I Fired an AK-47

Five days ago, I shot a gun. Several guns in fact. Two handguns (a 40mm and a 45mm), a 12 gauge shotgun, an AK-47, and an AR-15 (the military’s standard issue assault rifle). I was on road trip in the southwest US with three friends during the winter break of our college senior year. We stopped in Arizona where one of us lived and his older brothers took us out in the desert because we wanted to go skeet shooting.

The morning started at about 8AM, which was super early for the four of us who had stayed up past 2 and were still on California college-student time. We joined the two brothers and all piled into a white pickup. Driving a bit north of Phoenix, we eventually rumbled off onto a dirt road that proceeded to get bumpier and bumpier. It took us a while to find a site that didn’t have a “no shooting” sign – apparently the area was getting cleaned up. After the shaky journey, we flopped out of the car onto the dust, surrounded by low hills toothpicked with saguaros.

So there I was, about to go shooting for the first time in my life. I’m from a family of democrats, none of whom own a gun or ever go hunting, not even any of my extended family. We live on the eastern seaboard. Solid blue territory. My high school at one point had a rule that every student needed to carry a clear backpack because the principal was afraid that some of the kids in gangs from the housing projects might bring a gun to school. At one football game someone did get shot in the leg by accident. Being worried about weapons wasn’t irrational.

Except, I didn’t grow up in urban New York City, I grew up in Annapolis, Maryland. When I was younger, one of my friend’s grandfather had a display case full of guns, and another friend of mine had gone shooting with his dad. I remember them talking to each other about target practice on cans, and how  different guns kick into your shoulder. I never went shooting with them, but I wasn’t uncurious.

So for me, going shooting was a way to finally take a peek at a piece of American culture that was different from my experience. When we planned the trip, I suggested we add skeet shooting to our itinerary and everyone enthusiastically agreed. Since the assault weapons ban hadn’t been fully renewed and Arizona had pretty lax gun laws, the day turned out a bit more interesting than we expected.

First of all, we forgot to bring the clay pigeon thrower, so we never formally went skeet shooting. Luckily, one brother had a lemon tree in his front yard and had decided to toss in a bag of lemons for target variety. So we wound up throwing lemons in the air as targets, which was fine because the newbies of us had terrible aim and wouldn’t have hit a far away skeet anyways.

But then the other brother started pulling out more guns from the bed of his truck. An assault rifle first. Basically it’s fancier, with more handles and parts that move, and with that synthetic black metal/plastic look. Even in sweatshirts, you look a bit like you’re at a military training camp in the desert when you fire it. Bonus: the scope had a laser.

Then an AK-47! The only gun I remembered from the Goldeneye N64 game we all loved as kids, with its distinct shape and brown color. We laughed in disbelief when the brother pulled it out, and we took turns firing it at lemons propped up on sticks, and other debris lying around from past peoples’ target practice (a punching bag, a TV, a fire extinguisher). Firing an AK-47 in a desert, I was distinctly reminded of a certain turbaned man in the middle east…

And lastly, the handguns. Smaller, worse aim, more complicated safety switches. We all took turns shooting each type of gun, and then traded them all around for about another hour. I learned how to load a shotgun (ready for the zombie apocalypse now, hoping I find a shotguns and shells). I felt handgun bullet casings whiz over my head. And I got familiar with the smell of gun smoke, which lingered in my nostrils for a few hours afterward.

But what did it feel like for me to shoot? What did I learn, why did I go? Initially, there was the thrill of doing something unconventional – kind of like the reason people dress up. We all put on a gun costume for a couple hours and laughed at how out of character we were – liberals don’t go skeet shooting! Naturally we intended to show it off to our friends, taking pictures and videos.

Having never held or fired a gun before, I got a sense of the weight of the metal and the force of the explosions that propelled the bullets. When I watch people fire guns in movies now, I get it differently than before, kind of like when you finally fall in love and can relate to all the romances.

Plus, shooting is fun. Aiming is a challenge, so you can compete with each other on marksmanship. Or you can get into the technical side of it, and compare the engineering of the different weapons, the same way people compare cars. And it makes an awesome sound – there was a crack when you pulled the trigger, followed by a washy echo from the surrounding hills a second later.

The people I went with were very sensible about safety. Before we even started, they said to never, ever point the gun at someone, even if you’re positive it’s not loaded. Good to be in the habit. When it’s loaded and you’re carrying it, they said to always point it towards the sky or the ground. We wore earplugs for the noise. And when it was all over, we picked up all of our shells (unlike the previous visitors, who left shells and broken beer bottles everywhere).

So what’s with all the big to-do about guns in this country? Sure, they’re dangerous, but so are knives. Maybe people really do kill people, and accidents happen the same way accidents happen with any tool – because people are irresponsible or lazy. Might there be another approach to dealing with gun violence? The gangs in Annapolis are stuck in a cycle of poverty – would it be more effective to have better education and a more supportive community? I think there’s probably a lot to say for tightening the licensing we give to guns. People shouldn’t be allowed to handle dangerous instruments unless they can prove they’re responsible about it.

As for the second amendment – I’m not convinced either way. I don’t expect to ever shoot a gun again (at least, I won’t seek it out) because I wouldn’t use one to protect myself in my home, and I don’t think I’ll bother to spend the money on recreational target practice. Shooting was cool, but it didn’t enthrall me much more than, say, the bowling we did the night before. Legally, I think the constitution is ambiguous about gun rights and can be read to favor an individual right or the right of a militia. We’d do better to throw out the amendment completely and replace it with something clearer and more straightforward: The right to protect yourself from others alongside a right for the state to regulate dangerous weapons. Or something like that. Whatever. It’s not a topic I’m particularly passionate about.

In the end, I can see why people enjoy their guns. In the same way I’ve been pissed off by school administrators restricting activities, I can relate to people who think it’s not the government’s business to dictate your target practice. And if people want to use guns for self-defense, let them. But I think it’s reasonable to let them only if they can prove themselves responsible owners by passing marksmanship tests, demonstrating safe handling, etc.

To be clear, I was never a gun hater, so this isn’t a confession of a liberal who’s been converted. This is the development of a more nuanced opinion based on new data. Besides, what did my friends and I do after shooting? We tried out a different activity we rarely did and had few skills for: golfing.

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