Shoot to Thrill
I’ve been a gun enthusiast my whole life, drunk and sober. But sober, I’ve come to appreciate the power and responsibility that much more.
Guns were made for killing, but the way I drank it was more likely that alcohol would kill me than my interest in firearms.
The first time I drank, me and a buddy killed a fifth of Jack and I blacked out. That was in the summer of sixth grade and marked the beginning of my long excessive drinking career. I had a ton of fun but there was no guarantee that once I started I would not get drunk.
I was warned in junior high that I should be very mindful of the fact that I might not drink like other folks due to some past drinkers in my family, but 12-year-olds are impervious to death and suffering (or so I thought).
I drank till it stopped being fun and then some. With my family history there were bound to be a few issues with the bottle—there had been a shooting and a suicide way back. But to me, those were mental health issues and not gun control issues.
Like any extremely broad interest group (including 12-step communities), in the firearms community you will have all the stereotypes you dread to learn actually do exist.
Drunk, I had some successes and some matching failures. Got sober. Got drunk. Got sober. Repeated that several more times until I decided being sober was where it was warm, so that’s been my path. I found a bottom deep enough to clarify this for me—a slow, grinding spiritual bottom. I never found myself homeless, jobless or in prison. I just always felt lonely and “apart from” unless I was drunk. Once I found AA over a decade ago everything changed for the better.
All this time, drunk and sober, I have been training and shooting. I’ve never handled a gun while drinking. I had some “never” lines I’d crossed but not that one. In early sobriety I got back into hardcore training. I would disappear every chance I got and roll with some like-minded guys—some military, some law enforcement, some just avid gunslingers like me. As I trained more I met more and more characters.
As I learned the rudiments of sobriety, I also learned, anew, the principals of gun ownership and responsibility from these characters. I’m profoundly grateful to the men who carry the weight of war. Being a sober guy with a bit of insomnia sitting across from a drunken warrior, I heard stories of pain, loss and horror. I never ask and I’m pretty laid back, which is why I think they’ve told me. That and their whiskey.
I started taking more and more high-speed classes, traveling nationally and internationally. I have had the honor of training with and getting to know some truly elite warriors. Those guys have always been my heroes. Faceless men who step in harm’s way whose names we don't know until they are dead. I’ve gotten some pretty cool certifications and do private instruction now—mostly introduction to tactical shooting with the emphasis on safety. I drill all the range etiquette and safety I can into my students’ heads. It’s meant to be fun but if something should go wrong due to human error it can go very wrong indeed. It’s so rewarding and amazing to watch men and women light up when they learn how to safely and efficiently operate sporting rifles. It really is like golf with nuts—or AA; once you get the basic understanding of the sport of tactical shooting there is always room to expand your skill set and toolbox.
Unlike AA, the gun community can be a bit unwelcoming, to its own detriment. I’ve met some great dudes and some real assholes on the other side of the gun counters. Like any extremely broad interest group (including 12-step communities), in the firearms community you will have all the stereotypes you dread to learn actually do exist. Along with great people, I’ve interacted with folks I wish I never knew existed.
Like most societies you get pigeonholed with the lot you’re in. It’s amazing how many 'pro-life this' and 'anti-gay marriage that' emails and letters I get since I’ve been passed around the gun world’s mailing lists, and I’m guessing it’s not a coincidence.
Here’s the distortion—you like guns, and therefore you believe in Jesus, hate gays, and women are too dumb to decide what’s right for themselves. Well, I’m of the belief that if you love someone and can be a faithful partner, have at it and as far as women's rights go as soon as I wake up with a vagina I’ll have an opinion. I believe that as far as religion goes that it’s an individual journey and is best kept that way. I share this thinking with most of the guys I shoot with.
I am a concealed weapons permit holder, a nationally certified firearms instructor. I’m a card carrying life member of the NRA and The National Association for Gun Rights. I don’t always agree with everything these groups state, but at this point in the game it really does feel like you gotta crew up the most effective force you can.
