Guns are scary, which is why I can’t understand why so many people aren’t scared of them
The atmosphere at a gun range is never not tense. If you’re a seasoned “operator,” to use the parlance of gun people, you are in all likelihood strictly intolerant of any nonsense of any kind because you respect these tools of death. If you’re a novice, you quickly learn why these people are this way. You don’t even have to shoot the gun. You just have to be near one when it goes off and you immediately understand why everyone’s balls are in their throat. And if you have any sense, yours are there too.
Recently, I went to a gun range north of Toronto, and there were a few things that surprised me. I remember, for example, that you could hear the sounds of the shots over the car engine as you drove down the street towards the range—something that might not be remarkable except this was an indoor range. The sound gets progressively sphincter-tightening as you get closer. The front shop is separated from the actual range by double soundproofed doors, at least one of which must remain closed at all times, otherwise the customers would be at constant risk of a burst eardrum. Ear gear on the range is a given, but the instructors also wear face masks, because the lead gets in the air and becomes poisonous after a while.
When you’re shooting the instructors stand right behind you. They load and ready the gun and offer stern reminders if the barrel begins to wander anywhere that is not the target. The shells that are ejected from gun with each shot are scorching hot and have been known, on occasion, to fall down a shirt or, horrifically, behind one’s eyeglasses. They told us at the outset that whatever pain or injury this might cause, we are not to panic. The absolute last thing we should do is to forget about the gun in our hand.
Before we got to shooting we were all escorted into a classroom where they explained all this, and shared a few other unsettling facts. Like for example, on the pistols, the firing mechanism claps back towards the shooter at about 1,000 feet per second. This mechanism passes just centimetres above the pin meant to protect your hand, and if your hand is in the wrong place, it’s not pretty. The instructors demonstrated this on these polyurethane models which were sitting on these tables at the front of the room. Before the instructors arrived, none of us touched them. Except one guy.
This guy was, as I later overheard the instructors calling him, “a cowboy” but he might be better known to you or me as “an idiot.” He came in to the classroom and, in front of a room of total strangers, picked up the model gun and began pretend-firing it, like a kid who just saw Scarface. He—a grown man—did this totally unprompted. Once we actually got on the range, he quickly volunteered to shoot one of the pistols first, which he picked up, barely-aimed and shot like a video-game carjacker, and that was when the instructor decided his day at the range was over. He wasn’t allowed to touch another gun after that.
Anyways, the point of all this is that these things (the guns) were intimidating. There was never a moment when we felt truly comfortable, and we knew that anyone who did was doing something wrong. For me personally, it took all of my focus just to stop my hands from shaking as I squeezed the trigger. And I’ve fired guns before.
People talk about guns being “fun” which I understand but also think is kind of fucked up. Their value as a toy is in direct proportion to the facility with which they can end a life. A shotgun or a rifle is more fun to shoot than a pistol, but it’s not as much fun to shoot as a grenade launcher.
The ironic part is that the thing that makes it fun is also, typically, what makes us feel safe. You feel better when you have a bigger gun, even if it’s only as a deterrent for people with smaller guns.
You see how this works: Maybe you get into guns because they’re fun, but eventually you feel like you need that gun, and you’re willing to allow for the possibility that lots of other people who probably shouldn’t have guns will have guns so you can have yours. You see, so you can protect yourself from them. If you’re American (they’re usually American) you’ll defend your right to have that gun by clinging dogmatically to constitutional documents; documents written by people who lived in a time when men earnestly challenged their rivals to duels, and for whom the term “heavy ammunition” meant a cannonball. It doesn’t matter whether you and your guns, however big, could actually defend yourself from a government intent on harming you (as the people who wrote those documents intended). The point is you feel vulnerable without them. And those stats about how you’re far more likely to harm yourself with your own gun than anyone else, well, that’s not you, is it…
This is the problem with guns. It is also, as a way of thinking, so self-evidently misguided that I find it incredible it hasn’t occurred to every single person who has ever held a gun before. There are good reasons to have a gun, but keeping yourself safe is not one of them. Because guns are not safe.
