In November 2007, I visited a friend whom I'd met in Missoula, at his family's home in Mississippi. Clayton asked me if I wanted to try hunting, and I, after two years in Montana, was more than curious. I said yes.
In an old house with sloping floors, on a soybean farm owned by his grandfather, Clayton held up a picture of a deer and pointed behind its front shoulder: "This is where you should aim." Then he showed me the 30-.06 rifle.
In a tree stand overlooking a field surrounded by dense hardwood, we waited for the light to fail. Clayton explained that deer entered the field before dark to feed. We sat in the tree for an hour, silent in the deepening blues of the Mississippi evening. Then Clayton leaned over slowly and said, "There's a deer over there." Through the gloaming, a deer grazed on the edge of the field. It appeared small, the size of a big golden retriever. Clayton gave me a look that said "go for it." The shot was awkward because I had to lean across Clayton's chest to look through the scope, but also because I'd never shot a gun. "Once he's in your sights," he whispered, "slowly squeeze the trigger."
The shot vibrated through my cheekbone. The deer was on the ground, and Clayton was giggling. "You got him, you got him," he said. "Nice, nice, nice!" I climbed down from the tree on shaky legs. The deer was on the ground, still, with no sign of injury. Clayton explained that the exit wound would be more visible, and when we turned it over the hair of the front quarter was soaked in blood and speckled with fragments of bone and flesh. Clayton wanted to take a picture, and told me to hold the deer's head up so we were both looking at the camera. After panicky consideration, I smiled for the photo.
The next day, I called my mom and told her I would be coming home for Thanksgiving with fresh venison. I was proud. I experienced something so many of my peers had experienced, something vital and essential to the lives of so many in Montana. It was profound. Not fun necessarily, but powerful, and with the meat on dry ice in a Walmart cooler, hunting even felt good.
"You what?" she said.
"I killed a deer with Clayton. I have the meat."
"You what? ...I..." she trailed off. She began crying. "I just didn't think you were the kind of person who would do that."
I've lived in Montana for seven years now, and nothing continues to make me feel more like a tourist than guns. I grew up around New York City, where, generally, people don't own guns, and if they do, they don't talk about it. Before this story, killing the deer in Mississippi was still my only meaningful experience with a gun, but it was not for lack of opportunity. In Montana, guns are a tool, a sport and a tradition. To many, firearms represent a tick mark on the generations-long continuum of being Montanan. When it comes to guns in Montana, the distance between here and where I was raised cannot be measured in miles.
"This is a .22 manufactured by the High Standard Company," Stu Smith explains as he gently sets the pistol on the shooting bench at the Ed McGivern Pistol and Revolver Range outside Great Falls. He reaches into his metal-sided box again. "This is a .38," he says. "And this is a Colt .45...These are firearms, not weapons."
Stu has a thinning black mustache and wears dark blue work pants from his job as a handyman. He's an avid competition pistol shooter and a director of the shooting range. He and Jamey Williams, a physical therapist from Conrad and president of the Montana Rifle and Pistol Association, have agreed to spend the afternoon teaching me how to shoot.
Competitive pistol shooting involves shooters hitting targets that are 25 or 50 yards away. Sometimes matches are timed, allowing the shooter seconds to fire his rounds. Sometimes the shooters are allowed minutes. "The key to success," Stu explains, "is fundamentals, and doing it the same way every time...Our sport is all about precision."
Stu's routine begins with proper grip: He uses his middle and ring fingers to hold the gun in the crook of his hand. His pinkie and thumb hover over the gun's surface. Then he holds the gun to the target with his right hand, resting his left hand on his belt, so he looks a little bit like a badass. "This is where your breathing becomes important. You don't want to be breathing when you squeeze the trigger."
"You want to be holding your breath?" I ask.
"No," he says, pulling a half-smoked cigarette from his shirt pocket.
"You don't want to be holding your breath?" I ask.
"No." His smile doesn't make it to his eyes. "Think about your breathing. You inhale and then you exhale. If you pay attention to when you exhale, there is a hesitation before you inhale. What you want to do is extend that hesitation. That's when you squeeze the trigger." Stu goes on to explain that master pistol shooters are able to control their breathing without conscious thought. They do it the exact same way every time, for hundreds of rounds.
"It seems like there's something sort of meditative about it," I say. "Like with the breathing, forcing you to be present."
Stu looks at me and then down range, as if a response may be near the targets. "No, not really."
