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Their Aim Is True
Taking Stock of Americaís Real Gun Culture
By Abigail Kohn - Reason Magazine

It was mid-September, 1998, the first day of Northern Californiaís Range War, a "cowboy action shooting" competition in which participants dress up in Old West costumes and use replicas of antique weapons. So far things were going pretty well. I was just starting to get used to my borrowed 12-gauge shotgun, and my revolvers (single-action .38s) were performing smoothly. My cowgirl costume was pretty comfortable -- black silk jacket, flowing black silk skirt -- and for once my hat was staying on my head. I was getting into my groove, hitting most of the targets with my pistols, and almost all of them with my new lever-action .44 rifle. My shotgun shooting wasnít too great, but the gun was borrowed, and thatís always a good excuse. But I was fast approaching the toughest part of the event -- the "mechanical pony" stage. Cowboy shooters have to load their guns and fire at metal targets while sitting on a rocking mechanical pony, the kind that used to be in front of supermarkets in the í70s. Everyone was complaining that the rocking motion was so jerky you couldnít hit the broad side of a barn. And anyone who forgot to keep her shotgun stock braced firmly against the hollow of her shoulder would be sore for weeks. I was dreading this stage.

I heard the range master call my name, and that meant it was time to make final preparations for my turn. In the safety area, I carefully loaded my rifle with the requisite 10 rounds. Then I loaded my revolvers and tucked them back into my hip holsters. My heart was starting to pound, and when my name was called, I slowly walked up to the pony, handing my rifle and shotgun (with their actions open) to the shooter whoíd be keeping track of my hits. I readjusted my eye and ear protection, climbed up onto the pony, and nodded that I was ready. I could feel how clammy my hands had gotten as I took back my rifle, the first of the four guns I would shoot.

I vaguely heard the range master yell the commands to standby and then start, but I was already on autopilot, trying to move with the pony, which had started rocking. The motion was slow, but since I was used to shooting while standing perfectly still, it had already completely destabilized me. I tuned out everything except the gun I was holding at the moment and the targets in front of me (pretty far in front of me, actually). I worked my rifleís lever to chamber a round, aimed, and fired. Aiming was not easy, but I felt like I was shooting close to the target. I think I even managed to hit a few, but I couldnít be sure. After firing all 10 rounds, I handed down my rifle. The pistols were easier to aim and shoot, and I heard five of my 10 shots plink against the metal targets.

The shotgun was the worst, as I knew it would be. My borrowed gun was a "side-by-side," a 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun. I am not a tall woman, so even with light loads, this gun was a handful. After loading quickly, I brought the butt up against my shoulder and held it there as tightly as I could. I was so full of adrenaline that I didnít even feel nervous anymore. I let myself rock back and forth with the motion of the pony and carefully aimed at the targets about 8 or 10 yards away. I pulled the first trigger. The gun slammed back against my shoulder with a thud. What seemed like an eternity later, I pulled the second trigger, and this time I managed to control the recoil pretty well. But by this point I was too busy reloading to feel much satisfaction from having hit the target on one of my first two tries. After loading two more times, I realized that I probably hit only half my targets.

That last shot was a relief. When I climbed down from the pony, stiff from tension, my shoulder was already throbbing. The recoil had caused a massive bruise to begin forming.

The cowboy shooter whoíd been counting my hits smiled at me and nodded encouragingly. He was a regular at these events, in his late 60s. With an authentic cowboy drawl, he said: "That was good, careful shooting. Donít worry, speed comes later. That was good shooting." I almost groaned -- I must have been really slow. I nodded and smiled at him, taking back my rifle. Then I walked back to the safety area to unload my revolvers and check all my guns.

Truly, I didnít care how fast or accurate I had been. I was just glad to have it finished. My shoulder was really starting to ache. I was not looking forward to tomorrowís team shoot, though thank God it would be the last day of the two-day event. I had learned an important lesson: Itís tough to be a decent cowboy action shooter when you have to keep borrowing the guns.

There was a time when I would not have wanted to touch a gun of any kind, much less spend part of an afternoon riding the back of a rocking mechanical pony and blazing away at a series of targets with revolvers, rifles, and shotguns. But that improbable picture is the culmination of a journey that took me from the ivory towers of academia to the shooting ranges of Northern California. Bluntly, I was surprised by what I found there. As a practicing anthropologist, I had set out in search of gun crazies, but what I found were regular folks -- enthusiasts who relate to their guns in generally socially positive ways. These people are usually ignored by most media accounts of Americaís "gun culture." What follows is the story of how I came to make that discovery, and some brief sketches of the sorts of people who make up Americaís much-maligned and misunderstood gun culture. Or, perhaps more accurately, Americaís gun cultures.

Militia or Mainstream?

