For week three of The Weeklings, it's me and guns. I've been learning to shoot and here trying to untangle my complex feelings about firearms. The issues are thorny and this a campaign year, but it's a chance for me to delve into what it means to be a liberal and live in the sticks and shoot (or in my case "dry fire"). Though that will be changing (that would be the dry-firing not the liberal values or the living in the sticks.)
Read on at the site. Or below:
It’s a snub-shaped thing stamped “Winchester” at the base. The tip is a copper crater, the body lead inside, both soft metals, so they splay easily on contact. The bullet is a physics lesson on what happens with the application of force. Being “hollow,” the tip can cause the most damage possible. It stops on impact by spreading. “With something like an M16 a bullet can,” my friend the cop says – let’s call him Matt here – “go in here and ricochet around off bones, and come out here.” He indicates a place on his lower ribs and then his neck – on the other side of his body. “All the while damaging the organs it comes in contact with.”
Not a hollow point. It goes in and stays where it lands. Which isn’t to say it’s not dangerous or deadly. It’s both.
“They’re designed to do damage,” he says. “In a situation where you need to fire, they’ll stop a perpetrator before he can reach for his gun.” Also, other bullets, the standard full-metal jacket, can fly straight through the body and out, hitting bystanders. With less drag and a better co-efficient, the hollow tip itself makes the bullet more accurate. I hardly see my friend as he explains these features. I just hear bits of news stories about the bullet’s danger and damage and illegality. I vaguely recall fights in New York City to keep them even from cops, and here I am holding one.
Matt is teaching me how to shoot. The bullets are from his job, from the firing range. I won’t tell you where he works, what department. I am learning to shoot his Glock – not the actual department-issued force-approved sidearm, but his very own.
The Glock below me looks like a toy. It is largely plastic and so common in TV and movies and music I can’t quite believe it’s real. This very night I’ll watch a procedural that rarely has much gunplay (even that word “gunplay” is amazing when I’m really talking about violence) and the Glock shows up.
It’s beautiful, a thing of spare, minimal design, and is as emblematic of the Eighties as shoulder pads and Armani, Bret Easton Ellis and Miami Vice. This year the Glock is 30. It was created by a garage hobbyist, an engineer who made knives and bayonets and basically blagged his way into bidding on the contract to redesign the Austrian police’s service pistol. This gun is no revolver, no Dirty Harry, how-many-in-the-chamber-punk handgun. It has a magazine and is thus technically a semi-automatic. The Glock has far fewer parts than other guns, and what parts it does have are interchangeable with each and every model. Gaston Glock himself pioneered industrial plastics and with its textured pattern on the handle, the sparse lettering and logo, the Glock is a design icon. Each and every element was considered, even the exact degree of the handle’s angle. The gun embodies a less-is-more ethos. By the standards of modern design, it is remarkable.
It also has a charged reputation. Matt takes it from its foam surroundings in the case. Fragments of news stories loom up before me – people trying to outlaw it, New York City banning it, the dangers of it slipping through airport X-Ray machines and fears of criminals getting their hands on it. It’s also a cop’s gun, the choice of every law enforcement agency. All of this makes the Glock dark and sexy, violent and forbidden. As if strung between two poles, it vibrates with a kind of fetishistic power. Today, three decades after it was developed, with more than five million of them in use worldwide, I can stand in a field in Upstate New York, and the gun before me, this thing of molded plastic and forged steel, is still potent.
Because I am scared of it and curious and fascinated, because of all that is embodied in the gun – the pop culture and politics and danger – handling it is a bit like sex when you’re a teen. It’s menacing and big and irresistible – forbidden – and all the more entrancing for it. You can’t help yourself around it. Can’t help being curious. Sex was like that for me when I was young. I wanted it, then was scared of it when I got it, like I’d crossed some line I desperately wished I could re-cross. I sometimes think this is how as a country we deal with guns.
