According to my father, I come from an established line of sharpshooters. My grandfather, Thomas Alvin Sorenson, once placed second in the Strategic Air Command pistol trials for his dexterity with a Colt .45. His father, Nels Sorenson, was known ‘round Clinton, Iowa, as the Danish Duke, due to his habit of trudging his “fallow fields,” 15 hounds trailing, deer-stalker cap on his head and shotgun under his arm (I know less about his actual marksmanship, or how often he fired said shotgun).
With a limited knowledge of genetic code and predisposition, I assume that shooting should be in my blood.
Except that, by the natural laws of inheritance, I also get a fair amount of firearm reluctance from my parents. My father spent his early childhood at the range, gathering expended cartridges, and despite brief ownership of a target pistol (when he was my age — mid-twenties — and living in the middle of nowhere), he maintains that his gun owning philosophy has changed drastically in the last 20 years. My mother’s own gun philosophy is similar, so a “chicks with guns” mentality wasn’t going to come from the previous generation.
So a Saturday morning at the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) Women on Target Ladies’ Handgun Clinic isn’t usually penciled in for me. But 18 miles out of Ojai and up the 33, the Ojai Valley Gun Club has put together a crash course in firearm responsibility, specifically tailored for women, and I am curious. There are 22 line coaches for the range, four range safety officers (RSO) and a chief RSO.
And so it was that a pacifist liberal who votes solidly on a gun control platform spent a Saturday morning at the range.
Because my interaction with the external world is based almost completely on cinematic reference, holding a loaner hand gun in the confines of a range struck me more as storied life experience than a political move. The term “zen” was thrown around, and though from a gun control mentality such phraseology might smack of the sacrilegious, there is a centering element to holding an extremely deadly weapon and exerting control.
Steven A. Marcus, an NRA-certified instructor (whose business card said he specializes in “Israeli snap-shooting”), explains that this series of classes is a response to a call from the Second Amendment Sisters (a national gun rights advocacy group), and that the course we are about to take is a “pilot program.”
“We’re a very sociable group,” Marcus explained. “Safety is No. 1 with us.”
I join Crystal Johans, a sociable 26-year-old Thousand Oaks resident who comes accompanied by her husband John. They bring their own Ruger .357 Magnum revolver, which they’ve recently decided to keep in their home. John used to shoot competitively, but Crystal has limited experience with firearms.
Our instructor is Chris Kaufmann, a 17-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department who spent a dozen years on the LAPD pistol team, a tenure distinguished by 11 State PPC Police Championship trophies, the Bianchi Cup and top honors at the NRA National Championships.
Kaufmann himself can boast winning 35 pistols, rifles and shotguns, as well as 24 Police Olympic medals (nine of them gold). As an officer, he sported the NRA Police Distinguished Badge and was a member of the LAPD Counter Assault Team during the 1984 Olympics.
He also owns a .38 special Smith & Wesson revolver that once belonged to actor and highest decorated American combat soldier of World War II, Audie Murphy. (Murphy’s family gave the pistol to Kaufmann in recognition of his unlikely recovery of stolen property and the cunning police work he executed in the early ’80s.)
Kaufmann is fond of Confucian sayings and is given to making helpful analogies between shooting and golf or competitive driving: It is all an exact science.
There is a strong sense that the NRA platform is for all women to keep guns in their homes (during a gun maintenance demonstration later that afternoon, Marcus beseeches women to own a firearm). Kaufmann takes a more measured approach.
His introduction to training is not a treatise on the necessity of firearm ownership; he doesn’t politicize the question, but refers to the decision as “a real critical move” and makes a sharp distinction between shooting for sport and keeping a defense weapon tucked away in a drawer.
His warnings remind me of my father’s careful reasoning: You cannot keep a gun on hand thinking the sight of it will scare someone off. You cannot assume that in a time of danger, a simple, debilitating shot will save you.
“The use of deadly force should be in back of your mind,” Kaufmann says. He urges a studied consideration of the simple question: “Can I and will I?”
During five hours of training, Kaufmann stops short of pushing gun ownership on me. His purpose seems only to equip me, should I decide at some point down the road that I need to own a revolver.
“Reduced to the least common denominator,” he says, “a gun is a tool. If you are not proficient in its use you may not see the benefit when the time comes to use it. Add to this the fact that many situations using firearms involve incredible stress …”
Should Crystal or I decide to continue our practice, a trip to the gun range would prove the perfect rehearsal, Kaufmann says. A young single woman at such a place would draw enough attention that we might have to overcome slight performance anxiety; he recommends we use that to our advantage.
Kaufmann himself practiced target shooting four to five times a week while participating in 30 to 40 weekend competitions a year during his stint on the LAPD.
While the LAPD opted to use semi-automatics as patrol weapons at the end of the last decade, revolvers — such as the 6-inch .38 Special Smith & Wesson I am given — are extremely trustworthy guns, says Kaufmann.
“The revolver is simple. All you have to do is pull the trigger. Second, they are less expensive both in initial purchase and cost of ammo.”
