My American home, where happiness is a warm gun


Will a session at a shooting range help an Irish woman understand US gun culture? It's terrifying at first, but quickly becomes 'like playing darts in a pub'

When I first pick it up, it is with the utmost care. It’s cold, a little heavier than its size might suggest, and although I came to it intentionally, it scares me. It’s a Sig Sauer P220, a small gun as handguns go, at .22 calibre, but all the same it’s a deadly weapon.

I take aim, my hand shaking, and ease the index finger of my right hand against the trigger. The crack is audible through my two layers of ear protection, and I feel a mild kick in my shoulders. There. Now I’ve fired a gun.

I am at The Place to Shoot, a shooting range in Portland, Oregon, my home since 2010. The cliche about Portland is that it’s a liberal enclave of hipsters and hippies, an image far removed from the gun-steeped US of the National Rifle Association. But that US is all around me. Guns are all around me.

Three days before the Sandy Hook massacre last December, a 22-year-old with an AR-15 opened fire on Christmas shoppers in a suburban mall in Portland, killing two people and then himself. About a month before that, I saw shots fired from one car at another under the window of my two-year-old daughter’s bedroom. A friend recently moved from the neighbourhood after seeing a man fire shots in a local park where she had taken her daughter to play.

The shooting range is busy on a Friday morning, and many of the customers have brought their own guns. There’s a father in the lane next to me teaching his 19-year-old son how to shoot the gun he bought him for Christmas.

According to Julie Houghtling, the owner of The Place to Shoot, the brisk trade is par for the course: January is always busy at the range. But one thing is different since the massacre in Sandy Hook – more people than ever are signing up for the classes they offer here, which include handgun safety for beginners. “Which is good,” Houghtling says. “It sounds like people are trying to be responsible.”

But I’m not here for handgun safety, or target practice. I’m here to research this article, because I’ve never fired a gun before. Maybe there’s some information in the experience, information that I’ve been missing as I try to understand what’s going on with Americans and their cherished firearms.

I’m accompanied by a friend, Fergus, who has brought his own handgun, a .40 calibre Smith and Wesson. He bought it after a threatening incident at his workshop one day, but he’s never used it. In fact, it seems that the gun has become more of a burden than a comfort to him. He says it doesn’t make him feel any safer, and he’s thinking of selling it.

We are asked to choose a target for our shooting practice. The options are, for the most part, human silhouettes, though several have detailed faces with expressions of challenge or hostility. We choose the only non-humanoid option – a simple bullseye. But over the course of a couple of hours at the range, during which many other shooters come and go, we are the only ones not shooting at a human image.

Resisting legislation

In the five weeks since Sandy Hook, there have been more than 1,000 gun deaths in America. Last week, President Barack Obama announced new measures to address what he called the “epidemic of gun violence in this country”, and appealed to Congress to pass laws requiring background checks on all gun sales, and bans on assault weapons and on magazines that hold more than 10 bullets. Representatives in states such as Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi and Wyoming are already pushing back, by filing legislation to try to block such measures.

Even in Oregon, which backed Obama in 2008 and 2012, there are many who disagree with the proposals. One western Oregon sheriff wrote an open letter to Vice-President Joe Biden on the subject, in which he vowed not to enforce any regulation that offended “the constitutional rights of my citizens”.

A boost for the gun business

Randy Pierce, gun-owner and resident of Sandy, Oregon, is similarly unimpressed. We meet at Northwest Armory, one of the biggest gun stores in the Portland area. “His [Obama’s] solutions aren’t solutions. Crooks aren’t gonna call up and say ‘Is it legal for me to have a gun?’ before they go kill someone,” he says. Pierce owns more than 20 guns, and is there to buy a particular kind of ammunition, but Northwest Armory is out of stock.

“Everybody’s sold out of everything,” he says. “Nobody has ammo or guns. What Obama did was give the gun manufacturers a big boost in business.”

Inside the store, business is clearly booming. I’m assured that, despite the fact that I’m not a citizen, I can buy a gun with my green card, assuming my background check comes back clean. The background check usually takes about 10 minutes, although a staff member tells me that lately it’s been slower and can take up to two hours.

He also tells me that Northwest Armory is one of the few places that still has in stock the type of guns that would be banned by the proposed measures. With a sweeping gesture, he takes in an entire wall hung with AR-15s – magazine-fed assault rifles, the type of weapons used in Sandy Hook and in the shooting in a cinema in Colorado earlier last year that left 12 dead.

Apparently, the store is “waiting on inventory” that’s been ordered to satisfy the high demand. If the ban comes into force, it will not have any effect on the assault rifles sold today.

If I buy one now, I get to keep it.

I don’t buy an assault rifle. I don’t buy a Sig Sauer P220. But I do learn something from the experience of shooting a gun. As I stand in that chilly shooting range and take my first few shots, I am terrified.

I am keenly aware that I have in my hands an implement with which I could end a life – my own, Fergus’s, the 19-year-old in the lane beside me. But after 20 shots, I stop shaking. After 40 shots – the minimum bullet purchase for the gun I rent is 100 – I am strangely at ease and mainly concerned with hitting the target, as if I am just playing darts in a pub.

There is a shift in Fergus, too. He is also shaking when we begin to shoot. But after it’s over, he turns to me: “This is a good gun,” he says. “I think I’ll keep it.”

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