(This post is the first in my year-long series 40 New Things at 40.)
I had seen the ad a few times for Ladies’ Night at a local gun shop and range. For one price, a woman can get lessons from female instructors, rental of two different guns, fifty rounds of ammo, private use of the practice range with just the other women in the group, and a t-shirt that reads “I Shot Like a Girl.” Everything is pink for Ladies’ Night – the shirt, the protective headphones and eyeglasses, the man-shaped target. I told a friend I was thinking of putting this on my list of forty new things to try this year and she exclaimed, “But you’re anti-gun!”
She’s not wrong. It’s mostly because of the damage I see them do to human bodies on a regular basis in the emergency department of the hospital where I work, I suppose. (But some of my coworkers there do enjoy shooting as a hobby and own guns.) Or maybe it’s because, unlike a lot of kids in my hometown, I didn’t grow up going on hunting trips with my parents. For whatever reason, my family just didn’t pursue those hobbies. I had never so much as touched a gun before I went to Ladies’ Night at the gun range. The idea scared me enough that I thought it would be good for me, a challenge to push me outside my comfort zone. I enlisted my best friend to join me, and we reserved our spots a few days ahead of time. Each class is limited to eight women, and most of them fill up, according to the man who took my information over the phone.
From the moment we walked into the store, I felt very much out of my element. Row upon row of guns of all different sizes surrounded us. It made me immensely uncomfortable. But I told myself, That’s why you’re here, right? And if nothing else, by the end of the night, I was a bit more comfortable with guns and realized that I had probably misjudged a lot of gun owners. Based on the public outcry from gun owners in the media anytime the least bit of regulation is proposed, I had half-expected this place to be the Wild West, a lawless free-for-all. Instead I had to learn the two dozen safety rules of the shooting range before I was allowed to touch a gun. This came as a great relief. (One of those rules, by the way, forbids photography while active shooting is going on. The above photo is me posing with my target and an unloaded gun, after I and everyone else in my class had finished practicing on the range. That’s the only way my instructor would allow it.)
After we handed our photo IDs to the employee who checked us in and took payment from us, we were led to a small classroom space at the back of the shop. There, a petite young woman with long blonde hair introduced herself as our instructor. She was there to teach us how to safely handle, load, and shoot the two types of guns we would be using, a semi-automatic Rimfire Pistol and a D-Action Revolver. We learned the different parts of the weapons, how to hold them properly before and during firing (making sure never to place our finger on the trigger until we were ready to shoot), how to stand and aim. We did an exercise to determine which was our dominant eye, and though I am right-handed, my left is my dominant eye, which is a bit unusual. On the range I would need to close my right eye to place the target in my sights.
The instructor helped put me more at ease. It really did help that she was a woman, that we were all women in the room, doing this stereotypically masculine thing. She was patient and funny, not at all condescending when we asked the most basic of questions. Though it looks easy when I see people shoot guns on TV or in movies, it’s really not as intuitive as I might have expected. It takes instruction and practice for every step. I appreciated that the instructor compared loading the magazine for the semi-automatic pistol to filling a Pez dispenser. The spring-loaded mechanism wasn’t all that different. She was obviously very comfortable with firearms, but also very careful. That’s probably more common in gun owners than I previously would have thought, given that I only see the worst case scenarios in the hospital. She had a healthy respect for the destructive power of the weapon in her hand, which I tried to emulate when we finally got to make our way onto the range.
Each of us was placed at a target station, partitions separating us from our neighbors. I put on my pink headphones and eyeglasses, and began loading eight bullets into the revolver. I stood as we had been taught, with my feet a little less than shoulder-width apart, held the gun in my right hand then placed my left hand alongside it, thumb over thumb. Shaking a little, I closed my right eye, lined up the target’s X in my sights, placed my finger on the trigger, and pulled. My first two shots went high, hitting the silhouette target in the shoulders. After that, I learned to account for a bit of recoil. I aimed a little lower and steadied my arms a little more. By the time I needed to empty the spent casings and reload, I was coming within an inch or two of the center X.
Next I loaded ten bullets into the not-quite-a-Pez-dispenser magazine of my semi-automatic pistol. The trigger was easier to pull and I could fire multiple shots more quickly with this gun. But I really did not like the hot casings that were expelled from the right side of the gun. A few times they hit the wall and bounced against my leg, and once a tiny piece of something very hot landed on my arm. It probably wasn’t dangerous or unusual, but it was alarming in the moment. I only filled the magazine one more time. The rest of my fifty rounds of ammunition I used in the revolver, with which I was ultimately a bit more comfortable.
So was it “empowering” to shoot a gun? I’ve heard that word used for events like this that are tailored to women. I don’t know. I didn’t feel powerful; I felt that the gun was powerful and I was the one holding it, a fact that still made me uneasy. Part of the marketing for Ladies’ Night is that it’s useful for self-defense. I still don’t know that I could shoot another person, although I technically do know how to do so now. If I or someone I love were in danger, would I pull the trigger, at the risk of taking a human life? I’m not sure I could. But I am just as sure now as I was before the training that I will never own a gun. I never want one in my house, especially with two curious little boys living here. Having one around would make me feel less safe, not more so.
Is this something I would do again? Maybe. I do have five free passes to the practice range as part of my Ladies’ Night package (although if I wait more than thirty days to use them, the rules say that I have to go through the training again). I can see how it could be useful as stress relief, and I did feel a sense of accomplishment as my aim improved. Maybe next time I can move the target farther away from me, if I go back.
In the end, I’m glad I went to Ladies’ Night at the gun range. And I would recommend it to any women who are scared of, intimidated by, or curious about guns. It was the least stressful way I can imagine of learning to shoot. It also gave me a glimpse outside of my social bubble, which is always a good thing. It was nice to meet responsible gun enthusiasts and learn the many, many rules they follow. It’s a valuable reminder not to judge a whole group of people, any group of people, by the few of their representatives interviewed on the news. Maybe some of the other thirty-nine things on my list will continue to help me confront my own prejudices.