Friday, February 19, 2010

Some Guns Are Bigger Than Others

Some Guns' Mothers Are Bigger Than Others Guns' Mothers

I told you I was going to visit a shooting range and I did. I murdered a two-dimensional man made of paper today.

The Bluegrass Indoor Range is situated in what might be the starkest industrial node of Louisville, in a cul-de-sac next to a warehouse equipment hauling company, next to several auto parts wholesalers, on the wrong side of the tracks, in the center of 9,000 acres of treeless concrete. I feel for the people who work in the one-level strip-mall office building across the street. Every day, five o’clock Joes exit those office doors, get an eyeful of… absolutely nothing of interest… get in their cars, and probably want to shoot something.

The inside of the shooting range is as cheerless as a GM factory in Flint, Michigan, circa 2006. But the graying dude behind the counter was warm and helpful. He handed across a .22 revolver and a Ziploc bag of bullets. He showed me the usual safety procedures, explained some things, had me sign two documents. He did not ask me if I had been drinking today, or what kind of substances I’d consumed in the past eight hours. He did ask me what brought me here. I told him I’m 34, and this is decades overdue.

When the Saudi pilots who commandeered Flights 11 and 175 came to an instructor to learn how to fly a commercial jetliner without knowing how to land, similar inquiries were not put forth. Or so it is presumed. Jet planes and loaded weapons all the same, I am no Middle Easterner, nor even just a black man dressed in the wrong way. …I was at no risk of being profiled today, because I was a white guy wearing a blue fleece jacket, with dark whiskers turning silver.

The guy presented options for a target. There was the typical AK-47-toting Afghan-variety terrorist wearing a gingham burka. Beside him, an expressionless Rasputin-evoking image of Bin Laden with penetrating eyes that creep you out and make you want to put a bullet hole between them. I would say “Charles Manson-evoking image” except that Charles didn’t scare three-hundred million people shitless at one time. Plus, Manson’s face is not stoic and expressionless in his freakish iconography. He looks crazier than an escapee scrambling for a fix. Bin Laden merely reminds me of Rasputin. Bin Laden appears to be at peace with himself—just not at peace with you. His detachment is only amplified in this target depiction by holding a reputably sketchy Russian semi-automatic assault rifle. So, Grigori Rasputin, your name and your face no longer invokes the willies. Most of the world—the world that matters anyway—doesn’t even know your name anymore. Bin Laden serves just fine as the face of Evildoing the world round.

To balance things out, though, the target shooting manufacturers supplied an image of a burly, bearded backwoods creep in common redneck flannel, with oversized belt buckle, cheap sunglasses, and a pistol in your face. The hunter becomes the hunted… What I wanted was a cardboard cutout of Glenn Beck.

In the absence of that, I chose the most stereotypical of all villains, a ski-masked bad guy, up to no good, slinking through shrubberies to steal your bike and kick your dog. This bad guy is not a rapist. The typical rapist profile doesn’t include ski masks. That was no matter, though, because his targeting area is cut off at the waist, so I couldn’t blast him in the nuts if I wanted to. His ski mask indeed made him the prototypical perp, except that in addition to his balaclava and 1988 Polo windbreaker, he was wearing a scarf, suggesting he was confused and misunderstood when the photo was snapped. Maybe he was a tourist at Whistler who found a Walther P-99 in his room and was carting it to the lodge to turn it in.

The first thing that strikes you on entering a shooting range, after shutting the two firewall doors behind you, is the percussion of your malleus striking your incus. Look it up. This happens in spite of the heavy-duty ear guards you put on before entering. You feel your innards quake at each blast. Before I settled into my spot, I made the mistake of adjusting my ear covers when someone else unloaded a cartridge in the next lane. For only a fragment of a second did I expose my ear canal to the air and the reverberations were so exaggerated, they sounded synthetic, they stung with the crazy drawn-out echo of a nitrous oxide huff. Like my eardrum had grabbed a tuning fork and banged it on pavement. My brain was forced to process what the hell that sound was a full second after it happened, and there was nothing synthetic about it. It was pure physics dancing around the room it was given.

Around my firing lane were the artifacts of piss-poor shooting, or weapon malfunction, or both. At an alarming five feet from where I stood, just overhead, holes and streaks riddled the wood from misfires. Far too close for stray-bullet comfort. There was even a bullet scar in the cinderblock two feet to my right. Down the lane, many feet above the target line, the pressboard flashing was splintered like thatch hanging off a roof. I was reminded of the holes in the drywall surrounding a dartboard, except these holes were the diameter of pencil erasers and marbles. Even the target carriage itself was nicked and marred. What is the physical behavior of ricochet? How often does it happen here?

Other things that run through your mind when you load a gun for the first time:

1) I signed that disclaimer. Will 2/11/10 be the last date on which I sign a document? ...Ridiculous.

2) With one cruel twist, the little grey cap on the end of this brass casing could take a bad bounce and puncture just the wrong spot, some arterial conduit in your thigh, and there you are bleeding to death on a high-polish concrete floor.

3) Stop being a pussy, man, and fire the goddamn piece.

You take aim, but another thing goes through your mind: I’m in a room full of people holding lethal weapons. It is also true that anytime someone is having a steak at Ruth’s Chris, or buzzsawing up firewood, they’re wielding lethal weapons. So it’s not so much the lethality of the instrument as it is the ineptitude of the wielder. Owed to user error, that fucking thing could kill me from across the room. And although the vast infinitude of people you’ll encounter in your life are not sociopaths, not criminally insane, and not snarled in a PCP-fueled psychotic episode, the only thing that may prevent such a creature from opening fire on you is the fact that you yourself are armed. …I gained sudden appreciation and new respect for any man walking the streets of a place like Tombstone, Arizona just 120 years ago.

