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Pulling the trigger – at last

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It’s a Monday morning, the last one of 2013, and business at Calibers Shooters Sports Center on Cutler NE is already booming.

Literally.

The booms are from weapons being fired inside the center’s 24-lane indoor shooting range, and the sound of each shot is thunderous even from outside in the crowded parking lot.

Men, and a few women, most carrying odd rectangular cases and boxes, stroll in and wait for their turn to blast holes into paper targets that range from basic bull’s-eye to the more whimsical zombie- or alien-themed versions.

They are old and young, Duck Dynasty hairy and cop clean-shaven, flannel- and polo-shirted.

I am here to learn to love my gun. Or at least to live with it.

It has taken me this long – 14 months – to prepare to fire the Ruger .22-caliber pistol I purchased in October 2012. I promised you all I would take a lesson before shooting it. But time always slipped by. It felt rather like purchasing a piano, then never playing it, then forgetting even the rudiments of how to play it.

But a piano won’t kill you if you hit the wrong note.

Paper targets show the results of the first bullets fired by Joline Gutierrez Krueger's .22-caliber Ruger. Note that the pistol has its magazine safely removed, its safety on and its barrel pointed in a safe direction. (Joline Gutierrez Krueger/Albuquerque Journal)

Paper targets show the results of the first bullets fired by Joline Gutierrez Krueger’s .22-caliber Ruger. Note that the pistol has its magazine safely removed, its safety on and its barrel pointed in a safe direction. (Joline Gutierrez Krueger/Albuquerque Journal)

I’ve written before about my decision to purchase a gun and then my queasiness afterward. Contrary to the suspicions voiced by at least one of you, this ambivalence was not part of some brilliantly sinister scheme to push an anti-Second Amendment agenda, though thank you for suggesting that I have the twisted cleverness to pull off such a convoluted plot.

No. My decision to buy a gun arose when my family was threatened. That threat abated, however, by the time my not-so-instant background check from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System had been resolved and I was cleared to purchase.

But it wasn’t easy to feel safe with a gun, even though safety had been the initial reason behind purchasing it. I had spent too many years reporting on the tragedies that occur when a handgun gets into the wrong hands.

And then came Sandy Hook, George Zimmerman, more gun casualties, more mass shootings, day after day.

Still, there it was, my Ruger, pristine, locked in a gun safe.

Several of you offered to take me shooting. Training and experience, some of you said, was what I needed to learn how to use my weapon, how to respect it, how to love it.

One of those who offered was Jordan Nighbert, director of training at Calibers. Nighbert, an affable guy who seems more likely to teach surfing than shooting, has attended more than 28 firearms and self-defense academies, logged in 1,000 hours of formal firearms-related education and has been a competitive shooter since 2002. He’s also a University of New Mexico graduate with a criminology degree, a licensed emergency medical technician and a national amateur kickboxing champion.

He seemed the perfect guy to teach me the proper way to wield a Ruger. So I called.

He led me into a classroom filled with plastic guns and rubber bullets. For most of the next 2½ hours, my hands barely touched the real thing.

“Safety,” he said, “is the only skill you need to focus on now.”

Nighbert stresses gun safety in terms of Maslow’s four stages of learning – from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence.

I must learn, he said, to automatically, unconsciously treat all guns as loaded, to keep my finger off the trigger until I am ready to fire, to never point a gun at anything I am not willing to destroy, to consider what I will hit if I miss my target.

Again and again, we practiced on the plastic guns. Where is the gun pointed, he asked. Where is my trigger finger? Is the gun loaded?

Eventually, automatically, unconsciously, I got it.

Finally, out came my gun. I learned its parts, their functions, how to take the gun apart and put it back together, how to clean it. I learned how to load the magazine, how to load and release the magazine. I learned how to grip the gun in my hands, how to stand, how to breathe as I took aim and fired.

Shooting, Nighbert said, is Zen-like, meditative. It is just you and your weapon, your focus. But it is everybody else you must consider before you shoot.

Inside the shooting range, I put what I learned into practice. And fired.

I felt the power explode from the metal in my hands, the boom. It is awesome, exhilarating and, yes, kind of fun.

I find I’m not a bad shot, for a newbie.

I will need more training, certainly, more experience. A lot more. I cannot say I love my gun, but I can now live with it. Safely.

I believe like so many of you in the necessity of proper training, of learning to respect the weapon.

But I also believe better background checks should be required of every gun buyer to weed out those who are less respectful – the criminals and those mentally ill enough to be dangerous with deadly power.

I believe military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines too easily fall into those wrong hands.

I still believe there are ways to respect the Second Amendment and human life. It’s not some brilliantly sinister scheme. Just common sense. You don’t automatically, unconsciously lose that just because you’ve fired a weapon.

(You can, however, easily become stupid firing a weapon, and you only need have heard the war zone-like volleys of gunfire at midnight on New Year’s Eve to know that.)

My gun is back in its safe now. I’ll take it out again to shoot at the range. I plan to remain unconsciously competent when armed. I still hope I never have to use it for anything else except recreation. But if I had to, I could.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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