In the Nevada desert, Gideon Lewis-Kraus spends time shooting some very big guns.
It's the day before Yom Kippur, so it's clear to me that the most appropriate thing to do is fire the Uzi first. The machine-gun range is an hour into the desert east of Reno; the sun bores hot but the light is flat and the sky a feeble blue. This is the Mustang Range, a little western Nevada fiefdom between Silver Springs and Fernley. They host these machine-gun shoots twice a year: on Father's Day-the busy one, I hear-and now, in late September. A range officer stands behind me, his hand flat on my shoulder blade. He wears a short-sleeved collared shirt with Mustang Range's slick corporate logo silk-screened on the back, and he talks in a steady clipped voice."The Uzi has an open-bolt action and the magazine is loaded with 9 mm rounds. Have you ever shot an Uzi before? No? But you've shot a gun before? No? Okay. You shouldn't expect much of a kick. It'll feel like a hard tap on the inside of your shoulder." He gestures, without touching, to where the butt of the gun is nestled. It's hard to concentrate on the range officer's routine. I am wholly consumed by the insane terrified recoil of my soft heart.The range officer blithely continues his instructions. "The safety," he explains, and this seems salient enough to struggle to pay attention to, "is on the back of the trigger." As soon as I grip the Uzi it will be live. I grip the machine gun, my outstretched left hand cradling the surprisingly light barrel. The safety is depressed by the base of my thumb, and the first joint of my index finger rests on the trigger. I stare twenty-five yards down-range at a pixilated poster, propped up on a plywood sheet, of a Doberman pinscher.To my right is my friend Crane, who's accompanied me on this reconnaissance mission. He plugs away, eyes narrowed, at a poster of Osama, who aims back at Crane with a gun barrel wide enough to shoot whole grapefruits. Between the Doberman and Osama is a plump stuffed black-and-teal toucan, perforated, hanging by its neck from a thick white cord. Other suspended stuffed animals include Curious George strung up by his wrists, Raggedy Ann a-dangle, and upside-down Barney. Later, the range master grins behind cracked prescription goggles and says, "The adults love to hit Barney. He's the holy grail of the submachine-gun range." This buffet of punishable targetry belies the calling of these machine guns, however. There seems to be little question of really aiming at anything specific.I pull myself together. I re-depress the safety. I lean into the gun, feet planted in the dust, and wince preemptively as I pull the trigger. There's a hollow click followed by no brash scatter of deadly 9 mm fire.This machine, everyone notices, has refused to perform in my spindly liberal hands. If the gun is going to stand on principle this strikes me as a reasonable one."It jammed," says the range officer as he gently strips the gun from my hands. I ask if I did something wrong. "Nope," he says, "it's the gun." He clears the chamber and removes the magazine and fiddles with the cartridges and puts it back in my hands. Crane has successfully unloaded his magazine and looks like a person made new. "Those Israelis," his range officer says with solemn admiration, "they sure make a good gun."The gun is ready again and my heart resumes its protest. Triggerpull now and I am holding six hundred explosions per minute in this short metal artery and every last ineffectual muscle I have lunges and my blood hurries furiously, a fierce amphetaminic torrent. Bullets fly nowhere near the Doberman or the toucan. Neither do they graze Osama.In less than six seconds it is over. I click and click and click again but the magazine is exhausted. The range officer turns my way. He is more than welcome, it occurs to me, to go right ahead and try to pry this gun out of my cold, dead hands.Bracketing the question of whether hunting is barbaric there are clear uses for, say, rifles or shotguns. Bracketing the question of whether handguns are necessary for proper self-defense-a more troublesome bracketing, one should probably admit-there are at least quasi-functionalist arguments for handguns.Aside from war, however, machine guns do not seem to lend themselves to utilitarian purposes. A detached investigation of this prima facie absurdity is at least part of the reason I have been dispatched here, to shoot guns in the desert. I am now no longer detached; this no longer feels so absurd. The next range officer on the line hands me a full-auto Glock 18 and I fire before his fingers are off the gun. These firearms enthusiasts find it amusing that this model is de rigueur for the fashionable rapper; it is the most obtuse and imprecise weapon on the submachine-gun range. (Although for me, given that I could barely hit the desert with the Uzi, this seems an invidious distinction.) I crouch forward and am heavy on the trigger. There is a Winnie the Pooh doll crucified on sawhorse stocks; he