Gris-Gris, an online journal of literature, culture & the arts

Welcome to the Gun Show

by Brent McKnight

I grew up worshipping the films of John Woo and Sam Peckinpah, of Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger. My favorite movies were, and still are, wild blood-drenched shootouts. I have a small dog named Bronson, and another named Swayze, if that’s any indication where my cinematic proclivities lie. I have lingering lifelong action hero fantasies of rescuing the girl held captive by ruthless international thieves, where if I don’t step in and save the day all is lost and the bad guys will get away free and clear. The everyman, compelled to feats of bravery and greatness by the overwhelming force of circumstance, that’s me; the insurance adjustor or computer programmer with uncannily good aim, that’s me, too. I want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. By the end of the adventure I’ll be bloody and I’ll be bruised, and dammit I may even be shirtless, but by God I will walk away victorious. And in slow motion, of course.

Robocop was the featured entertainment at my birthday party in second grade. After that my life was never quite the same. Red Dawn fed my Cold War, imminent-communist-invasion paranoia, just like Mad Max and Road Warrior added to my post-apocalyptic worries. This was intensified by the fact that I grew up within spitting distance of three naval bases that all revolved around nuclear weapons. One, Naval Undersea Warfare Center Keyport, sports the frightening, yet oddly hilarious, acronym NUWCK. I spent most of my childhood afraid I would be vaporized in some sort of nuclear holocaust.

As a kid, the vast majority of my toys were guns, action figures that involved guns, LEGO bricks that I fashioned into makeshift guns, and things that weren’t guns, like sticks, that I pretended were actually guns. Despite my fascination with firearms and the violence attached to them, I’ve always had a strong aversion to the real thing. The attraction has always been theoretical. I’m interested in guns and violence in a detached way.

When he turned thirty, my roommate, Bangston, began an obsession of his own. Every day I came home from work and he ushered me upstairs into his room to show me whatever new accessory UPS dropped on our porch that day. He even found a place to get wholesale junk ammunition through the mail. I’m not even sure how that’s legal, but he’s not in jail yet. This is the same roommate—tall and gangly and apparently from old Alabama timber money, which I didn’t know was something that existed—who put a picture of himself wearing hot pants on our refrigerator door, held in place with by chicken-wing shaped magnet.

Needless to say, the idea of him with a gun frightens me.

I’m not a violent person. I’ve never been in a fistfight in my life. I’ve never hit another person out of anger, which is something I’ve always been very proud of. Aside from a passing childhood phase where I was infatuated with Where the Red Fern Grows, I’ve never had the desire to hunt or kill anything. For God’s sake, I’ve been vegan for damn near fifteen years. Real violence, even the idea of it, makes me ill. And for the first three decades of my life, I never fired a gun.

I had the chance once when I was seven or eight, a lever action .22 caliber rifle, and the one summer my parents thought I might enjoy going to camp. They were wrong. So very, very wrong. It was a muggy, overcast Washington afternoon when the counselors took us to the target range. They walked us up onto a rickety structure that looked, at least in my memory, like an outhouse. When they tried to hand me the rifle I looked at the ground and silently shook my head. Ever since that moment, I’ve nurtured a mixture of shame, regret, and curiosity. Though I may know better, I can’t shake the feeling that because of that one decision nearly thirty summers ago, I’m much less of a man than I could and maybe should be.

Still, as Bangston’s fixation grew, so did my curiosity. He acquired a Sig-Sauer 9mm pistol, and a butt-load of superfluous accessories, like the quick-draw shoulder sling he has no worldly reason to need, hard plastic modular holster, bore snake, and, for some reason, a night vision scope.

In reality, my feelings hadn’t changed much since that day at camp, and, presented with another opportunity to fire a gun, I felt the same childhood mixture of attraction and repulsion. I definitely wanted to go shooting, but something inside simply wouldn’t let me go and get it over with. Another part of me thought I should do it to face down some of those old feelings and to see if it would fill in some internal void.

