Trigger Happy

The lobby of the Flatiron-district office building, where three desk-jockey dudes stand waiting for the elevator, is all polished brass and marble.

“Excuse me,” I say, brushing past them on my way to the stairwell, where staccato shots reverberate with Jiffy-Pop exuberance.

“You going downstairs?” one asks eagerly. “To the gun club?”

“Mmm-hmm,” I murmur.

My kind of woman!” he hoots.

Well, not exactly. I didn’t grow up with guns, and like anyone raised in the comfortable, liberal, well-educated suburbs of the East Coast, I knew what to think: Only rednecks and thugs owned them (and my cop uncle, who came strapped to Passover). My mother wouldn’t buy toy guns for me, but my dad made me a faux pistol with a piece of thick bamboo and a plywood handle so I could play cowgirl. If I had seen a real bullet lying in a yard or in the street, I would have run in the other direction – it might go off if you touched it. But at the same time, I dreamed of being Annie Oakley, emptying the wallets of unsuspecting fools in trick-shooting competitions. I read and reread the passage in This Boy’s Life where Tobias Wolff’s mother coolly wins a riflery tournament from her sputtering, sulking husband. But even these idle fantasies felt profoundly uncool – the kind of thing it seemed wisest to keep to myself.

Then, five years ago, I was burglarized, my apartment door crowbarred open while I was at the gym and the boyfriend I lived with at the time was out of town. “They’re gonna come back,” friends told me, “to get the rest of your stuff.” The door couldn’t be closed properly, and that night I slept with a kitchen knife next to me, feeling sure it wouldn’t be enough if someone wanted to hurt me. The next year, when I lived alone in another apartment, I was stalked by a stranger who followed me and sent creepy poems and tapes to my house. I slept with that same kitchen knife in a drawer by my bed – what if he found his way to my fire escape? – but again I felt sure it wouldn’t be enough if he got in. Two summers ago, my apartment was burglarized again. What if I had been home? “This is why I want to get a gun,” I told the sergeant who came to investigate. Could I shoot someone who was trying to hurt me? I asked myself. Hell, yeah, I could! “You don’t want a gun,” the officer told me. “Yes, I do,” I insisted. “If someone is coming in my window, do I want to, like, perform some judo kicks?” “Hit ‘im with a frying pan,” the sergeant suggested. I gaped at him. “The whole point,” I said, “is that I don’t want to get that close!”

That’s how I find myself riding the subway down to the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall stop and walking through a brick municipal moonscape to 1 Police Plaza. I feel like I’m impersonating someone – Clarice Starling, La Femme Nikita, or, more mundanely, a Republican – as I breeze through the security checkpoint and am directed to the handgun-licensing division, Room 110A. “Last time I came in,” says a young Latino dude from Brooklyn who is waiting alongside me, “Sylvester Stallone was here!”

I figure I am probably the only person in New York going from the office to yoga to the gun range and then to a black-tie event.

New York City has some of the most stringent handgun regulations in the country, and the license application is intentionally byzantine. I pay nearly $300 to the Police Department and New York State for the privilege of filing a stack of papers, revealing mishaps as minor as a ten-year-old speeding ticket, and getting fingerprinted. But at least the process is democratic, and there is some small comfort in knowing who else has gone through it. Handgun licenses are a matter of public record: Andrew Cuomo got one, and so have Robert De Niro, Raoul Felder, Abner Louima, Howard Stern, and Chazz Palminteri.

It takes several months for applications to clear – supposedly because it takes that long for fingerprints to be checked on the city, state, and federal levels. You cannot touch a handgun in New York City before you have a license, and then, once you get your license, it expires if you don’t buy a gun within 30 days. What if you don’t want to buy a gun but want to take lessons? Too bad. New York City essentially forces every license-holder to buy a gun, and you must keep that gun in your house. There is no requirement that you take any instruction to learn how to operate the gun.

