From the porch behind my uncle’s house, I watched my dad shoot a silver handgun at a makeshift target. The series of bullets scattered wood debris as they struck the base of an old oak at the forest’s edge.
“Do you want a try?” he asked me, passing me the cold steel weapon.
I was a teenager at the time, and I’d never even held a gun before. It was heavier than I expected.
I played a lot of video games back then, and many of them involved firearms. I knew generally that handguns fired rapidly, but were less powerful than shotguns and less accurate than rifles. I knew those facts from bar charts on computer screens, not from personal experience.
My dad gave me little instruction: Point at the base of the tree, grip the gun firmly and pull the trigger. I was startled by the way the gun jumped in my hands when I fired. My dad let out a spirited laugh and suggested I hold the gun tighter. I took a few more shots before growing uncomfortable, so I stopped and went back indoors.
My ears rang all night long. I didn’t know we should’ve worn earmuffs.
I never thought about shooting again until this year when I was working on a story as the police reporter for the Beacon Journal. Akron police told me they recovered a .22-caliber handgun after a shooting, and I asked the officer if he meant to say a 9 mm gun. I’d only ever heard of .22-caliber rifles.
I had an epiphany: If I am going to write about guns, I need an education beyond a few shots from my uncle’s back porch.
When I said that to my instructor a few weeks later, she smiled widely.
“I’m really glad to hear that,” said Amanda Suffecool, a gun instructor certified by the National Rifle Association who also serves as director of the not-for-profit REALIZE Firearms Awareness Coalition.
She said she thought guns and gun owners often were misrepresented in the media because reporters lacked education on the topic. She told me I shouldn’t expect to fire a gun until at least a couple hours into my first lesson. The first hours, she said, would be devoted to firearm safety and awareness.
We agreed to meet at the ARO Group training facility in Deerfield Township one evening in mid-July. I nervously white-knuckled my car’s steering wheel the entire drive there.
Loaded with knowledge
When I arrived, Suffecool unloaded the trunk of her SUV as I stood at the edge of the firing range. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of small objects reflected sunlight in my direction. It took me a moment to realize they were empty ammo shells. I never considered they’d be left behind after target practice. I was definitely out of my element.
Suffecool stood over a smattering of guns she placed meticulously on a picnic table nearby.
“So what do you want to learn from these lessons?” she asked.
I admitted I knew next to nothing about guns. I told her about the day I fired a gun with my dad and how I wanted to be better informed.
“Basically, I want to know what you think I should know,” I said.
“Then let’s start with the basics,” she said.
We spent two hours talking about guns. Some things I already knew, like the difference between semi-automatic and automatic weapons, and how a revolver works.
Other things I felt like I should have known, but never bothered to learn.
“Do you know how guns work?” she asked.
I didn’t know.
Suffecool explained in simple terms how pulling the trigger forces a mechanism to strike the back of the round, causing a split-second chain reaction that explodes gunpowder and propels the bullet in the only direction it can go: out the gun’s barrel at high velocity.
She explained how unloaded rounds simply pop when exposed to heat. Without a gun’s barrel to guide it, a firearm round is practically harmless.
Now I knew.
In my lessons with Suffecool, that was a recurring theme. She’d ask a question, I wouldn’t know the answer, and she’d explain without judgment.
Frankly, it was a relief.
She taught me to load rounds into a magazine, and then it was time to shoot. I recalled how it felt a decade earlier. I could hear my heart beat.
She set me up with earmuffs (which I welcomed) and handed me a .22-caliber handgun. Instructing me to keep it pointed at the ground and not to load the magazine until she said otherwise, Suffecool led me down the dirt-strewn range. She demonstrated proper posture and explained the best way to grip the gun. I mimicked her actions carefully and she nodded in approval.
“Ready?” she asked.
I swallowed hard before agreeing.
She advised me how to aim and pointed to a target she’d set up. I followed her instructions and squeezed the trigger. The gun kicked in my hands and my heart raced with each blast.
But this time I was prepared. I knew what to expect. I felt safe. And frankly, it was kind of fun.
For over an hour, Suffecool and I shot at targets. I actually had good aim — I managed to land a bull’s-eye in my first lesson — but I also had a lot to learn. I was proud.
But still, I found myself wincing every time I squeezed the trigger. Suffecool insisted that was normal, that even her eyes shut when she fired — and she’d been around guns most of her life.
When offered a second lesson, I agreed. I wanted to overcome the nerves.
But even at the next session, I was uncomfortable. I felt safe. I knew how to handle the guns. I understood how they worked. But all I could think about as I squeezed the trigger is how easily these bullets could cut through flesh.
Those thoughts only escalated when Suffecool asked me if I’d like to fire a shotgun. I’d already shot handguns and rifles. I’d even fired a revolver. I figured a shotgun was the next step up.
I shot it only twice.
Suffecool told me to aim for a patch of weeds. I missed the first shot, but the second shot blew them away.
“Do you want another go?” she asked.
I declined. I fired handguns and rifles a little while longer, but I couldn’t get my mind off the way the shotgun bucked in my arms and the devastation it caused. I wanted to leave.
As I drove home that night, I reflected on what I’d learned.
I’d come to realize how safety is paramount to many gun owners. It’s important to remember you only ever hear about the accidents and the violence. There are no headlines for safe gun use.
I learned marksmanship is much more difficult than I imagined. Though I think I have some meager talent, there’s a science to target-shooting that I couldn’t fully grasp in two lessons.
I felt a degree of pride in myself. I could now speak somewhat intelligently about guns, and I had personal experience to draw from. I’d never considered putting myself through firearms training, but I was glad I stepped out of my comfort zone.
Finally — and perhaps most importantly — I reminded myself how I must never forget how dangerous guns are. They’re so dangerous that responsible gun owners pride themselves on safe use and denounce those who act rashly. But even for responsible gun owners, one slip-up could cost a life.
Frankly, I’m glad I learned to use firearms. But you won’t catch me at a gun show any time soon.
Nick Glunt can be reached at 330-996-3565 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickGluntABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ngfalcon.