Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. FYI, Nelson has written a piece for The Magazine about a device to adapt a digital camera to pinhole technology, called Light Motif – possibly of interest to Chronicle readers.
This is not a column about “gun control” ; it’s a column about guns, and it’s a column about control, and it’s ultimately a column about the quick and the dead.
But it’s not about gun control. As of this moment, I have no stable opinion about gun control; I’m not conflicted, but I’m still doing the math. My next column will be closer to being about “gun control” – and you can expect some math then.
But today, let’s just talk about guns.
I own two functional guns. One is a Beretta AL 391 Teknys, which is a semi-automatic 12 gauge shotgun. I’m told the AL 391 family is popular with bird hunters, although I use it for shooting clays – a hobby I was introduced to by my father. I also own a Browning Challenger .22 target pistol.
As Americans, we take it for granted that guns are tools for solving problems. I thought that too, back before I’d ever actually shot a gun. But I don’t think that anymore.
In this column I want to talk mostly about the pistol.
Intro To Guns
The Browning Challenger is a semi-automatic pistol (which means that it will fire each time you pull the trigger, with no additional action on the part of the shooter). The Challenger has a standard 10-round magazine. It’s designed as a target pistol, and is thus chambered for .22LR (“long rifle”) ammunition. This ammunition has a relatively short effective range, but can be fairly accurate over that distance. It’s well suited to indoor ranges.
Most folks learn to shoot a gun firing .22LR; it is the most common ammunition in the world. These rounds are quiet (relative to everything else on a shooting range), with virtually no kick (relative to everything else on a shooting range), and small. The entire cartridge  isn’t even as long as the last knuckle of my pinky finger, nor as thick as a pencil. It’s actually smaller than the fish-oil supplement I take daily. I could dry-swallow a .22LR .
Also – most importantly, in terms of popularity and education – .22LR ammo is cheap. Most folks buy them in “bricks” of 500 rounds. That sounds like a lot, but a pair of shooters – one teaching the other how to do it – can go through a brick surprisingly quickly.
I’m telling you all of this because this is the Ann Arbor Chronicle, and not the Dexter Chronicle, or the Holland Chronicle, or the Houghton Chronicle. And it’s likely that many of you, Gentle Readers, have limited exposure to guns. I grant that it’s possible that the preceding sentence struck some of you as patronizing and condescending.
But still, I think it’s equally possible that you read “semi-automatic” and thought “scary.” Or maybe you thought something totally erroneous like “that sprays out bullets for as long as you hold down the trigger” or “Dave is going to kill me.” It’s likely that if you read a media description like “… the suspect had a hoard of thousands of rounds of ammunition” you’d think “deranged,” not “That guy probably bought a few bricks; he might have come across a good deal.”
I’m being tedious because right now we’re having a gun debate in this country that’s fantastically devoid of simple physical facts. I’m thinking that maybe we need to start out slow and have ourselves a gun conversation.
My Browning was a gift from my father, the gun he used to teach himself to shoot, and on which he subsequently taught me to shoot. He was the original owner. He bought it in the mid-1960s, back when these pistols were still hand-machined from a single block of steel by an actual Belgian.
Over the recent Non-Denominational Gift Giving Holiday I brought this pistol to my in-laws’ place, which is on several fallow acres outside of Holland, in West Michigan. My father-in-law had recently purchased a Browning Buck Mark (which is the mass-produced, CNC-routed aluminum descendant of the Challenger), and he was curious to compare the two guns.
But also my son was along. He’s in first grade, and had taken an interest in the war games my nephews play on Xbox. His cousins are older – middle school and high school boys. He had been regaling me daily with accounts of the “HALO” games he and his friends re-enact on the school playground.
If he wanted to talk about guns, to imagine guns, to play at what guns are and do, then I wanted him to shoot a gun. He’d seen me shoot plenty of times – my shotgun, which is heavy and loud and leaves smudgy bruises on my right shoulder – but had never pulled a trigger himself.
Learning About Guns
As it turned out, this foray was wonderfully instructive. We went out into the overgrown fields, where my father- and brother-in-law have built their shooting range. The day was bitter cold. I hadn’t shot my .22 in several years, and it kept misfeeding, only squeezing off three rounds successfully. I later discovered that the barrel screw was a touch loose and the barrel block subtly fouled with the wax that coats .22LRs. These guns are accurate because they are built to tight tolerances, so even a little shifting and gunk will muck things up badly.