I very much disagree with what the current administration's ideas of gun control are. I stand wholeheartedly with our constitution as it was written, and I would defend it against all threats with my life. I consider myself a patriot. I believe in the 2nd amendment as a right and not a privilege to be decided by whichever government is currently in power. Sadly that constitution also holds the rights of irresponsible gun owners. I believe the truth about this lies in the numbers of awful gun related incidents. But my understanding is that the numbers show that sporting rifles aren’t the problem. It’s illegal handguns in places that have the strictest gun laws in the country that cause the most carnage—the safeguards to guarantee gun control contribute to the problem, driving the business of gun ownership underground.
In my opinion, a main problem is getting people to store their weapons properly. There needs to be a rational conversation and an education process for both sides of the argument. But you say that, and you’re a traitor to both sides of the debate.
That being said, aside from a very small number of mammals, I shoot paper and steel targets. That’s it. I’ve shot thousands upon thousands of rounds and have managed to place only one round unintentionally into my father’s kitchen floor. I’ve never fired a round in anger. I’ve never used a gun to resolve a conflict. I’m just a guy who really likes guns and hasn’t always felt safe in the world due to the fact I’m pretty much a realist about who we are as humans.
Regardless I’m still a gun guy from a long line of gun guys—raised by a father who loved hunting, grew up with a house full of guns, and have always been fascinated by them. They were kept in a wooden display case in our living room like a cabinet of fine china or curios. I thought it was the most beautiful thing in our house. My poor mother did not agree. That was a different time. All of my firearms are stored in state-of-the-art modern safes.
I started learning about guns and gun safety about the time other kids were taking the training wheels off their bikes. Those were some real bonding experiences in those puffs of cordite with my old man. I remember I felt trusted with such a responsibility in my hands. My father was an excellent teacher and an amazing marksman. His hunting buddies always tipped their hats to my old man about what a good shot he was. Some of their hunting tales were amazing and I always was so proud to be his son as they rambled on about him. I never got tired of hearing those same old stories. It honestly never occurred to me that missing a shot was an option for him. In my presence he never did. He could drop a mule deer across a canyon like he was hitting a beer can at twenty feet. By the time I started looking at girls I had already taken a couple deer and a bunch of birds myself but hunting has never been my thing. I’m too softhearted like my mom, but Dad’s seeds had been planted and my love for the gun had taken deep root.
In grade school my fascination with guns was stoked by time spent in the library reading about WWI and WWII. I think this truly deepened my respect for the gun and for war. My father was in the military for 15 years but that was long before I was born. That was apparent, as he was all business when it came to the guns. There was no horseplay—at all. I was about seven years old when I was tall enough to get the keys from the top of the safe. I would sneak into the living room where no one ever went. I would get a hold of one rifle at a time and duck behind the couch with it. I still remember that white and gold filigree couch and that brown shag carpet which always had pine needles embedded in it from past Christmas trees that the vacuum couldn’t remove but my feet too often could. Dad was usually piled up in front of the TV while mom was sewing or lost in some craft project. I would study the mechanics of each rifle. How they cycled. How each one shouldered as I teetered under its weight. I inspected them all thoroughly. I would meticulously oil each gun and wipe them down being ever so diligent not to leave a finger print on a barrel. My father warned me that the oil from a finger can leave a mark on the gun’s bluing. To this day I know every screw and every scratch on each one of my father's rifles. I still wonder if he ever realized just how much time I spent shining up his guns. I clearly remember holding those old guns that had belonged to great grandfathers I never met and I felt a great deal closer to them for it. Their guns and those old beat-up black and white photos of those cowboys, and my dad’s stories of them, made me proud of that heritage.
Those old rifles and shotguns are the heirlooms in my family. They hold much more than bullets. They actually hold the memories of the men I’m descended from. And beyond not having to take a drink today, AA has taught me that connection to others is my life-blood.
People who lack this experience ask why would you want a gun. If it’s stored properly then you couldn’t even get to it in time if someone kicked in your front door. True. But at least I would die doing something other than sitting there doing nothing, which is the way I finally stopped drinking and got sober. And that’s the point.
Samuel Browning is a pseudonym.