Last week, I fired a handgun for the first time in my life. And for those of you hoping to learn that my experience transformed me from a gun-phobe to a gun-lover: Sorry. I never want to do that again.
My 20 minutes at the firing range were part of the nine-week Citizens’ Police Academy I enrolled in this spring. To qualify for the firing range experience, we had to attend a two-hour session on firearms and firearms safety. I learned a lot at that session, but perhaps not exactly what our hosts—five local police departments, and our instructor, the departments’ “firearms guru”—were hoping for.
At the firearms safety session, Lieutenant Finn [not his real name] started with a detailed explanation of how guns work. As he spoke, I realized that most of the people in our session seemed to know exactly what he was talking about and were eager to demonstrate their familiarity with guns. It seemed to me that Lieutenant Finn assumed that most people knew these things. I began to sense that I was in a small minority of non-gun-owners.
Halfway through the presentation, Lieutenant Finn offered us the opportunity to come to the front table, where an array of [disarmed, of course] police weaponry was on display for viewing and handling. He created a virtual stampede. And for the next 25 minutes, everyone—except about four of us—clustered around the weaponry, holding, pretend-aiming, pulling triggers and, if I didn’t know better—fondling [the guns, not each other.]
I was supremely uncomfortable. I sidled up to the police officer who was coordinating the citizens’ police academy and told her that I was contemplating not going to the firing range. She was understanding, but she noted that, if I didn’t, I’d be the first participant–in the 13-year history of the Academy–to not shoot. I began thinking that being the first to opt out might earn me—in my own mind—a moral badge of honor. But as the week went on, and the firing range loomed, I opted out of opting out. I told myself that I should at least try it, to know how it feels. So I did.
The next week, we went to the range in pairs—each of us assigned to a firing range instructor. I got Lt. Finn, whom I hadn’t particularly liked during his firearms safety session, as he was very ex-Marine-ish and a bit too gung-ho about guns for my taste. But at the range, he was very gentle and understanding with me, showing me how to grip the gun, how to stand, how to aim, how to slowly pull the trigger, etc.
Then, he hung up a paper target [human upper-torso outline] 20 yards away, helped me don my ear protection, and turned me loose to fire five bullets, as he stood next to me, the handgun virgin.
The last time a fired a gun—it was a rifle, not a handgun—was in 1957, at Camp Wingfoot for Girls, somewhere in rural Ohio. Back then, we engaged in something called “Riflery,” sponsored by the NRA, from whom I received “Pro-Marksman” and “Marksman First Class” medals for rudimentary, accurate target shooting from the prone position.
Back then, I had no idea what the NRA was, what it stood for, or that “Riflery” was designed as a gateway drug for future gun ownership.
Looking back, I have to admit that I sort of looked forward to Riflery—it was a lot more fun than falling off a horse [which I did multiple times] or feeling like I was drowning in the deep end of the pool, where my co-campers tossed me even though I didn’t know how to swim.
Nevertheless, knowing what I know now about guns, nearly 60 years later, I fired my handgun at the police firing range. Bang. The gun jumped, and so did I. The noise and the explosion scared the shit out of me, undoubtedly causing Lt. Finn to chuckle at my naivete and inexperience. Still, there were four more rounds in the magazine, so I went back to the line and fired again.
When Lt. Finn retrieved my target guy, I realized that I had been scarily lethal. Should I feel proud or ashamed? I’m really not sure.
Now that I’ve done that, as I said earlier, I have no desire to go back. I wouldn’t want to feel comfortable with a handgun, and it scares me that so many other people actually do. I am somewhat comforted to know that, according to our Citizen Police Academy presenters, the vast majority of police officers have never fired their weapons outside of the practice range.
But, given what Lt. Finn told us about police-department firearms training, I’m also somewhat distressed. Lt. Finn said that his department requires its officers to retrain and re-certify on firearms every quarter. Other departments do it twice a year, he said, and there are a lot of opportunities throughout the year to learn more about weapons via seminars and training meetings.
What disturbs me is this: There seems to be a great deal of emphasis on training for a circumstance [drawing and firing your weapon] that is, in everyday policing, somewhat of a rarity. Lt. Finn, for all of his expertise, told us that he has never been called upon to draw his weapon or fire it in the line of duty.
I do acknowledge that, given the proliferation of guns in America [thanks, NRA], police officers need to be ready to face the worst-case scenario in even the most routine-looking situations. But I’m wondering if the training is too skewed toward weapons training, and not focused nearly enough on things like de-escalating situations or, just simply, learning how to create more positive interactions between police and the people of their communities. Those would be targets worth shooting at.