Monday, September 10, 2012


Gilbert Indoor Range sits at the end of a cul de sac in Rockville, Md., about a half hour from Washington, D.C., and a short detour off Rockville Pike, a traffic-clogged, obscenely ugly strip of big-box stores and car dealerships. The low, concrete building sits on a side street that is very quiet except for the persistent, startling "pop" sounds that become audible once you get to the parking lot.

Did you know that shooting a gun is so commonplace and accessible in America that there are Groupons for it? I didn't, until my sister gave Sir UncMo one as a gift for his birthday: a shooting range experience for two, value $123, for just $45. My sister, who lives in Gaithersburg, married a gun lover over a decade ago and has since become certified as a gun range marshal (can't remember whether it's at Gilbert's or another range). I don't really know what this means, other than I probably shouldn't ever anger my sister.

Sir UncMo's interest in shooting is just one of the many ways he has endeared himself to members of my family, and my sister's gift was a thoughtful one. So despite my antipathy toward gun ownership, and my complete lack of interest in firing anything unless it is a gas stove or an aromatherapy candle, we were bound for Gilbert's. I put off booking our appointment for so long that the Groupon had expired by the time I called, but Gilbert's was so overwhelmed with response to the Groupon that it extended the expiration date to accommodate everyone.

In case you haven't guessed as much by now, I was kind of dreading this whole thing. I pictured going into a gross industrial building (accurate), sitting through some training that would be painfully boring (partially accurate), making some kind of horrible or embarrassing mistake or, worse, beng the victim of one (not accurate), hanging around a bunch of pasty, pants-hitching, middle-aged males (partially accurate), witnessing something or someone really creepy (accurate) and/or generally losing my shit in response to some previously unknown deep emotional response to firing a deadly weapon (not accurate). I was hiding these thoughts from Sir UncMo and staying mostly upbeat because it was his birthday present and he was looking forward to it. My inauthenticity made it that much more stressful.

We walked in and approached the front desk. Picture the last time you went bowling, ice-skating or mini-golfing, and you've got the sign-in at Gilbert's: crummy, expansive front desk with cubbies, stain-proof industrial carpeting, affable staff dudes who have seen a million jokers just like you come through the door, death-and-injury waivers that you don't read, rental equipment that you hope has been thoroughly sanitized but probably hasn't.

So far, pretty unremarkable. The relentless gunfire sounds receded into the background as we focused on signing in. After the paperwork, we were directed to room where we would watch a safety video, take a quiz on said video, and receive some training. On the way to the room, we saw this:

Those squares under the animal heads are photos of Mr. Gilbert, I presume, with the original kill. All of the photos looked like they were from the 80s. The man in the photos held the freshly killed animal intimately, as if it were a lover.

Here was the element of "gun culture" that I anticipated and feared. I am completely ignorant about gun culture. But when I allow my ignorance to overtake my perception of how gun enthusiasts must think, I picture either something like this or something like Columbine. Something like a higher regard for destruction and artificial glory than for living things.

The class consisted of one teddy-bear-like black guy, two giggling black women in scrubs, a quiet Asian couple, Sir UncMo and me (Asian and white). I break all this down because I will admit to being mildly surprised that there were not more white dudes.

Goggles and protective headphones were distributed. We were all handed wipe-off markers and a multiple-choice quiz in laminated plastic. The vestigial part of me that did well in school wanted to go ahead and answer all the questions before watching the video, sure that I was smart enough to guess at these questions without watching the video. I mean, how hard could it be? Sir UncMo had the same impulse, knowing a ton about guns. But as we watched the poor-quality video being projected from a laptop on Windows Media Player, we realized we had some wrong guesses. We couldn't figure out the proper order among the multiple choice answers for unloading a handgun on our own, and they had some other tricky questions in there about the rules. The quiz wasn't "hard," but enough to make you pay attention if you're tempted to be an arrogant jerk like I was.

After the video, a jocular guy came in (I think someone else said it was Mr. Gilbert, who I think was also the one in the photos with the animals, but there was no way of connecting for sure the '80s safari guy in the photos with the smallish, older man in black who talked to us), went over the quiz answers (no one checked to see whether we had gotten any wrong), and shared enough anecdotes about people waving their guns around and holding their guns improperly that we all laughed knowingly and internally vowed not to be the one who shoots oneself in the face or injures a thumb because of an improper grip.

We were informed that we would be shooting .22 caliber handguns. "Don't worry," Sir UncMo reassured me. "A .22 is like a BB gun. It's nothing." He smiled with confidence. I stared blankly, not reassured. Couldn't a .22 still kill someone if misused?

At one point the instructor asked whether we knew which eye was dominant, and then told us how to judge: set your sight on one thing in the distance, cup your hands around that thing like you're making a viewfinder, and then close each eye to see which one got it right. I got put on the spot and was totally flustered, raising my right hand instead of my left, covering the wrong eye, etc. It was not looking good for me. If I couldn't even tell my right from my left, how could I be entrusted with a dangerous weapon?

The instructor seemed not at all concerned about our mental acuity. He made jokes and seemed utterly relaxed as he left us rubes to handle handguns for the very first time.

Finally, it was time to shoot. As instructed, we filed into the range with guns pointed down and fingers off the trigger. We filed into gray plastic blinds like you file into when you take a computerized driving test. At each station, a paper bullseye target was taped over the silhouette of a man, his crotch visible beneath the black rings. Sir UncMo handed me some bullets. I had learned in class how to fill a magazine, which was like a Pez dispenser, as the instructor said, and yet was the hardest part of the whole process because it was not easy for me to keep the lever pressed down with my thumb while I filed in the bullets with the other hand.

I pushed the magazine into the gun and cocked it. I allowed myself to imagine being in an action movie while doing this. I was careful to keep my thumbs on one side of the gun, as instructed, to avoid getting my thumb sliced by the action as it retracted. Slowly, breathlessly, I put my finger on the trigger, and squeezed it.

I braced hard for a recoil, but with my lightweight pistol, there really wasn't much of one. I squinted ahead, but it was impossible to tell whether I'd even hit the target -- or anything. It was disconcertingly anticlimactic. I reeled in the target: Most of my first shots fell outside the target range, but a few of them did hit the paper. Sir UncMo told me to be sure to line up the front sight with the marker at the back of the gun -- with that, I was landing a slew of shots near the bullseye (below).

Sir UncMo, of course, was tearing up the paper. He had experience and it showed. As I stepped over to see how he was doing, I noticed that the shells from his gun were flying off onto the floor where my flip-flop-bearing feet had been in the next stall. Had they just missed me before, or had I not even felt them?

I became absorbed in becoming a better shot, lining up my sights on the gun and then reeling in the target, pleased to see I was getting better and better. Part of me felt empowered and imagined fending off intruders, bad guys... while the other part of me remained fully aware that in all likelihood, in a real-life situation, I would lose all composure and this newfound know-how along with it.

For me, the sound of gunshots ripping through the air never completely lost unpleasantness, but otherwise, it felt recreational and safe. After we had shot our box of ammo, we both were ready to go.As we checked out, Sir UncMo noted that I had shot much better than one of the guys from our class. I tried not to mentally pursue the scenarios in which our single male cohort might actually fire a gun and whether his being a poor shot was reassuring or scary.

I had steeled myself for how intense and alien it would be to shoot a gun, to be armed with a deadly weapon. As it turned out, it was all too easy.

Music: "Bang"