Gun Culture

Photos: New to guns, a reporter shoots for the first time -- with an AR-15

Like many reporters, I've written plenty of stories about guns over the years. But I'd never fired one -- not a real one, anyhow.

A gun-owning friend thought that was wrong given what I do for a living and set out to change it in a big way -- by arranging a training session for me with a semi-automatic AR-15. He was confident that afterward, I'd have a different, much more informed point of view about firearms -- and damn it if he wasn't right. Here's what happened, in words and photos.

How did someone who grew up in Western Colorado, regarded by outdoors lovers as one of nature's finest playgrounds, manage to get through five decades-plus without ever pulling the trigger of a weapon more lethal than a cap pistol or a Super Soaker?

Well, neither of my parents were into roughing it and none of my close relatives or friends were hunting aficionados. True, there were plenty of such folks in my hometown of Grand Junction: I remember returning for a visit back in the mid-'80s and realizing that I was driving one of the few vehicles without a gun rack. But somehow, this proximity didn't translate into the slightest interest in arming myself. To the contrary, even the thought of a gun in the vicinity, whether or not it was securely locked in a safe, made me want to head in the opposite direction.

This philosophy hardened when my wife and I started a family. Our son Nick, who took the photos accompanying this post (he's 24), came along first, and while we didn't prohibit him from watching TV shows and movies featuring gun violence once we felt he was old enough to process it properly, we made a point of talking to him frequently about the line between fantasy and reality. Likewise, we bought him plenty of action figures, which he loved-loved-loved -- but before we gave them to him, we disarmed the ones with weapons. If they were going to fight, they'd have to do it with their fists and feet, just like Bruce Lee intended.

These experiences didn't give Nick my brand of gun phobia. He became an Eagle Scout, learning to use firearms en route to earning this honor. But it never occurred to me to follow in his footsteps when it came to weapons -- and it probably wouldn't have were it not for Rick Enstrom.

I met Rick, the scion of the family known for Grand Junction's greatest export, Enstrom's Almond Toffee, when he purchased a record-and-video store where I worked while attending Mesa College (now Colorado Mesa University). I eventually wound up as manager of the place, and along the way, I grew to know and love Rick, who's truly one of the most unusual people I've ever known -- a man able to balance being a wild prankster and a conservative Republican, a pillar of the community and a Frank Zappa addict.

Rick and I stayed friends long after my record-store days were behind me, and when my twin daughters, Lora and Ellie, came along a few years after Nick, we asked him and his wonderful wife Linda to be Lora's godparents -- even though we knew there was enough firepower and ammo in their house to reenact Red Dawn several times over.

This past year, Rick ran and lost in a race for state representative -- which is just as well, since now he's got more time to hunt and fish. A past state wildlife commissioner, he's a sportsman in the classic sense, which helps explain why the past year's debate over gun control legislation drove him nuts. Not only was he flabbergasted by misstatements from politicians such as Congresswoman Diana DeGette: Earlier this year, she made comments suggesting she didn't understand the difference between bullets and gun magazines. But he also felt many of the journalists covering the issue were either biased in favor of limits and bans (hardly a new charge from someone on the right) or so misinformed about the subject that it added up to the same thing.

In his opinion, critics should at least learn what it's like to shoot a gun before they pretend to be an expert about them -- a message he delivered to me repeatedly, along with an open invitation for me to accompany him to a shooting range for a lesson about how to do it right. And finally, after months and months and months, I said okay.

This spring, as the political chatter about guns was at its loudest, Nick and I headed over to Rick's Jefferson County home, where I was introduced to Eric Coe. Eric isn't a professional firearms instructor -- he works for a water-treatment construction company -- but he fathered one: His daughter is a counselor at the Whittington Center, an adventure camp in Raton, New Mexico, that's operated under the umbrella of the National Rifle Association. But based on spending an evening with him, he'd be a good one. An avid outdoorsman who's as adept at hunting big game with a bow and arrow as with a long gun, he was patient, detailed and an absolute stickler for safety -- something he didn't take for granted or fail to emphasize a single time in my presence.

Lucky thing, because when we arrived, Rick had assembled a veritable arsenal.

Continue for more about a reporter going shooting for the first time with an AR-15.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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