I pressed the Beretta AL391 Urika deep into my shoulder and against my cheek, as if gripping a shotgun stock were as natural as holding the strap of my purse. I said, "Pull," in a firm yet casual way, to convey that, sure I drove here in a Volvo, and the radio in the Volvo is tuned to NPR, but I'm actually the kind of woman who loves the smell of cordite in my hair. Two weeks ago I was so ignorant about firearms that I thought shotguns discharged bullets and I didn't know the difference between a revolver and a semiautomatic. But here I was shooting trap, in which clay disks, the moving target simulating a bird in flight, are released at unpredictable angles from a small trap house. As the "pigeon" flew on my command, I swung the shotgun to follow its arc and pulled the trigger. My instructor called out, "Oh, yeah!"
"What happened?" I asked.
"You hit it," he said.
"I did?" I replied
I called "pull" again and fired. Even I could see this orange disk disintegrate. "Pull," pow! "Pull," pow! My excellent instructor, Ricardo Royal, is a large man, but was surprisingly light on his feet as he did a little dance next to me and sang out, "Annie Oakley, Annie Oakley." I took turns with my fellow student, a middle-aged man who consistently missed and who now looked as if he'd be happy to forget about the target and blast me instead. (It was a look I have provoked in many other people, who fortunately were unarmed.)
In Human Guinea Pig I engage in unusual activities and hobbies. This time I wanted to see if a novice—a nervous novice—could in a few lessons learn how to be a decent shot. I do understand that there is nothing unusual about owning firearms. Surveys show almost half of American households have them. But I live in the District of Columbia, which has one of the nation's toughest gun laws. Residents are not allowed to own handguns, and if one of us feels a need to discharge a weapon, we are supposed to file a request with the chief of police asking for permission. (He must spend all his time answering yes, as D.C. has one of the country's highest murder rates.)
So anathema are guns among my friends that when one learned I was doing this piece, he opened his wallet, silently pulled out an NRA membership card, then (after I recovered from the sight) asked me not to spread it around lest his son be kicked out of nursery school. My entire experience with guns consisted of a riflery class at summer camp back when Millard Fillmore was president, and an afternoon 20 years ago shooting at tin cans with a friend.
It was not easy finding an instructor willing to take on a reporter who lived in the District. Looking for help, I called Gary Mehalik, director of communications of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, who offered to get me a setup in which a laser is inserted into a pistol, which I could then shoot into a specially equipped laptop computer that would track my accuracy. I worried that at the end of a day of typing on my computer, I would become addicted to shooting it—a journalist's version of Elvis blasting his television when he saw performers he didn't like. Then Mehalik realized he couldn't send me the laser-equipped pistol: "As a D.C. resident, you of course are not allowed to use a firearm."
I located Ricardo Royal from his listing on the NRA Web site. He is an African-American, a D.C. native, and a retired paramedic who learned to shoot as a teenager through a local marksmanship club. He's frustrated that such sporting clubs have been replaced in his city by a culture that glamorizes guns as illegal weapons. (At our first meeting, I realized how difficult it would be to separate guns from politics when Ricardo tried to enlist me to help lobby Congress to overturn D.C.'s gun law.)
Ricardo had me watch a short film as part of my gun-safety training, and in it the narrator explained that guns are simply machines. Machines can't hurt you, he said; the danger lies in the person operating the machine. OK, I thought, but if I am inept in the handling of my blow-dryer, I am unlikely to vaporize anyone's kidney. As he went through his safety lectures, Ricardo emphasized which firearms would be best for my "personal protection," even though as a District resident this was virtually out of the question, and even though I assured him that no one was after me. Undeterred, his top recommendation was a pump-action shotgun. "Nothing else makes that sound," he said, and even I could conjure up that ka-chung. "Hearing that sound alone can negate the need to fire. It makes such a sweet song."