Within about five minutes of arriving at Red's, an indoor shooting range in South Austin, we were in a lane with a Smith & Wesson, a Beretta, ear muffs, safety glasses, a bunch of bullets, and only the faintest idea of what to do next. I was with my mother and two of her friends, one of which was visiting us from Belgium and had been curious to explore the Texas you see in the movies (she also rented a truck). None of us had ever shot a gun. So I called up Red's and asked about a lesson the next day. "We schedule lessons a week in advance," said the man who answered, a bit dismissively, "but if you show up we'll setcha up in the range with some rentals."
It was raining when we arrived and we ducked into the front door, finding a warm, well-lit gun store full of rows and rows of accessories. At a back counter, a bearded man in a hunting vest pleasantly explained that there were some limits to what we could rent, seeing as we had no experience. That was fine, we said, and he handed over the Smith & Wesson, a small silver revolver that looks straight out of Western movie set, and a Beretta, sleek and black, with a magazine that loaded into the handle.
We filled out slips of paper, circling a string of N's next to questions like "Are a you fugitive from Justice?" and "Have you ever been convicted of an domestic violence offense?" I asked the man if answering 'yes' to any of these was a red flag (though of course nobody was verifying your answers). He told me that he's often surprised by how many people honestly circle a 'Y' and then expect to be handed a Luger or Glock.
You could hear the gun range from inside the store, but that was no preparation for the noise inside, past two doors. For a first timer, each shot rattles your guts as the sound bounces around the thin metal walls. I got a clammy, cold sweat from the random, yet constant bangs on all sides, which varied in volume with the sizes of the guns. This made it hard to calmly load the bullets, so we constantly had to ask for help from the Range Officer. It probably would have appeared dumb to ask why these men are referred to as "officers." There's just something vaguely martial about the whole thing.
After I loaded the bullets, there was a quick break while two men in gas masks and body suits (to avoid lead poisoning) entered the range to fix two of the rope lines that carry the paper targets back and forth down the lanes. Roughly twice a day, someone accidentally shoots them, so they have to be replaced. Some paper targets just have a grid. Others have the form of a human printed with concentric ovals to measure accuracy.
As the men crossed into the firing zone, we asked the Range Officer about the gun in the next lane, a large, black, bug-like SK-47. "Those are popular in third world countries," he said. "Because they are cheap and powerful. They're not very accurate, but in close combat it's not hard to hit a person." He motioned to one of the men out on the range. "See, it wouldn't be so hard to hit him, right?" Shooting accidents are exceedingly rare on these indoor range (they have happened, though), but the truly horrific possibility of shooting a person never seems that far away. The paper targets, after all, don't have the outline of a deer.
The first guns we tried had no kick. "Just one step up from a BB gun," we were told. Nevertheless, it feels like an explosion in your hand, one that you've created but not totally controlled. When the gun is new, you never know precisely how far you'll need to pull the trigger before it goes off. It's not unlike a champagne bottle. I had pretty much no idea where on the target I might be hitting.
After several rounds on each gun, we decided to graduate up to Smith & Wesson's .356 Magnum, essentially a bigger, louder, and stronger version of the .22, as well as a Glock. These guns had a kick, which jolted your hands and wrists backward with each shot. The Glock discarded shells backwards, and nobody seemed bothered by the little hot bits of metal flying at their heads.
Most of the other people on the range were not renting. They had brought their own SK's, AK's, and DSA's, serious rifles and snipers with scopes and mounts. Most were men, though I saw a few women. Today was "Ladies Day," meaning half-price range fees and free rentals. Normally, it's $14 per hour per shooter, though husband and wife teams get a discount. One older man with a wispy mustache and combat boots brought his middle school-aged daughter, who had blonde pigtails. When she finished a round, he pulled off the paper target. She took it and held against her torso to figure out, I assumed, whether she would have killed someone.
I pulled back the paper target that the four of us had shot. It was riddled in the chest, with one shot clear through the head.