More than anything, I was intrigued by how I’d react. Would the gun tremble in my hand? Would I put it down and walk away? Would I fire it once, start to cry, and give it back? Or would I get obsessed as well and start spending all of my discretionary income on firearms and sundry gadgets? Could it change me in some fundamental way? Or would it be no big deal, just one more item on a long list of things I’ve either done or not done in my life?

“Can I hold it?” I asked, pointing at the Sig. I tried to sound calm and keep my voice from cracking. Bangston had just finished cleaning it on the coffee table in the living room. He wiped it down with a clean rag and handed it to me, grip first.

When I took the gun into my hand, I discovered that every book I’ve ever read that describes handling a gun for the first time is correct. It was much heavier than I imagined, smooth and cold, much more solid and concrete than I envisioned. A real gun had always been something vague and indistinct. Thinking of guns I thought of something made out of plastic that maybe shot rubber bands or sprayed water. Or something Bruce Willis tapes to his back right before he shoots Alan Rickman. Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker.

Pulling the slide back was much more difficult than it appears on screen. I couldn’t swing from a rope with one hand, fire with the other, and maintain any sort of accuracy at all. I probably couldn’t even slide down a banister and pop off more than a couple of rounds along the way, let alone an entire clip.

I dwelled on the possibility of shooting for months, weighing the pros and cons, endlessly debating every minute detail with myself. There were nights I laid awake wondering whether I’d ever be able to sleep again if I did actually fire a gun. Lots of people, including friends I respected and admired, shot guns, and it didn’t make them terrible people. Or maybe my sense of what makes a good person was skewed. Despite my antiviolence stance, the fascination was there, and deep.

After a nonstop circular internal debate, one morning I simply stopped thinking and decided that I should get over it, that I needed to shoot a gun.

“Well alright then,” Bangston said, when I told him. He clapped his hands once and rubbed his palms together. “Let’s see what we can do about this.” He’d been working on me the entire time, like the little devil on my shoulder, whispering “guns are awesome, shooting is fun” into my ear.

Once the issue was ultimately decided, scheduling problems reared their ugly head. Bangston rarely worked, but most of his offers to go into the woods for an outdoor shooting extravaganza, or to the indoor range as the weather deteriorated for the winter, were thwarted by my overactive work life. My schedule put me on the clock primarily when everyone else was off. This included early mornings, late evenings, five Christmases in a row, as well as every holiday, bank or otherwise, starting with New Year’s Day, ending with New Year’s Eve.

I walked through my front door early one Tuesday afternoon after a workday that kicked off with a 4:45 AM wake up call from my alarm clock. If I’d had a gun when it went off, I would have blown its digital brains all over the wall. Bangston stood in the middle of the living room holding the innocuous black case I knew housed the Sig. He raised his eyebrows and motioned with the case, tantalizing me with the forbidden fruits it contained. I tossed my bag on the couch and we booked it east across the 520 bridge to Wade’s Gun Shop & Shooting Range in Bellevue.

Granted, I fidget a lot, I always have, but as I rode shotgun in Bangston’s late 90’s Volvo, my shaking was out of control. My left foot bounced on the floorboard, stirring the pile of fast food wrappers and empty cans of sugar free Red Bull. I clicked my teeth, and I blinked more in a minute than most people do in a day.

Did Sylvester Stallone have this problem the first time he fired a gun? I imagine he burst out of the womb with a belt-fed .50 caliber machine gun and shot up the delivery room like he does in the final scene of Rambo: First Blood Part II. And what about Dirty Harry? What would my life be like if Clint Eastwood had decided that he just couldn’t take the role of Inspector Harry Callahan because guns are bad? My life would be intrinsically different, and I’ll go out on a limb and say I would be worse off for it.

Good thinking, but none of it did anything to calm my nerves, however. I continued to degenerate into an uneasy ball of tics and twitches as we pulled into the parking lot. I expected something seedy, something dark and dim and barely legal, but that’s not what I got at all.

