It starts with an arbitrary impulse: I’d like to shoot a gun. Luckily I live in New York City, and everything is for sale, even that. A Google search that reveals that a gun range exists in the middle of Chelsea. I make the appointment, and go.
The Westside Pistol and Rifle Range is in the basement of an unremarkable office building on 23rd street. Behind a metal door with its logo, the buzzing of fluorescent light is the soundtrack that accompanies my trek downstairs. The walls are pale green, perhaps once bright, now faded and sickly. Already, I can hear very muffled gunshots. I listen with mild apprehension.
Downstairs, I pay the man behind the counter $65, cash that I took out on the walk here. It was part of my prepping, along with listening to “Cell Block Tango.” (Tip: “Cell Block Tango” is a good way to dispel nervousness about anything: an interview, a first date, a family reunion, one’s first experience with a firearm.)
Beneath the counter are wares for sale—concealment holsters packaged in plastic, like toys, with fluorescent green sticker price tags; gun brushes, which resemble oversized metal toothbrushes. There are posters hung up advertising serving in Iraq and reporting terrorism. There is a photocopy of a news article about the “grandpa avenger” from Brooklyn, a retiree who shot a burglar in his kitchen. I start to get a headache.
The gunshots are louder now. It is a distinctive noise, not exactly a bang. It rebounds and echoes. It doesn’t sound like fireworks. It sounds final. I try not to think about other contexts in which I might hear them, but I do. There is another woman in the waiting room. She has curly white blond hair and glasses and startlingly blue eyes and sounds like Meryl Streep. I ask her what brought her here. She talks about shooting pistols and an outdoor Missouri gun range, and wanting to do it again. I tell her that I have never shot a gun. She reassures me that the Ruger 10/22 semi-automatic rifle we’ll be shooting today after our group lesson is easy, like shooting a BB gun. I tell her I have never shot a BB gun.
More people trickle in and finally, Raymond, a cheerful Asian man who is a “NRA certified Range Safety Officer,” according to the website, starts the group lesson. He passes out photocopied forms for us to fill out. Raymond laughs often when he talks. He has us go around the table and say why we’ve come. Four women are here for girls night out—one wears Prada heels and carries a Prada tote, two are blonde and vaguely resemble Sarah Jessica Parker, one is a curly haired, bespectacled brunette. A couple is here for fun. Meryl is here for practice. I’m relieved that Raymond forgets to ask me for an answer.
Raymond starts to recite the history of the gun range (here since 1965, and everything is original), then passes around the tiny .22 caliber bullet we’ll be shooting. They are $6 for a box of fifty, and have very little kick, which makes them popular, apparently. Raymond laughs as he talks about how the warm casting will sometimes flick back on you. No big deal, he says. I try to pay meticulous attention when Raymond explains the mechanism of operating the gun: slide in magazine, switch off safety, pull back bolt (a metal latch that serves as an independent safety measure), aim, fire. I’m still worried. When Raymond demonstrates and gestures with the unloaded gun overhead, I duck. I second guess my decision to be here.
I load the tiny bullets into the five magazines, which resemble tiny houses, and arrange them in a line. The Prada lady and her two blonde friends disappear to the gallery to shoot first, while the brunette sulks outside. I feel underdressed! Meryl proclaims. I think the women look silly in their fancy clothes paired with the oversized ear muffs (in electric blue or hot pink) and the clear eye protection glasses. But by the time one of them comes out, beaming, I start feeling inadequate. I haven’t shot a gun since I was eight! She says. Most of her bullets hit the center of her bullseye.
I fumble a lot with the gun when it is finally my turn, and keep calling Raymond over to ensure I’m not making mistakes. I pull the trigger at Raymond’s command. There is a slight recoil, warmness, the jolt of the bullet, the scent of gunpowder. I hesitate before firing the next shot, again on Raymond’s direction. I forget what to do with the bolt after finishing the first round. The loud shots around me (louder than my own) are still startling. Look at you! You’re a sniper woman! Raymond exclaims. I feel that he’s wrong.
I take longer to finish my five magazines than everyone else, and I feel relieved when it’s over. I sweep up the scattered castings on the floor (an odd, domestic ritual in a room ricocheting with bullets) and head back out, where I learn that I can shoot another round if I’d like. I’m slightly stressed at the prospect, but to get my money’s worth, I reload and go anyways.
This time, though, it is easier. I do not fumble so much. The magazine snaps in place easily. I pull the bolt back without failure. I am less nervous. I breathe. I aim. I shoot. Then, there is something exhilarating in the noise, in the impact of the gun’s recoil, the heavy gunpowder and warmth in the air. I reload and shoot quickly. At one point, I am the only person remaining in the gallery. It is silent except for my gun. I focus on the target. I pull the trigger. I do not think.
I carry my bullet punctured targets home, rolled up in elastic under my arm. I’m vaguely grateful that I did not do as badly as I thought I might. I now have a membership card, which will let me return any time in the next three months to shoot, $35 a pop, sans lesson. A friend told me once: The scariest thing about guns is that you want to use them.
I send my mom a photo of myself with gun in hand. You are the first person in our family to shoot :)! She texts in reply. A funny thing to be proud of, but I am.