Friday, July 11, 2008

Jay: Incompetent Action Hero!

I spent my after-work wind down yesterday at the West Side Rifle and Pistol Range, shootin' stuff. In New York City, you need a license to own a dog or serve food on the street, but it's every citizen's God-given right to fire off a .22 caliber rifle with nothing more than a couple of signatures. It's every little boy's fantasy to potentially kill something — or let's face it: cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, James Bond, this video — potentially kill someone (nefarious) ever since he first saw it glamorized in a PG-rated movie. (I think it was Kevin Smith who made an interesting point in the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, that the MPAA gives harsher ratings to movies that show the bloody aftermath of characters being shot; films that realistically portray the consequences of gun violence are rated R while movies that sanitize and trivialize them tend to get PG-13 ratings.) "Shoot a gun" was on my bucket list, somewhere above "ride a Segway" and below "three-way," so when Meet Market Adventures offered a singles-only night at the firing range, I took the opportunity. Yee-haw!

It doesn't matter that we're in a blue city in a blue state, the pistol range is just the sort of stereotypical backwoods basement you'd imagine, with the faux wood plastered in NRA stickers and Second Amendment posters and everybody's wearing T-shirt slogans daring the government take away their arsenal and a handgun on their hip the way most New Yorkers carry a BlackBerry. My impression was a weird co-dependent neediness with "my darlin' gun," since I figured there's no reason to walk around the firing range with your gun at all times — like, you can't really go more than a couple of feet in any direction without having about twenty guns at arm's length. They corral you into a small classroom in the back and there's a waiver on every desk. Normally you just sign and date the piece of paper without even reading it — let's just say that this time, I made a point of knowing exactly what I was signing. On one side, a statement re-affirming my awareness that I'm about to participate in a HIGH RISK/DANGEROUS activity and indemnifying the range against little things like dismemberment and death; on the reverse, a certification that I'm not among the groups the State of New York doesn't want operating a firearm: the inebriated, the mentally disturbed, convicted felons — but only if the felony carries more than a year of jail time.

While we're all signing waivers, as if to hammer the point home, the gun range guy comes into the classroom with four big-ass deer-hunter guns — or, as he'll tell us, four Ruger ten-shot .22 caliber semi-automatic rifles — puts them down on the table, goes out and comes back with four more, and again four more... It's not something I see every day; where I come from, we don't even use bug zappers.

There's a safety lecture (good!) that, you know, takes a little bit of the fun fantasy element out of everything. Oh, so we won't be skulking around barrel-first whirling around corners and shooting bad guys, or firing blindly with that sideways grip popular with gangsters in the early nineties (movies). I was honestly expecting, like so many safety lectures, something incredibly inane — and there was a little of "If it's not firing and you can't figure out why, don't peek down the barrel Elmer Fudd-style," the kind of stuff where if someones needs to hear it, they shouldn't be allowed near guns in the first place. Or crossbows, or throwing stars, or ACME Dehydrated Boulders, or safety shears. Maybe there'd be a poorly-acted video with poor production values. In fact, gun safety 101 reminded me a lot of drivers' ed, with some ex-military guy explaining all disaster scenarios possible but the real reason you're listening to him is cause he's scary as shit. He expects the United States government to batter in his door at five in the morning and take away all his guns, and he's preparing for that. But just like drivers' ed, he approaches the morbid subject with levity and detached irony, and you almost forget that there's got to be some wires crossed in his brain that would make him take this particular job, whether it's some kid's first eighty-mile drive on the freeway or in the front of a room with fifteen people waving (hopefully unloaded) guns around and randomly pulling the triggers.

For the record, I did not take any practice trigger pulls in the classroom. (Apparently this is a safety feature: "The gun won't fire unless you pull the trigger," Gun Dude told us. Which is good, since it turned out the actual safety would not necessarily stay in the on position once it's engaged.) In the interest of holding off death at least till I was actually on the firing line, I also stayed away from cocking the rifle and kept it always pointed at the ceiling. I would've thought that always pointing the gun at the floor would be safer — if it did fire, there'd be less chance of knocking something down and onto your head — but, then again, I'm pro-gun control, so what do I know?

