“Thank God you’re on our side.”

“Are you a citizen?” asked the plump, overly friendly lady at the counter. “No, but I have a green card,” I responded, and that turned out to be enough, since soon afterwards I was escorted downstairs, presented with paperwork that seemed too short and instructions that seemed too trivial, asked to choose one of the many hand guns laid out elaborately in the spacious case, escorted again to the actual range, and asked to “shoot in bursts, not individual shots — it looks better on a photo.”

It all happened so fast. The Space Shuttle failed to launch after an entire week of mishaps and aborts. My friends had already left, my flight was departing the next morning, and I found myself facing an empty day in Titusville, Florida. Turns out, there’s not much to do in Titusville, Florida after you’ve already explored every nook and cranny of the Kennedy Space Center. But there it was, an unlikely rescue — the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum, which, unbeknownst to me, had an adjacent shooting range that was, unbeknownst to me still, open for anyone with a U.S. citizenship. Or even something just resembling one.

The guy manning the range was an aspiring photographer, and there’s a fantastic photo of me, soon after I fired my first shot ever. I’m in a well-lit cavern, a solitary shooter in booth nine out of twelve, although hundreds of spent bullets lining the floor betray the popularity of the place. I’m aiming at a blue silhouette of a target in the distance — drawn not in a casual standing pose, but as if it was reaching for a gun hidden behind its back. (Is this cheap psychological trick supposed to help?) There’s a box full of bullets in front of me. And then there’s me — my stance, my tight grip on the 9mm Glock G17, the protection they simply called “eyes” and “ears” on my then-shaved head, and the flash around the muzzle following the just-fired bullet — all suggesting not only that I’m good at this, but that I’m actually enjoying it.

The scary part? I did. It all happened so fast. The fear gave way to fascination — my atavistic responses kicked in — the fascination to infatuation — my brain’s altered chemistry followed — and I eventually arrived back at fear. This time, of myself. Like in a dream, within minutes, I watched myself become someone I could no longer recognize. With every eight-gram bullet hitting what quickly became my blue arch-nemesis, I lost a bit of what made me human.

I accepted the first offer of more free bullets (free as in beer and free as in speech, presumably), but said no to the second one. I grabbed one of the fired shells as a memoir, its mutated shape a testament to the horrible power I shortly had control over — or so I thought, at least — and I left as quickly as my weakened knees allowed. The sticker on the exit door proclaimed “Thank God you’re on our side,” and on that post-Columbine, pre-Aurora afternoon of late 2010, I responded with laughter, one of my emptiest ever.

I eventually saw a Space Shuttle launch — the last one, as a matter of fact — but that half hour with my finger on a trigger proved to be a more memorable experience. I named the photo Breaking bad, after a TV show that explored what happens when you let go, when you give yourself in to some things it’s your life’s responsibility to curtail. There and then, I promised myself never to touch a gun again.

Written in August 2012.

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Designer/typographer · Writing a book on the history of keyboards: https://aresluna.org/shift-happens

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