Along with religion, abortion, and taxes, gun rights is one of the most divisive issues in our country. The fight over the Second Amendment has recently boiled over again as several states and the Supreme Court have decided to take on the issue of "open carry" – that is, the right to wear a loaded handgun on your hip.
Because San Francisco is the most liberal city in the state with the most restrictive gun laws in the country, we rarely come face-to-face with this issue ourselves. Loaded guns are technically allowed in national parks within San Francisco city limits. And large chain retailers like Starbucks and Walmart have gone on record to say they will allow the open-carry of guns in their stores if state law permits it. However, hardly anybody in this city would even tolerate the sight of a gun, much less buy one and then take it out for a cappuccino.
I'm no lawyer, but I think a solid case could be made here for reverse discrimination. San Francisco proudly boasts some of the most tolerant mores in the world. If you are a gay vegan sexual yoga practitioner with full body tattoos who openly preaches the gospel of an extra-terrestrial worshiping cult, people in San Francisco will welcome you with open arms. But if you are a gun owner or, god forbid, a Republican you will be shunned. Your political views will be automatically dismissed and no one will sit next to you at dinner parties.
I wonder what it must be like for gun owners in San Francisco. Do they feel like outcasts in a city that embraces everyone else? Are all gun owners right-wing nut jobs, hell-bent on killing cute, innocent animals with semi-automatic weapons? Where are the "gun people" in this city, anyway? I set out to hunt them down in the far left city of San Francisco.
The Jackson Arms Shooting Range is in an unassuming industrial park, openly soliciting customers with group rates and private lessons for shooting and gun safety. I called up and arranged to take a lesson that would cover everything from how a handgun works to how to shoot one accurately – and to meet some gun owners in the process.
My instructor was McKee Quan, a smart and good-natured guy who wears thick glasses, sensible shoes, and a pocket protector, all of which would lead you to believe that he is an accountant or IT guy – if it weren't for the loaded revolver strapped to his belt. McKee showed me to the rental counter where a guy was toying with some kind of futuristic rifle that looked like it belonged on a spaceship. In the background I could hear loud popping as gun lovers cut loose on the indoor range. I picked out a SIG-Sauer Pro 2340 .40 caliber from the rental case and followed McKee to a classroom in the back.
We slipped out to the gun range where in less than 30 minutes McKee managed to cover everything from how the gun works to how to load, aim, and shoot it. I did pretty well with the mechanics of the firearm (bullets come out of the front, thank you very much), but the aiming part was surprisingly difficult. And to think it looks so easy in the movies.
I set up my target, spooled it out to about 20 feet, took aim and fired. I missed the bull’s-eye, but not by much. I held my breath and fired again – and hit the same place. I made some adjustments and eventually got to the point where I was shooting accurately about 55% of the time. I finished the ammo and handed the gun to my brother who had come along as my second – a safety requirement for anyone renting a gun at Jackson Arms.
I took a moment to check out the other shooters. I have to say that none of them were working very hard to defy any stereotypes. The guy next to me wore a neon orange trucker hat adorned with the name of a plumbing supply store. His butt crack climbed out of his jeans whenever he bent over to shoot. He and his buddy took turns with a giant Clint Eastwood special, which made a ton of noise but didn't help them do anything more than nick the target. On my left, two wannabe gangbangers took turns shooting a ridiculously large, chrome-plated .9mm. They were holding it sideways and threatening – I swear to god – to bust a cap in the paper target's ass.
The shooters at Jackson Arms were ostensibly working on their aim, but after talking to a few of them I got the sense that something bigger was at stake. These people weren't just making a point of exercising their Second Amendment rights. They were preparing for the day when they would have to use their guns in a wildly improbable self-defense scenario. There is a reason that the most popular targets all feature a depiction of some kind of bad guy; it's so all of the pistoliers can psych themselves up for the highly unlikely event that a drug-crazed sociopath breaks into their home in the middle of the night and they happen to have a loaded handgun near by and at the ready.
And so, while shooting the gun was fun and I really enjoyed McKee's smart and humorous approach to firearm instruction, the indoor shooting range began to wear on me. The deafening sound of gunfire made me twitch and the lack of natural light made me feel like I was stuck in a video game. I found myself quietly condemning everyone around me, guilty of the exact kind of discrimination I had been theorizing about.
Before I could rush to any conclusions, I decided to give San Francisco's other shooting range a try. Opened in the 1930s, the Pacific Rod & Gun Club is a city institution, perched out on the edge of Lake Merced. The club itself doesn't really amount to much – just a small shop that is basically a glorified trailer and two ranges each for shooting trap or skeet – although the club did manage to lay claim to a pretty handsome piece of real estate.
I showed up with a borrowed shotgun and told the guys milling around the porch that I was a complete amateur. They laughed and rolled their eyes, but were pretty friendly about walking me through the process. One of them, a tattoo-covered off-duty firefighter named Warren, led me and my two friends out to the range and showed us the ropes. None of us even knew how our gun worked, much less how to load or shoot it. Warren patiently checked our weapon and explained the basics of trap shooting. He then set us up and walked back to the clubhouse so we wouldn't have to embarrass ourselves by working out our first time jitters in front of him.
Let me say this: Trap shooting is fun. Really fun. Not only are you shooting a bigger gun, you're shooting at a moving target. Better yet, when you hit that target, it explodes in a shower of neon pink shards. Everyone I spoke with at PR&GC maintained that trap and skeet shooting is a sport. I would have to say that I agree with that assessment. It involves skill, concentration, and physical prowess – not to mention a gun and ammunition that can't really be used for anything else.
It would be hard to imagine the crew at PR&GC arguing on behalf of armor-piercing bullets and fully automatic Uzis. For the most part, this is a group of easygoing guys that spans the socio-economic spectrum. They like to hang together on sunny weekends beside a beautiful lake, shooting the breeze and the occasional clay pigeon.
I should make it clear that I am not a gun person. I am a huge supporter of personal freedom and I believe the government should stay out of citizens' lives in general. And as a red-blooded American male I obviously think guns are cool. If I lived in the country I would probably buy one to shoot at cans and squirrels. But I live in a densely populated urban area and have seen how terrifyingly evil they can be in the hands of the wrong people. I would gladly give up my right to own a gun if it meant that there would never be another little kid killed by a stray bullet.
But the fact of the matter is that guns will never be outlawed. The NRA is a very powerful organization and they give voice to a huge percentage of the population that believe they have the constitutional right to own a gun. And while some of these people may be ignorant machine-gun toting rednecks, many of them – in fact, most of them – are decent people who simply enjoy shooting guns as a recreational sport. They are worth getting to know. All you have to do is open your mind, San Francisco. Don't worry – nobody's going to force you to put your hands up.
Check out the Jackson Arms Shooting Range website for info on gun rental, range time, and private lessons with McKee or one of its other instructors. If you're not bringing your own gun, then you have to bring a friend. Otherwise they won't rent you a gun. At Pacific Rod & Gun Club you have to bring your own gun, although you buy your ammo there. If you cough up a hundred bucks for the membership fee, then you get discounts on everything. Plus, as a member you can afford to go out there every weekend. Once you get to know the other members they will help you clean and repair your gun, give you tips on shooting, and sometimes even let you try out their guns.