If you do want to learn how to shoot, however, you must join a range. Most gun owners in New York have target licenses, which require you to belong to a range and keep your gun unloaded and locked at home when you’re not transporting it to the range. (Premises licenses let you keep a gun loaded in your house for self-defense. Only carry licenses let you pack heat on the street; these are very difficult to get and mostly go to owners of high-risk businesses, like jewelers.)

Since West Side Rifle & Pistol Range is currently the only range open in Manhattan – its sole competitor, Downtown Rifle & Pistol Club, closed last year – it does a tidy business, with more than 1,000 members. It costs me $400 to join for two years. When I arrive for my first lesson on a Friday evening, a few men are sitting around smoking cigars and cleaning guns at a table under fluorescent lights in a rec-room-like setting. I have put myself in the hands of West Side vice-president Darren Leung, a stocky 35-year-old hard-ass from the Chinatown projects. I instantly like Darren. He’s a geek about guns. He likes to speak of himself and his crew as “gunfighters,” even though none of them has ever been in a gunfight. “We’re like dinosaurs,” he says. “The last of a dying breed.”

Darren looks at me intently from behind his wire-rimmed glasses, and he does not patronize me. I was worried I’d get the “little lady” treatment and end up with a dainty Derringer decorated with scrimshawed ivory for my purse. But Darren, who speaks in my grandfather’s Coney Island cadences – “the bunch of yous,” “he don’t wanna” – doesn’t smirk when I tell him that the closest I’ve ever come to a firearm is an amusement-park shooting gallery. He lays two guns before me, saying, “This is a revolver, and this is a pistol.” I didn’t even know the difference.

Behind a span of bulletproof glass lies “the line,” fourteen stalls facing a wall of red mats 50 feet away. Each stall is equipped with a metal rig on which you clip your paper target – a classic bull’s-eye or a more provocative photo-realist illustration, like one of an armed villain who’s taken a little girl hostage – and then crank it out like a shirt on a laundry line.

Darren hands me a Smith & Wesson revolver. I drop the bullets into the cylinder’s six chambers, breathing light and fast and feeling almost faint, though perhaps that’s simply the muffling effect of my ear protectors. Darren’s instructions sound as if they’re being burbled underwater. I stand with my feet apart and my arms extended, the gun braced in my left hand – since I’m a lefty – which is cradled in my right. The first shot, which makes the barrel buck like a pony, is a cartoon blam! that seems to suck the oxygen out of the room. It’s accompanied by a corona of flame and, in the aftermath of the explosion, a thin wisp of smoke.

I fire at the silhouette targets, with Darren barking orders over my shoulder to shoot for the heart and then the head. (“What kind of silhouette?” my mother asks fearfully when I tell her on the phone about my lesson. “Um, of, I guess, a … person.”) I ask if first-timers ever come in and can’t even hit the target, if they start firing wildly off to the sides. “That’s what I was prepared for when you came in tonight,” Darren says. “But in a pie of shooters where men are 60 percent and women are 40 percent” – perhaps optimistically overestimating the proportion of female firearms enthusiasts – “all of the women will be better shooters.” Why? “Because they don’t come in assuming they know everything, like guys do.”

This could, of course, simply be a bit of polite encouragement. Darren takes pains to make sure patrons feel the requisite respect in this high-stakes environment. Everyone is addressed as “Sir” and referred to as “this gentleman.” The civility extends to Darren’s friends and cousins, who like to hang out at the range and who kiss one another good-bye and call each other “bro.”

We move on to a 9-mm. Glock, which immediately summons a snippet of sound-effect-laced rap from an old Ice Cube record: “It was plain and simple / The 9-mm. went bang to the temple / Bang bang bang was the sound …” The serviceable, no-frills, black plastic Glock is the gun of choice for many cops and many criminals. It looks like a toy to me. The trigger feels extremely light. “I’ll be back in a minute,” Darren suddenly says, and he leaves me alone at the line. With the gun. I’m both nervous and curious – how could he trust me? What if I were like that guy he told me about who committed suicide at Downtown a few Christmases ago? “Because right from the start,” Darren explains impassively when he returns, “you showed extreme responsibility.” Whew. I’m glad one of us can tell.

