Monday, September 29, 2008

Day at the Range

by Ben Small

We Americans celebrate our holidays, and we’re creative in ginning up new ones. Washington’s Birthday, Columbus Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Vasco da Gama Day, Casper the Friendly Ghost Day…

And these are just proper name holidays.

We also honor bosses, secretaries ― even though nobody has one any more ― dogs, April Fools, groundhogs, mothers, fathers, and black history.

Very few things we don’t honor with a day, week or month.

But not the NRA, the group that gave us the Denver celebration after Columbine. Who can forget Charlton Heston, a Juda Ben Hur oarlock grimace set on his face, as his strong hands pumped a rifle over his head and a dare slid from gritted teeth?

“From my cold dead hands...”

Moses waving his staff. Impressive. The French surrendered.

No, the NRA doesn’t get a holiday.

And that’s not fair.

I went to the local constabulary. Thought I might pump up some NRA support and maybe get some gun totin’ ideas from toters. Nope. The sheriff didn’t like my suggestion: standing at the U of A gates and chanting while firing AK-47s Mid-East-style into the air.

I think feds followed me home. There’s a black service van parked just outside my driveway. It’s got more antennas than NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Black, a Fed’s favorite color. Black, in the Arizona summer sun.

The Blues Brothers had more sense.

I called the NRA, hopeful they’d turn their lobbying clout on Congress. But a spokeswoman said Congress wanted to adjourn, that Congressional leadership was closing out the session working up new taxes to bail broke buddies who’d contributed heavily to campaign coffers.

Stuffed to the gills with Fanny-and-Freddy money. Something fishy going on.

Forced to curry NRA support locally and on my own, I donned my range gear, jeans, red John Wayne cavalry shirt, cowboy boots, wide leather belt with a gold-plated bull-head buckle, red patterned kerchief, and a straw cowboy hat with a fake eagle feather. On the top of my hat, on the flat spot under the furl, I stuck an NRA sticker.

Then I took my guns to the range.

The black van followed me.

The two best gun ranges in Tucson are almost next to each other, about thirty miles southwest, along the I-19 corridor, also known as Smuggler’s Alley, because it’s not far from Mexico is the preferred drug and human cargo smuggling route. County planners must have figured that so many guns were going off there anyway, local residents wouldn’t mind a few more. And smugglers and illegals need gun practice, too. Why not make the location convenient for everybody?

One of the ranges is for shotguns, the other for pistols, rifles and machine guns. Each range covers about five square miles.

Arizona loves its guns.

I borrowed a target stand from the range master and purchased some tape-on pictures of bad guys who are fun to shoot. Folks like Dillinger, Capone, Howard Stern, and the PC guy in the Apple commercials.

I picked the hundred yard range. Target berms are set at twenty-five foot intervals. Choose your distance.

The range was crowded. Several shooters had brought family members, some of them children. The only stall open was the last one on the right, next to a Mexican group. Three men, two women, a couple young children. They stopped shooting as I approached and eyed me warily. A heavy-set fellow with a pock-marked face and Chinese-symbol tattoos on his neck, held a semi-automatic pistol ― looked to be a Glock with an elongated magazine. He swung the gun in my direction and whispered to a skinny guy, five-o'clock-shadow bald. That man lifted a pistol from the table, and racked the slide.

He looked at me. No smile in his eye.

"Hi fellas," I said, waving like a windmill. "Belong to the NRA?"

They looked at each other, and their muzzles drooped. The bald guy made an eh-shrug. His pistol went back to the table.

Numerous guns decked their stall. I'd already seen two pistols. An AR-15 rested on the stone shooting table, and two more assault rifles, an SKS and an M1A stood against a beat up wooden rife stand.

I glanced beyond them to the range. They were shooting at a giant pepper.

I pointed and laughed. “Nice pepper,” I said.

I meant my tone to be friendly, but the two men snarled at me. One of the women, her brows furled, deep leathery creases tightening across her forehead, grabbed a rifle off the stand and swung it by the sling over her shoulder.

One smooth move. She’d done that before.

I raised my hands and tried to smile. Looked to our left. Several green and white Border Patrol SUVs were parked at the next range over, a hundred yards away for the far end of our range. Machine gun fire burst from that border patrol range. Some laughter and whooping followed.

My next door neighbors made the Sign of the Cross.

Careful to make my moves slow and deliberate, I taped Howard Stern to the stand, and then signaled that I wanted to take my target onto the range. The shooting stopped, and I walked out into the firing field.

I strolled straight out. Thought about walking backwards, but didn’t want my target so inviting that someone might plug it ― and me. I wasn’t gone very long, and as soon as I returned, shooting commenced.

There’s a problem with shooting semi-and-automatic rifles. They eject spent cartridges to the right, far to the right.

Hot metal rained down on me as my neighbors riddled their pepper.

I went back to the range master, borrowed another target stand. He didn’t have the Taco Bell dog, so I taped up Che Guevara and stood him facing my neighbors. I hoped they appreciated the gesture, even though Che was Argentine. Argentina’s a Latin country, isn’t it?

Now hot cartridges bounced off Che instead of me.

I looked over at the black van, saw it parked next to the range office. A guy in a suit climbed out; he looked tumbled dry. A camera hung from his neck, and he clicked some shots of Che and me before walking into the range office. A few minutes later, the man emerged, several water bottles in his arms. He climbed back into the van.

Time for my guns.

Arsenal disclosure is like the red carpet on Oscar night: Everybody’s all eyeballs. I opened up the truck and started carrying out guns. Silence along our range; everyone turned to watch me. The van-guy climbed out once again, camera at the ready.

I pulled out a few bolt actions, an AR-15, and a Ruger 10/22, perhaps the most popular plinking rifle in the world.

I waited for applause.

