31 August 2012

Guns, Ammo, and All Things American

      Only a few feet away from my face, the effects of the gun blast were devastating. I was completely deaf for several seconds. All I could hear was a simultaneous cacophony of ringing and muffled soundlessness like someone clapped thick earmuffs on my head. I looked over at my dad, holding his ears, and could clearly see that he was talking, but it sounded like he was far away, talking through a thick scarf. It was the first round I shot out of my new gun, and I never made the mistake of forgoing ear protection again. The weeks leading up to that day were full of research, inner debate, paperwork, shopping, and bumbling around as I asked silly questions around weirdly knowledgeable individuals. I learned a great deal about guns, laws, and people during those weeks, and I discovered that acquiring a gun is much easier than I had ever suspected, laws are much less strict than I had ever imagined, and shooting a gun is much more fun than I had ever expected.
       Until just a few months ago, the only type of handgun I had had any extensive experience with was a CO2-powered bb gun. Once, back in high school, I had gone up to a friend’s cabin and shot a diverse range of weapons: a .22 rifle, a .22 revolver, a 9 mm pistol, and an AR-15 assault rifle that literally disintegrated a solid cement cinder block with a single bullet; at most, I probably emptied a magazine from each of those, and that was terrifying enough. It also occurred over ten years ago. Since the only people I knew who had any extensive experience with guns were the parents of friends I haven’t seen in years, I began my search for a gun by doing something I’ve gotten very good at over the course of the last decade as a student: research.
       Like the logistical, detail-oriented person that I am, I first looked up the process for buying a handgun. I have heard of waiting periods, background checks, forms, permits, and all sorts of other hoops that one must jump through in order to buy and own a gun. What I discovered, to my utter amazement, was that all I needed to buy a handgun was a free permit from the public safety office. There was no waiting period. There were no requirements for taking a gun safety class. There was no test. Well, there was a test; it was nine true-or-false questions long (one of the questions was scribbled out, presumably because it was too tricky) about a one-page pamphlet given to you when you ask for the permit, and no one watched me to make sure I didn’t “cheat” (is it really cheating if they let you see the answers as you take the test?). This was the first of many shocking realizations about how easy it is to buy, own, and carry a lethal weapon designed with only one purpose in mind: killing other people (those that disagree with this statement haven’t done the research).
       Knowing the process for obtaining a gun, I then proceeded to do even more research. The first places I ended up looking online were forums about the very topic I was interested in: what is a good first handgun to own? As with any sizeable investment, everyone seemed to have strong, unwavering, and vastly different opinions about the best gun out there. My research started raising a lot of major questions and a lot of minor ones as well. What was the purpose of owning a gun? Would it be primarily for self-defense or target shooting? Would I be carrying the gun with me or leaving it mostly at home? Did I feel comfortable enough with a gun to have one around, or would another tool, i.e., a baseball bat, accomplish the same purpose? What caliber of round would I want to shoot? What style of action should I look for? What make and model is the best? The list of questions kept getting longer and longer, and it often felt like every new question I answered raised two new ones.
       I researched and researched, but I needed a break. Since I knew I needed a single permit to purchase a handgun, I thought it would be a good thing to get out of the way before I went any further; what if I didn’t pass the background check? The public safety office in Grand Haven is hidden behind City Hall. There is a small, dark, tiled lobby area with two chairs in front of and perpendicular to a window protected by what appears to be ten inches of Plexiglas. I had attempted to dress up just a bit by wearing a nice polo shirt and a pair of shorts that didn’t have any noticeable tears or stains on them; judging by the people I later encountered while shopping for a gun, this was a completely unnecessary precaution on my part.
       The woman at the counter said hello, and I told her I was there to get a permit to purchase a handgun. She briskly asked for my license, gave me three sheets of paper, and disappeared for the next half hour. I read the pamphlet on handgun safety, answered the true-or-false questions that were actually just word-for-word copies of sentences from the pamphlet, and then calculated the number of floor tiles in the lobby: 122. Mental math was not enough to entertain me, so I started reading several of the pamphlets laid out on a table in the lobby. I’m a slow reader, but I still finished reading all the interesting ones fairly quickly; so, I just sat down and waited.
       When the lady finally came back, she had a sheet of yellow paper with her. I signed the many-paged ledger of people who came to acquire permits (there was an unusually high number of entries for handgun permits from the previous five days) and rolled my thumbprint next to my name. She and I then went through the yellow sheet, entering all the information required into each of the four copies of the permit. While I was writing, I noticed there was an expiration date listed for ten days after that day’s date. I was puzzled about this because I had not seen anything even remotely resembling a timeframe requirement for the permit in any of my research.
