"Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." ~ John Adams
The Day I Learned to Shoot
Last summer, right around July 4th, it occurred to me I ought to support the Second Amendment. Not that I ever opposed it, per se. I just hadn't thought about it before. But I realized last summer the right to keep and bear arms is crucial in this era of post-9/11 "vigilance." I even wrote an article about it, but never went further than endorsing this right. "I'm not opposed to the idea of owning . . . a gun," I said, "but I don't believe I'll need to any time soon." Why? Because "I buy my meat at the store and get along well with most of the folks I know."
All fine and good for a guy who, prior to that, had little more than experience with cap guns. Since then, however, I have paid closer attention to the gun-rights cause, and I have decided, once and for all, it's about much more than eating free meat and ending arguments. In fact, the cause isn't really about that at all. And, of course, this comes as no surprise to those who've long supported it, who by and large despise the idea of ending arguments with guns. But you have to understand I come from New Jersey, where guns are resigned to gun culture, with little or no place -- for most of us -- in everyday life.
For example, in '02, Gov. Jim McGreevey passed the nation's first "smart gun" law, requiring firearms with built-in sensors to prevent non-owners from firing them. "This is common sense legislation," McGreevey said. Oh, it's common, all right. About as common as smart guns, which McGreevey knew full well did not exist when he signed the law.
But anyway, all that aside, there is a definite gun community here in the Garden State, and last Wednesday -- more than two months after saying, "I'm going to get off my lazy rear end and learn how to use a gun already" -- I decided to join it. Sort of. What I did was I picked up the phone at around 4 o'clock that afternoon and dialed a shooting range midway between work and home. When the guy on the other line answered, I asked him: "Do you offer classes or anything like that?"
He paused for a second. "For what?"
"For guns," I said. "The only thing I've ever shot was water into a clown's mouth to pop a balloon at Six Flags."
"Well, come on down," he told me. "I'll show you how to use one. No better time than now."
He'll show me how to use one, I thought. Can he show me how to get dragged into a dark alley and beaten, too? I was sort of expecting an actual training session, I mean. You know, about safety and whatnot. This all sounded so unofficial and spooky. But, then, in retrospect, I realize I live in a fantasyland, police-state here in New Jersey. Most folks probably learn how to shoot from their dads by age 11 -- or hell, from their moms by age 12.
So I hopped in the car, headed on over, and decided I'd give it a shot. Pun intended.
Within the hour, I pulled into an unpaved lot near a big, forest-encircled field. No big, brick buildings here. Nothing too fancy. Just a trailer, a gun rack, and under a dozen honest, everyday men. Brawny Paper Towel-types, mostly. But throwbacks. I'm talking about the Brawny Man before he went metrosexual.
They were just putting their guns down to take a breath and adjust their glasses when I walked up. An older man wearing white with blue pinstripes approached me, saying, "You must be the fella I spoke with."
"Name's Jonathan," I said, shaking his hand.
"Nice to meet you, John."
That's Jonathan -- not John -- I thought. Johns are toilets. But it's close enough, I told myself. Pinstripes here owns guns. He can call me whatever he wants. Joan. Jerry. Late-For-Dinner. Didn't matter -- I didn't want to be dinner, after all.
"Well, it's an interesting game we've got here, John," he said. He pointed just then to three green huts -- or "houses" -- across the width of the field. Targets would be launched from behind them, he told me -- like tennis ball machines. I was expecting something more along the lines of a bowling alley, honestly, with bull's eyes instead of pins on individual lanes. Turns out, though, this place was set up for skeet shooting. That's where five guys get in a line and rotate from station to station, taking shots at targets in turn. It's more like five pitchers' mounds than bowling, I guess. "But," Pinstripes said, "it's good stress relief."
And so he handed me earplugs and a belt with some ammo in it, and we sat down in folding chairs as five other guys got into line in front of us.
Pinstripes showed me what seemed like a yellow joystick. "Whenever one of these guys is ready," he said, "they'll yell, 'Pull,' and I'll pull the target."
"Pull!" the first guy yelled.
Pinstripes pressed a button, a disk flew out, and -- BOOM! -- the guy blew it to bits.
Before I could tell myself, "Hey, this reminds me of Nintendo's smash hit, Duck Hunt," the second guy shouted out, "Pull!" Pinstripes hit the button, and once again -- BOOM! -- the disk shattered over the field.
(The joystick sealed the deal on the Duck Hunt comparison. Only thing missing was that damned laughing dog.)
"I can do this," I told myself. "I don't know how, or why, but I can do it. I think."
About a half hour later, Pinstripes walked me over to the gun rack, handed me a Remington 3200, and showed me how to hold it without breaking my jaw (i.e., with my cheek sort of resting on the handle). With four guys already waiting to start the next round, Pinstripes brought me to the open station, said some key things I couldn't hear through my earplugs, and told me, "Whenever you're ready, just say, 'Pull.'"
Listen: I was born ready.
"Pull!" I called out.
A disk took flight.
I hit the trigger.
And I felt a skip in the space-time continuum. And the world shook beneath my feet. The ghost of the dog from Duck Hunt showed up and started laughing. And I swear to you it felt like someone punched me in the face.
"Just missed it," said Pinstripes. "Go again."
Go again? Are you crazy? All right, all right. Let's see here. Square up. Take a deep breath. You ready, JDM? Too late: "Pull!"
Here it comes.
There it goes -- straight past the target again.
Who the hell keeps punching my face?!
I soon took a third shot, and a fourth, and missed both. The gun was getting heavy now. My arms were too tired to hold it.
"Square your shoulders," Pinstripes said.
"I can't," I wanted to answer. And the other guys eyed me -- in a patient way -- as if to say the same thing. And it's true: I just couldn't muster the strength to lift the gun again.
But alas, like Rocky Balboa, I heard ringing in my ears, but I didn't "hear no bell." One more round, Adrian. One more round.
And so I held up the gun against my arms' wishes, and I did my best impression of the proper stance. I told God I was thankful for the good times and took my deepest breath yet. I closed my eyes -- just kidding -- pulled the trigger, and . . .
"You got it!" someone shouted.
I got it? I got it! I mean, of course I got it. I'm good at this. An old pro.
"You want to try a whole game?" Pinstripes asked me.
I looked at the guys on the line. The patience they'd shown me betrayed the stereotypes so often assigned to gun owners. And I thought about the Second Amendment for a moment, and how it's not meant to destroy life and liberty but to protect them -- a point I believe now more than ever before. I handed Pinstripes his Remington 3200, said, "I'll get out of everyone's way for now," and sat down to watch the next game. I then headed out to my car, satisfied. Tired, mind you, but satisfied.
It's hard to keep and bear arms when your own arms can barely keep the gun up. This much I know now. Mission accomplished, though. The rest I'll have to work on.