Inside Wade’s, glass cases full of every variety of firearm I could imagine lined the walls. There were racks of shotguns and rifles in various shapes, from cowboy style to futuristic looking assault weapons. Sloganeering posters filled up space on the stark white walls, and racks of accessories and camouflage garnishes filled up the floor space. Men, and only men, milled about examining the displays as if they were looking for a new T-shirt. It was tidy, well lit, and had the distinct feel of a strip mall baseball card shop, only instead of a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card in mint condition, they had Magnums and Berettas and hunting knives.

I walked in like I knew what I was doing, or at least how I thought someone who knew what he was doing might walk in. My chest puffed out, I gave a little chin nod to the guy behind the counter in my best impression of machismo. The large pistol strapped to his side was a little unnerving, and my usual, slump-shouldered posture made a hasty return.

I had a vague sense of being somewhere that I didn’t belong, like I was undercover in some capacity. My pulse elevated as I scanned the room. Mentally I was prepared, sort of, for something much more epic and action oriented than mere target practice. There was a feel of imminent danger, like I might have to dive through a window, commando roll, and take out a half-dozen evildoers in the same motion.

“First time?” asked the guy behind the counter.

“Yeah, yeah,” I nodded. It was that obvious. He eyed me with suspicion, trying to decide whether or not I was okay.

“You got your own gun, or you want to rent one?” He motioned to the wall of rental guns mounted on a large peg-board. I didn’t know you could rent a gun. Guns are expensive, so it made a certain amount of sense to me that the discerning consumer would want to take one out for a test drive before committing a substantial amount of capital, but it also seemed like a strange service to provide.

“No, he’s got one.” I pointed at Bangston who already had his membership card out, ready for examination.

Since I was a virgin, I had to read through the rules and regulations check list and indicate that I did indeed understand their ways and customs. It was like taking a citizenship test, or applying for a traveler’s visa. They wanted to make sure that I understood their culture and way of life before allowing me onto their soil.

Do not put your finger on the trigger until your target is sighted. Check.

Always put the gun down when you turn your head. When you turn your head, your hand and gun will follow. Check.

All guns are ALWAYS loaded.

It took me a moment to realize that they meant I should always assume any gun I come across is loaded, not that they keep every single gun full of bullets at all times. When it dawned on me I said, “Ooohhh, that makes so much sense,” out loud and everyone around looked at me. I was sure they briefly reconsidered letting me anywhere near a gun. Check.

Never point the barrel of your gun at anything you are not willing to destroy. I considered this one for a second, then, Check.

As careful as they were to make sure I read the entirety of their extensive policy document, not once did anyone bother to check my ID to verify that the license number I wrote down was actually mine, or that my name was what I said it was. They didn’t actually look at the form or ask me any questions at all.

Much like a bowling alley, we were assigned a lane. Instead of slippery-soled shoes and swirling, multi-colored balls, the floor was littered with spent shell casings. Instead of the crash of pins, there was the roar of gunfire. Next to us were two Japanese men in expensive looking blue suits who took pictures of each other smiling and firing. Beyond them, two guys in backward white baseball hats and goatees traded off turns. One lone man, older and grizzled, fired a pair of cowboy style revolvers with huge bullets and thunderous voices.

People nonchalantly aimed and fired like it was no big deal. My orange foam earplugs muted and muddied all of the surrounding pops. A light haze cloaked everything, adding a dream-like accent to the entire room, and it smelled like what I assumed was gunpowder or cordite or whatever propellant bullets use these days. Ejected shells bounced on the ground like dice in an unattended craps game. I had the distinct impression of swimming, of being submerged. All I could do was stop and stare for a minute.

Bangston showed me how to properly load a clip—specially ordered seventeen round military/police issue clips—gave me a brief rundown on how to turn the safety off, and explained the basics of aiming and firing. Most of it was information I’d heard before, again, primarily from books and movies, and I already knew that you’re supposed to squeeze the trigger, pull it back smooth, instead of jerking it. That’s the extent of the advice he gave me. He proceeded to fire off two clips worth then stepped aside, making room for me. It was all very clinical, the gun on the table, the box of ammunition, and the vinyl carrying case, all carefully arranged like a still life.

