I was recently in The Woodlands, a smallish Texas town about an hour north of Houston. A number of oil companies happen to be based there, and I had a few meetings to attend. Although I’d been to The Woodlands many times before, so I already knew it was going to be a fairly dull visit – there isn’t a whole lot to keep me occupied there outside of the office.
Only on this particular visit my two Thursday meetings both got cancelled at the last minute, meaning that I suddenly had a whole day with nothing scheduled. I couldn’t head home early, because I had a few more meetings lined up for the Friday and Saturday. I’d also already made my standard visits (three, if you must know) to my favorite Texas BBQ shack by the side of the highway leading into town. And there are only so many times you can drop into Starbucks for a coffee, or visit the hotel gym, or go for a walk around The Woodlands’ decidedly Truman-show like town center.
The question then: what to do with my unexpected free time? And the answer, which occurred to me while ordering my breakfast: “People in Texas like to shoot guns, so maybe I should try that?”
Now, that should have been where the story ended – a seriously bat-shit crazy idea but nothing more. I mean, if I had thought to myself: “I’ve never been to the moon, how about I become an astronaut?” I wouldn’t be nipping down the road to the Houston Space Center to board the first available rocket, would I?
But in Texas, like I say, they love their guns. So on a whim I opened up my browser and typed into it: “gun range near me”. The result: within a thirty kilometer radius of the exact spot where I was sipping my cappuccino were not one, not two, not three, but rather about a dozen different gun ranges to choose from.
Intrigued (and also slightly horrified that there should be more gun ranges than McDonalds’ in the immediate vicinity) I called one at random. A very pleasant lady answered the phone.
“Hello,” I said. “I am visiting from Australia. I have never before fired a gun, and I was wondering if it would be possible for me pop by this morning and give it a go?”
“Of course,” she answered in a super-chirpy voice. “It is $60 for an hour on the range, and we can rent you all the equipment you need. Come down any time you like.”
“Great, I will see you in about an hour then,” was my hesitant reply. I felt a bit stunned that it could all be that easy.
“Oh wait!” the lady called out as I was about to end the call. “You said you have never done this before?”
“Yes”, I responded, secretly relieved. Maybe being a complete novice meant I would get barred from the range. Perhaps some prior training would, after all, be required. I mean, even for something as simple as hopping into a car and give it a spin around the block you need a licence, right?
“In that case,” the lady said in her super-chirpy voice, “please bring some ID with you. Y’all have a nice day!”
Then she hung up, leaving me reeling at how bizarre it all was. Because in The Woodlands, Texas, USA, the only thing standing between me and a session with a gun was a Google search, a fifteen minute car ride, and some ID. A set of circumstances that for most Americans may not seem to be an especially big deal, but which for anyone else from anywhere else on planet earth, is totally fucking insane.
Ninety minutes later I was getting out of my hire car in the gun range’s parking lot. I don’t know why, but I was feeling ridiculously nervous. Although perhaps it was because every few seconds the silence was shredded by the sound of gunfire – shots that sounded very loud, very close, and very menacing. I found myself flinching at each one, almost ducking my head involuntarily for protection.
Still, I had made it this far, so I resolutely marched inside and presented myself at the front counter. The lady I’d spoken with earlier remembered me. “Oh, you’re the Aussie!” she exclaimed, then signaled to a colleague, who ambled over to where I was standing.
He introduced himself as being the manager of the gun range. He was a small man, with a crinkly, kind face, and a neat beard. He was dressed in a pair of chinos and a neatly pressed plaid shirt, so he seemed more like a mild-mannered high-school teacher than an arms dealer. Certainly nothing at all like the rugged “man’s man” type I had (perhaps judgmentally) been expecting would run a gun range.
“If this is your first time, I’d suggest we start you off with something easy” the manager said, at the same time retrieving a small black pistol from a locked cabinet behind the counter. The door of the cabinet was marked: “rentals”. The gun, according to the manager, was a Glock. “It’s a standard-issue 9mm police weapon” he added, as if somehow knowing this would make the whole thing less weird for me.
He’d also pulled a few boxes off of a shelf behind him: “You’ll need bullets.” Then, gun and boxes of bullets in hand, he nonchalantly signaled for me to follow him through a back door and out to the shooting range. Of course I did as I was told. He was, after all, holding a gun.
The range itself was basically an open air field where a series of individual booths had been arranged into three groups, about fifteen booths in a row in each group. Each group of booths faced back toward a high sand wall, and depending on the group, the sand wall was set further back in the field, making for a progressively longer range. A wooden board hung in front of each booth, with a pulley that allowed its distance from the shooter to be manually adjusted, back toward the sand wall.
The manager led me to the first group of shooting booths, where the sand wall was about twenty meters away, so the shortest of the three ranges. “Good for beginners”, he said. He picked a booth, then pegged a target to the board in front of it – a piece of paper with a human shape on it – and worked the pulley until the target had moved back so it was dangling five meters away from me.
