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Photograph by George Sakkestad

A Warm Gun

A pacifist goes a-shooting

By Will Harper

I HAD JUST SPENT more than two hours inhaling car exhaust on the clogged Bayshore Freeway to cover a news story where the camera I brought along mysteriously wouldn't work even though I had just spent $4.99 for new batteries, which meant I had no money to buy Rolaids--an essential part of a reporter's diet and a major source of calcium--which I needed to combat the acid buildup caused by the caffeine-comedown from my morning Grande Mocha.

Breathe. Oxygen. There. OK. So, as I was saying, by now, I was more than ready for my appointment at the Field Sports Shooting Range near Hellyer Park in South San Jose.

In spite of my fragile state of mind, I did not plan to use the range for the gruesome purpose of offing myself. Shooting range suicides are not uncommon. At Target Masters in Milpitas--where there were two reported suicides in one month in 1996--they don't rent guns to people who come alone.

Still, I felt anxious, nervous. Being something of a pacifist, I had never fired a gun in all my 32 years. But also being something of a paranoid, I'd occasionally imagine improbable Hollywood-inspired situations where not knowing how to use a gun would cost me my life:

    A terrorist group kidnaps me (don't ask me why--this is just a daydream) and ties me up in a chair in some dingy basement. I'm left alone with one of my captors, who keeps a revolver tucked in his jeans. I slyly free my hands from the rope and surprise my captor, knocking the revolver onto the floor. We both scramble for it, but I get there first and point the barrel in his face. Unbeknownst to me, the revolver's safety is on. He grabs the gun away from me. Bang. Roll credits.

I paced around the shooting range parking lot, waiting from my instructor to arrive. I knew nothing about her except her name--Ivy Allen--which sounded too hippielike for a serious gunslinger. After 15 minutes, a blue station wagon came down the hill. It was Ivy. Her rear bumper displayed a sticker reading, "Gun control means using both hands."

She didn't look like a gun nut, but she didn't look like a hippie either. She opened up her trunk and pulled out a tackle box full of ammo and what looked like an electric guitar case filled with guns--a .22 semiautomatic, a 9 mm semiautomatic, single- and double-action Smith & Wesson revolvers. Good thing she had all that artillery since the Field Sports Shooting Range, run by the county parks department, doesn't rent guns.

After paying the $7 usage fee and buying a couple of 25-cent bull's-eye shooting targets, we were just about ready to go. First, though, the park ranger called a cease-fire, telling everyone in the shooting stalls to unload their weapons and lay them down with their chambers visibly empty. This is done so that someone with an itchy trigger finger doesn't inadvertently--or advertently--shoot and kill another person hanging up a target on the range. After the ranger made sure all was safe, Ivy staple-gunned our targets to the wooden posts 10 yards from the firing stall.

Back in the stall, with our eye and ear protectors on, Ivy laid out all her pistols and went over some basic safety rules like "Always point the barrel of the gun downrange." Check. Don't point gun at self. Check.

After we determined that my right eye was my shooting eye, Ivy picked up the single action .38 and demonstrated the proper way to grip a gun. Like her bumper sticker said, it requires using both hands. She fired six rounds, every one hitting the target.

"Now," she said, placing the gun down gently, "you try."

Here it was. The moment of truth. Could I handle the truth? I was terrified that I'd somehow manage to blow off my index finger and lose my most essential typing tool.

I cupped both hands around the grip. Right foot forward, left foot back; right arm extended straight out, left elbow slightly bent. I pulled the trigger, and the force sent tremors through my hands all the way to my shoulders. I looked downrange at the target, which still only had six bullet holes in it. I had totally missed. I fired four more shots. Still only six holes in the target. Ivy then advised my to use the front sight to aim. Following her suggestion, I managed to actually hit the target. I started having fun.

I spent the next 90 minutes shooting all the remaining pistols in Ivy's arsenal. Oddly enough, when it was over, I noticed my stress headache was gone.

On the drive back to work, I pondered my stance on guns. I decided I probably wouldn't ever own one. I could never hunt because I couldn't kill a living thing. Unless, of course, it was trying to kill me, had me tied up and came too close to me with its gun and there was a struggle and I won.

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From the March 15-21, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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