He teaches us to fire “double action” with no hammer release, but a fuller pull of the trigger to fire with less interruption.
We learn proper grip: right hand index finger resting parallel to the barrel, nowhere near the trigger. The second hand (in most cases, the left) is steadying, with the left thumb ready to pull the hammer down. Kaufmann cautions us not to rest the left thumb underneath the hammer, however; were we to switch to a semi-automatic with that grip, the slide would slice into our skin.
Kaufmann makes a distinction against Hollywood-styled grip: “Wrapping your hand around your wrist — that’s hokey. People don’t do that.”
He teaches us sight alignment: coordinating rear fin-like indicators on the back end of the gun with one up front and center to ensure visual accuracy, and holding our arms out nearly straight, not quite locked.
He warns us that human tendency is to fire “to the left and low.”
The firearm virgin
It’s not stated explicitly, but around the Ojai Gun Club, firing a gun for the first time is subtly likened to “rounding home” in sex: You’re crossing an unforgettable threshold. I wonder if I’ll look different after. What does it mean to be able to say you’ve never fired a gun, and is any of my pacifist street cred compromised because I’ve just shot a firearm for sport? But the process is exact and clinical, and I have little time to absorb the sensation of deploying a bullet. There are five rounds remaining, and thinking up pithy one-liner analogies about trigger-pulling and marksmanship strikes me as inappropriate. I will spend more than an hour total with a gun in my hand, my accuracy will improve and the routine of reloading will become almost second nature, but I never stop feeling tense. It shows in my posture; my shoulders are higher than they ought to be.
Kaufmann is a taskmaster. I need to keep track of my rounds, but I’m encouraged to fire even when I’m certain I’ve run through the lot.
The trigger pull is my biggest obstacle. On blanks, it’s obvious that I’m anticipating the shot and speeding up my pull, which jerks the shot. With a live round, this tendency is made obvious by my catawampus holes (not off the target completely, just beyond the realm of where they should be).
Kaufmann compliments my skill, noting that I did well “especially for a cross-dominant female with no experience with a firearm.” That is to say, I’m right-handed, left eye-dominant. And I managed to get more than a few shots into the black center.
There is technique in how to unload: point the gun straight down, release the cylinder, then upturn the gun while pressing down on the release and quickly disposing of the used cartridges. After the stress of firing toward a fixed target, the concept of a quick emptying seems almost irrelevant.
So Kaufmann takes us back to Castaic and the Newhall Tragedy of April 5, 1970, when four highway patrol officers — Walter Frago, Roger Gore, James Pence, Jr. and George Alleyn — were killed in a shootout with two fugitives. Further investigation brought to light the fact that these four men were fastidious in disposing of dead cartridges: They would pocket them, which would cost them valuable reloading time.
My approach to the NRA-sponsored event is résumé-like: I can now add “loading and firing 6-inch Smith & Wesson pistol” to a mental list of abilities, tucked in between “hemming trousers” and “Thai-style back-walking.” I’m at a loss to imagine when I might apply my new skills practically, and the likelihood of my being in a situation that would require any reloads is slim. Still, “Castaic” keeps me on task for every quick flip and rapid dumping of shells.
We move onto semi-automatics. Kaufmann compliments my dexterity in loading the tiny bullets into the magazine, and I resist telling him that I used to be really into beadwork (in a totally hip, Gen Y way).
We use a 9mm, and Kaufmann explains that semi-automatics were first introduced for patrol within the LAPD in the early ’90s, but the revolver is still popular on many police forces.
My latent internal struggle here — somewhat dulled by the early hour and the intense heat — is that participating in gun-related activities smacked like personal complicity in what is to me an extremely loaded issue (no pun intended). It reminds me of attending a polo game despite my deep understanding of the damage such a sport has on a horse, or trying on a friend’s rabbit fur coat once — because it was there — and admiring the flattering lines.
I don’t automatically begrudge someone the right to keep an unloaded gun responsibly tucked in their home. I understand the attraction. Target shooting is fun, specifically when your shots begin to hover around the dark region in the center. Target shooting with a semi automatic? Even better.
I understand the need some might feel to keep a firearm around for personal protection (I grew up in Los Angeles and missed three days of school during the riots as ash from a fire of vague origin coated the family car; believe me, I get it). And the argument that women have a prerogative to ensure their own security is easily underscored by Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network statistics that report 1 in 6 American women (1, it bears mentioning, one in 33 American men) are victims of sexual assault.
And yet … I own pepper spray and work out regularly. Shouldn’t that be enough? Is it fatalistic to say that you draw a solid line before compromising another life, even if that life belongs to a dredge-of-society attacker?
Later, Kaufmann informs me that I was one of seven participants that day who had never handled a firearm before. In addition, 11 had experience with a coach and three had experience with a shotgun or rifle, but not a handgun.
As Kaufmann points out (with personal anecdote to back it), having some gun proficiency doesn’t mean I have to ever fire a gun again. But should I come across one lying in the street, any training I’ve had will serve me well.
And avoiding tragedy is more than worth five hours of my Saturday.