More bursts from the machine gun range. Laughter. Sounded closer this time.

Well, I’d dazzle ‘em with my shooting.

Smack. Heart shot. Again. Poor Howard, he never knew what hit him.

Someone called for a cease fire, a target check. But I didn’t need one; I could see my one ragged hole from my stall. As everybody walked out to their targets, I pointed at mine, pumped my arms and shouted, “NRA! NRA!”

People on their way to targets stopped and stared at me.

A toddler from the stall next door wobbled over. Most of my collection stood on my stall’s old wooden stand. The kid was stroking my pre-’64 Winchester 70, a collector’s rifle, handmade, known to most in the gun culture as “The Rifleman’s Rifle.”

I grabbed the rifle and caught it. Then I swatted at the kid.


A woman, the child’s mother I guessed, overweight and all decked out in reds, oranges and purple, rushed over and snatched the kid away. The woman scowled at me, spit rapid-fire Spanish. Not throwing compliments my way, I discerned. She shook her fist at me and then slapped her backside.

“Well, keep your brat away from me,” I said. “Bang bang.”

I don’t think saying that was wise. One of the men dropped back and pointed an AR-15 at me. His finger was on the trigger.

Hands up. Just like on TV.

Another burst from the machine gun range. More laughter.

I ducked at the burst, afraid my stall-neighbor’s finger would tighten on the trigger and I’d end up air conditioned.

When I came up again, the guy’d put his rifle back on the stand. But he was still staring at me. And he wasn’t smiling.

I shrugged and went back to my Ruger. I’d mounted it on a precision Caldwell stand, a setup made for ten-ring shots. I fired round after round, emptied two twenty-five round magazines.

Somebody called for a target check. Firing stopped at our range.

I snatched the Ruger and replaced it with the Winchester. Then I opened the bolt and pulled out my .30-06 cartridges. Stood aside to await the all clear signal.

I’d expected to see those out on the range clustered around my target, marveling at my accuracy. Trophy-target, I thought. But nobody was there. People were admiring their own targets, busy measuring groups and counting holes.

Harumph. So much for lesson-giving. Some people just don’t recognize talent.

One of the men in the stall next door shouted something out onto the range. Must have been the Spanish version of “Hurry up!” because people started running. A moment later, somebody yelled, “Going hot!” and lead started flying.

Having blown out Howard Stern’s heart, I fixed my sights on his mouth.

I know: big target. Well, you should see it now.

TTFS (Tired Trigger Finger Syndrome) can strike at any time. Your finger twitches, you flinch with the twitch, and your other digits, feeling abandoned, go soft around the stock’s pistol grip. You’re at risk for Scope-Eye, when recoil drives the scope into your eye socket so hard that you look like the spotted dog from The Little Rascals.

I laid my trigger hand out on the stone table, saw the twitching digit.

Time to pack up. No Scope-Eye for this cowpoke.

Besides, the people next door were still checking me out, peeking from behind Che. They were making me nervous.

My brass was mostly nearby, so a few minutes crawling around and I’d gathered it all. I cased my rifles and deposited them in the truck. Then I went back for my targets.

There were three round holes in Che.

I hadn’t put them there.

A quick dodge to the truck, and a turn of the key. The engine fired, and my tires tore up a dust-and-rock storm.

Good cover.

I turned the wheel hard to the right, toward the machine gun range. I couldn’t see anything but dust behind me.

The border patrol agents were only too happy to listen. Their eyes lit up when I told them my stall neighbors were coyotes, people who traffic in people. And when I suggested they might want to tread carefully, that the coyotes had automatic weapons, the agents really went bonkers. Loaded magazines flew back and forth. I might have tried to snag one, but doing so would’ve affected my credibility. And stealing from the federal government ― unless you’re in Congress ― is not a sign of intelligence.

Next, I stopped at the black van. Told the surveillance team I was giving up on the NRA and was gonna join Amnesty International instead. The driver, a man wearing mirrored sunglasses, a dark suit, white shirt and black tie ― Fed-dress ― stared at me, not saying a word. The guy next to him tapped him on the shoulder and pointed out the window at the armed border patrol agents converging on the hundred yard range. “Coyotes,” I said. “Those guys,” I pointed to the running border patrol agents, “might need some help.”

I split, and watched through my rear-view as the van emptied and agents pulling their Sigs joined the stall-party.

As I turned the corner and picked up speed, I looked once more in my mirror. Alone, separate and distinct from the chaos erupting at the stall next to mine, stood Howard Stern.

No heart, no mouth, just a smiley face made of holes.

Next time, I’ll move my target a little further out. Like maybe to twenty-five yards.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Ben, me thinks this is not all imagination and humor. Your story gave me cold chills.

Ben Small said...


Thanks. Then my purpose was served. The location, close to Smuggler's Alley, is true. And I did go shooting. And the Border Patrol was shooting and laughing at the machine gun range next to me.

Everything else was made up.

Okay, Arizona does love its guns, and I do belong to the NRA. But beyond my yearly $25 dues, the NRA doesn't see much of me. Its magazine, American Rifleman and its website, are outstanding resources for crime writers. I think the Denver NRA meeting after Columbine was an egregious mistake in judgment. While Charlton Heston's dare is now the motto of the gun culture, its timing and location couldn't have come at a worse time, public relations-wise.

The Border Patrol is very well trained, and their agents win shooting competitions every year. I have nothing but admiration for border patrol agents. They save thousands of lives every year in the murderous Arizona desert doing a job few people want to do.

The Tucson Rifle Club's range is very well run, and rules are strictly enforced.

The shotgun range (Tucson Skeet Club, I think) is enormous. Twenty some skeet ranges, a spread of bunkers for clays, and far out in the desert, numerous trap setups.

Both ranges sponsor well attended and respected competitions.