary of Love at the Mirage. I remember reaching out to shake his hand and how I could not keep still.

Yes, there is a place where the Storm and The Beatles meet, and I am there.

****

The gun has become as common to me as, say, a waffle-maker. I store it in a locked, unloaded condition, but I fire it and clean it and, once in a while, show it off to guests. On this weekend afternoon we are entertaining Ken and Annette. They show up at our new house, with, coincidentally, a new waffle-maker as a housewarming gift (I had hoped for a leather holster or box of bullets). We spend a little time chitchatting and nibbling from a veggie plate.

The women then go off into the dining room, to dab onto their faces the latest in Mary Kay cosmetics (in a fact that has nothing to do with my gun, my girlfriend is a Mary Kay lady). I find the Dodgers-Padres game on the TV, and Ken says, “So, where is it?”

Thought you’d never ask! I retrieve the blue box and, in a familiar refrain, say, “This is not loaded.” I display the gun and show Ken how I make doubly certain it’s not loaded. Cha-click!

Kens’ eyebrows arch, and in the dining room my girlfriend says to Annette, “Ignore that.”

With Vin Scully intoning in the background, I show all the Storm’s features to Ken. He likes the weight of it; some time, I say, we will have to go shoot. Annette buys a bunch of cosmetics, and they take off. “That was so Ward and June Cleaver,” my girlfriend says before asking me to lock up the gun.

****

My go-to gun guy over the past three months has been Clark County Shooting Park Director Don Turner. Turner knows as much about gun culture, the handling of firearms and the history of the Second Amendment as anyone I’ve met on my journey. It was Turner who told me I could tell a lot about a person by what sort of gun he prefers. “If it’s someone who always complains about the cost of bullets, he’s probably a muzzle-loader,” Turner says.

A thoughtful, friendly man with deep convictions, Turner talked with me at length about guns and, along with Shooting Park office manager and champion trap and skeet shooter Gena Crunden, we shot trap together at the Las Vegas Shooting Club (which will be shuttered at the end of the year after its lease with the city expires).

After that humbling experience, I can report that it is far easier to shoot stationary paper silhouettes with a 9mm semiautomatic handgun than a flying clay pigeon with a 12-gauge shotgun. Five hits in 25 shots, was I, as the confidence forged in my shoot with Ron ebbed away.

The 2,900-acre Shooting Park, set for completion by winter 2008 at the very earliest, will incorporate ranges for any type of legal firearm (and archery kit), along with a hunter-education center and a campground with 100 full-service RV hook-up sites. A total of 220 buildings sitting on more than 100,000 square feet of territory are in the design plans. The Shooting Park’s groundbreaking ceremony took place in October 2006, an event made memorable by the appearance of Rep. Shelley Berkley, who showed up in a green-and-pink floral-print dress, pink socks, green tennis shoes and a pink jacket. In that attire, she managed to shoot a clay pigeon out of the sky with a 12-gauge shotgun (someday I might like to shoot with Berkley in an all-liberal showdown). Also in attendance were Sen. Harry Reid and representatives for Sen. John Ensign and Jim Gibbons, who was running for governor at the time.

Though gun enthusiasts are usually quick to bemoan government involvement in any facet of firearms regulation, the $61 million park—which is to be self-supporting once it begins operations—would not have been possible without action taken by elected officials. Reid, Ensign, Gibbons and Berkley co-sponsored the Clark County Public Shooting Range Conveyance Act, which in 2002 led to the transfer of the shooting park’s land from the Bureau of Land Management to Clark County. Turner has been entrusted with helming the development and operations of this park, and the guy does know his guns: He has owned some sort of firearm since age 6, and today he’s the lone Nevadan on the NRA’s national board of directors.

As such, Turner is in a unique position to discuss the hearts and minds of gun enthusiasts. In that role, he stresses that he speaks not as the head of the Shooting Park, but from his position as an individual authority on the gun culture and a representative of the NRA.

I relate to Turner the purchase of my Storm, how alarmingly easy it was for an individual so clearly uneducated about the use of firearms to walk into a gun show and leave as a legal, registered (and Clark County is the only county in Nevada that requires the owner to carry a gun registration card) gun owner. I ask, what’s wrong with legislating some sort of safety requirements for first-time gun owners? How would my individual rights be restricted if I were required to pass a simple firearms safety test when purchasing my Storm?

