Taking aim

It’s my first time shooting a gun at a real indoor range. I point the .22 semi-automatic at the target, a flimsy piece of paper depicting a shadow of a man. I try to shuffle my feet into the correct position, remember to still my breathing, and correctly aim the gun at the X on the target. I pull the trigger, but the gun still kicks back in my hand with
force. No such luck hitting the X.

I’m at the Newport Rifle Club, one of the oldest existing gun clubs in the country, founded in 1876. It’s a members-only club where one has to be vetted through a strict process to join. I had recently stopped in to the very popular ladies-only class, an all-day beginners shooting course for women, to examine the rise and prevalence of female shooters. Robin Kasckow, 66, an NRA training counselor and the club’s chief instructor, teaches the course. He had been teaching his students about gun safety for the majority of the day, but when I walked in, they were noisily firing off rounds and coming out of the range looking rushed with adrenaline.

“They instill such self-esteem in us in a one-day course, it’s tremendous,” a registered nurse remarked to me.

I noted that instructors did not shy away from the strong emphasis on safety. The club has regulations so strict that club privileges are automatically suspended if any rules are broken. Cameras are on all day and all night to monitor any funny behavior, which includes breaking the standard NRA rules: (1) Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction, (2) Always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot, and (3) Always keep the gun unloaded until ready to use. This is a strong discrepancy to what you see in movies and TV.

The discipline of gun clubs contrasts with all the attention on gun violence with mass shootings in California, Oregon, Colorado and
Connecticut in recent years. Calls for more gun control measures only seem to send more people to gun dealers to buy firearms fearing their Second Amendment right to bear arms will disappear.

“All of us sitting on this side, we’re all thinking, we don’t need any more laws to make this safe!” Kasckow says. “You want to punish responsible individuals, but it’s not the gun.”

The female club members I met, ranging from ministers to nurses to ex-police officers, all seemed to share Kasckow’s view. Most of the women I talked to preferred to remain anonymous, what with guns being such a controversial subject in the media.

I did some shooting myself to get a feel for it, and also watched the happy shooters in the women’s class. The ladies were gleeful, not regretful, with one firing off a few rounds with a smile then saying, “The Beretta, now that is the one for me!”

Increasing gun sales and interest in target shooting is either frightening or empowering depending on your stance. More than 22,000
Rhode Island gun purchase background checks were made in 2015, according to the FBI. That’s an 8 percent increase over 2014 and a 129 percent increase over 2005.

And it wasn’t just men contributing to the rising trend in gun ownership. Seventy-four percent of gun retailers reported an increase in female customers in 2013 over 2012 in a study commissioned by the National Shooting Sports Foundation and released last year. Women in the study cited the single most important reason they decided to purchase or own a gun as self-defense (26.2 percent) and defending their home (22 percent).

After the class, I decided to talk to a couple of women one-on-one. Heather, 36, and a mother of two, told me how guns piqued her interest even though she was raised in a household in which they were abhorred. Living alone with two kids, she keeps guns in her home but has been taught how to make them safe.

“They’re secured, put away, locked, and separated,” she said.

Although she does love the hobby of shooting, she has other reasons for it. After all the media attention and the focus on worldwide terrorism, she thought she needed another kind of protection. She has no qualms about teaching her kids about gun safety, and is slowly introducing her 7-year-old to rifles.

Upon being asked if she feels OK about keeping guns around kids, she said, “Yes. I actually feel safer with guns in the house.”

I also observed many married couples come in to the club to shoot together for sport. Beth Devlin is a member of the club, a consultant who is married with no kids. Her husband, who has had police training, introduced her to shooting, and she really took to it.

“It was the people I met along the way who really pulled me into this, and I say that in a really positive way. It changed my life, actually. It became something for me that is so much fun to do,” she said.

The picture one gets of guns is macho, masculine, very competitive and testosterone-driven, usually involving violence, hunting prey, defense, terrorism, and other negative connotations. But Devlin, who considers herself a feminist, says that’s not what she got out of learning to shoot:

“Women are becoming more involved in every aspect of society. If more women are purchasing cars, houses, and becoming the breadwinners, it makes sense they would be interested in this, too. Why not?”

I at least agreed with that line of reasoning. The next time I picked up the silver revolver at the Newport Rifle Club, it felt lighter and more natural. Having less trepidation, I was able to enjoy it more.

I fired off five rounds with ease, and hit one bullet in the center target. Bull’s-eye.

Posted in Features on Tuesday, January 19, 2016 4:30 pm.