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In response to the Four Corners piece on juvenile gun ownership on ABC last night, Engel Schmidl doesn’t agree, but he has felt the addiction of guns.
My encounter with firearms happened in a small, rundown sports stadium on the edge of Riga, the capital of Latvia. It was positively Soviet. Four of us were led into the concourse by a leggy Baltic beauty, who also ran the hostel we were staying in. My girlfriend and I weren’t sure what to expect. The two British guys with us looked similarly perplexed.
What had we signed up for?
Our guide pressed the buzzer, exchanged sharp words in Russian (still commonly used in Latvia) and we were in, descending a dark, dank staircase that took us further into the stadium where light no longer pierced through the roof. We could hear muffled pops and bangs getting louder as we made our way deeper and deeper down.
“You will have to sign in and you must hand over your passport while you are here,” our guide informed us. We nervously complied.
Our guide formally introduced us to a stout older woman, who dispensed with niceties and quickly showed us the way to the range. This matronly woman was going to instruct us in the basics of how to shoot three types of firearm: a pump action shotgun, a Glock 9mm pistol and an AK-47 semi-automatic rifle.
I had never fired a gun before. I had not grown up on a farm. My parents were not hunting and fishing people. True, I had probably played cops and robbers as a kid, but as an adult, I mostly avoid action films. This expedition into some Baltic gunplay twilight zone was one of those whims you give into while travelling – a bit of thrill-seeking.
It’s not something I had ever thought of doing back home in Australia. As with most urban Australians, guns are alien to me; consigned to police holster belts or farmers going about their business. Other than once as a kid on a friend’s farm, I don’t think I had ever seen a gun discharged. Now here I was with a pump action shotgun being thrust into my hands by an insistent instructor bellowing orders at me in Russian.
I raised the shotgun to my right shoulder as instructed, so as to absorb the substantial kickback from the weapon. My head cocked, my sight line ran through the crosshairs as I tried to position the barrel of the gun in the hope of at least getting close to the human silhouetted targets some 25 metres away. I felt a knot in my stomach. The idea of pulling the trigger felt momentous. I stood there frozen for what felt like an age. Babushka Kalashnikov was getting impatient with this weak Western tourist. She walked towards me and motioned for me to shoot. I felt like a Red Army reject about to be sent packing to the potato peeling corps.
Boom!, went my first shot. I pumped the handgrip, lined up the barrel and boom! again. I could feel a surge of adrenalin course through my body, untying that knot in my stomach. This felt good. Really good. I was suddenly Arnie in The Terminator. I emptied the piece and handed the shotgun back, eager to get my hands on the Glock pistol and then the AK-47.
At the end of our session we posed with the guns for cheesy happy snaps: back to back aping Charlie’s Angels, then 007, spouting platitudes from the Die Hard films. It was a hoot. I still felt buzzed and a little invincible. I was ready for a big meat and potatoes Latvian feast and a jug of the local craft brew.
I realised that the rush you can get from firing a gun – particularly a high-powered one – and how that claws at you. Each shot begets another. In its own potentially deadly way, the primordial grip it holds can be intoxicating. It is also frightening to think of that lethal power being readily available to anyone beyond a controlled environment.
My experience on the range in Riga came back to me last night as I watched a report called Guns in the USA on the ABC program Four Corners. For me, shooting guns in this strange Eastern Bloc relic of a sports stadium was a novelty; we had a taste of the power of guns but there was no danger of addiction nor follow through. Those little kids at that dirt cheap rifle range in Michigan featured in the report were not only being introduced to lethal weaponry, but also to the supporting culture of normalisation that goes with it in the States. It’s a culture of fear and paranoia very few people in other modern, progressive societies can fathom. And while I don’t condone that culture, nor do I the actions of those in Kalamazoo or elsewhere, I do, however, on some gut level, understand the most basic appeal of it, and my brief foray gave me a small insight into why it might be hard for so many Americans to give up guns. Hidden behind the layers which are used to justify gun ownership, the most baser value still remains. The visceral thrill. For gun owners, that may just be a strong enough meta reason to quash meaningful law reform in the US, and fulfil the sideways musings of Charlton Heston.