I am a 32-year-old anthropologist, and the focus of my research is gun use in the U.S. For a "gun scholar," I think I have an unusual background. I did not grow up with guns; I grew up on the East Coast, the daughter of white, politically liberal, Jewish parents. After finishing college and a masterís program in England, I came back to the U.S. and decided on more graduate school. I chose to study anthropology because I liked the spirit of adventure it embodied, and because I liked the idea of working within a nonjudgmental discipline that encouraged the study of human social interaction. In 1993, I entered the joint program in medical anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco.

I didnít expect to study guns. But after several years of studying and living in Berkeley, I found that my interest in my original topic of inquiry -- culture-bound psychiatric syndromes -- was waning. So I slowly began looking around for other research topics, hoping to find something current and interesting. Around that time, I met a fellow anthropology graduate student named Michael (his and all subsequent names have been changed), who was writing his dissertation on Moroccan tourism.

Michael was a fascinating person. A highly educated secular Jew from New England, he was pro-choice and pro-feminism -- and he liked to ride motorcycles. Most intriguing of all, Michael was a hunter. I found this last facet to be particularly odd. I felt that I had a lot in common with Michael, but I didnít expect a man who was so liberal and so urbane to be interested in guns. Unlike me, Michael had grown up around guns. He hunted with his father and brother, and he owned several guns, including a rifle, a shotgun, and a starter pistol that he used to train his dog to hunt.

I was intrigued by my inability to pigeonhole Michael. I also liked his willingness to share his interests with me, most specifically his interest in guns. That attracted me, not only because I was so aware of my own ignorance, but also because his readiness to share such a traditionally masculine interest said something about his gender egalitarianism. Though we had a sometimes-romantic relationship, we eventually decided to be simply friends, which we remain five years later. After getting to know each other for several months, we decided to try working together.

We began by studying the right-wing militia movement of the early 1990s. Our first foray into the subject would have been comical if it hadnít been so naÔve. Our initial attempt to meet local militia members took us to a shooting range in the Bay Area, where we assumed local militia meetings would be held. We went on a Tuesday night, fully expecting the range to be seething with radical political activity. Why else would people congregate at a shooting range, if not to meet other like-minded, potentially dangerous right-wing gun nuts? It never occurred to us that they might be there for the simple enjoyment of target shooting.

It embarrasses me now to recall that trip. We went expecting to find militia members milling around in camouflage gear, holding signs, and handing out radical pamphlets. Needless to say, we didnít meet anyone during our visit who fit that description. There may be isolated ranges across the U.S. that do cater predominantly to shooters involved with the militia movement, and even ranges that covertly sponsor "radical political activity." But there were no militia meeting schedules to be found at the range we visited, even though we did see a radical bumper sticker or two: "Gun control is hitting your target."

After we realized that we probably werenít going to accomplish our original goal of establishing contact with the militia, we starting paying attention to what we could learn at the range. And that first time shooting, I discovered something I knew absolutely nothing about: gun enthusiasm. That Tuesday evening at the range we met a lot of people who were there for essentially one thing: to shoot guns. For the most part, they were friendly people who were ready and willing to talk about their interest in guns and their enjoyment in shooting. Eventually Michael and I dropped the militia project, but my interest in gun enthusiasm continued. It has proven to be a very fruitful avenue for research.

My first experience shooting a gun provided me with some insight about the enormous cultural conflict surrounding the issue of guns in American society. Guns simultaneously attracted and repelled me. When Michael and I first went shooting, the range master asked us what kind of gun we wanted to try, and I immediately said, "A Glock." I had heard that name dozens, if not hundreds, of times on TV and in the movies, and it was strangely appealing for that reason. But it also seemed the most representative of crime and violence, which put me off. It represented two sides of the same coin, and I wanted to get my hands on it.

The range master shook his head, amused, and muttered, "They always want to try the Glocks." He gave us a 20-minute lesson, during which I had to pick up and handle the gun several times. I was terribly excited, but also very nervous. Finally the range master marched us onto the range, stopping at an unused lane. He turned to the man shooting in the lane next to ours and said, "Keep an eye on these two, Bob. They donít know what the hell theyíre doing."

We felt vaguely humiliated, but we didnít protest -- he was right. And I realized several important things in that moment. There is no one essential way to understand what guns are, and what they do. And therein lies the culture conflict. Guns have come to signify the best -- and the worst -- qualities of heroes and villains in the American imagination. Guns are both literally and symbolically very powerful, and I was drawn to this research because I wanted to understand, and analyze, the sources of that power.

Aid and Comfort

Although I was interested in becoming a shooter for the firsthand experience it would bring to my research, I was and continue to be somewhat nervous around guns. I am comfortable with my own guns (I have bought several since getting started), but I am not a tried and true gun enthusiast. I think that my anxiety, which was initially simply fear, actually made the research more enriching for me. I really had to work through those feelings to do the research, as I was literally handling guns every day.

