In photos of myself from that day, I stand with my right foot in front of my left, my weight leaning into the gun, just like Chris taught me. One eye squinted, the other wide open, focused. When I look at the photos, I feel even more in control than I felt in the actual moment of pulling the trigger. I’m outside myself.

I don’t recognize the girl in the photo.

I stared through the rear sight of a Glock 22, lining up the green dot in the center of the front sight. My hand wobbled. It took more mental strength than I’d originally thought to keep one eye scrunched, the other focused on a dot no bigger than a grain of quinoa, and beyond that, a fixed target. I pulled.

Pop. Jump.

Pop. Jump.

My heart leapt; my shoulders rose. Though I expected it, each time the sound startled me.

When Uncle Nick set off fireworks in his driveway every New Year’s Eve, the sounds—the large fountains, snappy firecrackers, roman candles, parachutes, sparklers, snap pops, and bottle rockets—never bothered me. Those noises I grew up with. They represented home, family, and tradition. But this I couldn’t get used to. This was a gun.

Chris told me I needed a smoother pull.

“Relax,” he said. “You jerk to the side every time you pull the trigger. Try pulling the trigger more gently.”

The gun had a powerful kickback. “Gently” pulling a trigger seemed like an oxymoron. I shuffled my feet, planted a firm stance, and took aim again.

Chris offered to take me shooting. I’d never so much as touched a gun before. In the past, I’d seen friends post photos of them at shooting ranges on Facebook and Instagram. They stood in a private stall wearing noise-canceling headphones. Some had their eyes on the target, others over their shoulder at the camera, peering through their clear safety glasses. They looked untouchable. I wanted to feel that too.

I grew up in a small town in north Florida, a place where going shooting and hunting were common hobbies, weekend activities, traditions taught and learned at a young age. But in my house, hobbies took place indoors with crayons and notepads, coloring books and markers, or on soccer fields with cleats and fertilized grass. Many of my high school peers’ Facebook profile pictures’ featured camouflage garments, proud grins, and dead deer held up by the antlers in a firm grip, blood dripping from their nostrils. Those photos weren’t macabre or offensive; they were the norm.

My mother owned a .22 caliber Smith & Wesson handgun, a 20-gauge shotgun, and a revolver. All three weapons melted in a firestorm that, in 1998, devastated my hometown, including my stepfather’s house and everything in it. She’d never taken me shooting, never asked if I wanted to. The guns that burned in the fire weren’t replaced.

Chris handed me a pair of silver, foam earplugs. They looked like screws. It was the middle of the afternoon, the day after a tropical storm, the air, muggy and dense. Torn bits of tree and wood lay scattered over the ground.

Chris pointed toward a clearing. “There. That’s a good spot.” The ivy green front door to a two-story log cabin home was fifty feet to our backs. The space felt open, but quiet and still. Eighty acres of greenery surrounded the house. The back of the cabin faced a lake that zigzagged out of view. This seemed like a safe place to shoot a gun.

When he first opened the case, I was surprised at how plastic, almost fake the guns looked. They reminded me of pool toys I grew up squirting friends with on hot, summer afternoons except painted jet black.

“It’s much lighter than I thought it’d be,” I said, picking up a gun.

“That’s because it’s not loaded.” He showed me how to load the magazine with a fifteen round. I clicked it into the trigger housing. I remembered reading about a shooting that was prevented at my university when I was an undergrad. A disgruntled former student who’d been kicked out of school was found with high capacity magazines and over $700 worth of weapons in his dorm room. He’d been planning a mass shooting. I didn’t know what a “magazine” was and had to look it up. It felt strange to be loading one myself.

With the bullets loaded, the gun weighed a pound heavier. But the gun wasn’t just heavier; now it was deadly. There was a moment soon after when I didn’t want to be there. A voice in me seemed to say, this is wrong. I drove out here, saw how it was done. Maybe that was enough.

The first shot was all it took me to realize Chris was right: this rifle was fun to shoot—heavy and hard to hold, but no kick back. Everything was internal. The first few shots were about getting used to the gun. When the bullet finally connected with the Tannerite, charcoal colored gusts of smoke and grit flew into the air. It was the coolest smoke cloud I’d ever seen. My own, small-scale, fireworks display.

Chris brought three guns for me to shoot. Two, small handguns—a Glock 22 and a Glock 17—and an AR-15 rifle. I associated these names with what I knew from film and television. The handguns looked like standard police guns and the rifle looked military.

He demonstrated how to hold the .22. His left hand cupped his right. The weaker hand steadied the dominant hand in the recoil. He pointed it toward the clearing and pulled. Pop. His movements were brief, quick. I was so focused on his hands that I didn’t catch what he’d said. He passed me the .22.

