"Join us at the only event that dares put loaded guns in journalists' hands!" declared an e-mail invitation that beckoned the media to go shooting with a gun-industry-funded recreational group known as the National Shooting Sports Foundation. It was an offer any journalist with an even slightly warped personality could not refuse, and the event's organizers damn well knew it.
The foundation's stated aim that day was simply to "bring journalists together with some of the best shooting sports champions in the world for a day of one-on-one instruction" and to provide a window into the sports-shooting world in "as nonpoliticized an atmosphere as possible." But its hope, and far from covert aim, was that a little live ammo and some nice heavy guns in the hands of journalistic hacks could unleash the inner gun-nut lurking in these misbegotten souls so that the Second Amendment might become as much of a cause for them as the First Amendment.
So here we were, a motley assortment of freelancers, mainstream journalists, lifestyle writers, wilderness scribes, and two Express representatives resplendent in straw porkpie hats and combat boots, mingling in the scorching heat of an early summer day at the Chabot Rifle and Pistol Club. (A few TV reporters who showed up at some ungodly hour of the morning -- like say, 10 o'clock -- were gone well before noon, when this writer rolled up.)
Nestled in a bucolic little nook of the Oakland Hills near Lake Chabot, the club could be heard clearly a good mile away, well before it came into view. The sharp, surprisingly loud cracks of firearms -- from Glock pistols to Smith & Wesson sidearms to .22 rifles -- reverberated in the pastoral setting far more loudly than they sound on television. "What people learn about guns from TV is always wrong," says Michael Bane, the extreme-sports author and NSSF representative who organized the event.
For a few pro-gun types, being on a range with a bunch of journalists would be something of a nightmare. Not so for Bane, who thrives on such incongruities. By his appearance, the day's maniac impresario is the last person you'd associate with firearms -- gangly, all arms and legs, with a huge wraparound grin to match his wraparound sunglasses. He arrives in a soccer-mom-style van, clad in cargo shorts and possibly one of the most obnoxious Hawaiian shirts ever known -- featuring a pattern of multicolored wine bottles, corks, and openers that Bane has dubbed "Napa Valley Camouflage."
Appearances are, as usual, misleading. An accomplished shot and instructor, Bane reassures the reporters that they are far less frightening to deal with than the little-old-lady mystery writers for whom he recently organized an event in Fort Lauderdale. "Absolutely terrifying," he says, describing a bunch of senior citizens waving guns with gay abandon and causally violating the second rule of gun safety: Never point your gun at something you don't want to hurt. (Rule No. 1, incidentally, is: "Handle all firearms as if they were loaded.")
The instructor's politics, as he describes them, are not exactly what you'd expect. Bane describes himself as a "tree-hugger vegetarian," while another instructor notes that Bane's views are closer to those of someone who uses the word "proletariat" a lot. The "Wise-Use Movement," a lumber, development, and recreational-vehicle industry front group, once asked him to organize a training session, assuming he was on their side. Bane says the group's representatives were shocked by his response: "I don't see the connection between snowmobiles and guns. I believe there should be an open season on snowmobiles to cull the large ones and thin out the herd," he recalls telling them.
But what of that National Rifle Association stereotype -- the rabid gun nut -- the guy with the shotgun rack and "Cold Dead Fingers" bumper stickers? Bane grimaces. "That is one of our trials. We get typecast by our worst examples. I get typecast by the Michigan Militia, and I don't even own any camouflage."
Which brings us to the motivation for the day's event. "We wanted to show more diversity in the [gun] culture." Indeed, these instructors take pains to emphasize how diverse they are, and by extension, how mainstream guns are. Take instructor Bruce Gray, a wiry and somewhat hyperactively talkative chap who, upon learning a reporter is an ex-punk-rocker, declares, "When I stopped going to see the Circle Jerks, I started doing this." For Gray, "this" means gunsmithing and competitive shooting for Heckler & Koch, a German arms manufacturer, and assisting the US Olympic shooting team. The Richmond resident is a kind of "Zen" shooter, with a Jackson Pollock-style spatter-painted .22 and an insistence that women make better shooters because they are able to concentrate more intently than the men, without letting ego and "B.S." get in the way. He even 'fesses up to having been a street performer in San Francisco. "I was actually a mime. I don't like to admit that -- they have death camps for them," Gray says. "I know lots of people who don't fit the stereotype of the NRA."