“I have no problem with safety training,” he says, and not for the last time. Turner is forever extolling the importance of gun safety, but repeats the NRA’s mantra of personal over governmental responsibility for making gun safety a priority. “Where the concern comes in has to do with the constitutionality of owning and possessing a firearm, and that goes back to the original foundation of this country. The Founding Fathers wanted to make sure the population could defend itself against tyranny. ...

We have a right to that, and now the government wants to regulate the right. That’s where the rub comes in. [The government] could enact safety standards that nobody could achieve.”

What might those be?

“For instance, they could require that a gun has to have your own fingerprints on it before the trigger can be fired,” Turner says. “Or legislate what kind of metal it’s made of. How many bullets it can hold. ... Firearm safety is critical to the ownership of a firearm. The argument is, who should establish the standards and how should they be regulated? Our philosophy is that you have programs that emphasize firearm safety and make them easily available to the public. The firearms industry does its job of promoting safety. What we do in the firearms community is understand it’s a right to have firearms, but if you are gong to have one, you’d better be responsible, you better understand the consequences.”

Similarly, Turner says the NRA resists bans on assault rifles, like the high-capacity, fully automatic AK-47s and AR-15s. “The assault weapon is a manufacturing issue. Ban assault rifles? It gets to the point where every gun that is a semiautomatic is an assault rifle. Maybe your dad’s Remington 1100 is an assault rifle, and now you’re a felon because you have your dad’s gun in your closet. ... It comes down to, there is a group of people that believe that the government is responsible for everything, and another group that believes the individual is responsible.”

The gun lobby obviously resides in that latter group, and hopefully no individuals will get hurt. But the Vegas summer was especially gun-violent, punctuated by several highly publicized shootings, including tragic incidents at New York-New York and Caesars Palace that left a total of six people wounded.

“When that happens, I think, ‘How horrible. Here we go again,’” Turner says. “My second thought is, there is always evil in the world, and the good needs to protect us from the evil. Here we have another person misusing guns. ... In my position with the [NRA] board, I think, what’s the spin going to be from the media?” He is quick to add, “The NRA believes that there should be mandatory sentencing for anyone who uses a gun in the commission of a felony, from brandishing it to firing it. We have no problem with severe consequences for misuse of firearms.”

The NRA’s individual-liberty stance is centered squarely on the Second Amendment. I ask Turner, who attended an NRA board meeting in Maryland in mid-September, how the organization feels about government infringements on individual rights that have nothing to do with guns. The warrantless surveillance of our phone conversations, for instance. Turner talks of the citizenry maintaining its true freedom because of its right to bear arms, but you could have the 1,800-gun collection of Las Vegas Gun Show founder Claude Hall and not prevent the government from eavesdropping on your cell phone.

“The NRA, per se, doesn’t discuss it and doesn’t have an opinion on it,” says Turner, “because it is a single-purpose organization. We are focused on the Second Amendment.” The NRA’s national membership is at 3.5 million, down from a high of 4 million. The organization remains a political powerhouse; Bill Clinton gave the group credit for tilting Al Gore’s home state of Tennessee to George W. Bush in the 2000 election, and last month Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani attempted to square himself with the organization after calling the group “extremists” 12 years ago. But the gun lobby will likely support the Republican nominee, regardless, as half of the party’s God-and-guns base.

“When Bill Clinton was president, there were record gun sales,” Turner says. “He was talking about outlawing assault guns, and you had people who would never [have] thought of buying an AR-15 going out and buying one because they thought the government was going to prohibit them. When Bill Clinton was running for president, there was a big poster of him holding a duck and a shotgun. Under him it said, ‘The Second Amendment Is Not About Duck Hunting.’”

Turner smiles, but at the moment the Gun Buzz has been doused. I’m not too eager to go shooting today.

****

As Turner discusses the Shooting Park’s ideas for attracting business—including partnering with resorts to shuttle tourists to the ranges for an afternoon of shoot-’em-up—he mentions that teenagers and even children are already adept at killing before they ever pick up a firearm. Video games have become so advanced that they can desensitize children about the consequences of firing a weapon at a live target.

Thus, the park will have restrictions. There will be no violent video games for kids, no paint ball and no identifiable human targets permitted. A gun owner seeking inspiration will not be allowed to fire at an Osama Bin Laden figure, for example, because gun-toters might bring images of political figures, or ex-spouses, or current bosses, or any number of individuals to blast in effigy.

