Gun range newbie: A personal tale

Posted: January 18, 2013

When reporting about guns, I'm often asked whether I've fired one myself.

"Just once," I'd reply, not elaborating to say I found my trip to a Virginia shooting range terrifying.

So when I was sent to see how gun shops and shooting ranges around Philadelphia were faring amid the debate over firearms, I was prepared for the same question.

But I wondered: Would shooting again change my ambivalence about guns? A Gallup poll found 47 percent of U.S. adults say they have a gun in their home or property.

I am not one of them.

I showed up at The Gun Range in North Philly. The owner was running late, so shop employees offered to let photographer Hillary Petroziello and me fire a few rounds.

I declined. I hadn't enjoyed my first shooting experience. I've written about scores of shootings. But that had been the first time I handled a gun. I was uneasy just loading the 9mm Glock, let alone firing it.

When owner Yuri Zalzman showed up, he made an offer: Before the interview, we'd get a full lesson on firearm basics. Then we could shoot if we wanted.

I agreed.

Zalzman selected Ruger Mark III handguns. The Ruger is commonly used for teaching and target practice. He took the guns into a training room, a classroom with a table and chairs and walls adorned with posters that depicted the parts of a gun, how to hold a firearm and other instructions.

He put the guns on the table, explaining that firearms should always be pointed toward a safe area -- a wall free from people, doors or windows.

I picked up the Ruger.

We learned to check for the "S" indicating the handgun's safety was on; flipping the switch to "F" would make it ready to fire. Zalzman told us to point the guns forward and down, angling them to check that the chamber was empty. I took my time, peering into the chamber again and again, quadruple-checking I wasn't holding a loaded gun.

Zalzman was patient.

Eventually, I assured myself I couldn't do any harm. Zalzman showed us how release the handguns' magazines, then push them back.

"Always give it a pull," Zalzman said of the magazine. That's to check that it was inserted properly.

I saw the empty magazine and chamber. The bullets were on the table. I knew the handgun was unloaded. But I also knew I was holding a powerful tool.

Zalzman extols the precise mechanics required to build guns. He tells how perfectly the parts must fit together. Firearms, "show man's ability to engineer," he says.

He likens guns to cars. We can build incredibly powerful models of both -- and both require instruction and understanding before use, he says. I appreciated that Zalzman -- who clearly enjoys using firearms and was passionate about teaching others to do so -- didn't treat my hesitancy as silly.

He moved slowly through the lesson, answering questions and stressing safety. He threatened Hillary with push-ups when she accidentally pointed her unloaded handgun toward us.

We learned how to stand -- feet apart, arms outstretched, leaning slightly forward -- and use the sight to aim, one eye closed. My arms tired as I aimed the gun until Zalzman was satisfied my position was correct.

"Most people can't hold up a gun that long," he told me.

"Most people don't take so long to figure it out," I thought to myself.

It was time for the shooting range.

During my previous shooting excursion a year ago, an instructor gave a quick safety course for novices. We used models. We didn't touch actual handguns until we were about to load and fire them. I wasn't comfortable around guns before entering the shooting range. That brief lesson did little to ease my discomfort. Even while firing, I never was comfortable using the firearm.

This time, I felt better about loading the gun. I had spent an hour handling it and learned its mechanics.

We donned headphones and protective glasses. The .22-caliber bullets were lighter and easier to load than the 9mm ones I had used before. I pushed the 10-round magazine into place, and yanked it. I had inserted it correctly. I turned to Zalzman, who confirmed the safety was off.

I was ready to shoot.

I wanted to get it over with. I aimed at my target sheet, positioning myself as Zalzman instructed. I didn't have the nerve or skill to fire rapidly. I took my first few shots as quickly as I could manage.

Zalzman corrected my technique, taking my hands to demonstrate how to keep the gun level. He advised that I could put less pressure on the trigger. I calmed down. I took more time between shots, focusing on his suggestions, using a lighter touch on the trigger. I felt relief as my aim got better with nearly every shot. I also felt relief as I counted down the number of bullets left in my magazine. Just three more shots. Two more. Finally, just one more.

I was done.

But I wasn't: Zalzman handed me another 10 rounds. Heartened by my improving accuracy and increasing comfort, I quickly reloaded. I still counted my shots, wanting to stay aware of how many I had left.

I fired less hurriedly. I was no longer just trying to get a feel for shooting; I was trying to do it well. I took a few extra seconds to line up each shot, concentrating on keeping the firearm level, even as I continued to be startled by the bang of each gunshot and the handgun's small recoil.

I later asked Zalzman why people come to his range. He described clients ranging from law enforcement officers honing their skills to curious college students. Repeat customers, he said, often shoot to relieve stress. They enjoy the precision required to shoot well and "make a machine do what you want."

I started to get it. I understood the appeal of the challenge, the satisfaction of improvement.

But I can't say I loved shooting, or that I'll be doing it again soon. Still, the experience has informed my reporting.

Having loaded and re-loaded a gun myself, I better understand why magazine capacity is key to a shooter's ability to fire lots of bullets quickly.

Having felt, with my own hands, the differences among various bullet sizes, I better understand why bullet caliber can affect a firearm's power, even though caliber isn't generally addressed in assault weapons bans.

I better understand where gun advocates come from when they describe people who shoot firearms recreationally, with no intent to aim a gun at a person.

Am I a firearms expert now? No. But with gun violence and gun policy likely to stay in the news for the foreseeable future, I don't regret the first-hand experience.

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