Stu hands me the .22 first, and tells me to open the action to make sure the chamber is empty. He tells me to squeeze the trigger with the gun unloaded to feel "how light the trigger is." Then he loads a magazine and instructs me to aim. Stu's pistols have optics that produce a red dot telling you where your bullet will go. My red dot is wobbling all over the target. Stu tells me to accept my wobble. "Don't try to control it," he explains. "Even master marksmen have a wobble."
I squeeze the trigger. The recoil of the .22 is mild and somehow satisfying like popping a zit. Stu urges me to keep shooting. I fire five rounds into the paper target 25 yards away. It feels good, the release of energy, the propulsion of a projectile. I am reminded of every camping trip I've ever been on, where at some point I became obsessed with hitting a tree with a rock.
Stu hands me the .38 next. It's heavier than the .22, but I find the recoil similarly satisfying. I can also smell gunpowder this time. It smacks the back of my throat, a combination of taste and smell like dirty socks and bleach.
Finally, Stu hands me the .45, and as he did with the previous two guns, he runs through my safety checklist. All good, he tells me to aim and fire. The gun recoils aggressively. It takes me a moment to find the target again. I squeeze a second time, and the recoil is more nerve-wracking than satisfying. I decide a Colt .45 is more like a weapon than a piece of sporting equipment, but I keep my mouth shut.
With the .45, I hit the target but barely. I ask Stu if I can watch him shoot. He picks up the .45 with one hand, resting his other hand in his belt. He aims, and his shoulders settle into a remembered rest. He pulls the trigger and the shot is concussively loud. All five of his shots hit the target in a fist-sized group.
When I was shooting, I didn't hear anything, at least not like the thunderclap shot from a beer bottle Stu produced. I tell Stu what I experienced.
"That's because when you're shooting," he says, "you're focusing."
To say that the United States citizenry is the most armed citizenry in the world is a little misleading. True, there are 88 guns per 100 people in America (the next closest is Yemen with just under 55 guns per 100 people). Also true, America is home to an estimated 35-50 percent of the civilian-owned guns in the world. And, yes, one of the most influential and visible political lobbies in America is the National Rifle Association, which spends millions of dollars every election cycle to protect the Second Amendment rights of Americans.
Despite all that, people who own guns in America are the exception, not the rule. According to the 2010 General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, less than a third of American homes had a gun. The all-powerful NRA has 4 million members, representing about 1 percent of the population (by contrast, the AARP has 38 million members). In other words, there is a disproportionate number of guns and gun fervor in a country where most people aren't packing, which suggests two things: 1) People who own a gun probably own more than one, and 2) People who own guns really, really love them, and don't want anyone taking them away.
Here are some reasons why someone would want to take their guns away: On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walked into their high school with a TEC-9 (9mm semi-automatic), a Hi-Point 995 carbine rifle and two 12-gauge shotguns, one of which Harris named "Arlene." They killed 13 and wounded 21. On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho used a .22 caliber Walther P22 and a 9mm Glock to kill 32 and wound another 17 at Virginia Tech. And on July 20, 2012, James Holmes, dressed in tactical gear, walked into a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises wielding a 12-gauge Remington, a Smith and Wesson M&P 15 rifle, and a Glock 22. He shot 70 people, killing 12.
Or on March 30, 1981, when John Hinckley fired a .22 caliber revolver six times outside of a Washington, D.C., hotel in a failed attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Four people were injured. James Brady, President Reagan's press secretary, was shot in the head, leaving him partially paralyzed. Brady has since started an anti-gun campaign. In 1993, his campaign succeeded in seeing the Brady Act signed by President Bill Clinton, which required background checks for individuals purchasing guns.
Today, the Brady Campaign ranks the states with the strongest (read: strictest) gun laws. California is No. 1 with a score of 81 out of 100 possible points. Hawaii is No. 6 with 50 points. Montana is tied for 47th with a score of 2.
Living in Montana, it is easy to forget that most Americans don't own a gun, because in Big Sky Country gun culture seems to be thriving. Between September 2010 and February 2012, federally licensed gun dealers in the state ordered 16,888 FBI background checks; only two other states, Kentucky and Utah, ordered more per 100,000 people. That figure doesn't even take into account guns purchased by Montanans from Montana gun manufacturers. In 2009, Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed the Montana Firearms Freedom Act, which among other things, says Montana-made guns bought by Montana citizens don't require background checks. The federal government doesn't recognize the law. Since it passed, statewide manufacturing of guns has grown 82 percent.
After shooting, Stu and Jamey take me to the Great Falls Shooting Complex's club house, a corrugated-sided building that stands up against the brown-grey bleakness of prairie. Inside, we find four men, each of them either a director of the shooting complex, a competitive shooter, or both. All of them are members of the NRA.