But the concern persists about kids and guns, and how to best address the problem of children who know how to shoot but know nothing of gun safety. One idea floated at the park is to invite Clark County School District students to the ranges for field trips, for lack of a better term. Or, a mobile unit—a van—could be used to tour schools in the district.

Not so fast, say CCSD officials.

“What we teach is safety,” CCSD Police Department spokesman Ken Young says. “We had the Eddie the Eagle campaign, where the concept was that kids never handle a gun. It was, ‘Stop, don’t touch and tell an adult,’ whenever a kid got around a gun. If you think about it, advocating that kids pick up guns is inviting something tragic to happen. We have always taught kids not to handle guns.”

There are kids who do handle guns, though. The 10-year-old daughter of Bass Pro Shops Hunting Manager Jeff Tatum is already shooting a .22 rifle with advanced aptitude. “She has zero interest in shooting at anything except paper targets,” says Tatum, who manages the top floor of the 165,000-square-foot outdoors emporium. “She likes to see holes in paper.

Until his joints began chronically aching about three years ago, Tatum was a top-level competition shooter who shot up to 500 rounds per day. He’s a hobbyist these days, a family guy with two daughters (including a 6-year-old who has no use for firearms) and a job at the state’s largest outdoors retailer that keeps him plenty busy. He wears black Chuck Taylor sneakers on the job and with his demure disposition does not at all play the role of a champion gunslinger.

“I think the biggest misconception is that if you own a gun, you like to kill things,” he says. “A lot of gun owners, sportsmen, feel the downside of hunting is the killing of the animal.” But what are guns designed for, if not to kill?

“To me, it doesn’t matter what they were originally built for, but how they are used,” he says. “You have to be very dedicated to safety. My guns are locked in a safe when I’m not using them. When you have accidents with guns, it’s because kids find them and it’s a big deal, like finding the Holy Grail. Guns are stolen and get into the wrong hands. That’s when you have problems.”

Tatum has owned a gun since he was a kid on his family’s ranch in Tyler, Texas, and says he would welcome a safety course for new purchasers. “I honestly think that a first-time program, like the CCW [exam], would be very useful,” he says. “I mean, just the basics. You have people buying guns who don’t know the difference between a revolver and an automatic. Something like that could be handled at the state level or even county level.”

That concept would not endear Tatum to the NRA. “I know very little about the NRA, to be honest,” he says as we browse the store, seeking a leather holster that would fit my Storm. “I’m not a member. I know they do a lot of good. But whatever you believe in, personal responsibility begins in the home.”

****

I’m parked at the gate at Desert Sportsman Shooting Range, just east of the entrance to Red Rock Canyon. I’m waiting for a complete stranger to lead me into one of 12 shooting ranges to give me an advanced lesson in firing my Storm. The car stereo is playing Van Halen’s “I’ll Wait,” and I notice two bumper stickers on the gentleman’s green Ford Ranger that read “Support Our Troops” and “I Love the USA.” They are shiny, new, showing that the driver’s support has not faded.

I climb out and shake hands with yet another large man in this odyssey, Bill Knight, vice president of Poggemeyer Design Group, a Vietnam War veteran (Army, 1972-73) and one hell of a pistol shooter. Knight is 55 but looks no older than 45 and is eager to spend his day honing the shooting skills of a person he knows solely through goofy e-mail exchanges.

We slowly roll out to one of the remote shooting ranges and get ourselves ready: He opens a fancy multi-compartment gun bag loaded with his weapon, ear and eye protection and ammunition. I pull from my trunk a bag from Las Vegas PaperDoll stationery boutique, in which I carry my Storm, ammo and all the other stuff.

Knight sets up three cardboard targets. For the first time, I am going to hear range commands. “Two shots to the center of mass!” and “Fire!” Those will be followed by after-action drills (quick check, final check and slow scan) to make sure our simulated firefight has ended. Occasionally he yells, “head!” and we shoot into a rectangle in the skull of the target, which represents the cranial-occipital cavity. Hit that and your cardboard assailant is a goner.

It’s a test, for sure. Live-action commands offer an entirely different set of challenges. Speed, for one. I struggle to swiftly remove the Storm from the holster. And the gun jams after I fail to insert the magazine and advance the bullet properly. And, most egregiously, after we finish I fail to check the chamber to make sure the gun is empty. There is one round left, which Knight extracts by sliding the chamber and dumping the bullet onto the dirt.