I shoot for nearly four hours, my arms confettied with black streaks and ricocheted bits from the stall’s cork walls. Hot brass casings bounce back against my eye protectors and my chest. There’s a ventilation system, but if you fire 150 to 200 rounds you’ll still be breathing in a nice little cloud of cordite and smoke. I read the bullet box’s warning about lead and ask Darren if I’m going to get lead poisoning. “If you taste something sweet in the back of your throat, you’ve got lead,” he says helpfully. I taste something stale, not sweet. My cousin’s husband, a gun enthusiast, says he won’t shoot at all in indoor ranges. Here in the city, of course, we can’t just set up some pumpkins and tin cans out back.

I figure I am probably the only person in New York going, the following Friday, from the office to yoga to the gun range and then to a black-tie event. I can’t help thinking, in the yoga studio, of my fellow students’ recoiling in horror were they to discover my destination. But there are some surprising similarities. Breathing is very important in both yoga and shooting – you breathe in before you raise the gun, and hold your breath as you fire – and in both you want to be completely “in the moment.” But while in yoga I often find myself thinking on two tracks even as the teacher exhorts us to empty our minds, at the range, I’m discovering, my concentration is so intense and so physical that it’s impossible to think of anything else. It’s weirdly, perversely, more relaxing than yoga. “I can believe that,” Darren says.

I’m standing at the line talking with Darren with my ear protectors slung around my neck – no one else is shooting – when he tells me to put them back on because someone else has just walked up to one of the stalls. I reach up to fumble with them, holding the Glock – unloaded, my finger off the trigger – in my left hand. Suddenly Darren is cuffing my ear protector, hollering, “You’re gonna shoot yourself in the head!” “But it’s unloaded,” I whimper. That’s when I learn that you never assume a gun is not loaded. You never look down the barrel to see what’s in there. You never fumble for your ear protectors with a gun in your hand, even with your finger off the trigger. Darren’s instruction is so methodical, so step-by-step, so matter-of-fact, that it almost seems we’re operating something as simple as a power drill or a hair dryer. It is easy to forget that we’re handling deadly weapons.

At this second lesson, I meet Dan, a mild, soft-spoken 41-year-old banker whose pressed shirts and shined shoes distinguish him from the other range regulars in their sweatshirts and Timberlands. He stands behind me and observes while Darren teaches me “point shooting” – one hand in a fist over your heart, the idea being that your fist would take the bullet if . . .

“It’s a sport,” Dan tells me, attempting to explain his fascination with firearms. “It’s the ability to control something that’s extremely powerful, and that’s part of the allure.” Raising a gun, bracing it in your hands, and firing it for a couple of hours a week also does impressive things to your muscles. After a couple months of shooting with my left hand and then my right (“in case your good hand gets disabled,” Darren says philosophically), when I throw my arms around my dad on a visit to my parents’ house, he asks if I’ve been pumping iron. “Nope,” my brother cuts in, “pumpin’ lead!

Darren rigs up a piece of string, held straight with a weight at the bottom, and tells me to shoot it. I dust it a few times – we examine it for the telltale gray smudges – and then fray it once or twice, but I can’t sever it, even at only twenty feet. Darren hands me the string and tells me he wants me to lie in bed that night and think about it. Instead, I can’t restrain myself from dragging the string out of my bag at dinner and making cocktail conversation about it.