Next he gave me a few minutes’ worth of instruction – how to hold the gun, how to aim, what to expect once I had fired in terms of kickback, some basic safety precautions (“never point the loaded weapon at anyone, ever!” seemed pretty self-evident to me…).
Finally he took the gun, opened the box of bullets, slowly filled the gun’s magazine by pressing the bullets into it one by one, and once done clicked the magazine into place. He put the gun down on the raised table alongside my booth, passed me a pair of plastic protective glasses and some ear muffs, and indicated that I should put them both on. Then, once I was ready, he told me to wait.
A minute later, a loudspeaker screeched to life. “Range is Hot!” a voice boomed out. The manager gave me the thumbs up. “You are free to shoot,” he said.
And that was it. Without any further ado I picked up the gun and held it with both hands. It was pretty small, light, and cold to the touch. I faced square onto the target, and spread my legs apart, just like the manager has shown me to do a few moments before. And just like Axel Foley had shown me to do about three decades ago. I squinted and peered down the barrel, through the sights, aiming at what would have been the heart area of my human-shaped target. And then I held my breath.
“Just relax, breathe, and squeeze the trigger,” the manager encouraged me from behind.
So I did.
The gun barked – a loud, sharp noise that frightened me far more than the kickback, which was not at all as much as I had been expecting. A faint smell of gunpowder wafted past my nostrils. The cartridge dropped to the floor, and I heard it clang as it made contact with the concrete slab below my feet. And in front of me, about four centimeters to the right of where I had been aiming, in the center of the target, was now a small hole.
“Wow!” I yelped, and immediately proceeded to fire off a volley of further shots. In short order I’d emptied the magazine. So I handed the gun to the manager, he refilled the magazine and handed it back to me, and I did it all over again. In fact I did it all over again six more times, my aim getting better and my comfort with the gun increasing all the while. Pretty soon the target looked like a Swiss cheese, peppered with holes.
And, much as I hate to admit it, I was enjoying myself. It may seem slightly immature, but I was living every little boy’s fantasy: firing real-live ammunition with a real-live gun! Without warning I felt a wave of euphoria rush through me, notwithstanding every fiber of my being screaming out that I shouldn’t have been having fun. Because, and I cannot lie – it felt good. I felt manly. Even if at the same time I couldn’t help feeling that what I was doing was utterly wrong.
“Seriously”, I asked myself, “how on earth can anyone, let alone me, be allowed to ‘play’ with a gun without any checking, or training, or need?”
After ten or so minutes I was done, having blasted my way through two full boxes of bullets.
“How was that?” the manager asked. I smiled in reply.
“Yes, I thought so,” the manager said. “Maybe let’s try something a bit more serious?”
And with that he disappeared back inside, only to emerge a few minutes later with an AR-15 and two more boxes of bullets. That is, for those not in the know, a semi-automatic assault weapon which, as far as I was aware to that point in time, was something used by only bona-fide soldiers.
Once more we repeated the drill, the manager setting up my target, providing some instruction on use of the gun, and loading the magazine for me. Once more I took up position, and waited for the range to “go hot”. Once more I fired, hesitantly at first, but with increasing confidence the more I shot.
“Try to fire in quick succession” the manager said. I did, and now my shots followed one after the other, maybe twenty in a minute. Again I experienced a feeling of adrenaline-fueled euphoria, and again I felt the disjointed sense of guilt that came from blasting away like I was playing a video arcade game, only knowing that in this game the gun was real. In little more than the time it takes to boil an egg, I had progressed from Beverly Hills Cop pistol to Rambo machine gun.
When I was done, I paused to look around. Spent bullets covered the floor. The booth to my immediate right was empty, but the next booth along was occupied by two white-haired ladies, who looked like they were in their sixties. They were firing pistols similar to the one I had begun with. And at the booth two down from them were four pimple-faced teenagers – two boys and two girls. It seemed as if they were on a date. Just on this date, instead of eating popcorn and making out in the movies, they were taking turns demolishing a target with an assault rifle.
Seeing them, I asked of the manager: “Isn’t there an age limit?”
“No, it is up to the parents to decide. As long as parents give consent, anyone can use a gun range in Texas,” he replied.
“Are you serious?” I blurted out, barely able to conceal my surprise at his answer. “There is no legal minimum age, but there is one for drinking or smoking?”
“Like I said, it is up to the parents to decide,” he repeated.
“Come on, surely a ten-year old kid couldn’t shoot a gun here?” I challenged with a distinct note of incredulity in my voice.
“If the child’s parents consent then yes, even a ten-year old can visit this gun range,” the manager snapped back, and now I got a sense that my questioning was annoying him. So I dropped it, and the manager led me away from the range, back inside. It was clearly time for me to settle up and leave.
