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Skeptic Gives Guns a Shot

The firearms issue looks a little different from behind the trigger.

January 15, 2004|Diana Wagman

Guns are bad. All my life, it's been that simple. At my son's preschool, if a child pointed a banana and said "bang," he was admonished to "use the banana in a happier way." As far as I was concerned, the 2nd Amendment gave us the right to protect ourselves against invading armies, not the right to buy a gun and keep it under our beds.

So what would make someone like me change my mind? I met this gun enthusiast. As research for my new novel, I asked him many questions, all the while voicing my disgust. My character might use a gun, but I never would. "Come to the range," the gun guy said. "I'll teach you to shoot."

I expected a dungeon full of men missing teeth and wearing T-shirts decorated with Confederate flags. Instead, I found a sunny, wood-paneled lobby and guys who looked like lawyers on their lunch break.

The man behind the counter was as pleasant as a grandfather from Central Casting. "What would it take for me to buy a gun?" I asked him. He explained the California laws, some of the most stringent in the country. I would have to wait 10 days -- the "cooling off" period. There would be federal and local background checks. I'd have to take a safety class. I'd have to buy a childproof lock. I couldn't purchase an assault weapon. I couldn't buy more than one handgun per month. Of course, he said, if I didn't want to wait, I could drive 10 minutes and buy an Uzi illegally out of someone's car.

When my guide arrived, he gave me a choice of handguns. I went with the .357 magnum -- I recognized the name -- and a traditional target with a red bull's-eye. I couldn't imagine shooting at one shaped like a man.

First lesson, respect your firearm. I got a little talk about how powerful it was. I learned how to hold it. To load it. And finally to fire it. It was terrifying. The gun was so heavy, I couldn't keep it steady. It took both index fingers to pull the trigger, and then there was a flash of flame, a loud crack, a substantial kick. It was much harder than it looked in the movies. I occasionally hit the target, but I also managed to obliterate the metal hanger that held it.

I have to admit: I loved it. I had a fantastic time. The power of that gun for me, a 5-foot, 3-inch woman, was immediately, shockingly seductive. The thrill when I hit the bull's-eye (once) was as great as making a perfect tennis shot. I felt like I was playing a careful game of darts in a small, alcohol-free bar.

Later, I was surprised to discover that some of my closest friends owned guns. People I never would have suspected confessed that their guns made them feel protected. Still, most of my friends thought handguns should be outlawed, completely, in every circumstance.

I no longer was so sure. I did some research -- there are countless testimonials about guns saving someone's life. I looked into shooting as a sport. I spoke to a woman who had found a wounded deer and shot it, ending its agony. I changed my mind: Guns aren't bad.

Which leaves gun violence. At least in California, we don't need more laws -- we just need to enforce the ones we have. What else?

The answer has to be education: teaching people to deal with anger, to solve problems, offering them brighter futures, but also Gun 101. Maybe if teenagers were given computer-generated pictures of their own bodies, post-gunshot wounds, it would help them understand the enormity of firing a weapon. Maybe if everyone spent an afternoon at the shooting range, forced to follow the rules, they would respect the power of a gun.

I confess, I don't know exactly how to solve the problem, but at least now I know I don't know. Firing guns as a sport is great fun. Having a gun because it makes you feel safer seems understandable. Changing the way people behave? If you thought gun control was a distant dream ... it could take centuries.

Meanwhile, my 15-year-old has asked me to take him shooting. And I've agreed.

Novelist and screenwriter Diana Wagman is the author of "Bump" (Carroll & Graf, 2003) and "Skin Deep" (University of Mississippi Press reprint, 2001).

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