Marching up for my turn, I still wasn’t entirely convinced that I wanted to do this. I envisioned pulling the trigger and dropping the gun on my foot, or the recoil knocking me unconscious. Distracted as I was, putting on my safety glasses, I managed to jab myself directly in my right eyeball.

Bangston saw me flinch as I stabbed myself. “Are you all right? What the hell just happened?”

“It’s nothing,” I muttered. “Fine, I’m fine.” I waved him off.

I blinked rapidly, like it was nothing more than a spec of dust or an errant eyelash. But my eye began to tear up as I popped rounds into the clip. I was petrified that the other patrons, and the overseers behind the Plexiglas wall who enforced our compliance to the rules, would all see me for what I was, a virgin, a newb, and assume that I was some sort of liberal commie faggot instead of the war-torn badass that I so desperately hoped to portray, and that somewhere deep down, I secretly wished I was.

Why was it so important for me to earn the respect of these people, who, let’s be honest, I had nothing in common with? I ate differently than they did, I thought differently than they did, I voted differently than they did. Aside from a few physical and linguistic similarities, we weren’t all that similar. But they did have one thing that some deep seeded part of me craved. They were the guardians of what passed for masculinity in our culture. They killed things, they were prepared to fight and defend that which was theirs at all costs. It was more likely that they, not me, would rise to the occasion and save the day. Them, not me. I’d curl up under a desk and weep if a bank robbery happened while I was waiting in line to deposit a check. If my theoretical partner was killed by a mustachioed villain, I wouldn’t go looking for revenge, I would just be really, really sad.

At least in theory. Most of the guys at the gun range were in questionable shape. They probably wouldn’t save the day either. More than likely they were the off-duty cop that tries to play the hero and gets shot before the real hero has the chance to step in.

Once I realized that this injury wasn’t going to just go away, I pinched my eye shut, tears streaming, and finished loading my clip, trying to wipe my cheek without being obvious. Taking aim as best I could, and careful not to touch the trigger before my target was sighted, or point the barrel at something I wasn’t willing to blast into the ether, I breathed out, and let loose. My first ever bullet.

The event was much less epic than I’d built it up to be in my head. At worst it was mildly terrifying, mildly entertaining at best. The kick didn’t come close to wrenching the pistol out of my grasp. I didn’t have to leave, nor did I want to sprint into the other room, plunk down my credit card, and buy a gun of my own. Though it may have looked like I was crying, I wasn’t crying for real. They were more akin to I-just-cut-into-a-really-good-onion tears, rather than tears of pain or fright. I cocked my head, and went, “Hmm.”

After a second, I shot another round. With one eye and no depth perception, I had no idea if I came within ten feet of hitting the silhouette on the target nor not, but that wasn’t really the point. Asking would have made me look like a pussy, so I squeezed off one more, then another, and so on until the clip was empty.

We went through two hundred rounds in forty-five minutes, and the feeling I had after that first bullet never changed. When we finished, Bangston packed up all of his wares while I swept the shells out into the range with a push broom.

Driving home, we got stuck in rush hour traffic westbound on 520, and my right eye developed an increasing, and blindingly painful, sensitivity to sunlight. I used one hand to shade my face as Bangston wove in and out of slowly moving cars. It was a cool, clear day, and I kept thinking that if I could see, the visage of Mt. Rainier would be looming to the south.

By primetime TV, my eye was plastered shut and swollen to the size of a golf ball. Any light, even the single diminutive bulb in my room, made it water like a sprinkler. I splayed out on my back in my bed, in total darkness, an icepack on my face and a sizeable migraine to pounding away at the inside of my skull.

I spent the entire night wishing I hadn’t scratched my cornea and wondering when the pain would end. And, for the first time in months, I didn’t think about shooting a gun at all.