So, what did you do on St. Valentine’s Day? Candle-lit dinner? Romantic movie? Moonlit stroll? Me, I lost my virginity.
I should perhaps mention that we’re not talking sexual virginity here, but something which I’ve guarded far more preciously, for nigh on twice as long – my firearm virginity. In my 33rd year, I’d not as much as touched a gun, let alone shot one; in a curiously contrary and peculiarly British way, this was a perverse badge of honour: we don’t need guns in this country, thank you.
My abstemiousness came to an end at Shooter’s World in Phoenix, Arizona, a gun shop and shooting range to which I was taken on February 14th. The trip was a surprise – this was no bad thing, as if I’d known about it, I’d have probably have turned up in a long, black trench-coat, sunglasses and chewing on a match-stick, rather than jeans and a TC-shirt. I’d also have been a bundle of nerves; again, a British upbringing tends to teach you that guns of any sort are a Very Bad Thing, to be feared and avoided.
I met my teacher for the session, Bill, and gingerly carried the weapons through to the range: a pair of 9mm handguns, a Beretta and a Glock. [Did toy briefly with the idea of asking if they had a Walther PPK, but decided that would simply be sad] Having learned of my complete innocence with regard to practical weaponry, Bill opted to start from absolutely first principles i.e. the pointy bit is the muzzle. This was perhaps a little excessive, given my solid theoretical background, admittedly derived largely from John Woo films, but was probably for the best to prevent Stan Bowles-style accidents [This reference will make sense to readers who remember the TV show ‘Superstars’, and an unfortunate incident where Stan managed to blow a hole in a table during the shooting competition].
We started with a single bullet (unleashing a full clip from each hand while diving in slow-motion through the air must be on the Advanced course), and the target was set at a distance which an unbiased observer might well have described as somewhere between “pathetic” and “laughable” – you could probably have spat with a good chance of hitting the bulls-eye. It was, however, quite enough for me to deal with, as I tried to take in everything Bill told me: stance, grip, concentration, breathing, oh, and pulling the trigger. Or rather, take up the slack, feel the resistance, continue to tighten until…
Firstly, the protective gear proved its worth: even through the ear-plugs, it was fabulously loud, no doubt partly due to the enclosed space; if ‘The Killer’ was anywhere near accurate, Chow Yun Fat would be saying “Pardon?” rather a lot. On the other hand, the flames from the end of the barrel explained how Sally Yeh got blinded, and the purpose of the goggles became clear as the ejected casing ricocheted around the stall from which I’d fired. Happily, the target had a neat little circle, fractionally right of centre. Bill made encouragingly approving noises, which was very kind of him, given I could have leant forward with a pencil and done something similar.
Further rounds followed, and bigger clips. Loading was the trickiest thing about the whole event; fearful the cartridges would go off in my fingers I handled them like egg-shells,. And with two round surfaces to push against each other, I never got the clip more than about half full. Meanwhile, we’d also graduated from bulls-eyes to a target looking…well, let’s be honest, human-shaped. Bill gradually moved it back until I was finally reduced to squinting somewhere down the range towards a distant blur. To my surprise, I still hit it. Well, most of the time. [“That’s not a larch…” © Monty Python Inc.]
My TC-shirt depicted (surprise, surprise) a woman holding a gun, specifically a Hechler and Koch MP5K – Bill asked if I fancied a few rounds with the very same model. If you’d asked me before, I’d have been only vaguely interested; now I was up for flame-throwers, rocket-launchers and low-yield battlefield nukes. I have to say the H&K was perhaps not quite what America’s founding fathers had in mind when they wrote about “the right to bear arms”, or else they’d have put “the right to bear really cool, scary-looking arms”. For if one bullet is loud, flashy and impressive, the ability to rip off an entire magazine with a single pull of the trigger is god-like. I did have trouble literally coming to grips with the gun, however; while using a handgun was fairly intuitive, the correct stance and grasp for the full automatic seemed forced and unnatural, like a golf swing. You have to hold the weapon almost in the centre of your chest to balance the recoil, with your head tucked down in an odd position. Even so, my bursts had a distinct tendency to drift quickly left and up, each successive bullet throwing my aim further off. Still, it was a fitting climax to a memorable hour, and I left clutching a handful of spent shells and some severely bullet-riddled targets, now proudly attached to a door here in TCHQ.
My opinion on guns has perhaps softened now I’ve experienced how much fun they are. I do remain unsure about gun ownership: not for responsible people like you or me (well, you anyway) but no-one has yet worked out how to keep them out of the hands of idiots. And there are an awful lot of those out there – never forget that half the population are below average intelligence. Unfortunately, in a democracy, “being an idiot” is not deemed sufficient legal authority for prohibition. How you work round this has baffled greater minds than mine.
“Did you get a hard-on?” asked Chris as we left. No, I didn’t – but now I certainly understand better why some people do.
Thanks go to Chris for setting it all up, and to Bill Garcia for his immovable patience in the face of my irresistible ignorance, even when I tried to jam the magazine into his beloved H&K the wrong way round: “bullets first” was his helpful tip…
Shooter’s World is at 3828 N.28th Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85017. Tel (602) 266-0170