AMHERST — The bright red Rolling Stones’ tongue sticks out of Mike D.’s t-shirt as he struggles to heft the giant black case in his right hand. He’s wearing glasses and Nike sneakers and if you didn’t know better, you’d think he was headed to marching band practice. That is, until he slaps the tuba-sized case down on the plywood slab, undoes the clasps, and pulls out an AR-15.
It’s a perfect Saturday afternoon in late October. A sea of red and orange clings to branches under a clear blue sky. Six miles up Route 116, thousands of UMass Amherst students are celebrating Homecoming. But here at the Norwottuck Fish and Game gun range, in a clearing at the end of a road that winds through the foliage, we’re doing a different type of shotgunning.
Three years ago, Mike graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he was a member of the UMass Gun Club. Now he works in logistics at a Fortune 500 company in Boston. He’s lost count of how many guns he owns. His father, an immigrant from China, was always into guns and introduced his children to his hobby. Mike D.’s sister is an even better shot than him.
Today he has six or seven guns with him, including a 1950 M1 Garand, a 1915 Lee-Enfield No. 1 Mark III, a 1943 No. 4 Mark I, a 2013 Colt 45 and a 1940 9 mm Luger. He also has boxes of bullets of varying size and strength. And one box of orange target disks for throwing into the air, marked “Delicate As Eggs.”
Mike D. (he asked to be identified by his first name and last initial due to the sensitivity of the issue), is my guide to this insular world. It’s my first time shooting a gun. Really, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen one in person outside of a police officer’s holster. I’m at Norwottuck to see why there are over 300 million guns in America, why the NRA has 5 million members and why the Second Amendment is so entrenched in our collective sense of self.
When I arrived at Norwottuck, Mike D. realized he only had one pair of earmuffs. In my infinite wisdom, I told him I’d be fine without ear protection.
“No, no, no!” Mike D. said. “I don’t want you going deaf, and that’s a possibility.”
He couldn’t find a pair in his SUV, so we walked down the hill to the firing range. Two couples were shooting at targets set out in front of a steep embankment. Among the four of them, there were three pairs of camo pants and one “These Colors Don’t Run” t-shirt. But no ear protection.
One of the couples belonged on the cover of a hunting magazine. He had wide shoulders, a dark beard and darker sunglasses. She was wearing high heels, skinny jeans and a red hat with white letters that covered a shock of resplendent green hair.
“In a pinch, a 9 mm bullet wrapped in cotton will do the job,” the bearded man offered, grinning.
Luckily, one of the others realized she had earplugs in her minivan and I was saved from putting a bullet in a hole usually reserved for earbuds. A few minutes later, I was flicking the safety off on a gun for the first time, and felt extraordinarily grateful for the puffy earmuffs.
My heart rattled my ribcage as I stared down the barrel. I bent my knees and braced the butt of the gun against my shoulder, just like Mike D. showed me. I tried to line up the sights with the target 90 yards downrange, but I was mostly concerned with keeping the muzzle of the AR-15 pointed away from me.
Mike D. won his AR-15 in a $30 raffle. He said that with a sheepish smile and a shrug of the shoulders. The weapon is sleek and metallic and currently banned for sale in Massachusetts, but any sold prior to July 2016 are still legal.
“Everything bad that happens,” Mike D. said, “this is the gun.”
AR-15 style rifles were used in the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. On Oct. 1, Stephen Paddock killed 59 people and injured 489 more when he opened fire on a music festival on the Las Vegas strip. An AR-15 was one of the 23 guns Paddock had with him in his hotel room.
Mike D. said that he would have no problem giving up his AR-15 if a law was passed against it. But, he bought his AR-15 before the ban and feels like he should be left to do as he pleases if he isn’t bothering anyone.
“Don’t knock it ‘till you try it,” he said.
Mike D. voted for Hillary Clinton (“If you call me a Republican, that’s an insult”), favors the state’s strict gun laws and considers himself a strong liberal on just about every issue in America — with one obvious exception.
I pulled the trigger.
The recoil felt like someone pushing you firmly in the chest, but it was not as overwhelming as I imagined. A puff of smoke flashed up from the embankment, not on target, of course, but not horribly far off, either. The noise would have been deafening if it weren’t for the earmuffs, but the smell was the sense that first came to mind. It was harsh and charred, but also, strangely alluring. I raised the AR-15 again.
On the UMass campus, firearms are prohibited. But that law cannot keep out the same gun control discussion that acts as the nation’s third rail, sparking after events like Las Vegas.
“I don’t think people who responsibly exercise their right to have guns, like the vast majority of gun owners in this country do, should be penalized for wanting to exercise that right,” said Manuel Bonder, vice president of the UMass Democrats.
I spoke with Bonder in his office on the second floor of the Student Union. The Democrats share the office with the UMass Republicans. Bonder’s desk is literally within arm’s reach of his opposite number. If there could ever be agreement on gun control in this country, it’d be across this tiny divide.
“But at the same time,” Bonder said, “we have to take steps to make people safer so that another innocent person, who should also be able to live their life, doesn’t have their life cut short because the wrong person had a gun in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
After the Las Vegas shootings, the Democrats held a conversation about gun control because, as Bonder says, the stakes are life and death.
“As a group, there was a big focus on how do we get out of this pattern of seeing a tragedy like this happen, everyone says we have to give our thoughts and prayers to the families, nothing gets done legislatively, and then everyone goes back to normal,” Bonder said. “Until it happens again.”
A 2016 study by researchers at Harvard University and Northeastern University found that 22 percent of Americans, or 55 million people, own guns. Half of the total number of guns were in the hands of just 3 percent of American adults. These “super owners,” a category Mike D. acknowledged he’s in, possessed an average of 17 guns each. Gun control advocates look at those statistics and see a desperate need for measures to restrict ownership, while the gun rights side sees an equally desperate need for more people to be armed and able to protect themselves.
Bonder recognized that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to gun control, but stressed that incremental changes, like closing loopholes or making the mechanics of guns safer, can build toward progress. He cited the 1994 bill that introduced a three-day waiting period for handgun sales as a measure that could help. He thinks the gun control debate should be framed as a public health and safety issue, not one of individual rights.
“For me, gun control has no silver bullet,” Bonder said. “This isn’t something that has a quick fix. I think of gun control as taking any steps possible toward having a safer environment around the use of guns.”
Mike D., owner of more guns than he can count, believes there is a silver bullet.
“The only way to stop mass shootings would be to ban all the guns,” he said. “It would suck for me, but c’mon, tens of thousands of people would get to live.”
He shrugs as he finishes the thought, as if that’s all there is to say. Then, after a moment, he adds, “But it will never happen. There’s as many guns as people in this country.”
Fifty-nine Americans died in Las Vegas in a senseless act of violence carried out by a man who bought 33 guns in the past year without raising eyebrows. In the initial aftermath, there was the usual outcry by gun control advocates that something must be done, the usual response by the NRA that it was not the right time to politicize the debate, and a month later, Las Vegas is gone from the news cycle with no new legislation in sight.
The main thing I took away from my first time shooting a gun was the surreal disconnect between my index finger squeezing a tiny metal trigger, and the violent explosion of earth 90 yards away. The eye, the brain, cannot process the instantaneous sequence of events that connect the bullet’s cause and effect. And perhaps that’s where we are in America, with law-abiding gun owners enjoying their hobby amidst the foliage, and sadistic killers using the same gun to massacre country music fans and kindergarten children. The nation, or at least the lobbyists and legislators in charge of regulating firearms, blink in the split second between the trigger and the target. And the smell of scorched lead lingers over all of us.
Email Mark at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter, @m_b_dunphy.