       “Do you have any questions?” the lady asked after all the permit copies were filled out.
       “Why does this have an expiration date at the top?” I asked confusedly.
       “You have ten days to buy your gun from the day you are issued the permit,” she said nonchalantly. “Do you already have a gun picked out?”
       “Well, you better pick one up soon,” she said rather threateningly. “It’s a real hassle if you don’t buy a gun and we have to file all the paperwork to cancel the permit and,” she trailed off for a second, “just make sure to buy a gun. I’ll see you in ten days.”
       She was already walking back behind the Plexiglas and closing the door as she finished talking at me.
       I grabbed my things and panicked the whole way home. At this point in the summer, I was on vacation at my family’s cottage, finishing up the last class of my M.A. program, and putting together, from scratch, an English 101 class I had just found out I would be teaching two weeks later. I did not have time to shop around for a gun, particularly a gun that I knew nothing about. Being the dutiful citizen I am, however, I also wanted to make sure I got the gun before the permit expired to save the secretary whatever extreme hassles she was referring to earlier. Being the all-Dutch individual I am, I wanted to make sure I didn’t waste the ten dollar notary fee I had paid to have said secretary sign my permit. So, I went home and started doing a lot more research, like a boss.
       After a great deal of forum searching, manufacturer-site perusing, and YouTube video watching, I settled on three guns to look for: a Browning Hi-Power, a 9 mm 1911, and a Beretta 92FS. For the sole reason of convenience, the first place I looked was Gary’s Guns, a gun shop on Apple Avenue on the route back to my house from my cottage. I had passed this shop hundreds of times in the past but had never actually entered; in fact, I had probably made jokes about the general jankiness of the place on numerous occasions.
       From the outside, Gary’s Guns appears to be a small hut made of barely glued-together 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood. The sturdiest part of the structure is certainly its wrought-iron, barred door that also serves as the front, and only, entrance. I parked behind the, for lack of an appropriate term, yurt in one of three extant, unmarked, gravely spaces. Walking to the front, I realized that there were two more “spaces” in which one could park, but they were so close to the road that one’s vehicle would surely be in constant danger of being clipped (read: destroyed) by traffic from the road, which was only a few inches away.
       It’s difficult to describe exactly what the inside of Gary’s Guns was like, but it was something like the physical manifestation of a child screaming the word “guns!” at the top of their lungs in an attic. Every one of the walls was covered with firearms of all varieties, and there were cases and cases full of guns packed into the tiny interior of the store. Underneath the main glass counter were more pistols than I had ever seen in one place, even in movies, and they were resting on American-flag-themed shelf liner.
       The sheer volume of firearms was overwhelming, but once the initial shock was over, the smaller, more disturbing details of the place started coming into focus. The main thing absorbing my attention was the man behind the counter, presumably Gary, though we didn’t exchange pleasantries. He had relatively short, black hair that conveyed the overall impression of a mullet in-training. He wore large, thick glasses like serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer wear. He also had a mustache. One might feel the inclination to dub it a “pedostache,” but that’s neither here nor there.
       Another detail that struck me as I looked around was the variety of guns, but, to be more specific, the variety of guns that seemed as if they should not be displayed in the open and/or purchasable. Hanging above the counter was what appeared to be a Tommy gun on steroids that required a tripod mount to shoot. Behind the counter were various assault rifles that I only recognized because they are in all sorts of war simulation video games. Basically, it seemed as though everything short of a rocket-propelled grenade was available for purchase. The scope of massive, available firearms is jarring when you live in a state where any firework that leaves the ground is illegal (update: fireworks that leave the ground are now legal, I think).
       As I was looking around at the guns and becoming desensitized to the volume and scope of lethal killing implements around me, I started to become aware of the people filtering in and out of Gary’s Guns at about nine in the morning. One obese woman came in wearing sweater-shorts and, though I didn’t get a good look, what might have been a My Little Ponies T-shirt. She was attempting to purchase a gun for her boyfriend and kept spouting off terms that seemed very specific and technical. Gary was having none of this and kept telling her that the type of gun she was describing didn’t exist. He repeatedly attempted to get her to buy a gift certificate so that her boyfriend could come in on his own and pick out the gun that he wanted. She was having none of this. Sticking around for about twenty minutes, she kept asking more questions, and Gary eventually phoned some gun manufacturer asking about what she was looking for to prove that it didn’t exist. It did not, in fact, exist, and she left shortly after that without even having the decency to buy that gift certificate Gary was recommending.