My first time shooting was at a hunt camp about seven years ago, where my cousin was celebrating his 30th birthday. His father-in-law, Rocco, is a proficient hunter, and the protagonist of many entertaining stories. My personal favourite is the one about the porcupine who was eating his deck for weeks until one day, Rocco exacted terrible revenge in the bleary-eyed hours of the morning when, wearing nothing but boxer shorts and boots, he kicked open the front door and blew away the critter mid-meal.
That weekend we went skeet shooting, target shooting, and hunting, and while I wasn’t supposed to be shooting any animals I was buttering up Rocco most of the weekend so he would let me. I didn’t actually want to kill something, it was more like I felt like I had to, to understand what it was like. I am (and you are too, probably) indirectly responsible for the deaths of many, many animals on a fairly regular basis, and I felt that doing the deed myself was a kind of moral obligation.
Rocco told us about all the things that could go wrong with the gun before anyone shot anything. We were all appropriately on edge during the skeet shooting while some of us rookies tried to work the safety. At one point, Rocco told me about the older generation of Italian hunters who would walk using the gun as a bastone, the muzzle downward in the dirt like a walking stick, and how they didn’t seem particularly worried about the fact that a clogged muzzle increased the likelihood of blowing off the aiming part of your face. When we did finally go hunting, Rocco let me hold the gun as we walked, trusting I would be decisive and take the shot when something worth shooting came into view.
After failing to take said shot several times, I started to get antsy. Then someone in our group pointed out something rustling in the tree directly behind us. Following Rocco’s prompt, I wheeled around and fired the shotgun into the branches overhead, killing what I didn’t realize at the time, was a bird.
To say I “shot” the bird wouldn’t really be accurate. As my cousin pointed out, I was probably close enough to kill it using the gun as a club, plus the bird, whose body was probably slightly larger than a man’s fist, appeared to catch the bulk of the buckshot. I picked up the tail, which appeared to be the only part still intact. The other parts were scattered metres apart on the forest floor and camouflaged by the leaves and dirt sticking to the blood.
I remember feeling nauseous and guilty, but more importantly I felt kind of shocked. My expectations about what a gun can do didn’t match what I saw it do. We’ve all seen it in movies: The bang, the smoking barrel, the person dropped by the force of the shot. But that’s not real, and I don’t think there’s anything that can prepare you for what those pieces of lead exiting that muzzle can do to flesh. My experiences since haven’t convinced me I would have been any more prepared if my target happened to be bigger or farther away than that bird was.
That’s why killing something fucking devastated me. It was so easy, and the damage the gun inflicted was inversely related to how easy it was. Walking back to the camp, my mind ran through all the scenarios in all the darker universes of the things this gun could do to me or my compatriots with very little action from the person holding it. Killing that bird didn’t make me feel in powerful or in control or whatever. Instead it created this sense of dread—that, despite the safety precautions, we were always dangerously close to losing control.
Here is the way some doctors describe the effect that bullets have on the human body, as told to the New York Times after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida: “Bones are exploded, soft tissue is absolutely destroyed…bystanders are traumatized just seeing the victims”; “the exit wounds can be a foot wide…I’ve seen people with entire quadrants of their abdomens destroyed.” One talked about a victim who had a tiny entry wound in the front of her leg where the bullet had entered. When she turned on her side, the physician saw that the entire back of her thigh was gone.
Granted, these are descriptions of military-style rifles, whose bullets travel twice as fast as ordinary handguns, and whose shockwaves blow through the body leaving massive cavities in their wake. But the fact is most guns, with few exceptions, are designed to kill or maim whatever they are shot at. Bullets from handguns still pierce and rupture muscle, bone, and viscera. The difference between these and a military rifle is one of effectiveness, not of purpose.
But you and I, Mr. Gun Person, can probably agree on most of this. We don’t differ in our opinion about how devastating bullets are. And, unless shooting things has made you cold and dead inside, you’d probably even agree that you never really get used to inflicting that kind of damage on a living thing.
What we disagree on is how likely it is that you, as someone who frequently handles guns, will come into contact with a bullet. What we disagree on is whether these tools are inherently dangerous—that this danger exists apart from the person operating them. You respect the bullet, of course. No nonsense. But while you might be slightly nervous around gun rookies, and you might fear people with guns who mean you harm, you do not fear the machine itself. I think you should.