I grew up opposed to the NRA, Charleton Heston, hunting and, yes, guns of all sorts. I lived in cities and suburbs and London where cops don’t even carry guns. Then I moved to the sticks and my attitudes changed. First, I came round to hunting. Even my vegetarian husband supports it. And, once hunting, then guns. The other thing I learned here is that you can have guns and be liberal. A friend one county over whose dad was a gunsmith has a veritable armory, and he is a Democrat, socially progressive, goes out each autumn with his son to hunt. He was the first to show me my way around a gun, with his 16-year-old holding the stock, showing me how to make sure the chamber was empty and displaying the swirls of rifling inside.
So here I am in this field at dusk with the Glock, the bag of bullets, and my friend Matt. He is broad, with wide shoulders, a square physique like he’s been compressed into a frame. He’s a runner and served in the Army, in the Rangers, and has a degree in one of the social sciences and often ponders leaving the police to be a social worker in the V.A. He’s a liberal, can quote Chomsky and has a Serpico-like dissatisfaction with the higher-ups in his department. He left its elite unit because it was ineffective, bad for morale and a misuse of resources.
He takes his gun apart, lets me touch the chamber and barrel not even worrying about me getting my oily fingers on it. (The Glock is so easy to disassemble and reassemble, it’s easy to clean and less likely to misfire.) He shows me how to carry the pistol – and how not to.
“Don’t laser it,” he says, which is basically pointing the weapon anywhere you don’t intend to shoot as you try to find your target or move. “Point it at the ground.” He tells me plenty of cops and military make this mistake. “It’s common,” he says, his voice soft, reassuring. He shows me how to move the chamber back. “First check that it’s empty,” he says after pushing a button to eject the magazine. It falls to the ground. That push-button action makes a Glock easy to reload. You just shove in a new cartridge. As a cop, he carries two spare magazines – 14 bullets each – and a third with 14 bullets and one in the chamber, making for 43 rounds which can fire off rapidly. There’s no safety.
It’s impossible in 2012, in an election year, in a year of Trayvon Martin, for guns not to be politicized. This is a week when the New York Times reported on urban gun violence and police chiefs’ decrying the state of affairs, where most shootings are black on black, while a 17-year-old in Florida haunts the news and rights to Concealed Carry and Stand Your Ground (legal in more than 30 states but not New York) are controversial at the least. A local cabinet-maker whose views lie somewhere on the liberal-to-libertarian spectrum says guns and gun control are a straw man for the Democrats. He insists we won’t get rid of guns, and the issue alienates more votes than it attracts. Even if there were more gun control, his logic goes, anyone who wants a weapon will get one. With hundreds of millions of firearms in the U.S., how can you stop anyone?
I can’t figure out how I feel about guns. Yeah, I live in a rural area, where most people own guns and I’m okay with that, but how do I accord this with the NRA? That is the real conundrum. They make it seem like if you support shooting or hunting, you support the NRA and their read on the Second Amendment as if these are all tied up in some tight knot together, as if to agree with one, you agree with all. It makes me wonder why no one is fighting as hard for (or raising as much money to preserve) the pursuit of happiness promised in the Declaration of Independence? Or when that runs into the “life” which is also promised there. The former is at least as open for interpretation as the Second Amendment, which isn’t “a truth held self evident.” According to The New Yorker there are more than 300 million privately owned firearms (not counting police departments and the like) in the U.S. The NRA has 4.3 million members. Even if many people own more than one gun, not all of them are part of the NRA. My guess is not even half the country’s gun owners are. The NRA is speaking for a lot of people who haven’t signed on the line or donated money.
I ask all sorts of people I know who hunt and use guns about “rights.” (The very term “right” strikes me as odd. The NRA claims guns as a “civil right” and that it is “the oldest civil rights organization.”) I speak first to a hunter and forester, a Republican who refuses to toe the party line. He once told me he became a logger to be in the woods so he could watch deer, because he really just wanted to hunt all the time. “But no one,” he laughed, “would pay me to. They wouldn’t give me a reality TV show.” He takes the guns-don’t-kill-people line. For him it’s all about education in public schools – everywhere. I ask about the inner city and places like Philly whose police chief said this week, “Our streets are bleeding, and they’re bleeding profusely.” In those places, the hunter/logger says, the fault is “bad parenting.” Sigh. That doesn’t quite work for me.
