A Dutchman and three Australians borrow a car and go to a shooting range. It sounds like the beginning of a terrible joke. In some ways I wish it were. I have always been strongly opposed to America’s gun laws, and even more so since moving to Austin and having listened to many of my young, left-wing friends talk anti-war but still advocate their right to a gun. Interesting. Also interesting is that at my school, the University of Texas at Austin, a ginormous and wildly proud institution of more than 50 000 students, there is a continuous battle by gun advocates for the right to carry concealed handguns on campus. Also interesting that on the 6th floor of the library where I slave away my evenings, a gunman in 2010 pulled out a AK-47 and let fire on a popular walkway, before turning the gun on himself. Last week another shooting took place at a different Texan University, luckily this time outside of Austin. Have I set the mood nicely? Good.
The main point of this story, however, is that despite all of this a few days ago I went and shot 6 bullets from a handgun, making me even more of a rampant hypocrite than I already was. It was Pim (the Dutchman)’s 22nd birthday, and what a better way to have an American birthday than shooting shit for the first time. Of course I refused the invitation, as I had done many times before, giving my regular spill on pacifist political correctness. Pim replied simply, proposing that you can’t have a proper opinion on something until you’ve experienced it. Applying that logic to this situation didn’t quite run with me. But the renovated “well you can’t have a proper opinion on write about something in detail until you’ve experienced it first hand” did pretty nicely. So there: my defense.
Anyway, the story: at this point in time, its 41 degrees outside and we’re about to walk in to the building. We’re far south of Austin, standing outside a huge warehouse, which is painted bright white and red. Nice and sanitary. The Colgate colours. And hey, it’s called Red’s Shooting Range. Red’s sits on the outskirts of a deserted shopping complex that has obviously seen better days. Better days being the 1980s. We are all childish excitement and burning energy until we pull open the heavy iron door. Everything is windowless and dim. An endless abyss of khaki, camouflage, and gun-babe postered walls. Framing the babes, the walls are lined with more guns and knives than I’ve ever seen in my life, with a few bows and arrows for good measure. I’m not talking the humble few in that hunting shop on Elizabeth st, I’m talking hundreds. The air is thick and heavy and it’s quiet, except for the punctures of sporadic gun shot, coming from somewhere I’m yet to pin point. I realize I’ve been holding my breath since we walked in and I look across to Alex (another Australian), who’s got the same perplexed feeling all over his face that for me is turning towards fear.
I’m surprised how packed Red’s is for a Wednesday afternoon. It’s all men and lads and boys and dads. One father is helping his son hold up a rifle that’s more than half his height. In a brief moment of relief I notice a woman half hidden behind her man. She’s all giggles and screams taking photos of him, who’s posing for the camera behind another beast of a rifle. My relief quickly reverts back to the disturbance that has been sinking deeper inside me as each second drags by. We move to the counter and my nerves are so shot to shit that even the snapping of the woman’s gum on her tongue is making me flinch. I’ve walked in to the aorta of all that I hate about America, and there’s some guy asking what type of handgun I want.
“First timers eh?” He smirks to the other server.
The images and words of all the countless stories of American shootings start blurring my thoughts. I realize I’m not alone: the others are quietly discussing the most recent gun scare at the new Batman screenings.
“Sorry, I can’t do this” I tell the guy behind the counter.
“You gotta, it’s an experience like no other” He drawls inattentively. I wonder how many times he’s had to say that. Everyone else is signing the required forms and I remind myself again of the story. Legitimate defense, legitimate defense. I sign, put on the protective ear and eye wear and follow them into the range.
I knew gunshots were going to be loud, but nothing can prepare you for an echoing corridor of ten people firing right next to your ears. The sound of each shot is gone in an instant. It comes and goes so fast that by the time you’re aware of what has just happened, all that is left is your nerves electrocuting your entire body and a heightened sense of alertness that I hadn’t felt since I was 11 at my local swimming competitions. I felt horribly alive. No one talked as the guns were loaded; there was only one reason to be here. Time took on a new motion in that hot, heavy air. I’d stopped jumping at every shot (which was happening on average three times every ten seconds) and seemed to be in a distant trance. Pretty soon it was my turn. I’d watched Pim earlier load his gun with a methodological calmness that probably came from experimenting on the hearts in his lab (ed. Note: despite this description, he is not a psycho). I had no such grace and the bullets swam in my sweating fingers. The magazine was loaded, I looked at the gun, there was nothing left for me to do but shoot. So I did. And I felt nothing.
Leading up to this moment I had experienced the most intense mixture of emotions I’d had in years. But as soon as I pulled that trigger, no single emotion registered. All there was was the tremendous sound, and the force of the gun as the weapon sprung back in my hands. I shot again, and again. The sheer power of this thing was so engulfing that for those seconds, my existence seemed to amount to no more than the gun itself. Was this how it felt in the act of murder? A momentary lapse of humanity as the gun takes over all senses? I don’t know what I was expecting to feel, but to feel absolutely nothing is still the greatest shock. I walked away feeling numb, and took photos for the others. Being behind the viewfinder seemed to match my increasing detachment from the reality of the situation very well. They loaded, re-loaded; I shot a couple more times. I don’t know why.
We ran out of bullets, paid silently, and left the warehouse with hardly a word. Everyone had a similarly confused look on his or her face, except for Andrew (the third Australian), whose smile reached each ear. Seated back in the car with the A/C blasting, I seemed to finally let out a breath. We drove home and proceeded to have a party on the roof. Ten bottles of wine later and wildly drunk, we sung to the Texan sky and its shooting stars, as the day’s somber activities finally slipped from my mind.
I want to call this new side of American culture that I was exposed to, something like: “the seedy underbelly of America”. But it’s not an underbelly. It’s a part of this country’s spirit. And whether it is condoned or not, it’s a stone each American must carry with them. For some, first and foremost, it’s a right. A right to security, a right to be your own agent. To take the law into your own hands, to serve and protect yourself, and your country, without relying on a government body to do it for you. But it’s also something more than security. Something I can’t quite pinpoint. I don’t know, and I don’t think I really want to.
So now I can say that I’ve done it, and I know I’ll never do it again. My opinions haven’t changed; I’m just even more confused by humanity. But now when someone asks how it was, the thing that scares me the most is that I’ll tell them what I felt was nothing. Somehow, this seems pretty close to the root of the problem.
© August 2012
All photos by Pim Oomen