Dan the banker says he thinks guns are “beautiful pieces of machinery,” and I’m starting to see what he means, especially now that I’m getting a taste of what Darren calls “elite” guns – those made for target shooting rather than for service. I was shooting at that string with an elegant 9-mm. Sig Sauer P-210, a competition pistol from the seventies, all blued steel and walnut stocks. The other gun I’m drawn to is a matte stainless-steel Kimber .45 with black grips and sights and clean, spare lines. It looks like a camera, and the mechanisms are not dissimilar: You’re loading, advancing the magazine, shooting.

I want the Sig Sauer but bitterly protest the unfairness of its $2,100 price tag – it’s like that horrified gasp when you find a pair of shoes that were made for you but there’s no way you can afford them. There are, of course, hundreds of different guns I could buy. I browse through Gun Digest; I scour the Internet sites where people buy and sell guns just like any other collectible (“new in box,” etc.); I awkwardly visit John Jovino, the narrow, cluttered gun shop on Centre Market Place, behind the old Police Building, where I stare at 30 or so pistols in the glass cases. At the range, even though I know the romance is doomed, I can’t keep my hands off the Sig. But with time running out, I settle on the Kimber. Darren, who’s also a licensed New York City firearms dealer, can order it for me directly from a dealer in Kentucky. It costs about $700.

Once my new Kimber arrives and I sign the bill of sale, I have 72 hours to return to the License Division at 1 Police Plaza to have the gun inspected and entered on my license. When my name is called, I am ushered into a closet where a large woman officer instructs me to unlock the hard black plastic case and the trigger lock, now required on all handguns sold in New York. She records the serial number etched on the side. Then it’s mine. That night, at home, I take it out of its case to look it over and, inevitably, pose with it in front of my mirror, feeling very James Bond Girl. Then I lock my gun back up. Where do I hide it? None of your business.

I think wistfully of the 9-mm. sig, which felt so much smaller and more controlled than my heavier .45, as I pick up the gauntlet in my duel with the string. When I lift the Kimber, the gun wavers around before my eyes while I pull the trigger for what seems like a full minute – it feels like I’m trying to squeeze a heavy rubber ball out of a garden hose – before I’m startled again by the explosion going off in my hands. But somehow, as I get more fatigued, I seem to grow calmer and surer, and from 25 feet I finally do it, cleanly severing the string. I turn to Darren with a great big stupid sloppy grin. “I’m only gonna say this once,” he tells me, trying to hold back his own smile and preserve his tough-guy demeanor. “I’m very proud of you.”

Then he has me aim at wooden coffee stirrers from Starbucks. I clip those at 30 and then at 35 feet. This must be one of those zones athletes always talk about. “I’m gonna tell you one more thing,” Darren says. “You’re steady as shit.” He has me hold out my hand so I can see – not a tremor. “You’ve got potential,” he allows, and this hint of a compliment is enough to send me into fantasies about winning sharpshooting competitions. I feel like this is something I was born to do, and can’t help remembering my mother’s account of how, at my birth, she druggedly called me “Jessie James” over and over – a prophecy! That night, when I’m undressing at home, I hear a metallic rattling as I take off my shirt, and discover a couple of brass shells in my chest pocket.

Darren likes to report to me what other people say about my being at the range. “Who’s the supermodel?” a potbellied regular asks him – in this environment, pretty much any female gets to enjoy supermodel status. But Darren, for his part, likes to tease me for being unladylike. “You have the most unattractive nails for a woman,” he says, even though it’s cramming bullets into the spring-loaded magazine that makes them all snagged and sooty. When he spies my running shoes tied to my backpack, he suggests that I don’t need a gun – I can just stun any aggressors by confronting them with my sweaty sneakers.