“You don’t want your thumb above this.” Chris pointed to the pocket underneath the hammer, moving my thumb even lower.

“Why not?”

“When you pull the trigger, the slide releases and kicks back. Trust me; you don’t want your thumb in the way when it disengages.”

I pictured a forgotten thumb punted backward, a splintering of bone knocked out of place.

I must’ve been holding the gun for no more than two minutes, but I had to lower it. My arms felt like stones.

I took a practice aim again. My left pointer held all the power. There was nowhere else for this finger to go except for the trigger—lightly resting on the side, but not yet curled—which felt strange even in practice and with the gun on safety.

I kept hearing that voice. This is wrong. Even if it’s just for fun.

 

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I stood with one foot planted in front of the other, my weight leaning into the gun for better control. Feet planted side by side made you more susceptible to the kickback. It meant a wobbly follow-through and a missed target.

I asked Chris about safety glasses. He waved his hand and said they weren’t necessary. Each shell casing ejected from the side of the gun. “It’s up to you, though.”

I decided not to wear any.

Chris’ instructions had a threatening tone. One misstep could result in chaos. The possibility was terrifying, but also intriguing. Danger was one unscrewed earplug or misplaced thumb away.

I didn’t feel ready, but I didn’t think this was something I’d ever feel “ready” for. I learned, as it goes, you just have to pull the trigger.

The target looked like a jack from the old-fashioned Game of Jacks, except this one was orange, made of foam, and about the size of a hand. It was in the grass about fifty feet from us. I could hardly see it.

During my first few practice pulls, my hands shook. My entire body seemed at ease, relaxed even. But my hands—it was like they weren’t attached to my body.

I gave the gun to Chris, thinking maybe I needed a break. I held my hands out in front of me to see if they were still shaking. They were. I wondered if this was my rational side trying to tell me something, the Miranda who wanted to put the gun down and leave, the Miranda who couldn’t help but think of things like war and Pulse and Columbine and Virginia Tech and Aurora, Colorado and Sandy Hook and the countless others that after a while become too much to think about. I hadn’t even pulled the trigger.

Standing in the clearing with a loaded gun in my hand, I forced these thoughts out of my head. It wasn’t until later, after enjoying shooting for fun, that I’d really begin to wonder what my enjoyment meant.

I pulled the trigger.

I missed my target. I fired again. I missed again. I missed for the first half hour. The more I missed, the more I became frustrated. I shuffled a few steps, replanted my feet. I pulled my hair up into a bun. I wanted to hit it, at least once. I understood how this could become a fixture for people.

Something moved in my peripheral. It was quick, almost undetected. I lowered the gun. Then I saw it again. A cluster of bushes flitted, and I could see, just beyond the greenery, a brown marsh rabbit. Its head slunk lower behind the bush. He stared at us.

“He’ll go away,” Chris said. He took a few steps toward the rabbit. In a flurry of sloshy crunching sounds it scampered off through the wet leaves and twigs. I thought of a conversation I once had with my sister after our uncle sent us pictures of dead deer he’d shot.

“I could never shoot an animal,” Katie had said.

“What if you didn’t have a choice?” I asked her.

“Like if it was life or death. What if a deer was your only source of food? How about then?”

She hesitated, but said no. I was annoyed by this, that she’d choose an animal’s life over her own.

“I think I would,” I said. But neither of us had ever been in a situation where that kind of primal fear of survival was put to the test. How did she really know? How did I?

After I hit the target once, I couldn’t stop. I hit the orange jack again and again, flipping it over as I did. I felt guilty. I wasn’t expecting to find this much pleasure in handling a lethal weapon.

“Onto the fun gun,” Chris said, pulling out the AR-15 rifle from its long, black case. He told me the sight was off, that even if I aimed, it wasn’t likely I’d hit anything.

He set out two canisters of Tannerite—a mixture of aluminum powder and fertilizer—on top of a tree stump even further out. He told me to keep my aim low. Once triggered, these bullets, .223 caliber, could fly for miles.

I knew there were no houses nearby. Still, I pictured a stray bullet soaring through the woods, cutting through trees and piercing leaves, settling into a warm body. I shook the thought from my head.

The first shot was all it took me to realize Chris was right: this rifle was fun to shoot—heavy and hard to hold, but no kick back. Everything was internal. The first few shots were about getting used to the gun. When the bullet finally connected with the Tannerite, charcoal colored gusts of smoke and grit flew into the air. It was the coolest smoke cloud I’d ever seen. My own, small-scale, fireworks display.

Once I started hitting the targets, I forgot everything around me. Everything disappeared. Chris, the scenic log cabin overlooking the lake, the smoky clouds gathering in front and above me, was cloaking the air with the smell of burning wood and lead. I stopped offering Chris the gun to take turns. I stopped hearing the voice in my head. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt this much release.