       What struck me most about this interaction was that both of them were acting like five-year-old children around devices decidedly unrelated to all things childish. For me, purchasing a gun was a decision fraught with trepidation and anxiety over safety, civic duty, and the general wellbeing of society in general. For most people I encountered who were owners and/or purchasers of guns, however, it seemed as though buying a gun was no different from buying an unusually expensive toaster or coffee maker.
       While Gary and the obstinate, obese lady were bickering, a father and son also came into the shop. The man appeared to be in his forties, and his son appeared to be about six years old. Based on his purposeful walking and perusal, the man apparently had something specific he was looking for, but every ten or fifteen seconds he would look up and tell his son to stop touching, grabbing, or moving the guns that were out in the open, which included all of the guns in the store except the handguns. I am understanding of the urge to familiarize those who are close to you with the lethal tools that will be around them. For example, I knew my dad had a rifle in the house while I was growing up, and I knew where it was, how to load it, and how to shoot it; however, I would never have been even remotely tempted to take it out without direct adult supervision, let alone waltz around a gun store grabbing, holding, and moving all the guns I saw. In fact, the first thing everyone emphasizes in gun safety is to visually inspect the gun you are about to hold to see if it is loaded, even if the person handing it to you tells you it’s fine, even if you yourself remember unloading it, and even if it is in a gun shop. Obviously, this child was perfectly fine with all the guns around him and had no real understanding of what they were. To him, like most people I encountered, guns were just heavier toys.
       A few other people wandered in and out of Gary’s Guns while I was there, but I eventually wanted to get a gun in my hand to see how it felt. This was not some weird Freudian impulse, it was, in fact, one of the things that all the research I did emphasized: if you don’t hold a gun, you’ll never know if it’s right for you. This turned out to be one of the best pieces of advice I discovered, and I will be passing it along to everyone I know who is thinking of buying a gun, which is no one.
       So, I walked up to Gary and asked him if he could take out a Remington 1911 I had found in a glass case in the center of the store. He lazily walked over to the case, and I noticed that he hunched his shoulders awkwardly when he stood up and moved around, which only added to the overall creepiness of his appearance. He opened the case, did some sort of sorcery to lock the action in an open position, and then handed it to me. The gun was very cold and so much heavier than I had imagined, but the grip fit in my hand really well. Once I got used to the weight, it felt pretty natural to hold it, which was basically all I did. I didn’t know how to operate the slide. I didn’t think to check the sights. I had a very thorough theoretical knowledge of all the working parts and operations of a gun, but had no practical experience whatsoever. My first question seemed to really tick Gary off, which was surprising because it was only the third thing I had said to him in the last half hour of being inside the store.
       “So, is there any noticeable difference between the .45 and 9 mm versions of the 1911?” I asked, thinking it was a fairly valid and specific question.
       Gary first sigh-scoffed and then proceeded to stammer out an answer: “well for one thing. The .45 is more accrat.” The word was almost slurred out, as if he were trying to stuff the normally three-syllable “accurate” into a piece of tiny, one-syllable carry-on luggage. Or perhaps he could only read at the fourth grade level; I’m not one to jump to conclusions.
       “And, the 9 mm models are always jamming up. The 1911 was made for the .45 round, and there’s no sense trying to make a gun designed for the .45 into something it’s not.”
       Despite his unwavering devotion to the .45, I asked him if he had any of the 9 mm versions in stock.
       “Are you kidding me?” He seemed on the verge of hysterics at this point. “If I ever bought one of those, it would just sit on the shelf forever. No one would buy it.”
       Interestingly enough, I was in his very store looking for a 9 mm 1911 to purchase, but I didn’t want him to write my name on his list in dark red lipstick, so I let it go; there were a couple of other guns I wanted to look at before I left.
       I handed the Remington back to him, and he performed some new magic to get the slide to return to its original position. I then asked if he could pull out the Beretta, which was behind us under the main glass counter. He silently walked behind the counter and pulled it out, again locking the slide in an open position by some mysterious sleight of hand I could not catch, and I’m a magician. This gun felt ridiculous in my hand. It was lighter, but the grip was so big that it felt like I was holding a travel mug without a handle. I couldn’t abide it for very long and returned the gun to Gary.
       “What’s the price difference between 9 mm and .45 ammo these days?” I asked, having no idea what the price of any ammo has ever been.
       “Eh, a box of fifty rounds is just a few bucks more for the .45,” he explained. This gave me a whole different perspective on the .45 vs. 9 mm debate. I didn’t bother trying to discuss this with Gary since he seemed to be fairly settled on the .45.