Working with Michael helped as well, because I could tell he was impressed with my desire to take on such a traditionally masculine interest and sport. Most of the female shooters who I know were introduced to guns by men, and I know for myself that overcoming my fear and matching Michael shot for shot was both challenging and exhilarating. It was anxiety-producing too, but fantastic because I could do it, and I became pretty good at it.

The point of my research, as I explained to wary but supportive faculty advisors and family, was to understand what guns symbolized to gun enthusiasts. Why do people enjoy owning guns? What does gun ownership mean to them? To answer these questions, my research took me to places that are generally considered the sole province of that much-maligned and poorly understood whipping boy called "the gun culture." I took lessons from instructors certified by the National Rifle Association, went to gun shows, and shot on ranges and in competitions. Most importantly, I interviewed 37 adult men and women who identified themselves as gun enthusiasts ("shooters" is their preferred term).

I spent the most time with a local posse of cowboy action shooters, and in the process became an active participant in their sport. Beyond dressing in period costumes and using old-style weapons, cowboy action shooters construct elaborate mock-ups of Old West towns using painted plywood and vivid imaginations. These cow towns are assembled and dismantled on local shooting ranges on the weekends, all for the purpose of the somewhat complicated shooting competitions sketched out at the start of this article. Some of the better-attended (and better-financed) shoots include makeshift dance halls and saloons. Shooters eat, drink, dance, hang out, and, most important, shoot. I enjoyed spending time with the cowboy action shooters. This part of my research constituted what anthropologists call "participant observation," and my observations and assessments composed my anthropological data.

My interviews, conducted over 14 months from late 1997 to the end of 1998, were a little more quiet and contained. I interviewed not only cowboy shooters, but also general enthusiasts, people I met at every stage of my research. They were fascinating people, each worthy of introduction. The following three are representative gun enthusiasts. As important, they break down the idea of a monolithic gun culture.

Community Servant

I met Greg relatively early in my research. He taught my second class on handgun safety at a local shooting range in the Bay Area. A knowledgeable and articulate Vietnam veteran and manager at a security firm, Greg volunteers his time as a shooting instructor. He teaches an all-day class every month to groups of five to 10 people.

Greg -- who, like most of the instructors Iíve met, is white -- emphasized the importance of "good gun etiquette," which includes becoming thoroughly familiar with your firearms and their properties, and never pointing a gun at another human being, regardless of whether or not it is loaded. He underscored the importance of this by observing the rule at all times. When he handled guns, he turned them in his hands very carefully, without ever pointing the muzzle at himself or anyone around him. Throughout the lesson, he constantly reminded us of the deadliness of guns, reiterating the idea that while they were not "magic talismans," they did have symbolic and literal power in the hands of their users, regardless of why they are used. Greg was a charismatic man and a good teacher, and the lesson with him passed quickly, culminating in a late afternoon shooting session in chilly winter rain. He observed our group as we shot our handguns at paper bullís-eye targets, brusquely correcting improper stances or techniques. This class was the most exhausting one I attended during my entire research.

When I interviewed Greg, he spoke candidly about why he volunteers to teach gun safety, and why he enjoys it. Greg explained that he joined the military as a young man to test both his manhood and his independence, and he credited the military with teaching him much of what he knows about firearms. His military experience aged him considerably, and his interest in guns subsided once he got out of the service. But several years later, a friend reintroduced him to shooting. Since then, heís been an enthusiast.

Greg believed strongly that he was performing a community service by passing on his knowledge. He talked about how people, particularly women, come to his classes frightened, both of guns and of being victimized. Greg felt that the media and the entertainment industry prey on peopleís fears of guns and crime. It was important to him to provide knowledge and understanding of how to use guns safely and effectively. He believed that the anxieties of living in a violent society necessitate learning to keep yourself safe, not because you are likely to be attacked, but because fear of being attacked can be paralyzing. Though I didnít agree with all of Gregís views, I certainly respected the experiences on which they were based.

Ms. 45

I met Thea in an introductory handgun class that was taught by two other women. An attorney, she was a vivaciously attractive white woman in her mid-40s. She had grown up under difficult circumstances in the Midwest and had married her childhood sweetheart. Although he had kept a shotgun, Thea had no interest in guns back then. She did, however, have an abiding interest in law enforcement, and in her late 20s she applied to the FBI Academy and was accepted. But before she could join the agency, her husband died, leaving her to raise their two daughters alone. She did not join the FBI, though eventually she went to law school and became an attorney.