All this is by way of making sure I’m comfortable in the boys’-club atmosphere of the range, and after he’s done joking, he gets serious, eyeing me sideways. “Some people think women shouldn’t fraternize with guys.” “Yeah, well,” I say, “I can definitely hang with guys.” And here, finally, at the end of the week, are people who aren’t going to ask whether I saw this or that on “Page Six” or in the Times’ business section. Instead, I get to say gearhead things like “racking the slide” and “cocking the hammer” and then play games of skill – shoot the bull’s-eye, shoot the string, shoot the coffee stirrer – before sitting down with five very polite and very funny Chinese guys to drink beer and play some kind of weird blackjack in which I lose $30 while giving Darren romantic advice. He wants to know what I think of this phone call, that quote, this fight, that gift. He broods; he reenacts conversations. It turns out that love is the one thing this hard-core guy is soft on. Of course, he has his own unique way of showing it. Darren’s idea of a romantic present for his girlfriend? Matching bulletproof vests.

When I ask my banker friend Dan if he thinks about guns in terms of protection, he says, “In practicality, where we live? Not at all.” Darren, on the other hand, matter-of-factly discusses how to disarm assailants: “Ten shots up and down – that’ll take care of ‘im.” But pointing a gun at someone and firing is becoming a lot harder for me to imagine now that I’ve seen the sobering evidence of what a round of fire does to a target. Before I knew anything about guns, they rarely figured in my dreams. Now, in a nightmare, a threatening figure will menacingly snap together a shotgun and I, in the dream, hopelessly understand how much danger I’m in. In other dreams, I’m hiding from armed thugs and reassuring myself that it’s much harder to hit a moving person than you’d think, but then I remember, with dread, about scopes and laser sights. Or I’ll try to scare off a creep with my own Kimber, and he’ll say, “Go on, shoot me!” And I’ll hesitate – now what? – and then do it. Somehow these nocturnal anxieties surface at the range, where I thought I felt perfectly safe, and I start flinching and closing my eyes.

The last thing I want to do is cry at the range, but here it comes anyway. I turn away from him, facing down the line, brushing away tears.

This is the night darren makes me cry. He is hazing me as usual. My shots are off, and he’s insulting me, and I’m taking it, as I do, but biting my lips and wishing he’d tell me what I should do different. “Darren,” I say, my voice muffled by the ear protectors. “Why am I shooting so badly?” “Because you’re thickheaded,” he says, and somehow, though I know that what I really am is thin-skinned, and the last thing I want to do is cry at the range, here it comes anyway. I turn away from him, facing down the line, brushing away tears. Darren suddenly realizes why I’m not shooting: “Wait, wait, wait a minute!” I put the gun down. “I want you to be hard on me,” I say, pawing at my eyes. “That’s fine, I can take it. But don’t tell me I’m stupid – I know I’m not. Just tell me what I should do.” He is horrified: “I didn’t say you were stupid!” That’s what thickheaded means, I say, so he goes to the office and gets a dictionary and settles the matter in my favor. “Now I’m gonna lie in bed tonight,” he says, shaking his head, “thinking I shouldn’t have said that.”

Darren coaches me out of the flinching with a Browning “Hi-Power” 9-mm. “Pull the trigger slowly,” he instructs, “and let yourself be surprised when the gun goes off.” Anticipating the shot, in other words, is what’s making me flinch. He makes me go back to one-handed shooting till I can hardly lift the gun. “My arms are tired,” I whine. “Don’t be a wimp!” he growls. “Darren,” I say through my teeth, biting my tongue, one eye closed, sighting. “You’re the only person who’s ever thought I was a wimp.”

What I will cop to, as far as guns are concerned, is being an elitist. Darren tries to explain the appeal of combat pistols: They can be banged around, get full of dirt, and shipped all stacked up in crates, and they will still fire. Your high-strung, high-end guns, on the other hand, are more finicky. If they get dirty, they’ll start jamming. But I hate shooting combat pistols. They jump around in my hands – I can feel the springs bouncing inside – and I can’t even put all my shots on the paper. I can tell Darren thinks I’m a sissy for preferring the competition models, and even more damning is that it’s not just about the way they feel. It’s about the way they look.

