Inspired by his late father's antique pistol, author, urbanite, firearm novice (and skeptic) Eli Gottlieb traveled through Colorado to figure out why guns still hold such fascination.
"Up here," says my friend Patrick Wroblewski, wrestling his Chevy 4x4 over a particularly large rock, "is where we're going." We've been on the road out of Boulder about a half hour and have been steadily climbing off-road for the last few minutes. We fishtail suddenly into a mountain clearing where several pickups are parked in scattered formation on the grass. The vibe is of a casual party, with people standing around in small groups chatting. Girls are sitting on lawn chairs sipping drinks, and there seems to be much laughter among this group of well-groomed twentysomethings. The wholesome atmosphere underlines the paradox: Every single person is here to shoot.
"What you using?" One of the guys has come over to our truck before we've even gotten out, curious about our weaponry. As a novice to firearms (it will be my very first day shooting), I am thereby introduced to a fundamental tenet of gun use: clubbiness. Possession of a firearm entitles you, apparently, to instant membership in a worldview whose politics may range right and left but whose fundamental outlook on guns is rock solid: We want more of them. We want to talk about them, ogle them, and heft them in our hands. We want to live in the dream of omnipotence their purchase confers on us. And leaving that dream for reality now and again, we want to buy bullets for them and shoot those bullets into targets a lot, and if necessary, when the occasion calls for it, into people.
Paradox abounds in Gunland, and my friend Patrick is a perfect example of how gun owners refuse to conform to type. He's a bodyworker specialized in the kind of deep-tissue massage called Rolfing, which requires a kind of Zenlike purity of mind to practice well. He hails from Boulder, whose denizens are typically more comfortable hugging trees than shredding them with firearms. And with his shades, d'Artagnan beard, and chiseled bones, Patrick owns the kind of patent visual cool you see on alt-rock front men. So why is this guy holding a death-dealing piece of machinery called a Glock .45?
Short answer: the better to worry less in life. While living in a trailer in New Mexico, he woke one night to a ransacking intruder. "There I am, sleeping buck naked, and the sum total of my personal protection is a water bottle on the night table," he recalls. Determined never to repeat the experience, he went to a gun shop, where a clerk pointed him toward something with "real stopping power."
But isn't there something else at work here, I ask, beyond personal protection?
"Of course," he says. "At a primal level, guys still measure themselves with physical power, right? And in that arena, let's face it, a gun is a trump card. Plus, learning about guns, how to be with them and use them, took a layer of anxiety out of me. Guns used to be an unknown. And so much emotional judgment is based in the unknown. I now feel safer as a person, on several levels."
We step onto the field—one of several such ranges near Boulder that have sprung up in semi-clandestine fashion due to the restriction of places to shoot along the Front Range. The blogosphere is filled with Colorado target shooters complaining about the lack of open space in which to practice their sport. The result is these somewhat makeshift venues, which open up and then, as often as not, are soon shut down by the Colorado or U.S. Forest Service. For those interested in legal "plinking," as target practice is known, the pickings are pretty slim. The Boulder Rifle Club typically has a waiting list of seven years.
As we begin walking to the range—a distant, high hill—I can already hear the gut-deep whomp of high-performance rifles. I'm nervous not only because I'm about to fire a handgun for the first time, but also because it's my beloved father's gun, and the fact seems suddenly significant. I heft the Beretta in my hand and follow Patrick up the trail to the range.
If there's a single boy of historic myth that's been used effectively to sell guns, to hush the fears of people on the coasts about the use of guns, and to elevate target practice into something more than humping bullets into a mountainside, it's that which has grown up around our dearest national icon, the High Plains cowboy. The enduring popularity of that gentleman, in turn, owes much of his status to the man who can truly be said to be one of the Founding Fathers of firearms in America: the buckskinned sharpshooter and showman known as Buffalo Bill Cody.