Thea became much more interested in guns when she began dating a gun enthusiast, whom she has since married. Thea associates her husband Jonathanís gun enthusiasm with his willingness to care for and protect her. Initially, I was ambivalent when she told me that because Thea seemed so feminist in both her professional and personal life. But her interview reminded me that people are more complex than labels can render them. Thea made it clear that these issues are complicated for her. She said: "I made a career, personally and professionally, of empowering people. But as good as Iíve always been about standing up for other people, Iím not the least bit good about standing up for myself. And so itís very important to me to have somebody -- I mean, I didnít have a clue how important that was until I was with Jonathan -- to have a man protect me. And I feel like he is completely protective of me. I just kind of bask in that."

Shooting makes Thea feel confident and strong -- or, as she puts it, like she has "something else going on besides estrogen depletion." She admires shooters as people who know how to stand up for themselves. "I think of them being kind of in charge of their destinies. And I think maybe thatís another reason why this is something thatís good for me now." She linked her admiration for shooters to her difficult childhood. Shooting has helped her find an inner strength. "Iím a person who loves to stand up to bullies. My old man [her father] was such a bully -- this is a very new skill that Iím learning to cultivate. Itís very hard for me. And this makes me feel strong."

The Rifleman

I met Leonard while I was becoming a cowboy action shooter. A somewhat quiet and reserved man, he was a regular in the group. When I asked if I could interview him, his exact words were, "You donít work for Sarah Brady, do you?" He agreed to talk with me only after I assured him that I did not work for the gun-control advocate.

Leonard was particularly interesting because he was one of the few African-Americans who competed regularly at local and regional cowboy shoots. Leonard was a middle-class family man, an architect who lived and worked in the city, and he had also been in the military.

He loved Winchester rifles, and apparently had quite a collection. I asked him why he liked cowboy shooting, and why he thought there were so few black men on the modern-day cowboy range. He said that he thought it was because so few African-Americans know about their ethnic heritage on the 19th-century frontier. He thought blacks werenít likely to learn about their heritage from Hollywood Westerns, the source of so much popular knowledge of the frontier, because Westerns rarely portrayed the African-American contribution to the Old West.

He said: "I think a lot of times -- until just recently, maybe in the í60s -- when you used to see Western movies, you didnít see black faces. But I knew ever since I was a kid that there were [black cowboys], because we had pictures of guys from around 1901."

Leonard was quite knowledgeable about the contribution of African-Americans to the historic frontier, and he derived his pleasure in the sport from this actual history, as opposed to the mythologized history that is dramatized by the sport of cowboy shooting. When I asked him what guns meant to him, he said, "I always thought that if you had a good horse, a good Winchester, and a good backpack, you could go into the woods and stay forever. So itís kind of a romanticized freedom, maybe."

It was easy to see how this image could appeal to a man who lived and worked in a highly urban environment. Leonard had a sophisticated understanding of the difference between fantasy and reality, but that knowledge did not diminish his pleasure in cowboy action shooting.

Paradigm Found

Contrary to my initial expectations of the "gun nuts" who presumably constitute what critics disparagingly refer to as "the cult of the gun in America," most members of "the gun culture" Iíve talked with are typical citizens. They live normal American lives, insofar as any of us is "normal." They have complex and sophisticated ideas about what guns do, what guns are for, and why guns are an important part of American history, society, and culture. A point that is consistently overlooked in the heat and vitriol of the gun debate is that millions of Americans have ostensibly enjoyable, or at the very least ordinary, experiences with guns all the time.

My own professional and personal experiences have also helped me understand why shooters are so resistant to the idea that guns are really only weapons of violence. They can certainly be used that way, and I donít know a shooter who doesnít acknowledge that point. But guns are also about sport and recreation. They are about spending time with friends and others who share the pleasure of challenging sporting competition.

For that reason, when critics equate guns only with violence, they miss a large part of the picture, and they misrepresent the complex nature of Americaís diverse, multilayered gun culture. If guns were only about tragedy and death, then they would not be so enjoyed and so firmly incorporated into the lives of so many different Americans. The people who actually are part of the gun culture often have rational, thoughtful, or simply mundane reasons to own and use guns. Ridiculing and insulting them to further policy agendas strikes me as both counterproductive and wrong.

I took up shooting and researching guns to confront my ambivalence about guns and their relationship to violence, and to try to understand why they are such powerful symbols in American society. If I learned nothing else during my research, I learned that "the gun culture" is not some concrete, bounded entity that is manifested at gun shows or at shooting ranges, or in NRA magazines.

The gun culture is a fundamental part of American culture as a whole. Members of Americaís gun culture donít live in a vacuum. They serve on school boards; they attend town meetings; they go to neighborhood parties and community picnics; they go to their jobs in large and small places of business. They have incorporated guns into their lives, and many of them really arenít interested in changing that fact. Until critics of guns and the gun culture recognize that fact, they are only going to alienate gun owners and polemicize the gun debate. Neither result will further a goal sought by both sides: to reduce the amount of violence in American society.

Abigail Kohn ([email protected]) is researching gun culture in Australia and is at work on a book about American gun enthusiasts.


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