I ran the target out to 21 feet, the legal minimum at which you must prove proficiency in order to carry a concealed weapon in Kentucky. I was aiming to peel his cap, put a nice Victor Maitland-style bloody tilak on his forehead. It was easy. I aimed at nothing but his bean, just above the eyes. I reeled in the target. It proved… not-so-easy. I’d missed his whole head by a foot five out of nine times, and buried two in his neck, right in the scarf. One hit him in the left nipple and the other must have missed the whole target entirely. This display of prodigal marksmanship was from just 7 yards.

I moved the target out to the next few markers—50 feet and eventually 75 feet—and I drew some conclusions: 1) I am not a good shot; 2) this gun sucks. It’s like a toy. The recoil of a .22 is enough to make your hands jump, but I wanted more. I did not feel the exhilaration I’d hoped for. No cause for coming back tomorrow. There will be a next time in coming days, except it will include a Glock 17, then a .45, then maybe a bazooka.

While I paid the guy $24 at the counter after turning in my killing machine, I studied the gunpowder on my fingers—the grey metallic cast with the metallic smoke scent and didn’t question the fascination. It occurred to me, though, that this was no different than going bowling—perhaps a bit more like playing Jarts—but nothing so far has changed my philosophy regarding handguns or guns of any kind. This is a controlled environment where people can lay down a buck a minute and cause harm to no other living thing. And, yes, we should be permitted to take it outdoors. The Great Outdoors has space, it allows for lined-up beer cans or tossed-in-the-air soda bottles, or bulls-eyes on hay bales, or rocketing clay pigeons. The problem is, for human beings, things without heartbeats are not enough.

This won’t change for me. But my yen for launching bullets might. We’ll see next time.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Headline from the Kentucky Post today: Man Sentenced For Giving Shrooms To Friend

The 135-word transmission is skimpy enough to just paste in below. I will not credit the reporter by citing her name, mainly because she failed to use serial commas before certain grammatical conjunctions, and that annoys me.

PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) — A western Kentucky man has been sentenced to 2½ years in prison for supplying hallucinogenic mushrooms that led to the death of a Paducah teenager as he tried to enter the wrong house.

McCracken Circuit Judge Craig Clymer sentenced 20-year-old Taylor Thompson on Wednesday, saying the prison time was necessary to send a message that drinking and using drugs have serious consequences.

Thompson pleaded guilty in December to trafficking in a controlled substance, marijuana possession and having drug paraphernalia.

Taylor told police he brought mushrooms to a party in July 2009, ate some himself and gave some to other people.

One of those was 18-year-old Caleb Barnett, who later broke into a neighbor's home, thinking it was his own. The homeowner fatally shot him. Barnett died in surgery at Baptist West Hospital on July 30.

You read about that fateful night and get the sense this is the case of another Puritanical backwoods judge sticking it to kids who play with consciousness-expanding, non-addictive, non-synthetic substances. Judge Clymer wanted to “send a message” by shoving a 20-year-old kid into the correctional meat grinder, costing god-knows-what in tax dollars to process and house the guy in a state jail system that is already woefully overpopulated and underfunded (Foster et al., 2005; 2007).

Judge Clymer raises his gavel like a scolding mother—some termagant bitch who hasn’t been laid since her son was conceived, and who has always trembled with repressed wonder at the thought of doing something devilish, like smoking a doobie, but never let herself give it a try. “Now you go to your room young man, and you think about what you’ve done!” Down comes the hammer. Two-and-a-half years? The report says Taylor Thompson gave Caleb Barnett the shrooms. Someone had taught him to share his treats, Your Honor. And Jesus, isn’t it enough that Thompson’s friend was murdered at the hands of a stranger?

The judge’s sentence alone is enough to get my dander up. But it’s that penultimate sentence in the little article that evokes that familiar cinematic scratch of a record stylus across vinyl in my mind. “The homeowner fatally shot him.”

At this, I can’t help but think that Judge Clymer’s punishment is fully representative of a festering social sickness. This is not just ignorance and—pun intended—poor judgment on the part of an elected official. It’s inexcusable myopia and idiocy. Does it occur to anyone else that the gifting and the consumption of psilocybin mushrooms did not cause the death of an 18-year old partygoer that night? A goddamn bullet did. Maybe two or more bullets.

I am a person who has every intention of becoming a big fan of shooting firearms at things. I’m going to go spray some lead at a paper target as soon as they’ll allow me, in fact. (Which will be as soon as I walk into a firing range and slap $9 on the counter.) But the situation described above, and all its busted implications, is no less than fucking stupid.

I’d love to poll 100 people in Paducah, Kentucky who knew about this case and this trial, and run the results up against my hypothesis that less than 3% of them would even consider that the greater issue here is gun control, gun ownership, and the turned cheek to accepted, unprovoked violence based on some frontier mentality that we have failed to outgrow in what we call our great, progressive America.

I’m tired and there’s little more to say about this. Other than this news snippet practically closes with a punch line to a joke that is in no way funny. The joke is sitting on a judicial bench in McCracken County, and in the sensibilities of innumerable hearts and minds in the heartland. …Shit.


Foster, J. P., Garrett, B., Higgins, G. E., Jepsen, C., Rickettes, M., Troske, K., White, K., & Young, L. (2007). Kentucky jail management strategies: Final report. Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation: Louisville, KY.

Foster, J. P., Young, L., Kennedy, S., Goodman, C., & Stutzenberger, A. (December 2005). Jail evaluation study. Kentucky Department of Corrections: Frankfort, KY.