Back at the counter the manager began to tally the damage, so to speak. As he worked I looked down. On display beneath the glass counter top was a gun with a long barrel that looked exactly like what a cowboy might have used. I stared for perhaps a bit too long, because the manager caught my glance and jumped in: “The 45mm – now that’s a gun. Would you like to try?”
Of course I said yes, because by this stage I was like a first time crack-user: well and truly hooked. And hence why, five minutes later, I found myself standing at a booth in front of the gun range again, plastic glasses on my face, aiming a serious-looking motherfucker of a gun at a freshly hung target.
“Go ahead punk, make my day” I drawled, lowering the gun to eye level with only one hand.
The manager laughed out loud. “Just be careful Dirty Harry, this one kicks!” he called out.
Then I fired. The bang was ridiculously loud, the gun kicked back violently, my arm flew upward, and the force of it sent me stumbling half a step backward. It was like holding a canon in my hand. My legs quivered beneath me. And on the target a decent-sized hole had appeared, right between where the eyes of a person would be. Whereupon it occurred to me (perhaps belatedly): “Good God. Had that been a person standing there, I would have killed them.”
It took about twenty minutes to get through the box of bullets this time, mainly because unlike the first two guns this one did not have a magazine, but rather a cylinder that held only six cartridges. So after every six shots I needed to stop to reload. By the end of it all my arm was aching from the weight of the gun, and I was sweating from the effort of having to hold steady against the heavy kickbacks.
Once we were done, the manager said his goodbyes, and headed off to attend to some chores. Meanwhile I went back inside, and presented myself at the counter to make payment for my recent activities: the fee for use of the range, the rental fee for each of the three guns I’d used, and the cost of the boxes of bullets I’d ploughed through. But the lady at the counter (the same one who had been there when I arrived) was on the phone. She indicated by way of hand signals that she would be a few minutes yet.
So I turned away and wandered into the adjacent gun store. Because just like any golf course worth its salt will have an attached pro shop, every gun range worth its salt apparently has an attached gun shop. Only here, instead of being able to buy woods and irons and tees, you can pick up pistols and rifles and bullets.
And which is why I can tell you that, at a random gun shop adjacent to a random gun range near Woodlands Texas, for the princely sum of $229 (plus tax) I could have purchased for myself a brand new semi-automatic assault rifle, plus a bit more a few boxes of bullets. So for less than the cost of a set of golf clubs, and with less formality than needed to open a basic bank account, I could have acquired for myself everything needed to become a mass murderer.
And this is where, all fun aside, it really hit me how completely screwed-up American gun culture is. Because in the US of A there are oh, about 65,000 registered gun shops (as opposed to, for example, a total of around 14,000 McDonalds’ outlets). And in every one of these gun emporiums can be found literally thousands of weapons – of every shape, type and size – lined up in neat tidy rows, with neatly printed labelled.
Some might be full price and some might be “today’s special”. Some might be in boxes, some might have demo models, and little placards alongside each will explain the key features. No different really to iPhones in an Apple store, or suits in a men’s clothing store, all being offered for sale to just about anyone with a few hundred bucks..
Surely this cannot be right? Surely, surely, it shouldn’t be this easy? Isn’t it blindingly obvious to any sane, rational person that a gun isn’t a regular piece of consumer merchandise, but rather a dangerous instrument of death? And surely therefore, at an absolute minimum, something that should be treated a little bit differently to any other normal shopping experience ….
Anyway, there you have it: a brief recap of my first ever (and thus far only) visit to an American gun range and gun shop. A slightly surreal experience where in the space of an hour I got to fire a small pistol, unload a semi-automatic assault rifle, and blow gaping holes into a hanging (human shaped) target, thanks to a seriously powerful elephant-killer of a gun. Not to mention that I got to do all this alongside a pair of smiling grannies, and a group of teenagers on a double-date.
But hey, that’s America for you. A county where no matter how bafflingly ridiculous it may all seem to outsiders, access to military-grade weaponry is everyone’s constitutionally protected, God-given right. Even if you happen to only be a curious visiting Aussie, with zero prior experience.
End of story. Y’all have a good day now.
PS: FYI, in 2019, according to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been over 38,000 gun deaths in the USA – about 22,000 of them suicides, and the rest willful or accidental killings, including 401 recorded mass shootings. That is more than 1 mass shooting per day. There have also been about 28,000 gun-related injuries in America this past year. All of these numbers have been pretty much the same in each of the past 5 years.
In general, what this means is that the USA has a gun-death rate of about 12 per 100,000 people. Australia’s rate is about 1; the UK, less than 0.2; most countries in Europe between 1.5 and 3; Israel 2; Canada 2. The math is undeniable: America has a gun death rate that is 5-10 times more than most comparable first-world nations. And having lived and traveled extensively in many of these places, I can tell you what anyone with two functioning eyes can figure out real quick: in Australia, and in Europe, and in Israel, and in Canada, there simply aren’t thousands of gun shops to frequent, and there simply aren’t readily accessible gun ranges to visit for a bit of morning fun. Draw your own conclusions.