all God's children got a gun
It felt better in my hand than I thought it would, but make no mistake, I was scared to death of the thing. We started small and easy, with an 8-shot, 22 caliber revolver.
I followed My Instructor’s directions exactly - to the point of making him repeat everything twice.
“Pull the hammer back with your thumb”, he said.
“Pull the hammer back with my thumb?”, I asked.
“Yes. Pull the hammer back with your thumb.” He was very patient with me.
I hadn’t shot a handgun since I was about twelve years old, so my fear, I think, was healthy. A .22 bullet is a pretty small thing but it can make a mess of soft tissue - brains, for instance - so I wanted to be really careful.
I don’t know where the first shot went. I mean, I know it went the right direction … downrange … away from My Instructor and me. I just don’t know if it hit anywhere near the target.
I shot two more rounds very cautiously, very deliberately. Then he told me I didn’t need to cock the hammer every time so I went bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, click.
Other guys showed up. It was a church group, of all things: a pastor, the organist, the leader of the praise band, me and a couple other guys. My Instructor and I have been in the same Tuesday night Bible study for years. I was the only real novice in the group.
We moved on to the pastor’s .357, a gun with a badass reputation, but the one I shot felt solid, stable, and smooth. And then everybody except me pulled a 9mm out of their bag: Glocks, Rugers, and Sigs. I got careful, competent, instruction with every gun. They told me how to hold it and where to put my thumbs so that the slide wouldn’t break them. How to keep my finger away from the trigger unless I meant for the gun to fire. How to set and release the safeties. How to use the sights.
It may seem incongruous for a group of Christian fellas to gather at the gun range … at least in our particular brand of Christianity. We’re United Methodists - a pretty mild bunch who subscribe to a theology of grace and social action and the pursuit of personal holiness. Our denomination’s Social Principles are dominated by a left-wing softness that doesn’t really have a place for gunplay.
And the social climate in the country right now is strongly divided on the appropriateness of personal arsenals. These are the days that students are walking out of school to protest the violent attacks which come as they are nearly defenseless in their classrooms … sitting ducks … easy targets. The kids are tired of it and I don’t blame them. So, there’s a bit of political-incorrectness with today’s activity. As the media producer for our church, I have to say it felt strange to write an announcement about this meeting.
But the fact is, there are an awful lot of gun owners out there and the vast majority of them are law-abiding, level-headed, good-hearted, and dare I even say God-fearing people just like you and me. If we get together with our brothers and sisters in Christ to share the other aspects of our lives - golf, barbeque, fishing, books, ideas - why not get together and shoot a little bit, too?
These guys grew up around guns and they have different motivations for owning them. The Organist lives outside of town and has to be his own first line of protection - it might take a county deputy a while to get to him. My Instructor is on the road for his job all the time and might run into all kinds of characters, and so he has a concealed-carry permit. The rest of the guys are hunters and outdoor types for whom guns are just a thing they’ve always had. They have guns the same way that they have electric drills and scissors. None of them has ever shot a human being. None of them seems to want to, and I’d be surprised if any of them ever do.
The Organist set up a paper target - about 12 x 12 with grid lines on it and handed me a pistol with a long barrel and a fancy-shmancy sight. I was intimidated by the size, but it was surprisingly light-weight. I put the red dot on the target and eased back on the trigger. It was fluid and precise. The gun coughed and kicked ever so gently and a hole appeared in the target almost exactly where I wanted it to. It’s funny how I can put a .22LR bullet where I want it at 15 yards, but I can’t hit anything with a bowling ball at 20. I wonder if The Organist would let me take his gun to the lanes to pick off my 7 pins.
The gun range, of course, isn’t at the church - we’re well-equipped, but not that well-equipped - it’s in a county park on the north edge of town. The church is supposed to be a safe sanctuary, free of alcohol, drugs, and weapons. But there are guys - not necessarily these guys here at the range today - in our church who have told me that they are sometimes armed on Sunday mornings. “Bad things can happen anywhere”, they said. “Read the news.”
