I had just heard the news last week that the House had voted to repeal Washington, D.C.’s strict ban on handguns, so I did what any self-respecting, gun-hating liberal New York Jewish journalist would do: I went to the nearest rifle range to blast some lead.
This would not have been my first instinct, of course. No, my first reaction would have been to write Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex) an angry letter about the latest vote -- as well as last month’s failure to reinstate the assault-weapon ban. But given that the National Rifle Association "Victory Fund" gave DeLay $4,950 last year and I gave DeLay $0,000 last year, I didn’t think he’d take my anti-gun argument seriously.
So I fell back on Plan B: Learn how to stop worrying and just love firearms.
I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I mean, with apologies to my rifle-toting, camo-wearing Israeli cousins, there is nothing quite as incongruous as a Jew and a gun. This Jew, for example, once jumped out of his chair when a small-town police chief unholstered his gun and put it on the table during an interview. He might as well have pulled out a venomous snake as far as I was concerned.
Fortunately, I have a gun nut pal named Paul Raynolds -- and a nicer guy, you won’t find in this country. We started exchanging e-mails a while ago after I wrote a column that was critical of guns. I don’t remember the details, but if I know me, I wrote something to the effect that all guns should be banned and that federal agents, preferably the same guys who worked Ruby Ridge and Waco, should be sent door-to-door to remove guns from private citizens’ houses and melt them down in huge bonfires. I must have said something like "People don’t kill people, guns kill people." I probably even called guns "maniacal, mini-murder machines."
As you might imagine, I got a lot of hate mail from gun owners, many of whom wanted to demonstrate the beauty of a 9 mm Glock pistol... on my head.
But Paul Raynolds said no such thing. As an American, he knows that I’m entitled to my opinion, however anti-gun it is. What bothered Paul, though, was that I had some of my facts wrong (how was I supposed to know that revolvers and howitzers aren’t the same thing?). Paul just wanted to correct my errors -- as well as invite me to fire some guns and learn about them firsthand.
This was an offer I could not refuse. After all, as a tabloid reporter in New York City, I find I’m always writing about guns, whether it’s the 9 mm pistols carried by our men in blue or the assault weapons, Saturday Night Specials or sawed-off shotguns preferred by our criminals. And I’m always making mistakes about them. The other day, I interchanged the word "shotgun" and "rifle" in a story. It was a dumb mistake for which I should have been shot -- except I didn’t know which gun would work best.
So I accepted Paul’s offer, and the next thing I knew, I was in his suburban New Jersey basement, where he’d laid out three guns that scared me to just look at them: a .357 revolver, a silver .22 and a sleek black 9 mm.
"My wife’s gun," he said, making me feel about as manly as a castrato singing Sondheim showtunes in a nice frilly dress. "You’ll like the .22, though. It’s fun and challenging." (It still made me nervous: If a gun is "challenging," isn’t that a good enough reason to deny people the ability to own one?)
Paul took me through an abbreviated safety course, but the only words I heard were "dire consequences," "deadly force," "keep the muzzle away from you at all times" and "walk with a limp the rest of your life." We reviewed such things as "trigger finger protocol" and "sight alignment," yet I remained convinced that my shaky hands would soon be responsible for a criminally negligent homicide or at least an accidental manslaughter.
On the way to the range, I tried to do what few liberals ever attempt: I tried to understand the gun-owner’s mentality. (Full disclosure: I’m so liberal that the "Dean Scream" sounded like a whimper to me, but you won’t hear me challenging the Second Amendment. No matter where you put the comma, I think it’s pretty clear that the Framers wanted us to be able to bear arms.) And Paul makes it easy to like a gun-nut. He doesn’t keep loaded firearms around the house. He doesn’t get his kicks out of shooting living things. He doesn’t show off.
But he does say things like, "I would only use an assault rifle if civil order had broken down and I needed to defend myself." (By comparison, the only thing I fear breaking down is the soft-serve machine at my local Carvel.) And he also says things like, "A loaded gun is the most effective self-defense tool available" (although I suggested that a more-effective tool is the famous "Kuntzman unconditional surrender"). And he really does believe that if everyone was armed, there would be less violent crime in America (there are many statistics that bear this out, but there are other statistics that don’t, which explains the expression, "Damn statistics!").
I don’t agree with him on any of those points, but I’ll allow Paul his opinion because he’s so darn safe with firearms. His concern for safety made me feel bad that non-gun owners like me stigmatize people like him simply because they enjoy the company of a deadly weapon. "The vast majority of firearm owners are as responsible, if not more so, than I am about safety," he said, complaining that non-gun people simply can’t accept that a "responsible gun owner" is not an oxymoron. "Often there is no distinction made between us and those who are not responsible -- criminals. We’re not about shooting people."
They are, however, about shooting things. Once at the range, Paul set me up and let me fire away. I’m not going to say it was fun -- gun ranges are loud, especially when there’s a woman in the next bay going ballistic with a 9 mm, and sometimes the hot shell casings pop up into your face -- but Paul showed me that I could fire the weapon without killing anyone nearby. In fact, even he was impressed by my heretofore-untapped natural gift for shooting.
"You demonstrated a proficiency with the .22 that was well above average," he said. "I noticed that you had an involuntary flinch whenever the woman next to us fired, but this is natural for first-timers on the range and I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you."
I’m not. Unless civil order breaks down, that is. I’d imagine that would be pretty loud.
Gersh Kuntzman is a reporter at The New York Post. This article first appeared as a web exclusive for NEWSWEEK.