Click.

That night I have a disturbing dream that we are back out on the range. I am shooting up a Storm, blasting the bits out of the cardboard, and I hear this: “Hey! Stop!” It’s Bill Knight, my new friend, scrambling out from behind the targets. I missed him, somehow, thankfully.

****

The day after I bought the Storm, I called my mother and told her about the purchase—this was one of those inform-rather-than-consult decisions I make that she is so fond of. She called back with her own message: “I am listening to a message from my idiot son, telling me he has just bought a gun, and on the radio I am listening to this idiot Ted Nugent, talking about archery hunting. So you’re in good company.” Mom’s a big fan of sarcasm but not a big fan of the gun. Let me clarify: Mom is not a big fan of me owning the gun. The gun itself, alone, under glass, she is fine with.

So I decide they should meet. At some point I want to travel with the gun, legally, as per TSA regulations, on a flight to Boise, Idaho. I pack it in, locked in its case and in an unloaded condition, in my baggage to be checked. Modulating just loudly enough, I tell the ticket agent, “I’ve packed a legally registered firearm.” Talk about a mood-wrecker. Her grin turns upside down, and I am moved aside to fill out a form specifying the gun and my travel plans. It seems the temperature has dropped 10 degrees.

During my visit I mention casually to the Boise crew that I’m a good shot. The Storm remains in an unloaded condition, and I do the click thing to prove so. The only moment anyone is alarmed is when my grandfather, who has military experience, pulls the Storm from the table and begins to handle it fairly freely.

“Daddy! That’s not a toy,” my aunt says. To which my 88-year-old grandfather shoots back, “I’ll say it isn’t. This is a beautiful gun!” Who knows? Like some of the Nazi memorabilia my grandfather collected in World War II, the Storm might one day be a family heirloom.

****

We finally have The Conversation about the gun: How it might be used. It is clear by now that my new affinity for weaponry is not a shared sensation around the house.

When I purchased the Storm, my girlfriend was asked by one of the Citadel guys if she was going to go out and shoot, too. “Probably,” she said. But it never happened.

She asks me if I would ever use the Storm. I consider what would happen if someone—a methed-out teenager or a would-be tyrant—broke into the house.

Would I use the gun then?

I refer to my training: If I feel my life is at risk, I would use the gun, as I was trained. I never considered that possibility before visiting my first gun show. My perception about gun ownership has morphed, no question.

I recall a conversation I had with a woman at Citadel, who asked me why I bought a Beretta over a Glock. I tell her it was happenstance, essentially. It could easily have been a Glock, or Colt, or any other make. She likes the Glock because it is smooth, easy to load (the springs in my magazines are maddeningly stiff) and easier to fire. Come to think of it, I have noticed a little play in my trigger that I’m not too fond of.

“My next gun will be a Glock,” I say, and as the words leave my mouth I’m stunned at what I’ve said. My next gun.

****

I’m picking through Guns & Ammo magazine, which features a Smith & Wesson M&P .45 and a Walther PPS Slimline 9mm on the cover. The publication has a new editor, Richard Venola, whose editorial seeks freelance stories from soldiers or Marines in Iraq. “We need folks with talent who have seen the elephant and know what it’s like to try to clear a stoppage while the bad guys’ PK M is running just fine. There’s a fundamental difference in operating a firearm when a stoppage means losing face during a match and losing your face to a match-grade projo.”

Wha-a?

I have so much to learn. I like firing my gun, watching the red-orange muzzle blast through my plastic eyewear and hearing the clink of a spent brass shell. Even the scent of burning powder is somewhat exhilarating.

But I’m not sure that hitting the cranial-occipital cavity with a 9mm Blazer bullet is more fulfilling than smoking a 300-yard drive at Angel Park. Or doubling into the gap in a D-plus men’s-league softball game. That I would be willing to fully commit to being a “gun guy,” driven by the three Fs of firearm ownership—fear (of the Blue Meanies taking my gun and my freedom), fun (blasting targets of any variety) and fellowship (giant, single-minded organizations like the NRA)—is not likely. I expect I will continue to fire it once in a while. Bill Knight has told me about training at a facility called Front Sight, an intensive process that would really hone my skills. I’d like that, improving technically.

But the rest of it remains a foreign culture to me. It’s a lot like trying to embrace a completely new manner of thinking, and even a new and different language, one that can be conveyed in a single word.

Click.

****

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