“Robin-Robin-Robin—after this, you’re gonna be a man!”
Kyle ends his playful, sarcastic comment with a measure of reassuring laughter. Today is the highlight of my friend group’s trip in southern Montana. My friends Jason, Sean, Kyle, and I had whizzed through hiking trails on the stark mountains nearby, and we were running out of things to do. On the fourth day, lounging in the living room of Jason’s family ranch, my friends stumble upon a revelation: I had never seen a real gun before.
Having spent half of my life in gun-restrictive Korea and the other half in suburban California, I’d always thought of guns as flashing sidekicks to action movie heroes rather than the quiet mass of steel they were in reality. Kyle and Sean are better acquainted with guns, having gone to a shooting range together last year. But Jason is our chief expert. Starting from age eight, his summer stays at the ranch were interspersed with his uncle gently guiding Jason’s lanky frame into the lithe stance of a seasoned marksman.
My boyish desire to be part of the group leads to the conclusion that I must shoot a gun by the end of the trip. As Jason leaves to ask his uncle about borrowing the guns, the room trembles with ecstatic conversation. Recalling his previous time at the range, Sean demonstrates his stance with the confidence of an Olympic athlete. Kyle teaches me about conscription in his home country of Switzerland, through which most people our age learn how to shoot.
Listening to the hum of conversation, I hold on to a quaint sense of appreciation for this moment. I know my friends here, like many Brown students, look at Second Amendment rights and gun-waving machismo with skepticism at best. But the combination of humor, curiosity, and fantasy gives me the sense that we’re indulging in a small dose of simple teenage boyhood, before the realities of a final year in college confront us on our flight back to Providence.
Jason instructs our rowdy group to gather materials for clinking—that is, the act of shooting at small targets for entertainment. As we get to work, we pluck out crumpled up Coke cans from recycling bins to fill with tap water. Jason reaches into the fridge to take out the half-foot-long Jimmy Dean pork sausage roll that no one has eaten—we will be leaving in a few days, anyway, and no one is eating it, so we might as well shoot at it, or so goes the logic.
The door clicks open. A hush falls over the room. In the doorframe, Jason’s uncle is holding two guns—a small revolver and a 22-caliber Winchester rifle. Jason confidently wraps his hands around the guns, though he matches that confidence with a cautious move to point them to the ground. The presence of amateurs motivates him to model professional safety. He beckons us outside.
A moment of awkward stillness arrests any movement towards the door. My friends and I refuse to walk ahead of Jason for any reason, because a sudden image jabs into our minds: a freak accident where the guns point up and shoot into our backs. Kyle tries to break the silence with an awkward laugh, to suggest that “Uh…maybe Jason should lead.” After some timid chuckles at the recognition of our hesitance, an appearance of relaxed enthusiasm returns, though we remain behind Jason at all times.
A wide-open sky greets us as we step outside. Though it’s mid-August, the altitude and the mountains that surround us in the distance bring cold winds through the dry grass fields of Jason’s family ranch. We trudge over to the east, where an unassuming hill unfurls onto the sea of grass.
In contrast to the majestic scenery, the four of us are all hunched, hands awkwardly hiding in our pockets or holding boxes of the targets. Before setting up the cans, Kyle’s feet are glued in place until Jason swings the rifle to the ground. An argument between Sean and Jason interrupts the stillness of the grassfields: Just aim the gun north for the safety demonstration. Dude no I can’t; you can’t see who might be in the grass there. Just aim way above it. No, that's still dangerous. And so on.
A frown sets over Jason’s face as he explains gun safety: Never point it at someone. Always assume it’s loaded. It’s your responsibility to make sure that the gun is not loaded, regardless of what anyone else says. Assume that the safety lock is not functional.
A dry burn sparks in my chest from seeing my friends argue in the company of deadly weapons. The altitude or anxiety—or both—force us to take shallow breaths. Part of me wants to go back inside, but my curiosity locks me in place as Jason steps up for a demonstration shot. He deftly brings the barrel against his shoulder, while his head tips to line up his vision with the sights. A breeze sweeps his hair off to the side of his face as we wait for him to—
Jason’s shot is followed by a faint tweeee. It’s the sound of ricochet, and Jason mutters a quick “shit!” before turning to tell us that we should change locations. It has something to do with the angle or the ground material or something that’s making the bullets bounce off, but shooting here can be dangerous, he says. Kyle looks at me with a sardonic smile. As if it’s ever totally safe to shoot anywhere, his face seems to say. I match his twisted smile with my own, although they both shift into more of a grimace of repressed anxiety.
After we set up again, my friends take turns trying out the guns. After a few initial stops and starts and reviews of how to load and cock the guns, we get into a rhythm. Cluck-cluck. POP. Cluck-cluck. POP. As each of my friends get comfortable with the gun, they become more ambitious. The gunshots speed up. Water spurts from the cans. Can-tops fly off. I stare at my friends’ focused eyes with an equal mix of awe and terror—has this ferocity always been a part of them? Was it there, even when I saw their eyes soften with tenderness as they told me about meeting their girlfriends for the first time? Or is the gun entrancing their eyes to transform into a dark, deadly shadow?
With a small lurch in my stomach, I realize that my turn has come. I take the rifle gently from Kyle. Are my hands shaking out of fear or thrilling anticipation? I’m not sure, but they move without my conscious direction, finding bullets and loading them into the barrel. I get up.
When I tilt my head to look down the sightlines, my vision warps around the barrel, reminding me of a childish memory of exploring a mirror maze—how concave mirrors blow out the reflection’s center. The bushes and grassfields in front of me slow down, while the sky narrows to an unfamiliar sliver of color at the top of my vision. My breathing quiets. I register gentle surprise at the sense of peace filling my mind, like I could stay still for an eternity in the split seconds that pass by between my breaths.
I pull the trigger.
The recoil gently pushes into my shoulder. My hands, almost by instinct, give the forearm of the gun a quick pump, as my mind registers the dust my bullet kicked up. Too low, whispers a voice in my head. Click-clack. I fire again, and again. Seeing a can drop on the other side fills me with ecstasy and an unquenchable thirst to shoot again. I take aim again, towards the sausage this time. POP-POP-POP!
My friends cheer at the sight of my targets falling down. They are laughing again now, enthusiastic at the damage we can unleash together. I start to chuckle with relief at being able to join in the same pleasure as the rest of the boys.
After 30 minutes of shooting, the sun begins to dim, so we reluctantly pack up to go inside. I am making dinner with Sean that night, and the large kitchen knife in my hands slices up-and-down through layers of red onions whose scraps I carry over to the garbage can. Sean asks me if I enjoyed my first time shooting, and I mumble a polite response about how I could see why others enjoy it, but that it felt too violent for my liking.
But I was lying. As I gaze into the garbage can, I realize the actual target of my deception: myself. My own self-image as the lefty-hippie humanities-major in the group, full of dreams about a future without guns and violence, was shaken. As I gaze into the garbage bin, I can finally recognize the sliver of color at the top of my vision while shooting the Winchester rifle as pleasure—for it was a red, a red as bloody and scarred as the bullet-riddled sausage roll, rotting in its own juices at the bottom of the bin.