One writer takes a hands-on approach to forming an opinion on gun rights

Words by Kendall Wenaas

I’m staring at a target. A black circle drawn on a blank piece of paper. My hands are shaking. I attempt to load the cold, black firearm that’s sitting in front of me. I drop the first bullet. Scott Strait, my instructor, pretends not to notice. I continue. As I cautiously pick up the gun, Scott silently watches, moving once to push my hand higher on the handle. He gives the go-ahead. I close my left eye. Then I remember I’m supposed to look with both eyes. I force my eye back open. Take a breath in. And pull the trigger—nothing. Exhale. Take another breath in. Then out. I pull the trigger again, this time with more force. Bang.

Give It A Shot

America has a complex relationship with guns. We love them—but we hate them at the same time. There have been 363 reported mass shootings in the U.S. alone this year (defined as four or more people shot). And while according to Pew Research the majority of people on both sides of the aisle seem to agree that there should be more thorough background checks for gun owners, there still is a great divide regarding gun rights as a whole.

Personally, I’ve never wanted to go near a gun. I had no urge to hold a gun, let alone shoot one. With that in mind, I’ve never formed an opinion on gun rights. America, however, is pretty divided on the issue. According to Gallup, Inc., 55 percent of people think the sale of firearms should be more strict, 33 percent it should remain the same and 11 percent think it should be less strict.

Like most political discussions, it seems everyone has an opinion on gun rights s. So,  I took a trip to CrossRoads Shooting Sports in Johnston, Iowa, hoping to shoot a firearm—and possibly form an opinion or two for myself.

CrossRoads looked like any other outdoor goods store: clothing, accessories—and a lot of guns. Rifles, shotguns, hand guns, all on display. As I waited for someone to help me, I started getting nervous. The employee called the man in front of me by name—clearly a regular. I did not belong.

But I had called ahead to make an appointment with an instructor. Strait, who has left CrossRoads since the original reporting, has more than 30 years of firearm experience. He was polite—calling me Miss Kendall for the entirety of my training, and asking before he adjusted my grip on the gun.

Before I was allowed to take out my notebook, CrossRoads’ owner drilled me with questions. No, I’m not trying to ruin your reputation. Yes, shooting a gun makes me nervous. But no, I have no hidden agenda or bias against the industry.

He was looking out for the good of his business. With as much controversy there is around gun control, I can’t blame him.

Armed and Ready

The first part of the session took place in a training room with a simulator. This was essentially a video game with a gun for the controller—like the kind in Scheels stores or pizza joints, but with a heavier, more realistic weapon. I know I’ve played one of those games at least once before, only this time picking up the laser gun was much more intimidating, as it looked exactly like the real firearm I was about to use. I wanted to get completely comfortable with the simulator  before I held the real thing in my hand.

Scott started by teaching me the proper way to pick up a gun. Much to his delight, I’d paid close attention to the online, mandatory pre-waiver video. I was nervous so I absorbed the technique pretty quickly. Always check to make sure the gun is completely unloaded. Point the gun down range. Pick it up with your dominant hand. There are a few different ways to grip a gun, so Scott went over them, then had me choose which was most comfortable—firmly, (but not too tight) with my index finger extended.

We then moved on to stance, sight and breathing—all important aspects of operating a firearm. Strait was extremely informative, constantly assessing my grip and telling me what to fix in a calm, patient manner that helped me feel more confident. After 15 minutes of hands-on training , I felt a bit more prepared to try out the real thing.

Split Shot

Despite it being only 25 minutes, Strait’s teaching was invaluable. I never would have felt confident holding a gun without his in-person, hands-on coaching. The software he used to prepare me—an amateur in the truest sense of the word—is also used for training self-defense lessons and policemen. Scott seemed to be impressed with my technique, and I felt I was ready to move on.

But as I stepped through the doors into the range, I got jittery again. Scott, who could probably tell that my heart was in my throat, began to calmly unpack the semi-automatic 22-caliber firearm.. Smaller than I’d imagined, the black, cold-looking weapon was intimidating. It was heavier than the training gun. There was no stripe of red labeling it as a fake. This machine was capable of doing a lot more damage than shooting a laser beam at a screen.  

Strait demonstrated loading the gun. Remove the magazine (where the bullets go). Load the bullets in the magazine—like you’d fill a Pez dispenser with candy (Scott’s analogy, not mine). Put the magazine back in the firearm, and secure it in place by hitting it with the heel of your hand. Then pull the slide on top of the barrel to load a bullet into the firing chamber. He then unloaded the gun and let me do it.

I can now relate with those who shoot for sport—and those who feel safer when they have a concealed weapon on them.”

-Kendall Wenaas

Shooting a gun is terrifying, yet so much fun. The kickback wasn’t as strong as I had expected; I was able to hold the gun at arm’s length the whole time. The sound was muffled by my earmuffs (required to enter the range), so it wasn’t deafening by any means. If  Strait had been in teaching mode before, he had now switched to full-on affirmation. He had me shoot the gun twice more, then reload it with 10 bullets. I shot those, hitting the target every time. Then reloaded it with another 10 and shot a new target, trying to shoot as straight as I could.

I didn’t want to be done shooting. The rush that I felt when the gun went off was similar to a runner’s high. I can now relate with those who shoot for sport—and those who feel safer when they have a concealed weapon on them.

I kept the remainder of my bullets and made a plan to go back to CrossRoads to shoot again. I felt powerful. I can imagine how addicting the rush might be. So I can also empathize with those afraid of weapons. A finger on a trigger is serious business—it can mean the difference between life and death.

Unfortunately, shooting a gun didn’t magically form my opinion for me. While I’m glad I experienced it, gun rights are so much more complex than liking to shoot. At the end of the day, I’m back exactly where I started—just a touch more experienced.