Tuesday, March 04, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Today for the first time I fired my own gun.
Guns have not been part of my life. Though my father saw combat action in the Pacific during World War II, he never kept a gun in our home. He worked in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York and kept a gun in his office desk drawer, but I only rarely got glimpses of this weapon from afar.
The first time I got close to a gun was in my early teens when my parents found a loaded revolver that my older brother had hidden in the house. My brother was on the wrong side of the drug culture in the 1960s and suffered from emotional volatility and periods of paranoia. The gun was an alien thing, shiny and of black metal, and imbued with danger. I never asked my brother how he got it or why. My father knew how to render it useless.
I am a staunch supporter of Second Amendment rights. The right to bear arms is guaranteed in the document at the foundation of American society and was a revolutionary promise intended to allow citizens to resist a government’s tyranny.
Meddling with this right is the equivalent of limiting any of the other rights guaranteed to American citizens.
However, I must admit that my support of the Second Amendment has always been intellectual and abstract, as my experience with guns has been virtually zero.
Emotionally, I have seen guns as violent and colored with evil. Our society has been anesthetized as to what a gun can do in the real world by TV and movies in which heroic actors do gymnastics while firing their weapons. As a physician dedicated to preserving and enhancing life, the idea of a bullet destroying tissues and organs is deeply distressing.
A year ago my wife and I returned from vacation to discover that our house had suffered a break-in. Though our alarm system had prevented any material loss, I began to worry about how I would protect the two of us if we had been home during an invasion. It was obvious that I couldn’t. I was motivated to get training in firearms, obtain my permit and I bought a gun.
After having this gun in my house for almost a month, today I took it out to shoot. I know I have been dragging my feet, as I have been wary of this weapon. My training class had us use .22-caliber pistols, which were surprisingly easy to handle. My gun is a much more powerful mechanism.
At the shooting range I hung up a target that I printed at home from one of many websites. I slipped in the magazine, and with apprehension handled this loaded gun for the first time.
With hearing protection in place, I aimed at the distant target and pulled the trigger. It was harder to pull the trigger than I expected, a safety feature built into this gun to prevent accidental firing. The explosion, flare and recoil of this first firing were shocking, revealing the power of this instrument. Over the next hour I fired more than 30 rounds, and I was amazed with each one of them. My hands were shaking each time I aimed the gun. I tried to convince myself that it was the large cup of coffee I had before I came out, but that was nonsense. It was the combination of the effort of trying to steady the weapon and pure adrenaline. I hit my target 20 times out of 32 rounds at a distance of about 60 feet.
This experience was reminiscent of the first time I drove my parents’ car. I knew I had taken control of something potentially dangerous — thousands of pounds of metal with which I could kill myself or someone else. As is the case with almost all of us, years of driving leads to comfort and confidence with handling a potentially lethal automobile.
After shooting, I briefly chatted with two men who clearly had the years of experience that allowed them to handle guns safely. They talked about their various guns with the same knowledge and interest that car enthusiasts have about automobiles. They spoke of the sport of shooting and the characteristics of guns they and their wives used in target competition.
That guns are in the world says much about the nature of our world. Members of the military understand this, and much closer to home so do the police. I am ambivalent about having this weapon at home, and I have still not fully wrapped my head around the power and responsibility I experienced today in shooting. I expect with passing time and practice that I will develop confidence with handling this tool.
Jay Fleitman, M.D., lives in Northampton. His column appears the first Tuesday of the month. He can be reached at email@example.com.