is untidily aerated. Crane, a gentle man with a dog called Pigglepug, generously defends himself against a poster of an anonymous jihadi with a Palestinian kaffiyeh. Nearby a 12-year-old wields an M1 Thompson at a Mr. Happy doll. "This is better than Disneyland," he says."Obviously," Crane says.This obviously-better-than-Disneyland is the end of a long gravel road surrounded by calloused khaki hills, stubbly with low chaparral. Berms rise like jetties, breaking up the desert into protected fields. There's a flamethrower range, too, but I never get to take a gander. The line is always too thick with little kids. They tote and snuggle the stuffed animals they brought to immolate. We're not too far from Gerlach, home of Burning Man; a handful of these guys and a tiny fraction of their arsenal, one can't help but think, could put an abrupt and definitive end to the mass delusions there practiced. Given the range of some of these guns, it seems as though we could do it from here.Mustang Range opened a few years ago as a local host for machine-gun partisans who didn't have anyplace else to shoot machine guns. It's not easy, it turns out, to own or fire machine guns. The federal government made them illegal in 1986, but there was an amnesty for those who already owned one: you could keep it as long as you registered it and submitted to a background check. You can still buy them from registered owners, but the inquiry takes three to six months. Some states have passed laws that make them illegal for anyone without a special dispensation from the ATF, which are generally unobtainable for nonmilitary personnel. Many of the shooters at Mustang Range describe themselves, with a mix of bitterness and pride, as "escapees" from California or other states that have passed strict laws regulating or banning these guns. The main thing that the 1986 ban did, however, was make these pieces extremely valuable: once the supply was sealed, prices launched into the thousands of dollars. The most expensive weapons here are military samples owned by defense contractors; some of them cost almost two hundred grand apiece.The scarcity of both these guns and places to legally discharge them have made havens like Mustang Range profitable, though the cash changes hands under a banner of disgruntled populism. The range seems to make most of its revenue from private affairs: bachelor parties, bar mitzvahs. I overhear one enthusiast ask the range owner, Neil, how to arrange a private rental. "Shoot me an email," Neil replies.At this event, the Mustang Range charges a $20 registration fee, but the real money is in ammunition sales: you buy a ticket at the entrance area for, say, $80, which you then bring to the range officer at the AK-47 station and he takes your ticket and lets you have at it. The ammo costs three to five dollars a round. Some of these guns fire up to 3,000 rounds a minute, which means that five or 10 seconds can cost a lot; I watched a man shoot $400 worth of vouchers in eight seconds. The lines are not short. Most of the few hundred attendees will drop at least a grand today. Their trigger fingers will get maybe 60 seconds of exercise, if they're lucky. (It is, by the way, worth it.)The Uzi and the Glock 18 are on the submachine-gun range, which is a quarter of a mile along a dirt path from the main machine-gun range. The main range is a huge parcel, 300 yards long, just over a high berm from the parking lot. The firing line, at least a football field in length, is ankle deep in brass casings, which the guns flip and toss in flashy arching cascades. Snubby and fat as plantains, they plink lightly onto heaps. The air, toasted to dry sweetness with cordite, flinches and swoons with percussion: insect-like ratatats and ominous thwocks and fizzy poppops in shattered and pleasant rhythms. The ground, a pulverized biscuit-flour dust, suffers an uneven rumble. Out on the range are broken-down school buses and Buicks and washing machines, more charred puncture than metal. Shots rake the dust like skipping stones.\n\n\n
|The firing line, at least a football field in length, is ankle deep in brass casings, which the guns flip and toss in flashy arching cascades.|
Later, a plastic-browed reporter from a Southern California CBS affiliate will corral her into an on-camera interview. "What did you like best about the shooting?" He leans in close to her. "Was it. . . the smell? Was it the sound of the shot, the feel of the kickback?" He taps her lightly on the shoulder with one manicured finger. "Was it. . . the smell?"These pornographic tableaux aside, the event is mostly sober and good-natured fun, and the self-described gun nuts are thoughtful and reasonable. It's possible that I just have a sixth sense for finding moder ates, but when it comes to issues of gun control, most of them understand it as a necessary compromise. They acknowledge that some bureaucratic oversight is a good thing. Most seem to support some form of registration and background check, and