I begin by asking the group how they each came to appreciate firearms. Patrick, a neat, skinny guy with combed salt-and-pepper hair, talks about his family, and the bonds guns have strengthened: "When [your father] hands you your first rifle, you'll never get that feeling again. It takes time. You have to be there one-on-one, engaged with one another...talking about what a gun can do if it's done wrong, what it can if it's done right. Because this day and age, everyone is going sideways."
The rest of the men have similar stories. John, a bearish man with an Oklahoma drawl who claims to buy five to 10 guns a year, says the prize gun in his collection is a 1925 A5 that his granddad bought his father the day his father was born. "I have four grandkids now, and I bought each of them a .22 on the day they were born," he says. "Teaching them all to shoot, seeing the grin on their faces, it's irreplaceable."
Then James, whom everyone calls Chief and has the unlikely vibe of a church-going Al Bundy, echoes what I had already experienced in my brief shooting career. "There's something about taking something in your hand, whether it's a gun or a bow and arrow or a Frisbee," he says, "and hitting something way over there and not only doing it consistently but also making that target smaller and smaller and smaller. That feels good."
As the conversation ebbs, I ask the men what they would say to someone who suggests guns be made illegal.
Jamey Williams didn't need much time. "Self-defense."
He offers a supporting anecdote: "I witnessed an assault this summer. I was in a city and we called the police and you would not believe how long it took them to get there. There could have been plenty of people dead if it had escalated to that level. It took the police 7 or 8 minutes to get there."
Today, the NRA is a political and ideological juggernaut in the world of firearms. Its website is plastered with banners reading, "Send Obama His Walking Papers," "Gun Laws Ring Hollow with Voters" and "Handgun Stopping Power: Did Your Favorite Load Make The Cut?" But it was not always this way.
After the Civil War, a journalist named William C. Churchman and a lawyer named George Wingate returned to New York City and commiserated on the lack of marksmanship of their fellow Union troops. They agreed on the importance of an organization dedicated to "promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis." In 1871, they found the National Rifle Association.
In the beginning, it raised funds to open shooting ranges around New York City. The goal was to provide education in marksmanship and safety. The NRA quickly became a club of recreationists and competitive shooters. It wasn't until the 1930s that the NRA became politically involved. The National Firearms Act (1934) and the Federal Firearms Act (1938) represented the first major gun-legislation in America's history, proposing a firearm licensing system and heavily restricting the purchase of automatic weapons. Though not in an official lobbying capacity, the NRA came out in support of the measures. Then NRA Executive Vice President Milton Reckford told the House Ways and Means Committee, "We believe that the machine gun, sub-machine gun, and sawed-off shotgun, and dangerous and deadly weapons could all be included in any kind of a bill, and no matter how drastic, we will support it."
In the years following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and in the midst of the civil rights movement, the NRA began to evolve into the political force it is today. In reaction to a bill proposed by President Lyndon Johnson which would have extended a ban on mail-ordered rifles and shotguns, then-NRA President Harold Glassen called the measure the government's attempt to "foist upon an unsuspecting and aroused public a law that would, through its operation, sound the death knell for shooting sport and eventually disarm the American public."
When the NRA was founded, there was no mention of self-defense or rights of any kind. Yet today, it touts itself as the champion for the Second Amendment and a defender of freedom. Before the 2008 election, the NRA distributed thousands of wallet-sized cards to its members: "Barack Obama's Ten Point Plan to 'Change' The Second Amendment." No. 1 was ban use of firearms for home defense. No. 4 was close down 90 percent of gun shops in America. No. 6 was increase federal taxes on guns and ammunition by 500 percent.
Though the association continues to provide education and host shooting competitions and events, the NRA is most visibly a political lobby, and one that has framed its cause as essentially American.
On a fall Sunday, the air freshly cleared of smoke from ongoing forest fires, Wes Mills meets me outside of his Bitterroot Valley home. He wears a wool sweater and faded jeans.
He shakes my hand, and immediately seems like the kind of person who would rather avoid situations that require handshaking. Wes is an artist whose work is shown and sold in galleries and museums in San Francisco, New York and Munich. In a 2007 booklet for the Portland Art Museum's exhibition, Apex: Wes Mills, his work is described as "existing in a place between the palpable and the ephemeral...[his] graphite and ink drawings emanate an intuitive sense of the universal."
He shows me into his house, and leads me into a room where he has laid out a dozen of his favorite guns on the floor. "This one is an AK-47. There are probably more of these in the world than anything else."
