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.
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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. On one living room chair, for display purposes only, Rick had set out a number of weapons in his considerable collection, including at AK-47 and an Uzi -- the first time I'd ever seen either in person.
And on the kitchen table, he'd set out the AR-15, which I was able to examine without passing out.
A gun vise was in place, and Eric pulled the bolt and quickly disassembled and cleaned the AR-15, not because it was in poor condition (the weapon was showroom-fresh), but to give me a better idea about where all the assorted parts went and how different grades of components could be interchanged according to the user's needs. I also got a look at the bullets for the weapon, which cost a king's ransom. Because of concerns about possible federal legislation, prices for the ammo were about triple the usual cost, Rick said -- $30 a box, as opposed to $10. Now, they're back to normal. Then, Eric had me pick up the weapon, which I tried to do with confidence. Too much confidence, as it turned out: He and Rick immediately told me never to raise a weapon in the direction of anyone -- even one I knew wasn't loaded, as was the case with this one. Accidents happen, and getting into the habit of always pointing the muzzle away from people under any and every circumstance is one way to avoid them.
Of course, this advice, as good as it was, only served to further unnerve me. When I finally lifted the rifle and leveled it to Eric's specifications, I couldn't help thinking about those terrible stories of people who mistakenly shoot someone else, or themselves, because they don't know what the hell they're doing. Because I most certainly didn't.
But I was about to learn a whole lot more.
Continue for more about a reporter going shooting for the first time with an AR-15. After I was supposed to have grown a least partly comfortable holding the AR-15 (I wasn't, really, but I was trying my best to fake it), we drove to BluCore, a shooting range in Lakewood owned by former Navy SEALs -- and the place certainly seemed up to military specifications.
After passing through the center's store, stocked with every hunting and shooting accessory I could imagine, and plenty I couldn't, we headed down a flight of stairs into the bunker-like area directly adjacent to the shooting lanes. A glass counter contained weapons for rent plus bullets for those who hadn't brought their own, as Rick had. Also prominently on view: a slew of signage about safety and a flat-screen displaying closed-circuit TV images of each lane. The message was clear: You are being watched, and if you're doing anything you shouldn't, we'll stop you immediately.
Although Rick is a member of BluCore, he had to go through the same routine as everyone else, uncasing his weapons and leaving the bolt open when showing it to the attendants -- a couple of strapping guys who were, appropriately enough, strapped. One of them proudly showed off his sidearm, a Kimber, noting that it was his only gun -- because if you know how to use it, one is all you need.
Next, Rick chose a couple of targets -- geometrical patterns, as opposed to ones that looked like burglars from the 1940s, for instance. After picking up protective items for our eyes (oversized plastic glasses) and ears (sound-cancelling headphones), we headed through double security doors into a pair of side-by-side lanes.
A guy occupied the one to the left, and shortly after we were inside, he fired down the long, narrow chute into the distance, unleashing a BOOM! so loud and startling, even with the headphones on, that it caused my stomach to immediately head for my socks and stay there for several minutes. Not for the first time did I wonder what I'd gotten myself into.
After the previous customer left, Eric did everything he could to get me back on track. But there was only so much he could do. The moment I'd been dreading had arrived.
Continue for more about a gun-virgin reporter popping his cherry with an AR-15. Eric sat me down in the right-hand lane, put out a beanbag on which to balance the barrel of the weapon, loaded five rounds into a magazine, inserted it into the bottom of the gun and tapped the mag to make sure it was properly inserted. Then he had me look through the sight -- a Burris 3 x 9 ballistic flex telescopic model, I'm told -- at one of the targets, which had been affixed to an oversized flap of cardboard and sent 25 yards down the lane on a remote-controlled track.
At that point, Eric had me release the AR-15's bolt, take off the safety, suck in a full breath and slowly let half of it out...before finally pulling the trigger.
The BOOM! was only moderately less shocking that the previous shot had been, even though I was ready for it. I anticipated the weapon jumping back and separating my shoulder, too, but it didn't: The recoil was practically negligible.
Even so, I was caught off-guard by how the shell popped out, bouncing off the carpeted walls of the lane -- and as I took subsequent shots, a number firmly but not painfully caromed off my face. That protective eye gear wasn't just for show. Had I hit the target? I didn't have the slightest idea. In fact, I expected that when the the paper grid came back, it would be as pristine as it had been on the sales display. But lo and behold, I'd hit the damn thing -- repeatedly -- and the same proved true with a second batch of shots. By the time I was done, the target had nine holes in it, with a couple of them near the center.
Here's a closer look at the target and where I hit it:
Once I saw that, some of the anxiety I'd been feeling dissipated and the competitive side of me kicked in. I began thinking less about what I was doing in the most literal sense -- firing a huge, semi-automatic weapon -- and more about improving my score, just as I would have if I'd been playing a video game. Continue for more about a reporter going shooting for the first time with an AR-15. This time, the challenge was more difficult. The next target was sent 100 yards down the lane, and after loading a twenty-round magazine, Eric had me aim for the center with the first ten shots, and then at a smaller shape in the lower right hand corner for the rest. I followed his instructions to the letter, and when the twenty bullets were gone and the target came back, I was shocked to discover that all of them had hit the paper, with the vast majority closer than I would have guessed to dead center.
Here's a look at the second target:
I'm not going to lie: I was pretty pleased with how I'd done. I had been expecting abject humiliation, since no one would ever say I am gifted in terms of hand-eye coordination. I stumble. I trip. I even fall down sometimes, especially when trying and failing to do something beyond my capabilities: One awkward attempt at leap-frogging a parking meter on Broadway has entered family legend. But somehow, I'd managed to go from being a complete novice to a person with at least a basic level of competence.
Only later did the repercussions of my performance begin to sink in. I was under no illusions that I was a late-blooming, long-dormant prodigy. I'd just gotten really good instructions from Eric and was able to use a state-of-the-art device -- one so well engineered that it helped compensate for what I'm sure were a ton of flaws in my technique. As a result, I had become potentially deadly in a span of a little more than an hour. And if I'd managed to turn this trick, I knew anyone could -- including someone with lethal intentions.
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Nonetheless, Rick had accomplished his goal. I came away impressed by how responsible and respectful of the weaponry he, Eric and everyone at BluCore had been. No one treated guns casually or cavalierly, as the stereotypes of gun owners imply -- and the more I speak with gun owners, the more I realize that's the rule, not the exception. There's a tacit understanding that these are dangerous items, but when handled correctly, they needn't generate the kind of fear I'd always felt around them.
No, I haven't purchased a gun since my trip to the range, and I probably never will. But I have a lot better sense of what this culture is all about, and that's definitely to the good. Besides, it was about time I lost my virginity.