one range master tells me flat out that he's basically in favor of the Brady Bill, waiting period and all. This is not the lunatic fringe that provides for Michael Moore's mortgage payments. Such people surely do exist somewhere, maybe in lawless central Idaho, but being around these hobbyists makes one wonder just how much effort goes into finding crackpots to play that part.These men say that they have a pastime that happens to be dangerous, not so unlike Jet Skiing: the question of justifying the possession and discharge of these preposterous weapons, so self-evidently amusing, is not a question that has really occurred to them. Asking why one might own a gun that will demolish a house from four miles away seems akin to asking why one might own a Waverunner. Which is not to say they're breezy about the danger involved. They are, in fact, fastidious about safety. One range master says to me, "The worst accident we've had here in three years is a nosebleed. Watch any football game-somebody gets hurt every time." Cars are often mentioned.When pressed, however, these men will admit that it's more than a harmless pastime. If it wasn't, you could re-create this event with high-powered paint ball guns. But paint ball guns lack the threat of unpretend violence. There's nothing erotic about a paint gun: You could not disarm the machine gun shoot and get the same charge out of it. Gun control is a complicated and emotional issue and an informed policy discussion is impossible in this space. But one thing seems certain to me: no one who's never shot a gun should be permitted to create gun-control policy. The psychological stakes are otherwise unfathomable.The old shibboleth that "guns don't kill people, people kill people," with both its commonsensical appeal and its obvious flaws, was not trotted out in my presence, but a revealing variation was: "Guns aren't evil, evil is in your heart." Each time you fire a gun, you face for one moment your own secret capacity for violence: this is why we liberals, with our disbelief in evil, fear them. But each time you fire a gun safely, you have demonstrated that acknowledging such murderousness does not license it. "I think of shooting as an educational practice," that same cracked-goggles range master tells me. "You don't need to be scared of a gun," he continued, "but you need to respect it." It's like armed yoga.Draconian gun-control-outright bans, say, instead of registration statutes-laws feel, to these men, like the most insulting kind of paternalism. It's the government telling them: Sorry, boys, but we don't believe you can settle your own seething dark. Max Weber's definition of the state is inverted: it's not the institution with a monopoly on the legitimate use of lethal force, it's the institution with a monopoly on the containment of such bloodlust. These men consider the Second Amendment to be less about self-defense than it is about trust: the right to bear arms makes them feel entrusted to their own psychic balance. When they say that guns aren't evil, they're not defending guns; they're congratulating themselves, and, from what I can tell, for good reason.The event's big finale is a night shoot. In the desert dusk, under a high pink-and-blue ribboned sky, the range officers call a ceasefire and walk out onto the range. They carry six-packs of explosive-filled water bottles bound together with neon-red duct tape. They string the packages up on the buses and on the Buicks as though they're decorating trellises of shrapnel for A Very Special Thunderdome Christmas. Everyone returns to the firing line just as night settles comfortably over the desert. The range master holds a wireless microphone. "Are the snipers ready?" he calls out. The assent is muffled; sniping requires concentration. And then, one by one, snipers pick off the explosives; they boom, and fireballs swell into the sky. "And now, is everyone locked…and…loaded?" Pause. "Fire!"Dozens of machine guns fire in unison. Colored tracers crisscross the range like lasers. Sparks fly off the broken-down contraptions. It's impossible to hear anything; spectators mouth to one another the words "It's like the Fourth of July!"It is, and is probably even better than most Fourths of July. But somehow this spectacle seems, at the end of the day, like an anticlimax. All day these men have railed against Hollywood pageants of free-wheeling Uzi-in-each-hand mercenary caricatures; this casts their self-discipline, their thousands-of-rounds-per-second crusade against fear, as buffoonery. Machine guns aren't about planted fireworks and garish tracer bullets. Amidst this circus we try to remember the quiet inner harrow of shooting.Still, it's hard not to get caught up in all this awesomeness. A man at the end of the firing line hands Crane a Steyr AUG, a popular Austrian machine gun, and he unloads into the darkness.Crane walks back to me. "You looked like Rambo," I say. He shakes his head, smiles, and reminds me, "That's just not the point."