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THE RELUCTANT NOVICE

Armed and Nervous : Among denizens of the firing range, "fighting crime" involves something a little more serious than outdoor floodlights.

March 05, 1993|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A firing range is not the place to search for sensitivity or benevolence. First of all, there's the constant booming, fusillades shredding paper targets that look like human beings. Men argue over which type of bullet opens the largest wound. There might be a bumper sticker on the wall that reads: "Fight Crime, Shoot Back."

So you don't hold much hope on a gray Saturday at an indoor range in the Valley. You've arrived for the morning self-defense class. Jennifer has come. She's getting antsy about city life and wants to buy a pistol. Same with Trisha. Rick explains that he carries expensive equipment in his car. Steven says he's a divorce attorney and leaves it at that.

The notion that a .357 magnum might solve any of these dilemmas is troubling. You're the kind of person who believes the world would be better with no guns at all. But it's true that Los Angeles is starting to make the film "Blade Runner" look tame by comparison. And so many of your friends own guns. You've come to take a look.

The teacher wears a large silver belt buckle, like you figured he would. His name is John. Meaty biceps and a black T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He holds up a pistol and says it's OK to be nervous.

"Some people, you just teach how to stand out there on the range and listen to gunfire without jumping out of their skin," he says.

The whole time he's talking, he's waving the gun around. He uses terms like "cylinder release" and "ejector rod." "Muzzle awareness" sounds like a heightened state of consciousness, but it means that you're not supposed to point the gun at anyone you don't intend to shoot.

John demonstrates how to hold a gun with both hands. There's the standard military stance--feet apart, facing the target--or a sideways version, the Weaver stance. You're wondering if it was named after Dennis.

The whole time, guns are booming on the range. It's reminiscent of when you were a kid and had a paper route. Every night, the neighborhood dogs would bark and you just knew they were getting excited about chasing you the next morning.

So by the time you hit the range, your palms have gone sweaty and your hands are trembling. The guy behind the counter hands you a pistol that weighs roughly as much as a bowling ball and bullets the size of soup cans.

"If your hands are shaking," John says, "don't fight it."

Ready. Aim. Fire.

A boom and a flash and the gun jerks in your hand. You've unleashed your first bullet. Miraculously, it hits a target about 20 feet away. In fact, it goes straight through the little guy's heart.

"Flawless technique," John says, and you swear you can feel your testosterone level surge.

Turns out you're something of a natural at this. Fifty rounds later, you catch yourself having a good time. You spin the cylinder like a cowboy. Thoughts of Clint Eastwood fill your head.

"Doesn't that scare you?" asks Robert. He's a writer, too, and he's taking this class to research a screenplay.

But it's time to get real. Back in the classroom, John talks hard talk. "Guns are not as effective as the movies make them out to be." He offers an uncomfortable scenario:

If you're unlucky enough to come muzzle to muzzle with an attacker, it's likely that the confrontation will last only a few seconds. "In that period of time," he says, "you'll either shoot the person, scare them away or you'll be shot yourself."

John makes no bones about his belief that Americans should be allowed to own and carry guns, and shoot burglars.

But he doesn't pretend that the gun is a panacea, either.

Put a lock on your bedroom door, he says. Keep a telephone by the bed and if you hear someone burglarizing the living room, let them be. "They're busy. That means you're safe." Call the police and wait. Shoot only if someone busts through the bedroom door, he says.

There's talk of bullets, of which ones are most likely to blast through the walls of an apartment and kill a child next door. The testosterone/Clint Eastwood euphoria is fading fast.

Finally, Jennifer recommends a book to her fellow class members. "It's called 'Armed and Female,' " she says. That's when you head for the door.

This is not a gentle place.

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