Miss-Fire

by Shanna Germain

"Okay, now lift the barrel right up there, that's it. Can you see through the scope?"

I'm standing in the pouring rain, my fingers wrapped around the wet, black barrel of a semi-automatic machine gun, trying to steady my hand long enough to center the target—a paper cutout of a man's torso—in the tiny scope. The officer helping me is kind and calm, despite the fact that I've never shot anything before. He shows me how to press the butt of the gun into my shoulder so that it won’t kick against my cheek.

"Ready?" he asks, stepping back slightly and adjusting his safety goggles. His voice is muffled by my earplugs and the drum of the rain.

I take a deep breath. There are no bullets in the gun. This is just a dry run, a chance to get used to the heft and feel of the metal. Still I can't help thinking that I am knowingly sticking my head in the lion's mouth, risking being torn apart just to show that I am not afraid. I am not afraid.

"Ready," I say, trying to remember what they taught us in class this morning: steady your shoulder, weight on the balls of your feet, pull the trigger on the exhale. Down with the breath, back with the finger. A tiny click like the closing of a door, and the officer reaches over and slides the safety back on for me.

"Good job," he says. "I think you're ready for the real thing."

***

Growing up, I never knew much about guns. I saw them on TV and in the movies, and I was around them occasionally; my father was a hunter. One year, a few days before Christmas, my grandparents called and invited me to decorate the tree at their house that afternoon. My parents were hunting in the woods behind our house. In my excitement, I pulled on a pair of shoes and went running into the forest. I'll never forget my mother's reaction when she found me, flailing through the woods in my brown T-shirt and dark blue jeans. "There are hunters in these woods," she said. "Not me, not your father, but hunters with guns, who will shoot at anything that moves, including a little girl."

That was about the extent of my gun-experience until I entered college. While there, I took an emergency medical course and began working on a local ambulance. Although I rarely saw actual guns, I did see their after-effects: bodies, torn and bleeding, boys, holding their arms or legs or friends, the mothers and fathers and children of those left behind. During one call, I was the first to arrive and an alcoholic in a wheelchair came out of the bedroom and held a gun on me while I worked on his bruised and battered wife, asking that I not let her die. Her fear was worse than any of her injuries. She was not going to die, but I wondered what he would have done if she had. Would he have shot me? Turned the gun on himself? I don't remember being afraid then but, looking back now, I wonder: why can't I remember the details of his face, the way he held the gun, what happened when the rest of the ambulance crew arrived?

Through all those years, I had never been behind a gun, had never held its weight against my cheek and shot at a deer or a rabbit or even at a bottle perched atop a fence. And I wasn't sure how I felt about guns. The NRA scared me, but so did the idea of walking alone through a dark parking lot without protection. Were guns good or bad? What about the humans who used them? Good, bad, protector, killer, I didn't know, so I took the easy way out and stayed away from them...at least until I was required to take a citizens' police course when I got a new job as a reporter for a small-town newspaper. I thought I'd learn about drunk drivers and parking tickets; I had no idea I was going to learn how to shoot a gun.

***

There's something about standing on a firing range, in the pouring rain, while someone you barely know hands you a loaded gun. There’s a moment of intimacy in that exchange, a moment of passage where you are—literally—trusting your life to a stranger. And he trusting his to you.

And then the moment passes, and you are pointing the gun at a target, trying to remember what you've been told: cock the hammer, keep your finger off the trigger until you're ready to shoot. Breathe.

"You don't have to shoot if you don't want to." The officer says this to everyone, to offer a way out in case you change your mind.

For a moment, I'm tempted to hand the gun back to him, to feign illness and get into my car where I will feel warm and dry and safe. But as I stand there with the rifle in my hand, I know there’s no turning back. I want to know how it feels to have that power in my hands, to know how it feels to pull the trigger—or not—as I choose. I want to understand the appeal, and to get past my fear. Not the fear of shooting, or of being shot at, but the fear of the unknown. The fear of liking what I once loathed. The fear of turning into Annette Bening's character in American Beauty, when she falls in love with the power of shooting, with its danger, until by the end of the movie, she seems about three shots away from going off the deep end.

"I'm ready," I say. I let my breath out, ignore the way the gun-sight shakes around the target, and pull my finger back. My hand jerks. Someone drops a soup pan over my head and starts rapping on it with a metal spoon. My vision blurs. Then I see four holes in the paper man's shoulder.

"Good shot," my officer says. But I can barely hear him through the buzz in my brain and the beating of my heart in my ears. Standing on that firing range with the rain drumming on my head, I realize I like shooting the gun. I realize I also hate it. At the same time, I feel both dangerous and endangered.

All day I shoot guns: a 9-millimeter pistol, an assault rifle, a big old shotgun with a slug that knocks my shoulder back about six feet. With each shot, I alternate between power and prayer, between fear and the feeling that I can rule the world.

By the end of the day, I am soaked, my shoulders ache, and my ears are ringing. I still don't understand how guns work. You put something the size of a baby's pinkie into them and it comes out and big enough to blow a man apart. But I am beginning to understand the appeal of their power. And although I know that a gun could save me from danger, I also know I don't want to carry one in my purse.

Instead I realize, as I watch the officers holster their weapons again, click the safety, take out the bullets, that I have a different power—one that doesn't come from the end of a gun. It’s not the power to give or take life. It’s the power to change lives, as I am doing now, as I do every time I heft the weight of my instrument, wrap my fingers around it, and aim for the paper.


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