       After he put the Beretta away, I asked him about his policy related to online orders, since I learned that you cannot, in fact, buy handguns over the internet and have them sent to your house unless you have a certified gun dealer do the ordering. Gary explained that he had a flat rate of twenty-five dollars for a transfer from another gun shop and a 10% charge ordering from a manufacturer, which would be pretty steep for most of the guns I was looking at. I thanked him as I walked out and told him I might contact him in the near future. I find that this tactic usually prevents people in retail, and possibly serial killers, from badgering me when I don’t buy anything.
       When I left Gary’s, it was about 9:45 a.m., so I decided to go to Felix’s in Grand Haven, a place at which my brother had recently purchased a shotgun, to see what their selection was like. When I arrived, I noticed that the place looked closed. The sign posted said they would open in about an hour, so I parked my car and waited, alone, in yet another gravely parking area out in swampy Grand Haven township. After about twenty minutes, an older gentleman sauntered over to my car from around the corner of the building. He had long, white, frazzled hair, but he also had a fairly large bald spot in the center of his head. The overall effect was that of a balding, mildly senile Gandalf wearing a duck hunting themed sweatshirt and jeans.
       He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was shopping for a handgun. He told me to come around back. For a moment I was worried that something terrible was about to happen, but, mainly because he looked like Gandalf, I followed him. As it turns out, he was the proprietor of the establishment, perhaps even Felix himself, though we didn’t exchange pleasantries. He told me to wait in the main room while he opened up the handgun area. I wandered around the place for a while looking the large assortment of knives on display. The man kept walking in and out, putting cases on the counters and opening them up to reveal revolvers that appeared to be from the actual Civil War. At some point in my wanderings about the slightly claustrophobic interior, a very energetic, middle-aged woman walked in, immediately getting around to working on some sort of paperwork. Things got pretty full of bustle at that point, and the serene quiet of the wetlands surrounding Felix’s was broken.
       “Okay, you can come back now,” the muffled voice of Presumably Felix came from the back room.
       “Great. Thanks,” I replied as I meandered through the maze of cases, following his voice.
       I found Presumably Felix in a closet-sized room that was adjacent to the back room that was covered in what appeared to be gun-themed wallpaper, but was, in fact, actual guns. Behind a glass case in that closet was a wall packed with handguns of all shapes and sizes. Presumably Felix waddled away and the energetic woman came in with her arms crossed. She may as well have been tapping her watch. She just stared at me while I tried to read the scratchy handwriting on the tags next to the guns in the case. I asked her if I could take a look at the Hi-Power near the bottom of the case. She unlocked the case, opened the door, pulled out the gun, closed the door, and locked the case. I started wondering if I gave off some sort of intimidating or nefarious vibe because these two were definitely treating me like a criminal. Maybe they weren’t used to seeing customers wearing shirts with collars.
       Then, she handed the gun over and didn’t bother checking if it was loaded or performing any of Gary’s magic. I again just sort of held the gun. It also felt very good in my hands. From my research, I knew that the 1911 had a single stack-magazine, the Beretta had a double-stack magazine, and the Hi-Power had a staggered-stack magazine. The in-between size of the Hi-Power was comfortable; it wasn’t quite as heavy as the 1911, but this one looked a little odd, almost droopy. I asked her if she had any of them in stock.
       “What you see is what we have. All of our guns are used.”
       This explained the significantly lower price tag and the droopiness.
       “So, do any of these come highly recommended?” I asked. When I’m feeling awkward, I find that asking a broad question that calls on the expertise of the person I’m talking to usually breaks the ice and gets people to give me useful information. This was not really the case at this time.
       “Well, the one you looked at there was pretty good, the Hi-Power. All the major brands are generally good like Browning, Remington, and, uh, Browning.”
       “Do you guys have any sort of guarantee on your used guns?” I asked, hoping to shift the conversation away from vague speculation and into the concrete.
       “What you see is what you get,” she said concretely.
       “All right. Well, thanks for your time. I might swing by again sometime soon,” I said as I handed the gun back and awkwardly shuffled past her in the tiny closet that was their handgun showcase. I also said goodbye and exchanged a bit of small talk with Presumably Felix before I left. He seemed very nice, but, as much as I loved the old-fashioned paraphernalia throughout his shop, he wasn’t the sort of guy from whom I would buy a used, droopy gun.
       On my way back to my cottage, I ran over a lot of the embarrassing things that happened to me that day. Even though I had done quite a bit of research into the types of guns I wanted, I really had no practical knowledge of guns at all. Granted, a lot of the forums online said you should rent a gun if you can in order to try it out before you buy it. I, of course, only had a few more days to search for a gun, so renting was out of the question. Plus, I wouldn’t have even the foggiest of ideas about how to operate it if I did rent it.
