If I’m bitter about anything from my childhood, it’s that I wasn’t allowed to play laser tag. Not that the opportunity never presented itself (trust me, it did) but that my parents didn’t let me. My dad is a serious pacifist, and I think the idea of my running around shooting people with a gun, even if fake, was too much for him to bear. I also wasn’t allowed to watch PG-13 rated movies until I was, like, fourteen. (I secretly still did at my friends’ houses, but Austin Powers isn’t even funny when you don’t get penis jokes)(actually, come to think of it, it’s not when you do, either).

I think that my parents were trying to protect me, that they thought simulated “violent” images would scar me. And to be fair, I cried a lot the first time I saw Bambi. (I’m sensitive, okay?). But really “protecting me from violence” just scarred me in a different way.

When I was ten, a close friend had a laser-tag birthday party, and I couldn’t go. I was never a cool kid, so not getting to attend what felt like the coolest party ever, made me feel like my social life was over. I also frequently had to turn down invitations to see PG-13 movies with my friends. Obviously none of that really mattered in the long run, but despite realizing now that my parents were actually awesome, I’m still a little bitter about the laser tag.

So last summer, much to my liberal father’s horror, I went to an actual shooting range to shoot actual guns.

With my mom.

On a whim, we’d decided to take a class, “Level 1: Basic Personal Protection,” an eight-hour, two-night course most people take in order to qualify for a handgun carry permit. We had absolutely no desire to attain such a license, but we both were completely clueless about weapons (unless you count my mom’s tai chi sword? No, let’s not) and thought the shared experience would be, well, hilarious.

It was.

The men who ran the class were exactly as I’d imagined: thick and red, like the steak they’d probably just eaten. One was actually wearing a cowboy hat, and they all spoke with nice, southern drawls. The members of the class, however, were not at all as I’d expected. I assumed that the people enrolled in the class would vaguely resemble the beefy, red-neck men who taught it. But strangely enough, the students were mostly women: a couple of elderly ladies, a girl my age in a Walgreens uniform, a middle-aged woman with her husband. And they weren’t all rednecks! There were a couple of young guys, and a man who’d brought his own revolver (how convenient! and unsettling!) but the males were certainly outnumbered.

How could this be? Were all these ladies, like myself and my mother, only attending gun school ironically, with a morbid curiosity about an instrument completely foreign to them? I think not. Based on their attitude and the questions they asked, these ladies had every intention of obtaining a license, and presumably, of carrying guns around. I found this quite shocking. But it was really only one minor part of the weirdness that this class turned out to be.

During the first three hours of the class, no guns were shot. This time was allotted for brainwashing teaching. We were taught why guns are awesome and why we should carry guns around with us everywhere. We were fed “true” stories where a gun had saved the day. For instance, one was about a girl who almost got raped, but had a gun holster strapped to her belt and shot the attacker before he had his way. Another involved the time a guy at an Applebee’s happened to be armed and saved everyone when another man came in and started shooting (I’m pretty sure the moral of that story is don’t go to Applebee’s). The stories were intended to inspire us to “imagine if they hadn’t had a gun to save themselves” but it was really unconvincing.

We were also taught legal issues, like where it’s okay to carry your gun (not schools) and when it’s ok to shoot someone (not at Applebee’s). My favorite part of the class, though, was when one instructor’s wife came out and talked about which holsters are best for women and which guns are the “cutest.” This seemed to be part of the regular schedule, so I guess there are frequently lady-dominated groups.

It was surreal.

I’m not here to judge people’s beliefs, but seriously: I wasn’t even allowed to play laser tag as a child. I’ve always been taught that guns are evil and that the NRA consists of aliens from another planet come to destroy earth. And I truly believe that. My hometown, Memphis, has one of America’s highest rates of violent crime. So the lessons from these instructors, and the sensationalistic tactics they used to scare us into learning them, blew my mind. Like how could anybody actually believe the world would be a better place if everyone had a gun? And took it with them wherever they went? Apparently, though, apart from my mother, I was alone in such thoughts. The other people in the class gasped excitedly at the life-threatening tales and nodded enthusiastically at the praise of guns. It was so absurd, I was so flabbergasted, but I kept on listening.

Because, frankly, I really wanted to shoot a gun. Though I had and have no intention of ever owning one, the simple act of setting off a firearm was an exotic experience I wanted to try at least once. Before that class, I’m pretty sure I hadn’t ever seen a real gun up close outside of a museum case.

Eventually, the “hands-on” portion of the class came around. Each student was handed a Glock pistol and earmuffs then shown how to load and shoot.

I can’t emphasize enough how intense my first shot was.

That little hand gun had an incredible amount of physical power, and man could I feel it. It was loud and strong, and as soon as I pulled the trigger, I had a physical reaction: my pulse started beating fast, my whole body got really hot, and my brain felt like fluff. It was an orgasm of adrenaline. Nothing as forceful as that recoil had ever moved my arm. The noise didn’t help either. The only thing more shocking than my first shot, though, was how quickly I became acclimated to the force and the loud gunshots. But by my second shot, I felt nothing. I suddenly became very calm, and felt like a smooth badass. My hands glided over the gun as I reloaded it with bullets, lifted it and shot. I felt like Dirty fucking Harry (Dirty Harry with silly earmuffs, but Dirty Harry nonetheless).

So yes, shooting a gun was awesome. Yes, I would love to go to a range again and try shooting some other guns, like an old-fashioned revolver. Or an AK-47. Wielding that kind of power makes you very self-aware. And I’m no adrenaline junkie, but it felt good.

But at the end of the class, I was handed the paper target that I’d shot at for my qualifying test (I got 100 A+!). Despite the excitement of fancying myself the new Annie Oakley, I was still struck by one thing: the target was shaped like a person.

And that to me is what is so fucked up about guns and about the class I was taking. No one gets a conceal and carry license because shooting a gun is exhilarating and makes you self-aware. You get it anticipating you might one day shoot somebody. And while, if I’m ever in a situation where I’m being seriously assaulted, I bet I’d love to have that weapon, I simply can’t imagine walking through life armed, as though I’m expecting an attack. No matter how cute the holsters may be.

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