My heart was pounding. I couldn’t really say why. I mean, I kinda knew what I was doing. The bullets go in the magazine. The magazine goes in the gun. Load the round in the chamber. Safety off. Point it away; far, far away from anything you care about. Squeeze. It should be easy. My little sister was standing right behind me, encouraging. My brother and father were in the lane to the left of me. 75% of the people I care most about in the world were less than 5 feet away. And I felt like a bumbling moron with a bomb and a hammer.
The instructions were hard to hear through the explosions and ear protection. I bent over to be closer to my sister’s head, which usually bobbles around 5 feet off the ground. The laughing head said “you just turned the safety ON”. “You mean, it’s turned OFF by default?!” My heart pounded a bit more in its cage. I had no idea why this was affecting me so much. I flipped the safety off, relaxed my shoulders, pointed the handgun at pink ink on a paper target, made sure I absolutely cared for nothing about the target except hitting it, and squeezed.
Voluntary actions turned involuntary. My arms were suddenly noodles and flew up ten feet in the air. My eyes squeezed shut. Something hot flew past my head. When I opened my eyes, I realized that the gun hadn’t flown out of my hands. It hadn’t pointed behind me to where my sister was. Smoke lingered around the end of the barrel; I smelled sulfur. A small black dot marred the pink ink not far from where I was aiming. I adjusted my expectations, and shot the rest of the magazine. When I realized nothing happened when I squeezed, I looked at the gun and realized the chamber had popped open like a little bird, screaming for more food. I could feel adrenaline in my fingernails as I ejected the magazine and shakily put the gun on the table in front of me. At some point, I remembered to breathe.
I actually enjoyed myself, once I got to the problem solving aspect of what I was doing. “Why won’t the black dot go where I want it to go?!” But the adrenaline in my body was telling me something foreboding and dangerous was going on. I found this strange, because I am no stranger to adrenaline or danger. I routinely smile as I dangle myself off a cliff, thousands of feet off the ground, sometimes without a rope. But there was something about discharing a ‘weapon’ that felt disturbingly dangerous. The truth of the matter is that guns are designed to kill. And each time you fire one, you are putting yourself in the hypothetical position of taking something, or someone’s, life. When I walk precipitously close to the edge of a cliff or a bridge, I’m doing something potentially dangerous to me. But when I fire a gun, I’m doing something that could be potentially dangerous to someone else.
When we were done, our little pink target looked like swiss cheese. It was obvious my sister and I both needed some practice. I smelled of gunpowder and sweat. I smiled and laughed and had a blast (pun intended). But I couldn’t suppress another jolt of the jitters when I realized that my brother and dad both shot clusters of 6 inch holes in the place where a chest would be in their human shaped target.