       Enter YouTube. As soon as I got home, I searched videos about how to operate a pistol. As it turns out, there’s a lot of information out there. From police officer tutorial videos to Rednecks that don’t know what they’re doing, YouTube has just about everything you need to get acquainted with guns. I learned some valuable terminology as it pertained to Gary’s magic: slide, slide stop, magazine catch, and breach. I learned a few things to look at when you’re assessing a new gun: the sights, the grip, and the trigger pull pressure. I also got a general feel for the sorts of people who are interested in guns and identified a few key characteristics. First, they almost all have some sort of accent. This accent is not of any particular variety, but there is definitely something distinct about the way people who own guns talk.
       Second, most gun owners must be crazy. Between reading discussion boards and watching YouTube videos, it’s clear that most gun owners are certifiably insane. I understand that only a select demographic probably feels the need to post about things on the internet. For example, I have strong feelings about global warming and the absurd cost of healthcare, but I don’t feel the obsessive need to use every available space on the internet to voice my views. In fact, I don’t even feel the slightest desire to go out of my way to post anything online that isn’t almost 100% sarcastic.
       Despite knowing this, gun owners are still insane. Here are a few quotes from a few forums: “I feel that it is my UN-A-LIEN-ABLE CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT to possess and carry any firearm that I wish, in any way that I wish. A concealed weapons permit is just another way for the "man" to collect revenue and to invade my PRIVACY. If everyone carried a concealed weapon I know that crime - all types of it - would drastically be reduced.” “Yes, I carry a gun into a theater with my wife (former girlfriend)... and my wife also carries a gun. In fact; she is out on a hiking trail right now packing a .40S&W Glock. Pitty the two or four legged animal which threatens her or the friends she is hiking with.” “If you are unwilling to carry a pistol condition one, cocked and locked, where situation and legallity allow, then you have no business carrying a pistol in the first place.” For reference purposes, “cocked and locked” means there is a round in the chamber, ready to fire, and the hammer is cocked back with the safety on. Also for reference, it is easier to turn off the safety on a gun than to open a clipboard to insert papers. Gary evidenced a similar form of insanity when I asked him if he preferred single or double action pistols: “why would you want a single action pistol? You want something to happen when you pull the trigger.”
       After a day of delving into gun culture via the internet, I decided to go to Gander Mountain because all the places near my family’s cottage that advertised selling guns did not, in fact, sell pistols. It was an hour drive, but, after some coercion, my girlfriend agreed to meet me there after work so I could show her what I had been shopping for, which made the trip much more worthwhile. When I arrived, I went to the back where they keep all the guns.
       I thought I had seen as many guns as I could see at Gary’s and Felix’s, but I was wrong. Gander Mountain has an enormous selection of guns. It was truly overwhelming. All the handguns were under glass along three sides of a square-shaped counter area. Each side of the square was probably about fifteen to twenty feet long, which meant there were, well, a lot of handguns. After a bit of searching, I found the three that were still in the running for purchase – the 1911, Beretta, and Hi-Power. There were two men behind the counter. One of them looked like I imagined the groundskeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover; the fact that employees at the gun counter all wear fishing vests and neutral tones may have aided in this impression. The other looked like a real-life, bespectacled, overweight, human version of Pinky from Pinky and the Brain. Luckily, Pinky was struggling to maneuver around the store with three or four fishing poles jutting out from his arms at the most ridiculous of angles, so the groundskeeper helped me at the counter. He seemed incredibly relaxed and very knowledgeable. He was certainly the most normal gun seller I had interacted with so far.
       “What can I help you with?” he asked in a soothing baritone.
       “I’d like to take a look at the Remington 1911, the Beretta 92FS, and the Browning Hi-Power,” I said confidently. He grabbed the three guns for me and set them out on the counter. Seeing them on the counter together immediately disqualified the Beretta for consideration. It was huge and, to be honest, ugly. I picked up the Hi-Power, and it felt very good in my hands. It was both the smallest and most expensive of the guns I was looking at. Then, I picked up the Remington. The one on the counter was all black and just had basic metal sights on it. It was ugly, but it felt good and it was about half the price of the Hi-Power. A couple guns over and a couple hundred dollars up in price was a Ruger 1911, so I asked to see that one.
       “That’s a great gun,” the groundskeeper said as he took it out of the case.
       “Oh yeah?” I asked, hoping he would elaborate.
       “Yeah, my buddy picked one up and loves it. I’ve shot it a few times and it’s really a quality gun.”
       If they worked on commission, he would have been pushing the Hi-Power. If he was a dummy, he would have been carrying fishing poles like he was in A Goofy Movie. If he were crazy, he would have probably showed evidence of it by the time I had looked at all the guns. His russet mustache was distinguished, he was about six foot four, and he spoke in dulcet tones. I trusted his judgment implicitly.
