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Trigger Happy:
Gun fanatics zero in on shooting's allure

By Bruce Taylor Seeman - 12/01/02
Newhouse News Service

Andrew Greene climbed onto a motorbike in Cambodia, rode into the countryside and paid $20 to shoot 30 bullets from an AK-47. Another few bucks, the gun owner offered, and he could shoot a chicken.

No thanks, Greene said. It wasn't killing he sought, just the novelty of spraying a few rounds from a big gun.

What followed was keenly memorable: the weapon's violent kicks and shuddering noise, puffs of smoke, sparks jumping from the rock wall that deadened the bullets. A new smell, the smell of a fired gun, reached his nostrils.

"Everything was more intense than I thought," recalled Greene, 22, a computer specialist from Bethesda, Md.

It's a simple fact largely ignored in a major national debate: Like them or hate them, guns are immensely compelling objects. And in the United States -- where estimates put the number of civilian firearms at well over 200 million -- that innate magnetism is only superficially understood.

Glenn Meyer, a psychology professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, said it's unknown what personality factors are shared by gun owners. Many, he said, seek to inoculate themselves against trouble. Others simply enjoy pulling the trigger.

"I think it may fall generally into the rubric of trying something semi-dangerous in a controlled environment, kind of like riding roller coasters," said Meyer, who researches firearms use.

Paxton Quigley, a firearms expert and author who said she has taught more than 7,000 women how to shoot a gun, said people are often surprised by a weapon's power. About half her students express awe.

"After shooting about six rounds, their eyes light up and they all say the same thing: Wow. They never expected it to be that loud, and if they're in an indoor range, (they're surprised by) the flashback. It gives them a rush. They have instigated that power."

Gun owners describe the attraction more simply: A firearm, used safely at a target range or in a duck hunt, is no different than a golfer's favorite club or a car collector's prized Corvette.

"I enjoy weapons," said Andrew Williams, 52, a retired electrical engineer from Jessup, Md., shooting his rifle during target practice at the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore in Marriottsville.

"Do I sit there and fondle my guns at night? No.

"I enjoy getting out in the country, getting away from the city, socializing with like-minded people. When you're shooting, it takes so much concentration that, at least momentarily, your everyday problems are not in your thinking."

Yet for many Americans, a gun's very power is a matter of dreadful inherent possibility.

Stephen P. Teret, a Johns Hopkins University professor who directs the Center for Law and the Public's Health, remembers the first time he shot a gun. He was a 9th-grader, enrolled in school rifle club to earn extracurricular credit.

"I was scared, actually," Teret recalls of his initial day at a garbage dump that served as a practice range. "I thought it was loud. I remember thinking, 'I ought not be able to create that much energy.' I knew something was wrong. Here I am, just a little dorky kid, but I'm pulling the trigger and releasing deadly force. Sure, I was just shooting this piece of paper. But somehow it seemed odd and improper."

Teret -- whose center studies gun violence as a public health problem -- acknowledged that millions of Americans use guns legitimately for sport. But the thrills in target shooting or hunting should not outweigh the need to limit guns and reduce gun violence, he said.

The number of gun deaths in the United States actually has been dropping gradually. Firearms claimed 28,874 lives in 1999, the most recent year for which federal statistics are available. That represents a 27 percent decline compared with 1993. Nearly six in 10 were suicides.

The portion of American households containing a gun also has dipped recently, according to Jens Ludwig, a Georgetown University assistant professor of public policy and co-author of the 1996 book, "Guns in America."

Through the 1980s, Ludwig said, about half of U.S. households had guns. By the mid-'90s, the proportion dropped to about 35 percent, a trend Ludwig attributes to more households headed by women and fewer people living in rural areas where gun ownership is more common.

Yet the number of guns in circulation is believed to be climbing. Ludwig said that Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms statistics show that between 4 million and 7 million guns are manufactured annually for domestic use.

"The explanation is, people who have guns have a lot of them," Ludwig said. "The people with guns are adding to their arsenals."

Researchers say the strongest predictor of gun ownership is not politics, income, place of residence or race, but tradition -- whether you grew up with a gun in your home.

"You're more than twice as like to have a gun yourself if your parents had a gun," Ludwig said.

Joseph Lovell, a shipping and customer service worker in Rohnert Park, Calif., is a case in point. He traces his affection for guns to his boyhood and the early days with his father.

"I started when I was 2," Lovell said. "We were prone, my dad's arms were around me. He did most of the aiming. When I was 4, I remember being allowed to fire a .22 by myself.

"Most of our shooting was plinking in some old quarries. You have a can of water and see it go flying in the air. When you shoot a Ginger Snap and it goes 'poof' into a cloud of dust, it's pretty neat."

John Pindelski, an auto parts salesman from Plainfield, Ill., said he also was introduced to guns during boyhood. But his most memorable firearms experience, he said, was probably in the Navy.

Pindelski learned to use a .45-caliber pistol, an M-16 rifle and a short-barrel shotgun. The most exhilarating jolt came during training on a .50-caliber machine gun bolted to the deck of a ship.

"That's like an Arnold Schwarzenegger gun," Pindelski recalled.

He and his shipmates would take turns "exploding" bags of trash that had been dumped into the sea. "When you're on the deck of a ship shooting at garbage, the 50-cal will make some splashes," he said.

For David Rosin, 46, a software developer in Marietta, Ga., the satisfaction comes from successful use of the gun, whether at target practice or using a .22-caliber rifle to hunt squirrels.

"They're wiley, they're smart, and they can detect movement from yards and yards away," Rosin said. "They see you coming. It's a challenge."

Mary Woods, 43, who recently got her college degree and seeks be a parole officer, said she grew up around uncles who repaired and customized guns. She got her first rifle on her 12th birthday.

Today she's a competitive shooter. She gets a rush from competition and says the focus required in shooting reduces stress. She also admits to a simmering dream -- to one day squeeze the trigger on a machine gun.

"I want to fire a fully automatic one day, just to see what it's like," said Woods, of Vancouver, Wash. "I want to see what it feels like. I'm five-foot nothing and weigh 110 pounds dripping wet."

Greene, the computer specialist who first fired a gun while touring Cambodia, recently tried a shotgun at the Prince George's County Trap and Skeet Center outside Washington, D.C.

"Pull!" he barked repeatedly into a microphone near his feet, sending targets gliding skyward. The first orange disk exploded, but a series of subsequent misses showed Greene needed more practice.

Afterward, he lifted noise protectors from his ears, leaned his rented gun against a rack and described the experience with a 12-gauge.

"It was pretty substantial," he said. "The first time felt kinda nice."

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Bruce Taylor Seeman can be contacted at: [email protected]

12/01/02 The Times-Picayune. Used with permission.