Their Aim Is True

Taking stock of America's real gun culture

It was mid-September, 1998, the first day of Northern California’s Range War, a "cowboy action shooting" competition in which participants dress up in Old West costumes and use replicas of antique weapons. So far things were going pretty well. I was just starting to get used to my borrowed 12-gauge shotgun, and my revolvers (single-action .38s) were performing smoothly. My cowgirl costume was pretty comfortable -- black silk jacket, flowing black silk skirt -- and for once my hat was staying on my head. I was getting into my groove, hitting most of the targets with my pistols, and almost all of them with my new lever-action .44 rifle. My shotgun shooting wasn’t too great, but the gun was borrowed, and that’s always a good excuse. But I was fast approaching the toughest part of the event -- the "mechanical pony" stage. Cowboy shooters have to load their guns and fire at metal targets while sitting on a rocking mechanical pony, the kind that used to be in front of supermarkets in the ’70s. Everyone was complaining that the rocking motion was so jerky you couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. And anyone who forgot to keep her shotgun stock braced firmly against the hollow of her shoulder would be sore for weeks. I was dreading this stage.

I heard the rangemaster call my name, and that meant it was time to make final preparations for my turn. In the safety area, I carefully loaded my rifle with the requisite 10 rounds. Then I loaded my revolvers and tucked them back into my hip holsters. My heart was starting to pound, and when my name was called, I slowly walked up to the pony, handing my rifle and shotgun (with their actions open) to the shooter who’d be keeping track of my hits. I readjusted my eye and ear protection, climbed up onto the pony, and nodded that I was ready. I could feel how clammy my hands had gotten as I took back my rifle, the first of the four guns I would shoot.

I vaguely heard the rangemaster yell the commands to standby and then start, but I was already on autopilot, trying to move with the pony, which had started rocking. The motion was slow, but since I was used to shooting while standing perfectly still, it had already completely destabilized me. I tuned out everything except the gun I was holding at the moment and the targets in front of me (pretty far in front of me, actually). I worked my rifle’s lever to chamber a round, aimed, and fired. Aiming was not easy, but I felt like I was shooting close to the target. I think I even managed to hit a few, but I couldn’t be sure. After firing all 10 rounds, I handed down my rifle. The pistols were easier to aim and shoot, and I heard five of my 10 shots plink against the metal targets.

The shotgun was the worst, as I knew it would be. My borrowed gun was a "side-by-side," a 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun. I am not a tall woman, so even with light loads, this gun was a handful. After loading quickly, I brought the butt up against my shoulder and held it there as tightly as I could. I was so full of adrenaline that I didn’t even feel nervous anymore. I let myself rock back and forth with the motion of the pony and carefully aimed at the targets about 8 or 10 yards away. I pulled the first trigger. The gun slammed back against my shoulder with a thud. What seemed like an eternity later, I pulled the second trigger, and this time I managed to control the recoil pretty well. But by this point I was too busy reloading to feel much satisfaction from having hit the target on one of my first two tries. After loading two more times, I realized that I probably hit only half my targets.

That last shot was a relief. When I climbed down from the pony, stiff from tension, my shoulder was already throbbing. The recoil had caused a massive bruise to begin forming.

The cowboy shooter who’d been counting my hits smiled at me and nodded encouragingly. He was a regular at these events, in his late 60s. With an authentic cowboy drawl, he said: "That was good, careful shooting. Don’t worry, speed comes later. That was good shooting." I almost groaned -- I must have been really slow. I nodded and smiled at him, taking back my rifle. Then I walked back to the safety area to unload my revolvers and check all my guns.

Truly, I didn’t care how fast or accurate I had been. I was just glad to have it finished. My shoulder was really starting to ache. I was not looking forward to tomorrow’s team shoot, though thank God it would be the last day of the two-day event. I had learned an important lesson: It’s tough to be a decent cowboy action shooter when you have to keep borrowing the guns.

There was a time when I would not have wanted to touch a gun of any kind, much less spend part of an afternoon riding the back of a rocking mechanical pony and blazing away at a series of targets with revolvers, rifles, and shotguns. But that improbable picture is the culmination of a journey that took me from the ivory towers of academia to the shooting ranges of Northern California. Bluntly, I was surprised by what I found there. As a practicing anthropologist, I had set out in search of gun crazies, but what I found were regular folks -- enthusiasts who relate to their guns in generally socially positive ways. These people are usually ignored by most media accounts of America’s "gun culture." What follows is the story of how I came to make that discovery, and some brief sketches of the sorts of people who make up America’s much-maligned and misunderstood gun culture. Or, perhaps more accurately, America’s gun cultures.

Militia or Mainstream?

I am a 32-year-old anthropologist, and the focus of my research is gun use in the U.S. For a "gun scholar," I think I have an unusual background. I did not grow up with guns; I grew up on the East Coast, the daughter of white, politically liberal, Jewish parents. After finishing college and a master’s program in England, I came back to the U.S. and decided on more graduate school. I chose to study anthropology because I liked the spirit of adventure it embodied, and because I liked the idea of working within a nonjudgmental discipline that encouraged the study of human social interaction. In 1993, I entered the joint program in medical anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco.

I didn’t expect to study guns. But after several years of studying and living in Berkeley, I found that my interest in my original topic of inquiry -- culture-bound psychiatric syndromes -- was waning. So I slowly began looking around for other research topics, hoping to find something current and interesting. Around that time, I met a fellow anthropology graduate student named Michael (his and all subsequent names have been changed), who was writing his dissertation on Moroccan tourism.

Michael was a fascinating person. A highly educated secular Jew from New England, he was pro-choice and pro-feminism -- and he liked to ride motorcycles. Most intriguing of all, Michael was a hunter. I found this last facet to be particularly odd. I felt that I had a lot in common with Michael, but I didn’t expect a man who was so liberal and so urbane to be interested in guns. Unlike me, Michael had grown up around guns. He hunted with his father and brother, and he owned several guns, including a rifle, a shotgun, and a starter pistol that he used to train his dog to hunt.

I was intrigued by my inability to pigeonhole Michael. I also liked his willingness to share his interests with me, most specifically his interest in guns. That attracted me, not only because I was so aware of my own ignorance, but also because his readiness to share such a traditionally masculine interest said something about his gender egalitarianism. Though we had a sometimes-romantic relationship, we eventually decided to be simply friends, which we remain five years later. After getting to know each other for several months, we decided to try working together.

We began by studying the right-wing militia movement of the early 1990s. Our first foray into the subject would have been comical if it hadn’t been so na�ve. Our initial attempt to meet local militia members took us to a shooting range in the Bay Area, where we assumed local militia meetings would be held. We went on a Tuesday night, fully expecting the range to be seething with radical political activity. Why else would people congregate at a shooting range, if not to meet other like-minded, potentially dangerous right-wing gun nuts? It never occurred to us that they might be there for the simple enjoyment of target shooting.

It embarrasses me now to recall that trip. We went expecting to find militia members milling around in camouflage gear, holding signs, and handing out radical pamphlets. Needless to say, we didn’t meet anyone during our visit who fit that description. There may be isolated ranges across the U.S. that do cater predominantly to shooters involved with the militia movement, and even ranges that covertly sponsor "radical political activity." But there were no militia meeting schedules to be found at the range we visited, even though we did see a radical bumper sticker or two: "Gun control is hitting your target."

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