Wes was born on an orchard in eastern Oregon. For his family, hunting was not only a way of life but a means of sustenance. "We were poor, and ate a lot of venison and rabbit," he explains. "We weren't even allowed to have BB guns because they weren't safe but they weren't dangerous. They were kind of in between." Wes doesn't remember an early fascination with guns, but he had one in his hand from a young age, and what was his circumstance became his passion. He hasn't hunted for years and he long ago gave up competitive pistol shooting, but he still shoots at a neighborhood gun range notched into a hill below his house.
Before we leave the house for the range, Wes tells me he isn't interested in gun politics and he has nothing to say about gun laws. He tells me that when he was starting to compete in pistol matches, he would often get frustrated by the challenge, until one day an old timer set him straight. "This guy said to me I just need to think about the reality of what I was doing," he says. "Sending a projectile through space."
Wes tells me that he works at the Ax Men South gun store one or two shifts a week because the owners are "wonderful people." When I ask Wes why he likes to shoot he tells me that's a bigger question than I think. "More than anything," he says, "it's fun."
We start off by shooting pistols: a Walther P22, a Glock 17 9mm, a .357 Smith and Wesson. I feel more comfortable than I did with Stu and Jamey. I know to open the action and check the chamber, I know to keep the barrel pointing down range, I know that when a person walks in front of the firing line, put down the gun.
"This one here, this is a really cool gun," Wes says as he pulls a long-barreled pistol out of a leather holster. Wes tells me it's a .454 Casull made by Freedom Arms Inc. in Freedom, Wyo. He loads a bullet in the chamber, and hands me the pistol. It's heavy. I give him a searching look. He smiles, "You can shoot it with one hand. Just make sure the gun doesn't hit you in the head." I squeeze the trigger, and the recoiling pistol nearly leaps over my shoulder. Wes is laughing. I am laughing too.
Next we fire an AK-47 and a Siaga-12, which is a combat shotgun. Shooting becomes all-consuming; the action of the gun, the discharging of the bullet, contact with the target. You are overwhelmed by a whir of clanking metal, gaseous detonations and clouds of dust, and through it all calmly, deliberately, you must consider the next shot. Shooting is motion in half-time.
Wes suggests we go out to the 100-yard target to do something different. Tannerite is an explosive powder that only detonates when shot with a high-velocity projectile. In the following days I would question why such a thing is legal, but when he recommends that we shoot plastic jars full of Tannerite, I say yes.
At 100 yards, I look through the scope of an AR-15 and try to think about my breathing. Wes says the scope sights are true and I should aim right at the orange canister. The crosshairs wobble around the target. I let them. I fire. A cloud of dust and the canister is rolling down the dirt berm it was perched on. I turn the safety and set the rifle down as Wes sets it up again. Second try. Breathing, wobbling, I slowly squeeze the trigger.
When I killed the deer in Mississippi, my mom reacted not because I killed something, but because I used a gun to do it. To her, as to me, guns and the people who owned them represented the other side of a rift so wide that seemingly no amount of debate or logic or rhetoric could narrow the gap. But experience can transcend intellectualizing.
I wonder what my mom would say if she saw me and Wes shooting a high-caliber assault rifle at plastic canisters full of explosive powder. She wouldn't have liked the conversation with the men in Great Falls—the talk about rights and self-defense. The reasons Jamey Williams felt so strongly about owning firearms is the same reason my family feels strongly people shouldn't own firearms: Because there are bad guys out there. But I think my mom would like Wes. She's an artist who appreciates aesthetic in all aspects of her life. Wes is an artist who appreciates aesthetic and AK-47s.
Later that day, I leave Wes's house and meet some friends way up Miller Creek to shoot guns in the woods. Mike and Dave come to all my band's shows. They've seen our 10-song set a hundred times, but still show up, even if no one else does. Pat is there too, with his 6-year-old son, Wyatt.
We park our trucks next to a clearing in the woods. Pat, Mike and Dave have brought a small arsenal: .22 pistols, a Russian combat rifle, a 30-.06, several shotguns and an AR-15. There are already three people shooting rifles at the spot. We ask if we can set up some targets and they say sure and put down their firearms. Wyatt carries a hockey stick and uses it to shoot imaginary ducks out of the sky. Pat tells him to stay behind a line in the dirt. Wyatt never betrays his dad. He collects the spent shells of shooters who were here before us, waiting for the next flight of ducks only he can see.
We shoot for an hour, at targets and clay pigeons flung into the air with a plastic arm. I hit a pumpkin with the Russian rifle. For a moment, I think the recoil broke something in my shoulder. Mike smiles and confesses that the rifle kicks. Occasionally, someone from one of the two parties asks if they can go down range and everyone puts their guns down. Friends and strangers armed to the teeth.