Unlike drivers' ed, the pistol range will let you out in the wild with about fifteen minutes of class: how to load the gun, how to unload it, how to aim, and... that's about it. Here's five magazines and a box of bullets (cartridges, technically), so everybody go crazy and shoot stuff! Well, shoot paper, but still...

The firing range is the sort of cruddy concrete room you could fire a couple thousand rounds into and it wouldn't become any more derelict. There's twelve or so stalls, or shooting stations, or whatever, and twelve or so rifles chained to the wall. I claimed lucky number five, putting all my spare magazines and extra bullets on the shelf and kind of composing myself. Now... the thing is, I really do enjoy trying new things, but I'm also kind of, let's say, mechanically uninspired, like I'll be the one who accidentally hits a ping-pong ball the wrong way and flattens it, or tears up an entire cereal box trying to reclose that little tab that keeps your processed food fresh. One morning when I was living in a campus dorm, the fire alarm went off. I raced down seventeen flights of stairs, hoping to escape before being engulfed in flames, to find one of those fire doors with the bar — "Alarm will sound if pressed" — at the bottom. And the right thing to do here was obvious, but it took a ton of decision making before I actually did it — and set off a second fire alarm. It was the same kind of feeling face-to-face, or face-to-butt, with this rifle.

I was meticulous.

Step one: turn the gun over, make sure there's no stray bullet in the chamber.

Step two: make sure the safety is on.

Step three: load the magazine, push it in until it clicks.

Step four: turn the gun right-side up, be completely freaked by the fact that the safety somehow managed to disengage itself.

I could've dragged this out all night with the double-checks and triple-checks, then gone home thinking, "How cool was that, getting to wear those airport runway headphones!" But the rangemaster saw me stalling (or struggling) and this was gonna happen: He pushed my left leg forward, straightened my elbows, told me like fifteen times that I was pointing at the ceiling, fixed my grip, leaned my shoulder into the gun, helped me line up the sights. I closed my left eye, aimed — just a little below the target — and fired, with a tiny pop, recoil, and a healthy, totally unearned, dose of pride and machismo. The target is maybe twenty feet away, the bullet hole is less than about a quarter-inch in diameter and my vision isn't great, but it felt like everything went super and the casing bouncing off the wall and twinging my face confirmed it.

As it turned out, I missed the target completely, and probably put another bullet hole in the ceiling. The testosterone-driven fantasy drooped into its anti-climax; the whole point is that you're supposed to be good at this, from the get-go really. After firing the whole magazine and pulleying that paper target in, ten bullets but only seven holes, I was — I can't believe it — disappointed in myself, cause I naively expected to not suck at this. The rifle is heavier than you'd (I'd) expect, and your (my) arms really aren't designed to stick out like that; I'd be on target and perfect with a handgun, or a laser tag blaster, or a water pistol... still hanging on to that macho imaginary me who, I assume, shouldn't exist. Maybe shooting off a rifle looks so easy — just point and pull the trigger, no fine motor skills involved — cause most other things to try, you know you'll have to grow into. No one expects to sit down at a piano for the first time and play a Beethoven sonata or play top-level chess without years of practice, but fall off a horse your first time riding and there's a sense the laws of physics are cheating on you.

By the fifth magazine, I was improving, able to get ten shots relatively close together, although still nowhere near the bullseye. My lifelong dreams of winning the biathalon were crumbling — seriously, all I had left to do was learn to shoot and learn to ski! I took home a bullet as a souvenier since my paper targets were embarrassing (and also since I don't want my mom knowing that I went to a firing range — she flipped out over the potential high risk when I merely told her I wanted to try riding a motorcycle). I don't see myself ever shooting a gun again — it's outside my nature — but it's nice to say, "I tried it and it wasn't the horrible experience I signed a waiver over." Live your dreams, kids! Just don't be surprised when the reality pales against what your imagination's been sold.