A Loaded Subject

adventure by Shannon Thompson

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“I have an idea for one of your adventures,” my friend said over lunch a few weeks ago. “I completely understand if it doesn’t appeal to you.”

Her son would be home for Christmas. If I were interested, he would be happy to teach me to shoot guns. He’s a member of an elite Marine special ops unit–MARSOC–one of a few number of highly skilled, bright servicemen selected and trained to handle extraordinarily complex situations. The guy knows what he’s doing.

My reaction was so intense, and so conflicted, that I knew immediately I had to say yes. I was terrified. Tell your son I would appreciate the opportunity.

Today, as we sat at an elegant cherry dining table in an airy house surrounded by acres of private woods, he asked me what I was looking for, what I was hoping to experience.

“I’m not sure,” I answered. “I’m curious. I shot a BB gun when I was a kid, and I touched a pistol in Israel, but that’s the extent of my experience. I have really strong feelings about guns–really strong, negative feelings about them–and I guess I feel like I want to have some personal experience with them if I’m going to hold such powerful feelings.”

[I mean, really strong feelings about guns. I hate them. I hate that they kill people and animals. I am a big hippy pacifist vegan who wishes they would go away completely. I think it’s criminal that we don’t have real gun control that keeps them out of the hands of people who want to hurt themselves or others, or who are not qualified to keep or use them safely. I think most people don’t need guns or shouldn’t have them. I think recreational use just normalizes something that’s really about killing. I worry that this blog post only glorifies a thing I detest. And so on.]

He listened respectfully, then retrieved his duffle bag. He explained his protocols for safe storage as he carefully laid the weapons on the table: An M4 assault rifle, a Glock 17 9mm pistol, and a .45 caliber pistol.

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Then he taught me what to do. Hands trembling and heart pounding, I practiced loading and unloading the empty magazines, learning each step for each gun, awkwardly fumbling with these unfamiliar shapes and moving parts as he patiently reminded me how to release the clip on this, flick the safety on that. I was a high-functioning nervous wreck. We kept practicing without ammo.

Eventually, we went into the woods where he had created a shooting range against a berm of logs and rock, and he hung a friendly bowling pin-shaped target next to the one that looked human. I started with the M4.

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The first shot stunned me. The power of the machine in my hands took my breath away. As nervous as the weapon had made me, as fully aware I was of what it could do, I was unprepared for how it felt to fire it.

We moved on to the Glock, and then the .45.

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After some practice, he let me shoot at a Poland Spring water bottle.

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I liked it. I get why people do it. I liked the fine motor skill, the precision and concentration required, the competition, and yes, I loved the power of the machine in my hands. I was thrilled that I hit that water bottle with the first shot. I was also aware of the adrenaline in my body, of how quickly it became a game to hit various human parts of the target. As we walked back from the range, I grilled my gracious instructor about his work, about when he would expect to use each kind of gun, about what each will do to a human being, about what these guns are really for out there in the world.

Something shifted today. I have tremendous respect for this young man and his parents, who have gone through their own process of acceptance of his firearms. I didn’t expect (or necessarily want) my views on guns or gun control to change, but I do feel as though the black and white quality of my perspective started to gray up a little.

When I told another friend that I was doing this because I felt like the severity of my feelings was out of balance with my knowledge and experience, he said, “yeah, it’s hard to have strong views about something you don’t know anything about.”

But I disagree: it’s the easiest thing in the world to hold an opinion about something you don’t really understand. A nuanced perspective is a much trickier target.