I show him a lavish new book, The World of Beretta, filled with photos of guns laid out on velvet, like jewelry. We pause at the Model 98FS stainless-steel target pistol engraved with scrolls, leaves, and arabesques and fitted with walnut stocks. “Like a woman with too much makeup,” Darren judges, but I’m infatuated, staring at the gun’s smooth, molten curves. “Guns are utilitarian,” Darren reminds me disapprovingly.

My delirium over the decorated Berettas is dispelled one wintry Friday when I arrive at the range gritting my teeth after a frustrating day at work. “I really feel like firing a gun,” I announce to Darren. Tonight, his point of view makes sense. I don’t want to stand around giddily tracing whorls and whirls on my gun; I just want to fire the thing. I don’t care that there’s another guy two stalls down pounding away with what sounds like a sawed-off shotgun, ka-boom-ing every time I’ve just achieved that sought-after Zen balance, holding my breath and squaring my sights. Tonight I don’t care about anything except the target, and midway through my second box of bullets I know I’m on. I can’t see any holes in the paper at 50 feet – that means they’re somewhere in that black bull’s-eye, and if I group enough of them tightly together, I’ll see the telltale light shining through. Each shot sounds like an ax striking wood, a clean rush of wind that I feel in my chest and that rocks me back on my heels. I sink six out of the magazine’s seven shots in the bull’s-eye, whispering to myself, “Come on, baby, yeah.

When I first started shooting, I hesitated to tell people about it. My friends have all sorts of personal proclivities: They do or don’t eat meat. Do or don’t smoke. Do or don’t drink, smoke pot, snort cocaine, live with drag queens, hire hustlers, sleep around. There aren’t a whole lot of taboos anymore. But in the post-Columbine age, I suspected, revealing any interest in guns would be beyond the pale. However, for every time someone moaned, “But, Jess, you know the statistics” – those famous though possibly apocryphal statistics about how often guns are used against their owners – someone else asked to come to the range with me. And for the record, I’m not worried about my gun being used against me. It’s hidden in a locked box, and even if you were bent on finding the key and unlocking it, there’s that cumbersome trigger lock clamped onto the gun, which needs to be unlocked with another key. And if you make your way through that, too? Well, I don’t have any bullets – I decided not to ever have any at home, which obviously also means I can never use my gun in self-defense. So you’d better have brought your own.

I started this whole thing not knowing where it would end: Would I be hiding out in my apartment, scared and strapped, looking out between the blinds? Would I join the NRA? “Will you only go out with gun nuts?” a fashion-editor friend asked. But none of that turned out to be true. Instead, I’ve been admitted to what feels like a secret society, with its own language and code of honor. I like walking to the line with my eye protectors pushed up in my hair like Jackie O. sunglasses, my ear protectors slung around my neck like a D.J.’s huge headphones, my pistol swinging from my fingers, a box of American Eagle bullets and a sheaf of black bull’s-eye targets in my other hand. I like being the girl who gets to hang out in the boys’ club.

When I split a business card edgewise at 45 feet, Darren says, “That is pretty damn amazing, even I have to say.” We can make money, I tell him, we can be a hustling team, I’ll be the dumb blonde who’s never shot before: “I think I might be able to hit that …” “I’m starting to see dollar signs,” Darren agrees. Then I move on to chop down coffee stirrers at 50 feet, all the way back against the shot-up mats. “I’m breeding women warriors,” Darren crows from the other end of the line, where he’s coaching a female executive from a prominent jewelry house.

Suddenly a hot shell bounces back and flicks against my neck with a searing sting. I wince, touching my hand to the tender spot, but figure what the fuck, I’m proud of these little scrapes and bruises. But after I shoot another clip, my neck is still stinging, and I start to wonder if I’ve got a burn. I show it to Darren. “Hon, I’m not gonna lie to you,” he says. “That’s gonna blister up.” Then he regales me with war stories about the time he got a hot shell stuck in the corner of his eye. “Welcome,” he says, with a sigh of contentment, “to the world of gunfighting.”

Trigger Happy