       The gun was nice. Using my newfound knowledge of pistol mechanics, I racked the slide and locked it. I checked the chamber for a round as per every gun safety tidbit I had researched. I disengaged the slide lock and returned the pistol to its normal condition. It was stainless steel with a matte finish. The grips were made of wood, and the attractive Ruger symbol was subtly displayed in the center of the handle. The sights were adjustable and extremely easy to “read,” for lack of a better term.
       “Do you mind if I dry fire it?”
       “Go ahead.”
       The trigger pull was crisp and very light.
       This was definitely the gun I wanted to buy.
       At the peak of my enjoyment, my girlfriend texted me to let me know she had arrived at the store. I was giddy with excitement when she got to the back to meet me; she looked absolutely horrified. Though I’m not one to become paranoid about little things (I did fly on Northwest Airlines out of Detroit mere days after the nefarious “underwear bomber” tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight out of Detroit), the primary instigating factor in my quest to find a gun was a spree shooter in Grand Rapids that wounded two, killed six, broke into someone’s apartment, took hostages, and holed up inside before shooting himself about two blocks from the apartment complex into which K. and I were going to move. Luckily, the people at that particular apartment complex were jerks, and we ended up moving in somewhere else because of their scheduling error and neglect.
       Anyway, since the gun was going to be around, I wanted K. to at least have some input in the decision. Unfortunately, the diverse range of outrageous firearms under the glass seemed to distract her from the two guns on the counter that I was actually interested in buying. For example, there was a .500 Smith and Wesson Magnum. They had a CZ-USA VZ61 Scorpion handgun on display. A pink Taurus 24/7 Pro Compact added some variety to the mix, but my favorite absurd item under the counter was a crossbow pistol with what appeared to be dual laser sights. If you’re a bit lost right now, use Google.
       Eventually, I got K. to at least hold them in her hand. She “liked” them both, though I don’t think she used that word exactly; she muttered something more like a consenting grumble when I asked her if the grips felt comfortable. I took this to mean that she liked them both equally. We had some plans for the evening, so I told the groundskeeper that I would probably be back the next day to pick something up. I only had two days left on my permit at this point, so I needed to make a decision soon.
       I spent the next morning heavily researching the two guns I was interested in. I also asked my dad to come along with me when I ended up going back to Gander Mountain. Of course, he didn’t know much about handguns, but I don’t think I’ve outgrown, or will ever outgrow, trusting my dad’s intuition. Plus, he said he might be on the market for a handgun at some point in the near future as well. I called around some other gun shops to see if they had any different or competitive prices, but there are very few places that actually sell handguns, and most of them have vastly different makes, models, and quantities in stock. My dad and I headed out in the afternoon with my permit and identification. I brought along my social security card, my passport, my hunter’s safety card, my driver’s license, my boating license, and anything else I could think of that had my name, face, or important identifying information on it. I figured that since I needed to have three forms of I.D. to get paid for working at Family Video, I would certainly need five or more to purchase a gun; you only need one: your driver’s license. Note: I knew at least three people in college who had fake driver’s licenses.
       When we arrived at the counter, the groundskeeper wasn’t there. A younger guy with dark hair was at the counter instead.
       “What can I help you gentlemen with today?” he asked.
       “We’d like to take a look at the Ruger 1911, the Hi-Power, and the Beretta 92FS,” I said. As he gathered the guns, my dad looked around under the counter. He, too, is easily distracted by shiny objects. When the guy behind the counter returned, I checked that all the guns were unloaded and then handed each one to my dad in order of least likely to be purchased to most likely to be purchased. He agreed that the Beretta’s grip was impossible to hold. He and I have my grandfather’s short-fingered, huge-palmed surgeon’s hands, so it was no surprise that he also struggled with the Beretta. I then handed him the Hi-Power. He was very enthusiastic about that gun. It wasn’t too heavy since it was a 9 mm, and the grip was just the right size to be comfortable, but not awkward. After that, I handed him the Ruger. He immediately commented on how heavy it was, but said that it felt very good in his hands as well. I also had him dry-fire each of the guns, and he was very surprised at the ease of the trigger pull on the Ruger.
       I stood there quietly for a moment trying to decide between the Hi-Power and the Ruger. Luckily, the sales associate chimed in and offered a couple pieces of advice. He must have known I was struggling.
       “If you’re looking for something to use primarily for home protection, I would recommend going with the .45. I’ve shot that particular gun, and it’s really nice. We’ve also sold quite a few of them. It is the 100-year anniversary of the 1911 model, so you might also have the added bonus of the value of that gun increasing over time.”
