Guns. I’ve heard a lot about them lately.
I didn’t grow up in a house with guns. I don’t own a gun. I have never felt the urge to run out and buy one.
Although I have never owned a gun, I am familiar with weapons and have shot a rifle many times.
I was 12 years old the first time I picked up a gun. It was at Camp Thunderbird, which is nestled in the green covered Black Hills on the shores of Summit Lake 20 minutes outside of Olympia, Wash.
The camp sold tickets — five rounds for a quarter — that you could redeem at the camp’s rifle range. Each Scout got three free tickets to encourage us to go shoot.
So during my first year at camp, my buddy and I took our tickets and went to the range. The guns were heavy. They were a .22 caliber rifle made by Mossberg. I can’t remember the model number, but I recall they were used for military training during World War II.
I used one ticket and, disappointed that I missed the target four out of five times, gave my remaining tickets away. Guns were noisy and I saw no need to learn how to poke a hole in a piece of paper 50 feet away. It would be nine years before I touched a gun again.
I ran the rifle range for three summers at the same Scout camp. The camp’s administration was desperate for a shooting sports director. It was called “field sports” back then and my domain included rifle shooting, archery, orienteering, and fishing.
I fit the critical qualification for the job: I was 21 years old.
Knowing how to shoot was not required; intelligence and safety were deemed more valuable than actual experience. Nevertheless, I was shipped off to a week-long training at a Scout camp on the Oregon Coast near the home of Tillamook Cheese. There I learned how to operate a rifle range.
Every Scout that attended summer camp was supposed to get an orientation on rifle range procedures during their tour of camp on their first day. The orientation included a short lesson on safety.
Our camp had a copious supply of Famous Amos Chocolate Soda in 12-ounce cans donated by a distributor that wanted to get rid of a large quantity of the discontinued, unappetizing tonic.
At the conclusion of each orientation, I took a can of the chocolate soda, shook it vigorously and placed it on a wood stump down range and then shot one bullet into the can. The Scouts would gasp when the can exploded and sprayed its pressurized contents into the air. Next I carefully examined the can with the Scouts.
There was a small entry hole in one side and the opposite side was blown open by the absorption of the bullet’s momentum.
It was a graphic illustration of the destructive force of ballistic weapons designed to help Scouts remember the importance of safety first.
Over three summers I helped many Scouts learn how to shoot and treat weapons with respect. Scouts brought up their own cans of Famous Amos, which we sold in the Trading Post, and shot at them.
We also dried out left over pancakes from the dining hall in the sun until they were hard like a clay pigeon. We didn’t have shotguns, so we pinned up the pancakes with a clothespin and shot at them with a rifle.
It was fun to have something to shoot at other than paper targets. I accomplished all this with no experience at shooting.
I learned many things that first summer on the rifle range. Along with how to shoot, I learned how to strip down a rifle, clean it and put it back together. I learned how to take apart a bolt and replace the firing pin along with how to fix an extractor.
I developed a good eye and a steady trigger finger as I tried desperately to achieve a trick I read about in some literature I brought home from my training. That literature was a booklet that contained some creative ideas for rifle shooting, and I think it was printed by the National Rifle Association.
One of the suggestions was to glue a Lifesaver to the center of a paper target and try to shoot a bullet through the hole. When there were no Scouts waiting to shoot, I would practice this again and again. I ruined a lot of perfectly good Lifesavers.
Over time I became a highly accurate shooter. In fact, shooting became a Zen sport for me. I learned to control my breathing, look down the barrel of a rifle, gently squeeze the trigger, and send a bullet flying down range towards the center of the bullseye on a target.
Metaphorically I became one with the gun as the rifle felt like an extension of my arm whenever I held the heavy instrument firmly into my right shoulder and balanced it on the palm of my left hand. Perhaps I wasted my talent by not becoming a sniper for a S.W.A.T. team.
While I taught myself how to shoot, I also became a better teacher. All this came about as I tried to meet the silly challenge of shooting a bullet through the hole of a Lifesaver.
On the last day of Scout camp during my first summer running the rifle range, I took a fresh lime green Lifesaver in one hand and a .22 bullet in the other and attempted to pass the lead end of the bullet through the Lifesaver’s hole.
It didn’t fit. No matter how much I practiced, I would never have been able to put a bullet through the hole of a Lifesaver without shattering it. The hole was too small. I had been trying to do the impossible all that summer.
I should have been mad at whoever wrote the booklet that gave me the idea that it could be done. I could have been mad at myself for not checking the bullet and the size of the hole before spending all summer trying to do the impossible.
Yet, that summer I learned attempting to do the impossible is not a waste of time. In fact I found it inspiring. Trying to meet the Lifesaver challenge is what motivated me to become a sharpshooter, and it helped me learn how to teach others to shoot.
Now when I’m told that I am trying the to do the impossible, I don’t let it stop me. There is something in trying the impossible that molds character and carries its own intrinsic reward.
After three years of teaching rifle and shotgun merit badge, administering the National Rifle Association marksmanship award program, and teaching hunter safety, I put my gun down — well, I guess it wasn’t actually my gun — and never picked it up again.
I’ve never saw much practicality in a ten-pound paper punch, never felt like I needed a gun to protect my family, or myself or to defend my rights.
I know people who do, and I respect them and their guns.