At the same time as I trudge through the Washington, D.C. bureaucracy in my attempt to get a legal handgun for self defense, I need to learn how to safely operate and shoot a gun.
I have no experience with guns. Although my father had a handgun while I was growing up — Baltimore is less safe than D.C. — he hid it from us and never talked about it. I only know that he had it because as a kid, I found a revolver under the driver’s car seat. He told me never to touch it, and that was the end of the discussion.
In contrast, my editor’s father taught the rules of gun safety and took him to a shooting range at 10 years old. So my editor offered to teach me the basic safety rules and skills and then shoot his guns at the range. Since he can’t legally bring his guns to our office in Washington, I went to his house in Virginia for the lesson. It’s remarkable how different the gun laws are once you step over the Potomac River.
He started by handing me a Kahr K40 in 40 caliber by the handle and telling me to “always check to see if the gun is loaded, even if someone tells you it is.” He then showed me how to take out the magazine and then pull back the slide to check if any bullets were in the chamber. I had to pull hard to move the heavy steel slide. “Know what is behind where you are aiming,” he said. I pointed the gun a pile of phone books on the floor.
He scolded me: “Finger off the trigger. Never touch the trigger until you are ready to shoot.” He then handed me a bunch of red bullets, explaining that they were fakes called snap caps, and made me fumble around with the magazine until I could figure out how to correctly fit them into it.
My editor then taught me how to aim by aligning the front and back sights. Then he had me practice pulling the trigger with the fake bullets. Finally, he showed me some variations for stance and grip. Now, it was time to do this for real.
We packed up three guns, boxes of bullets and protective gear and drove to the headquarters of the National Rifle Association (NRA) to use their shooting range. The folks at the NRA have been very supportive of my gun series. We met up with the media staff and went to their state-of-the-art new shooting range which is under a parking garage.
The NRA shooting range is so sleek and modern, you’d expect Jack Bauer on “24” would be in there. Each booth had a touch pad to control the target. The 150-yard range ended on a special slope designed to slow down the bullets and then hold them to be recycled. The climate-controlled air unit took out the gun powder smell.
Before I started, I was required to take a test on the rules of the range and gun safety. I’d studied the guide in advance so I could be ready, but I still needed the rules list to answer the questions. I got 100 percent. I was given protective eye gear and ear muffs and put them on as we went through the double set of doors to the range.
My editor gave me a 22 caliber Browning Buckmark to start. I wasn’t thrilled because it didn’t look as cool as the other guns, but he insisted I learn with it. He put up the target and handed me a full magazine to load into the gun. He reminded me to keep my finger off the trigger until I was ready to shoot. I asked a female NRA aide who was about my size for help on the grip. She showed me how she held it — left hand holding right hand.
When I felt ready, I held the gun up to the target, closed my left eye to line up the sights then slowly and nervously, pulled back on the trigger. POP! “I did it!” I yelled excitedly, turning around slightly.
“Don’t turn around,” my editor said. “Keep shooting until the magazine is empty.” Pop. Pop. I pulled the trigger repeatedly, trying to carefully line up the gun after the kickback each time. After 10 rounds, I’d hit about half in the red. I was thrilled.
“Now try to group them, get the shots as close together to each other as you can,” my editor said. I shot another 10 bullets and had improved already. This was easier than I expected.
He then gave me the 9mm Sig Sauer P226 to shoot. This was the gun I liked the best because it was big and secure in my hands. I loaded and pulled hard on the trigger. BOOM! I looked around nervously after the first round; this gun was heavy and loud and had a huge kickback.
“Keep going,” my editor said. Boom! Boom! I finished the 10 rounds and was disappointed that only about three went into the red. Not bad, but not as good.
Finally, I picked up the Kahr which was designed for concealed carry. It was the smallest gun we had so I mistakenly thought it would be the easiest to shoot. I pulled the trigger and saw a huge flash of fire. I was scared, “What is this?” I asked, without looking back or moving the gun. No one responded. I had to finish the round.
BOOM. BOOM. I did not like this. My hand hurt. The explosion on each shot scared me. I shot until there were no more bullets and didn’t get a single one in the red of the target. I put the gun down.
“That’s it, I’m done with it. I want to go back to the .22,” I said. I finished off two more rounds and got good grouping with the last one. I was thrilled.
In the end, I learned the basics to start safely using a handgun. I have a long way to go in practicing to feel comfortable to own and use one in my home, but I had fun and will be going back to the range.
I also now have a better sense of the issues to consider when buying a gun. I need one more powerful than a 22 caliber to keep the bad guy down after the first shot, but one that I can control and handle at my size.
So now, I have to go back into the maze of D.C. requirements to get through before I’m allowed to legally own a gun myself.
Next up in the series: Washington’s Unsafe Gun Safety Class
“Emily Gets Her Gun” is a new series following senior editor Emily Miller as she legally tries to get her hands on a gun in the nation’s capital. You can also follow her quest on Twitter.