       “All right, I’ll take it,” I said.
       “Great, I’ll go in the back and grab one for you.”
       He was gone for a bit longer than I expected, but eventually he returned with a box.
       “Looks like the last one we have in stock is the one in the case. You came at a good time.”
       I could swear I heard the whispers of fate, but it may have just been the air conditioning unit kicking in.
       The attendant asked for my permit and driver’s license, and started filling out a large stack of paperwork after I handed them over. My dad disappeared amongst the shelves a few feet away, and I decided to peruse the available safety locks. K. texted me to let me know she had arrived, and I told her to meet me at the back of the store.
       “I just need your signature on a few things,” the attendant said.
       In the middle of signing, my girlfriend nervously walked over to me. My dad also re-appeared at almost the exact same moment.
       “Hey, just so you know, this is what the two rounds look like,” he almost-whispered to K. and I.
       In his hand was a 9 mm round that looked about the size of a cigarette butt and a .45 round, which looked about the size of a coffee mug. This, of course, put a whole new perspective on the .45 vs. 9 mm debate.
       “Did you want to grab a few boxes of ammunition while you’re here?” the attendant asked.
       “Sure,” I said, and grabbed two boxes of Remington .45 ACP ammo, which are about twenty-one dollars each. Out of curiosity, I asked how much a box of 9 mm ammo costs.
       “Oh, it costs about twelve dollars a box.”
       I cursed Gary and his lies.
       Everything in its proper place both physically and bureaucratically, I walked out to the parking lot with my dad and K. On the way out, I noticed my dad was lagging behind. He was busy looking at, poking, and generally fiddling with an inner tube on display outside. I thanked him for coming along and told him I’d meet up with him at the cottage later.
       I put the gun and accessories in K.’s trunk and we headed up to my family’s cottage. Once there, my mom, always unusually keen on anything that’s recently been purchased by any family member or new mail not addressed to her, was anxious to see “the piece.” I pulled it out of its case, showed everyone how to operate it, told everyone about the safety features, and proceeded to repeatedly read the owner’s manual. I already knew about most of the gun’s features because of my research, but I did discover a few interesting things about the gun. For example, it came with the spent shell casing from the test round fired out of the gun after manufacturing; I assumed they kept the slug, laser-analyzed it, and logged the data into some forensic database, but I clearly tend to overestimate the organization and thoroughness of all types of agencies. Also, the gun came with two magazines. The first was the traditional seven-round magazine, and the other was an eight-round magazine; this grated on my O.C.D., but I got over it pretty quickly since I figured I’d never actually use both magazines. I was so wrong.
       Anxious to shoot, I ended up going online to find out what sort of rules existed for shooting in the national forest. It was difficult to find anything definitive. I assumed there would be regulations about transporting and carrying the gun in the open, but, as it turns out, there are no laws about that; any national forest is considered an open-carry location. I thought there would be some sort of permit required to shoot in the national forest, but, as it turns out, there are no prerequisites for shooting in the national forest; you don’t even need to alert the nearest ranger station, a procedure that is recommended for other, much less lethal activities such as hiking and camping. I thought there would be rules about where you could shoot in the national forest; as it turns out, there is only one rule about where you can shoot in the forest: you have to be 150 yards away from a trail or dwelling. The only other rule that exists about shooting in the national forest is that you have to be shooting at “a target” of some kind. A little worried about assuming things that I didn’t believe a group of politicians could have ever agreed upon as “safe,” I called the nearest ranger station to clarify things.
       “Hello, this is the Newaygo county ranger station.”
       “Hi. How are you?” I asked, a question I ask every person I talk to on the phone because I want to acknowledge their humanity but that everyone I know thinks is weird.
       “Good. How can I help you?” the man on the line asked. He sounded fairly young.
       “I have a few questions about shooting in the national forest,” I said. “I’ve been looking online, but can’t seem to find much besides the fact that you have to be 150 yards from a trail and need to be shooting at a target.”
       “Yeah, well, that’s about all there is to it,” he said, almost laughing.
       “Are there any specific rules about what counts as a target? Does it need to be reinforced or anything like that?”
       “Nope,” the man on the line answered nonchalantly.
       “So, you can basically shoot at anything? Like, if I brought a target printed on a piece of paper, that would be okay?” I asked, thinking he would give me some specifics after I suggested something wildly idiotic.
       “Yeah, that would be fine.”
       I was stunned.
       “Okay, I have another question about the national forest boundaries. Looking on Google maps, it appears as though basically all of Newaygo is national forest, including my backyard. I was specifically wondering if the area a few blocks away from my cottage is actually national forest land because there are some houses built on it.”
