Journalists on the Firing Line, This Time as Shooters Not Targets

With a .38 Special and orange ear plugs, our reporter explores the gun culture

THE air is thick with the odor of burnt gunpowder. The floor of the firing range is littered with cartridge cases.

And this reporter, her fingers holding in her orange foam ear plugs as far as they'll go, has had just about enough of the ear-splitting, gut-piercing crack of semiautomatic pistols, hunting rifles, and revolvers.

This is "journalists' day" at the Fairfax Rod & Gun Club, an opportunity - courtesy of the Washington-based American Firearms Council, which represents the firearms industry - for us gun-ignorant scribes to feel firsthand the pull of a trigger and the force of a shooting bullet.

The power, I must admit, was pretty awesome. When I fired my first pistol, a sleek Holt Woodsman .22 semiautomatic, I managed to pierce the neon-green clay target right through the center. It didn't even shatter.

"You must have shot before," said my instructor, Brian Sullivan, who could double for Charlie Sheen in the movies.

Well, no, actually. And as the session progressed, my reputation went downhill. When I tried the .38 Special, the standard-issue police revolver until the mid-1980s, I discovered that the heavy action made hitting a target a whole new ball game. With the .22 semiautomatic, all one needs is five to six pounds of finger pressure to fire. With the .38 Special, it's 12 to 14 pounds. I think I was closing my eyes and cringing when I fired. I still don't know where those bullets went, but I don't think I injured anybody.

Most awe-inspiring was the Olympic rifle, there for the trying with champion shooter Marsha Beasley. Try holding one of those babies up, loaded down with all the gadgetry, and hitting a bull's-eye the size of a pinhead 50 yards away (or 50 meters, as in Olympic competition).

A colleague called it "skeet-shooting in reverse." Instead of trying to hit a moving object with a stationary gun, the target sat still while the gun moved back and forth. Of course, if you're good at it, the gun sits stock still. But we didn't come close. Ms. Beasley was very gracious when my fired bullets, once again, went AWOL.

But perhaps more interesting than shooting actual guns - which, it must be told, was hard on the eardrums after a while, even with ear protection - was the chance to chat in a low-key setting about the whole cultural phenomenon of gun ownership and recreational shooting.

Charlie Sunderlin, a firearms expert who was our main instructor, calls it "a difference in values."

If you take someone who was raised around guns and taught how to respect them and handle them safely, and show them a picture of a firearm, chances are they'll say, "Hey, that's a Winchester such-and-such! Wow!" he says.

But from other people, who see guns only "on the hip of a cop, or being used by crooks, or fired by Rambo on TV," the same picture produces a "fear reaction," Mr. Sunderlin says.

That's why he gave his daughter Kelly a .22-caliber rifle (Marlin model 15YN) when she was four-and-a-half years old. Sunderlin had her go through a gun safety program for children, called "Eddie Eagle," which teaches kids not to touch any firearms without the direct supervision of mom or dad. He also showed her about opening the bolt on her little rifle to check for cartridges, and about never ever aiming the muzzle at anyone.

"We wanted her to grow up with habits of gun safety," Sunderlin says. "But we didn't teach her marksmanship at that age. Kids aren't ready usually until around age six, but it varies from kid to kid."

The gun enthusiasts at the firing range typically began shooting when they were 6 or 7. Candace Kobetz, a recent graduate in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says she grew up on a farm and used to do a lot of trapshooting as a kid. But when she went off to college, she put that part of her life on hold.

"The other students didn't understand," she says.

Brian Sullivan, who works as a sales representative for the gun manufacturer Heckler and Koch, started shooting when he was seven. He learned his love of firearms from his father, a military man. Mr. Sullivan decided not to go the Army route and went to college instead, where he studied philosophy.

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