How I learned to stop worrying and love the gun (sort of)

Cradling the AR-15, I pressed its rear firmly against the soft spot between my clavicle and right shoulder and peered through the front sight. I shuffled back and forth on my feet, shifting my weight from my right foot to my left all while trying to level the red dot to the small blue circle on the target sheet hanging 30 feet out in front of me.

Dread filled my stomach and sweat beads formed along my temples as my right index finger, trembling, traced the outline of the trigger. With my left hand, I clutched the handguard and made a feeble attempt to steady my grip.

Around me, bullets ricocheted off the concrete walls, penetrating my rubber ear plugs and competing in the cacophonous arena of my eardrums with the pounding of my own heart.

Pop, pop, pop, pop — spliced by the high-pitched clinking of bullet casings hitting the floor in rapid succession.

I straightened my 116-pound frame, slumped from the weight of the weapon, and put the gun down. “I can’t do it,” I said, shaking my head, silently admonishing myself for coming all this way only to chicken out at the last minute. But fear had a stronghold on me, as much as I didn’t like to admit it, even to myself. 

The last time I felt that type of fear, I was standing on a bridge two hours west of Yosemite overlooking a serene and rocky creek, waiting to jump from it in front of a little over a dozen people. I had made a similar declaration then and to no one in particular: “I can’t do it.”

But someone had grabbed me by the shoulders, looked at me squarely and said, “You can do it. Think about how after you do this, nothing will scare you. You’ll be able to face any fear.” I had nodded along, but didn’t know if I believed him, as much as I wanted to. It’s a funny thing, putting oneself deliberately in a position that forces the sudden and immediate confrontation of one’s own mortality. Every cell in my body screamed: You are NOT jumping off that bridge. 

Tl;dr: I jumped. And oh, how sweet was the fall. A brief moment — so brief — of pure, delicious weightlessness.

OK, so, what was I, an Afghan-American girl from California — a pacifist, at that — doing here at a shooting range in Austin, Texas on September 11 — of all days — with a rifle in my hands? What was I doing brandishing the same weapon that was used in Sandy Hook, Aurora, San Bernardino, Sutherland Springs Church, the Las Vegas strip, the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and the Waffle House shooting in Nashville?

To tell you the truth, I’d gotten the idea at a Walmart the previous night. I was there to buy spray paint (more on that some other time) and found myself seduced by the gun aisle. Rows of guns of all types. “Let’s go shooting tomorrow!” I’d gleefully suggested to my Uber driver, Nelson.

Initially we’d planned to drive out to a ranch to shoot in the great outdoors (There was talk about shooting pigs at one point — NOT my idea; in fact, I shot it down immediately… er, no pun intended), but certain constraints had us settle for an indoor range in a part of the city that for some reason was littered with adult stores. I guess if you’re bent on a vice spree, it would make sense to hit them all in one trip.

The idea of going shooting seemed adventurous and cool in my head, but the reality was I felt I had bitten off more than I could chew. As it turned out.

“I can’t do it,” I told Nelson, who owns two of the four guns I’d shot that evening —  and carefully, but hastily, returned the rifle to him. After firing off a round, he switched to semi-automatic mode and handed the gun back to me, coaxing, “Come on, you wanted an authentic Texas experience.”

It’s true; I did. I was on somewhat of a “when in Texas” adventure bender, aided and abetted by Nelson who I’d quickly befriended only a few nights prior. But did that mean I had to actually go through with this? Wasn’t just being here enough? That’s right, I could just observe people and – and learn a thing or two — No.

“C’mon, it’s not as bad as you think.” Nelson was persistent.

OK. Breathe. All right. You’re doing this, Zohal. That’s what you came here for. Just do it.

It was the same feeling of resignation I’d felt on the bridge. Taking a deep breath, I stiffened my grip and my resolve, placed my right index finger on the trigger and pulled it back once, feeling my body jolt ever so slightly. A pause. Then, surprising myself, I fired again. And again. And once more. Eardrum-piercing shots. Loud. So loud. What was it about this literal agent of death that suddenly made me feel so… present and alive?

I remember two things happened right after I stopped. There was a moment of stillness and the sharp smell of gunpowder engulfed my senses. And dammit, it was exhilarating. I wanted to do it again!

I handed the gun back to Nelson and leaned back against a wall to flush out the adrenaline buzz from my system. I watched everybody else go through the same motions, just not with as much fear as I’d had.

I’d wanted to do this because I didn’t get it; I didn’t understand the gun fanatics, the Second Amendment touters, the romance around guns in America. But I wanted to understand it and to understand it directly from the source.

I watched guys slap each other on the back, talk about their guns, handle each other’s guns, admire them, throw around words like bump stock and kickback.

Some wore serious expressions, their jaws locked and rigid; Others were relaxed and smiling. I watched the way their faces changed after firing off a round. If testosterone had a smell, I’d imagine it to smell the way that gun range did on that Tuesday night.

And I couldn’t help but ruminate on this indubitable, almost innate penchant for violence that we humans seem to have. I mean we can see it all around us, right, from the movies we make and consume to the never-ending wars we get ourselves involved in. It’s undeniable; we crave violence.

In a way, that’s what this gun range was offering —  a contained environment to just relish in that savagery; A ticket to play in the garden of beasts.

An hour later, I left the range feeling glad I’d conjured up the courage to lean into the experience, terrifying as it was. I felt I came away with a slightly better understanding of a demographic that isn’t very easily understood back in my home state. I’m still a pacifist; still an advocate for gun control and tighter regulations, but by putting myself in the shoes of a gun enthusiast I had an opportunity to peek into the mind of “the other,” so to speak, and to at least try and understand what the appeal was. All I had to do was listen and watch. And, well, roll up my sleeves and fire off a few shots. You know, for research.