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.
"Are we having fun yet? I'd give that a yes. Now with this little sucker in hand, we'll be able to deliver a gnat's baby at 100 yards without hurting mama. It's all about steadiness, calm, and breath. Shooting is like qigong, the ability to transmit energy over a distance with a high degree of accuracy. Sniper-level, you ask? Yes, I'd say this rifle qualifies. Just watch."
Like many serious shooters, Ron is a stickler for safety, and below the animated patter he'd been watching me carefully to make sure I followed all the precautionary measures. These ranged from the commonsensical, such as never getting in front of a weapon, loaded or not, to instructions on exactly how to engage and disengage the gun's safety. We also were wearing the regulation, headphone-style ear protectors, and he'd already gone over the actual firing sequence with me several times.
Carefully and smoothly, sighting through the large scope, Ron squeezed the trigger, the rifle roared and slammed into his shoulder, and a hundred yards away he notched an exact bull's-eye. He then repeated the process two more times. Exactly. The circumference of the original hole remained the same; the other bullets passed directly through it. This seemed to me an astounding performance, but Ron, unimpressed by his own excellence, merely said, "The gun likes slow-burn powder." Then, after squeezing off a few more bull's-eyes with several different types of bullets, he uttered the words I'd been waiting to hear for a long time: "OK, now it's your turn."
I hadn't shot a rifle since I was a 12-year-old at summer camp. But the intervening years of technological development have made things easy. You place the bead at the center of the crosshairs on the target, you pull the trigger, and the combined forces of science and industry do the rest. What's interesting, however, was what happened next. Because what happened was that, after a few shots, I found that elusive thing, sometimes referred to as "the zone," where the bullets one after the other flicked egg-size rocks off a shelf we'd set up 200 yards away, and suddenly, without quite understanding how, I was there, in that place of effortless, easy competence, extending the fingertip of my will across two football fields' length with the precision of a surgeon and thinking, "So this is what it is," and "I've figured it out at last," and "This feels great!"
It does in fact feel great; it feels fantastic, as does the sudden achievement of excellence in nearly any field. It lasted several minutes, this trance of accuracy, and then suddenly, with no warning, it went away. But I had tasted the pleasure and athletic thrill of marksmanship; I'd had my Aha! moment, and was able, however briefly, to grasp that thing called the joy of shooting.
With that understanding, my tour of Colorado Gunland was over, and now it was time to pull back and consider. What had I learned during my months of travel, of shooting, reading magazines, taking classes, and hanging out with these people? One thing I learned is that Gunland is a binary place, where, to quote Heidi Klum, "You're either in, or you're out." The debate and its ramifications are so charged and dangerous that it's impossible to take a neutral, fence-straddling position. Another thing I learned is that the warmth shown by gun enthusiasts toward one another is a powerful inducement to membership in their society. Everyone in life wants to belong to something, and the chumminess and bonhomie of the killing classes, as I began to call them to myself, is a wonderful thing, not to be ignored.
I also felt that it was more important than ever that I and everyone else I know think about these things a little, because liberals and progressives tend to remain squeamish and aloof about guns and come to the table with their minds already made up. Yet the questions that guns raise are bedrock-essential to our notions of who we are as Americans, and to our role as participants in a democratically open society, however imperfect that society may be. Of course, I'm also quite aware that, at this late date, whatever we think or do about the question of guns and their social impact is in a way irrelevant, because the die is already cast and guns have carried the day. Like cars or television, they're deeply, essentially woven into the fabric of American culture, and they're not going away. I'm also aware that the American gun debate will continue to rage on with its peculiar ferocity, while each month will continue to bring fresh outrages of gun violence to us. (In March, 31 people died in four separate mass killings; April brought the Binghamton massacre, which added another 14 dead to the total.)