This is the first in a series about responsible gun ownership and safety.
As the sound of gunfire grew louder upon entering the shooting range, the fear of the guns themselves evolved more into an interest into their power and stigma. The range prides itself on its pledge to safety, and after taking the written safety test that every shooter must pass before crossing through its doors, the idea of shooting a gun became less frightening and more intriguing.
Guns are scary because they can kill, but they aren’t so scary when responsibly practiced as a hobby; the shooting that is, not the killing. But people own guns for other reasons; be it a stress-release mechanism, a hobby or a mode of self-defense guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
In my efforts to become more comfortable around guns, I decided to look into a local gun range for some knowledgeable instruction. I figured The National Rifle Association might be a good place to start, since they seem to know a thing or two about guns. After reading up on the organization, I learned there is an indoor shooting range in the basement of the NRA headquarters in Fairfax. Staff members are available for one-on-one instruction at the NRA’s range, and classes are offered each month as well.
People were lined up outside NRA headquarters on Friday, July 28, just before 10 a.m., with their locked gun cases by their sides waiting to be the first ones at the range. The shooters were all men that morning except for one, but Greg Wodack, manager of the NRA shooting range, said women make up about 20 percent of the range’s shooters overall. About the same amount of shooters are also off-duty police officers, he said.
FORGET ABOUT the politics of shooting a gun or owning one, I wanted to see what it was like. I had shot guns recreationally in Colorado during college. The guys I shot with were experts, one was a former sniper for the U.S. Army Rangers, and the other a gunsmith, but they never took the time to show me what to do beyond pointing and aiming. They were more interested in getting their shooting time in than they were with teaching me years worth of gun knowledge they had acquired.
I wanted to see what shooting a gun would be like in a serious place, where gun-play is not tolerated, and everyone around is completely focused on the task at hand. There was no laughing in this range. Shooting a gun is not a laughing matter.
“Safety is our number one priority,” said John Robbins, spokesperson for the NRA. “Safety is at the root of all the courses [offered at the NRA].”
Wodack gave me a brief overview of the gun I would be shooting. He knew I had shot before, and while not an expert by any means, he was comfortable with my ability to handle the gun and safely operate it. It was a 9mm Glock, the same kind of pistol used by the majority of law enforcement officers nationwide. It was the perfect size for my hands, which began to sweat as Wodack showed me the right way to hold the piece. My nerves were settling in, and I hadn’t even stepped into the range yet. Guns are heavy, at least heavier than they look like they’d be. Knowing how much power the small weapons pack is reason enough to start sweating.
After my walk through the mechanics of the 9mm Glock, and after wiping my sweaty hands off on my jeans, I was ready to put on the oversized ear and eye protection gear and head into the range.
The sounds of gunshots are subtle in the entryway to the range. Two heavy doors lead inside, and one cannot open the second door until the first one has shut behind them. Once inside the shooting area, even when wearing the mandatory ear and eye protective gear, the sound is louder than a jet airplane taking off from a runway. It’s not like in the movies either. As I stood in the room where guns were repeatedly fired, I could feel the vibration of the powerful weapons from head to toe.
Rule number one in the firing area is to keep the gun pointed in a safe direction at all times, which is always downrange. Guns must be kept unloaded until ready to fire. Fingers must remain off the trigger until the target is in sight, and the rules go on and on. The range is considered a “hot” range, meaning everyone is free to fire his or her gun at any time. This results in sporadic gunfire, all aimed, but with no rhythm or way to anticipate when the shots coming from 15 different range lanes will occur.
WODACK STAPLED my target to a piece of cardboard and sent it down about 25 feet. I chose a silhouette target, to better judge how I’d do if I were face to face with an intruder and had to react. I quickly learned that this scenario is exactly why some people come to shooting ranges for practice.
Kearn Schemm brought his two teenage daughters, Freya and Saskja, to the range as part of their ongoing shooting lessons. Someone broke into their Alexandria home last year, and Kearn Schemm had no choice but to shoot the intruder in Saskja’s room. Ever since the incident, he has been taking his girls to the range to make sure they know how to handle a similar situation if it happens again.
With the target in place and the magazine loaded, I was ready to fire my first shots in more than six months, sweaty palms and all. Once I had my grip right, I took some more time to line up the front and rear sights with my target. After what felt like 10 minutes positioning my feet, shoulders, target and gun sights, I fired the first shot. The recoil, it seems, is always bigger than expected. From that moment forward, I couldn’t shake my anticipation for the recoil before each and every shot. I was so concerned with the kick I was about to feel, that I failed to pull the trigger with smoothness. Instead, I looked to the target to see where my shots ended up, instead of focusing on my shooting technique.
The technique, said Wodack, is what naturally produces a good target-shooter. I had a few good shots, more mediocre shots and even more not-so-good shots. Now my goggles were fogging up and sweat was leaking through them from my forehead. I wanted to do it perfectly. I didn’t want to disappoint my instructor, even though he was as patient and calm as could be.
AFTER SHOOTING ABOUT 100 rounds, my first day on the NRA range came to an end. My biceps were twitching, and the adrenaline pumping through my veins was what I imagine 10 shots of espresso feel on an empty stomach.
I exited the range with Wodack and Robbins, who had watched me shoot from a few steps back. I washed my hands in the sink just outside the range’s doors as I exited, another rule every shooter must follow.
Robbins gave me one more shooting tip, in addition to the many Wodack gave me in the range. Robbins noticed that I fired the gun until the magazine was empty, with little time for breaks in between each shot. I would reposition myself a little, but for the most part I just took a breath and kept on firing. Robbins let me know it’s perfectly acceptable to pull the gun back in toward my chest to rest my arms in between shots. I'll heed his advice in future, as my arms were the most tired when the shooting was over.
As I exited the range, and signed up for an upcoming shooting and gun safety course, I felt a little more at ease about handling a gun. It’s the type of thing I imagine will never become a way of life for me, the comfort of it that is. It’s like driving an automobile with a manual transmission. The day might come when you need to drive a stick-shift car, and if you don’t know how to do it, it isn’t something you can teach yourself right away. It takes practice, finesse and most of all, confidence, something I felt I have gained after just a couple of hours at the gun range.