       “Okay, let me get my map out real quick,” he said. I could hear rustling in the background.
       I gave him the names of the streets.
       “Yeah, all that is national forest land, so as long as you’re 150 yards away from the trail or anyone’s house, you’re okay to shoot,” he said.
       These were places at which I would never actually have made the conscious choice to shoot because it seemed so ridiculously unsafe.
       “So, there are no other rules I need to be aware of?” I asked, just in case.
       “No,” the man said, “not really.” He was chuckling a little bit as he said “not really.”
       “This seems a little crazy,” I said, voicing the obvious.
       “Yeah, it does seem that way,” he said, laughing.
       “All right. Thanks for all of your help,” I said.
       “You’re welcome. Be safe.” I could tell he was smiling.
       “Thanks, I will. You have a great day.”
       “You too.”
       As insane as everything sounded and as unsafe as it seemed, I was still fairly anxious to actually shoot. My idea for a target was originally a three-inch thick plate of solid steel, but those are quite expensive and hard to come by. I then remembered that I saw a video during a hunter safety course that showed a bullet being stopped by a coffee can full of sand. An arrow went straight through it like it was a cloud, but the bullet got stopped every time. I decided to find a large garbage can.
       K. and I drove out to Ace Hardware in Newaygo and looked around. Trash cans, especially of the durable, metal variety are expensive. A cheaper, bright red, plastic model seemed like a much more prudent choice. Many ideas struck me as I perused the shelves. I thought of filling the can with rubber door mats, but door mats are expensive. I thought of making a rotating target out of metal piping, but metal piping is expensive. I thought of renting a backhoe and digging a large trench while piling up a substantial berm in the middle of the national forest to shoot at, but I figured there would probably be more regulations about digging and piling in the national forest than shooting. All things considered, the $15.99 trash can seemed the most economical solution. Plus, the lid doubled as an umbrella when it started to downpour out of nowhere when K. and I left the store. There would be no shooting that day.
       Though I desperately wanted to shoot with K., I could tell that my dad was at least as, if not more, excited about the gun as I was, so we decided to head out to the national forest the following day. I grabbed my gun, the target, and my other safety accessories, and we packed them in the back of my family’s Honda CRV. We drove along the loose, sandy trails for a while until we found a small spot fairly well into the forest to park the car. I started counting my strides as soon as we left the trail.
       One hundred fifty yards actually seemed quite far once my feet were on the ground. We lost sight of the car and trail very quickly due to the density of the trees, and I was a bit afraid that we would get lost if we didn’t pay close attention to the route we took in the wilderness.
       “How far are we?” my dad asked two or three times over the course of the short journey.
       After rolling our ankles a few times, climbing over fallen trees, and keeping our bearing on which way was opposite the trail, we settled on a spot that was more a barely perceptible break in the foliage than a clearing to shoot. I set the red barrel up against a thick, v-shaped tree to provide as much of a backstop as possible because filling the trash can with sand, though definitely safer, was a total impracticability. Where does one find fifty gallons of sand? How does one transport fifty gallons of sand with a Honda CRV? How does one move fifty gallons of sand a hundred fifty yards when one struggles to lift one’s own couches, desks, and televisions in one’s own home?
       I paced out about thirty yards, a recommended distance for pistol shooting. Then, I pulled out the gun and accessories and laid them out over the gun’s box. After loading the two magazines and inserting one of them into the gun, I got ready to shoot. I showed my dad how I was gripping the gun, standing, and holding my arms, all of which I had learned from YouTube. In the process of explaining things to my dad and trying to quell the rising butterflies that had migrated from my stomach to the farthest reaches of my appendages, I forgot to put my earplugs, the only set I had, in my ears.
       I aimed at a small paper target we had taped to the barrel with electrical tape we found in the back room at the cottage. The heaviness of the gun reasserted itself when I was holding it out at the end of both my arms. I lined the sights up, paying more attention to the front sight like all the websites and YouTube videos had said. I then slowly squeezed the trigger for what seemed like an eternity. All of a sudden, the loudest sound I had ever heard exploded. It was an insane combination of crack, crash, bang, and boom that existed for milliseconds but left me partially deaf with my ears ringing for what felt like minutes. It was like someone had captured all the sound from a three-hour Black Keys concert and unleashed it in the moment the gun went off, and that same sensation of post-concert, muffled, ringing perception followed.
       As the crack, crack, crack of the echo blasted through the national forest, I flicked the safety on and put my other hand to my head. My dad had one of his rare looks of complete surprise and elation on his face. Like a couple of schoolboys who just blasted off their first illegal bottle rocket, my dad and I laughed with the sort of demented glee only boys can truly understand. 

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