When I heard that for the first time, it made me pause for a moment and wonder if I should now feel more safe or less safe than I did just a minute ago. The presence of lethal weapons in our sanctuary seems to go against the spirit of the gathering, but I guess if the shit hits the fan, it’ll be OK to have a few good guys with guns in the crowd.
This isn’t the only time I’ve been around guns in church. On my second trip to Nigeria, on a Sunday morning in Jalingo, I loaded myself into our guide’s truck for the ride to worship. Already seated inside was an NFP officer with his rifle. As we drove into a Christian neighborhood, there were armed guards outside all of the churches. We weren’t too far from where Boko Haram was active and churches were their favorite targets. The Lutherans and Methodists and the Non-denoms all had guys with guns. There were lookouts stationed at the doors and on the streets and you could feel the tension.
Here at home, the threats are harder to identify. Rather than an ongoing, organized, armed insurrection, we have the deranged, the incensed, the bullied who aren’t going to take it anymore, and the soldiers for causes that only they understand. They operate alone and generally stay under the public’s radar until they decide that the world - their world, anyway - would be improved by the killing of worshipers in their sanctuaries, or kids in their schools, or revelers in their nightclubs.
These lone shooters are invisible and unpredictable until they surface in an attack of the type that is rare and horrifying, yet common enough that we now sigh and say “another one?” when we see the headline. Back in the 1990s we would have called it “going postal”, but the mailmen have mellowed and now it’s the school kids we have to watch out for.
Our group trooped next door to the 25-yard range and the pastor handed me his 12 gage shotgun. I don’t know what it was loaded with, but I wish my tongue hadn’t been between my teeth when I shot it. Next, the guys gave me a bird load and I blew the hell out of a paper turkey. Then, just for the hilarity of it, they locked in a deer slug and when I pulled the trigger I nearly fell over backward as the barrel punched upward and the stock slammed my bad shoulder and I shouted some words that I had hoped the pastor didn’t know that I knew.
The guys I know who carry in church are generally soft-spoken, thoughtful, polite and certainly discrete. We’re not talking about Idaho-militia, “gotta-bunker-in-the-basement” kind of guys. They’re fathers and grandfathers. They aren’t caricatures of Hollywood action heroes, intimidating people and itching for a fight. They’re guys who shake hands and say welcoming things and go to Sunday School classes. Their guns are for personal defense only - completely concealed and the only time they mention them is when it fits into the context of a larger conversation - they certainly don’t go around bragging that they’re armed.
We do not have an organized, silent, secret security force on hand on Sunday mornings. These are individuals, making their own decisions to come armed to a place of sanctuary. When I say it like that, it sounds inappropriate … maybe even menacing. But it has probably been going on for a lot longer than I have been alive. It probably happens in nearly every American church, and in fact, in every public and private place American citizens gather. On any given Sunday, I may greet seven or eight people who are armed and never know it. In fact, unless I’m writing an essay like this one, I don’t even think about it.
I wonder, could they or would they stop a Parkland or Charleston or Maiduguri-type attack if one occurred on our campus? I don’t know. Having a small concealed handgun that you know how to handle at the gun range is not the same thing as knowing what to do in a tactical situation. In my church, I know of a couple people who would know exactly what to do, and a few who probably would not.
So do I want to join them? Do I want a gun of my own? I have to admit, I kind of do.
I had a good time with the guys at the range, turning cardboard into cellulose lace. I enjoyed shooting like I enjoy other skill challenges: riding singletrack, bowling, etc. And shooting a handgun is not completely dissimilar to the kind of shooting I normally do with my 50mm Canon ….there’s a stance, a grip, a focus. On the political side, the 2nd Amendment gives me the right to keep and bear arms … gives all of us the right to equip ourselves to resist tyranny … and I’m right-wing enough to want to avail myself of all the rights I have.
But on the other hand, in the current trajectory of my life, a gun is just a want and not a need. I live in a peaceful neighborhood and a place where the rule of law is generally respected, and I’m thankful for both of those things. If I felt more threatened or lived in a more dangerous place I probably would have a gun. If I spent a lot of time away from home, on the road by myself, I probably would have a gun. But in my first 50 years, I haven’t needed one, and I hope to continue to live in a way and a place that I won’t need one for the next 50 years.
But still, I kind of want one.