The instructor acknowledges that in the 1970s, shooting groups were often full of the "ultra-right-wing," but insists these types have been driven out. "Those attitudes don't fit the new demographic, which is that everybody is armed to the teeth these days, but just don't want to admit it," he says. "Do we live with the hypocrisy, or do we admit it?"
How far that mainstreaming actually extends isn't exactly clear. True, the instructors included two women, and exhibited a somewhat wider variety of opinions than might be expected from stereotypical gun advocates, but the entire day was rather lily-white, and with the exception of Bane, the instructors still came off as somewhat conservative.
For the final gun exercise of the day, the aim was to hit a "humanoid" target, a rectangular piece of brown cardboard representing the "kidnapper," standing behind another "humanoid" target, a rectangular piece of white cardboard representing the "hostage." When people hit the brown target, gleeful shouts of "You missed the white guy" rang out. Only one participant insisted on calling the white cardboard "hostage" instead of "white guy." And only soft-spoken, English-accented Jeffrey Banke, the rifle club's vice president of training, picked up on the point and began saying "hostage" instead.
Of course, this dubious propaganda exercise didn't necessarily quash the day's entertainment value. There was that weird clinking brass beach of discarded shell casings to walk through en route to the firing line, the aiming, the slow breathing, and the flinch factor that accompanies having a potentially deadly controlled explosion going off in your hands.
There was the strange satisfaction of blasting a target you could take home as a souvenir, and of being congratulated by Chris Edwards, former sheriff of Jefferson County, Georgia, on your first-time shooting ability. Perhaps most visceral was discovering how different firearms function and kick. A 9mm Glock offers a totally different experience from a .45 caliber Glock, which wants to leap out of your hands and leave you with a little pain in your arms to remember it by.
That's the gun industry's little secret: Heavy matte black metal things that go blam! crack! pow! can be irresistible fun, as long as you ignore the fact that they're designed to kill. Asked about this incongruity, the genial Edwards turns serious: "Is self-defense a legitimate aspiration? In my opinion it is," he says. "The right to defend oneself is a human right."
He even suggests that, had young gay man Matthew Shepard been armed and gun-trained, he might not have died that night on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. Edwards, like Bane, appears convinced that guns make America safer; he also notes that gun sales have skyrocketed since September 11. Gun proponents are fond of citing researchers Gary Kleck and John Lott, who claim gun ownership and concealed-gun ownership decreases violence. They contend that handguns are used defensively some 2.5 million times a year to prevent robberies and violence. "The more guns, the less crime," says Bane, adding that the antigun lobby "spent a fortune" trying to break the Kleck study: "In a huge number of cases [the potential victim] pulls out a gun and the person leaves saying, 'I'll rob somebody else.' "
Not so fast, says Nancy Hwa, a spokeswoman for the national Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "That number has been thoroughly discredited."
Hwa argues that to get its 2.5 million figure, the pro-gun study extrapolated an extremely rare event to a large population, a dubious practice. "The rule in statistics is that you cannot extrapolate the occurrence of a rare event to a larger population because it skews the results," she says.
The study would lead to conclusions that just don't make sense, she adds. If you extrapolate the researchers' data sample, Hwa says, it would indicate that some 100,000 people per year were being hit by guns fired in self-defense. That, she says, is roughly the total number of people already reported shot, killed, or wounded in the United States under all circumstances. "It basically means that there are thousands of people who have been shot in self-defense roaming the streets without seeking medical attention and maybe even dying without being discovered," says the gun opponent.
Details, details. The day was fine and sunny, and the reporters on hand seemed pleased to blast away on the company's dime and discover fun facts, such as that .22 rifles really do go "plink!" when fired. "You want one, don't you?" a friend snidely queries after the event. This reporter could only stammer weakly and then finally concede the point. Well, maybe just one, a Glock, kept safely in a locker at the gun range, with nary a six-pack in the vicinity.
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