A woman who grew up in the Bronx and learned to shoot as a kid and taught riflery in a public school here laughs nervously at the question. “I just want to be the only one with guns. Like capital punishment, I want to be the one who can decide when and where it’s okay.” She adds, “I’m in the middle too. In my mind it’s hard.”
So too for the friend with the virtual armory: “I’m kind of on the line about it. I don’t endorse the stuff the NRA does. They have extreme policies to keep the organization going, to justify their existence and up their coffers. Their stance is as much about their self-interest as guns, but no matter what, fear is the enemy. It strengthens them. They scare people into thinking they’re going to lose their guns to get more money, but progressive liberals are also driven by a knee-jerk terror of guns.” Pretty much like me out there with Matt, but I don’t mention that.
Matt himself talks about a date he just went on with another cop. He shakes his head. “She was saying if there was a gun on this table, and if the gun was there for 20 years, it wouldn’t kill anyone. She was also totally against waiting periods. I mean waiting periods? She was afraid if you had them, the liberals would get an inch but take a mile.
“I’m the first to stand up for gun-owner rights but I’m never against waiting periods. There’s no reason to have instant gratification with it. The idea that you should be able to get a gun now on the spot and then go blow up your place of work? How can I support the NRA? And guns in the inner city are just the symptom. You won’t get rid of them till you address the larger problem of poverty.” He says the date with the Republican cop didn’t work out so well either.
Glock’s sponsored shooting team includes Tori Nonaka, a fifteen year-old from Woodbridge, Va., just outside suburban D.C. and near both a giant Ikea and Fort Belvoir. Her profile on the company website talks of how she (who’s shown in a Glock outfit that makes her look like Lara Croft with braces) saved money from her summer job to pay her NRA dues. She is committed to Second Amendment rights.
Simply to hold the Glock is amazing. It’s light enough to feel more like a plaything than something deadly. Matt tells me not to hold it too close to my face, so the recoil won’t hit me as it fires. Plenty of cops have ended up in the hospital with an eye injury apparently. He shows me how to grasp the gun.
“Marry the hands to keep it steady.” He puts the soft fleshy pads at back of my palms together like puzzle pieces. The index finger is not on the trigger (no safety, remember) but along the chamber.
I look at the sight, two dots forward, one dot back on the end, to triangulate my target, a thorn apple in the distance. Matt puts a quarter on top of the barrel to check my balance. The exercise is the equivalent of a book on the top of the head.
“Squeezing the trigger,” he says, “should be gentle, smooth. It should almost surprise you when it fires.” He talks about the breath, the body being relaxed. “You don’t want your arms tense; they’ll shake if you clutch too hard.” This sounds like yoga until he gets to the pose, legs hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, calm. But, he calls it “the oh-shit pose.” Nothing I’ve ever done in yoga. He also demonstrates the way I thought a marksman should stand, facing to the side and arms out and cocked at opposite angles like in the movies. That is not what to do. The oh-shit is what they use in the Rangers, he explains.
“It gives you control, and you’re relaxed and can move pivoting easily with the gun.” He sidesteps, pivot to pivot across the field.
I have the gun now and don’t put my eye to it. I close my right eye and aim. My arms are loose. I breathe. I exhale. I squeeze the trigger slowly. It’s calming, like Zen. I think about Olympic riflery where they shoot not just after an exhale but between heartbeats (heartbeats!). I still have no ammo. I shoot. I pull back the slide to shoot again and again (without bullets in the chamber, the Glock trigger won’t automatically reset). I’m still nervous about the bullets in the bag but I’m not scared of the gun. Holding it and shooting, feels natural, like the most focused thing I’ve ever done.
I load the magazine with six bullets for Matt, and he fires. He hits his target, a log, exactly where he said he would. The air smells of smoke and gunpowder, that is to say, sweet and acidic and sharp with a bit of grit carried in the breeze. The sound echoes against the opposite ridge. I’m hooked.