The Buck Mark similarly misfed and misfired (although at a lower rate) – this, I think, because of the lighter aluminum unevenly contracting as it made the shift from a warm house to a cold field. But my boy still got to shoot (with my father-in-law guiding his hand).
And what he found was this: Shooting can be stressful. A gun – even a plinky little .22 – is loud, and it jumps in your hand like something live and nervous. It’s hard to use; most of his shots sailed into the dirt two yards in front of the target, even with an adult steadying his hand. And guns are unpredictable: Many shells turned out to be bad (my father-in-law had split a cheap gun-show brick with his brother-in-law), or were crimped useless when they were slammed crookedly by the misfeeding slide.
And even though we were shooting at a steel target made for .45s, I broke the damn thing with a “lucky” shot that was a little high and happened to catch the ironwork at its seam, sending the heavy target sailing away. Even this little gun was fearsome. And even a bullet smaller than an M&M snapped steel. It brought a touch of dread to the boy.
The gun taught him a lesson.
A Gun Is Not A Tool
A gun isn’t a tool – it’s not a hammer or a drill that you can pick up, use to solve a problem, and put away until you have the next problem you want to solve. It’s an instrument, like a guitar or piano. It requires constant care, it requires checking and tuning before each use, it requires an intimate relationship with its mechanisms, with its parameters, with what it can do and what it should do and what it is meant for. It requires care and feeding. And it requires practice, near constant practice for you to be any good at doing anything with it.
But most of all, it requires attention – all of your attention. You are exquisitely focused when you are holding a gun – and not just because the gun can hurt or kill anyone nearby, including you. (Our cars are far more likely to hurt and kill anyone nearby, and we zone out behind the wheel all the time.)
There is an essential quality to this instrument compared with others; its nature is to make us aware of how vital and powerful our attention is, in and of itself. I don’t look at my father when I’m holding my loaded shotgun. I don’t look at my son when I’m holding my loaded pistol. I look at the target – only at the target, because whatever I’m looking at is the target.
The gun is not a tool, and it doesn’t solve problems; it is an instrument, and it expresses feelings. When I’m shooting skeet, I have to feel that clay in my heart before I can smash it; I have to feel how it soars. The hard part isn’t the shooting – that’s just a swing of the arm and twitch of the finger; I never even think about it.
The hard part is the seeing, really seeing the orange disk, not just assuming I see it, or thinking I see it, or seeing my idea of the disk and its location. It’s harder than you think, because most of us go most of our days without beginning to appreciate how little we see the world, and how completely we rely on our ideas about the world without checking them against what our senses are actually reporting. 
When you pick up a gun – just like when you pick up a ukulele or a violin – even if you are “just practicing,” you are saying something about yourself, about the world and your place in it, about the connectedness of things, about our human tendency to build devices beautiful and destructive.
Learning To Shoot
So shooting with my wife and son and father-in-law – out in the cold, with real guns that were loud and destructive and erratic – was stressful for my son, and reminded me of the first time I’d gone shooting with my dad, when I was in my 20s.
I’d never touched a gun – although he’d always kept them in the house – but I’d grown up an American, and so I had ideas about guns. And the gun I used that day was his preferred gun at the time, a Beretta 9mm pistol. I couldn’t hit a thing with it – literally. As I recall, the paper target was entirely unscathed. And I’d had to force my finger to curl around the trigger each time, because each explosion was tremendous. Each one felt like the Worst Thing I’d Ever Done, and with each shot I couldn’t help but imagine that bullet tearing into me, piercing my chest, breaking my bones.
But having taken up the gun, I could not put it back down, just as I can’t put down the ukulele – regardless of how abysmal a musician I’ve made – just as I’m helpless to drop this pencil, to keep my hands off the keyboard. So we went back with the .22. This is an impractical gun in many regards – low-caliber, too bulky to conceal, with its barrel long for accuracy, the grip thick for comfort and steadiness, the sights absurdly pronounced for a pistol in America.
But it fit my hand like no other object I’d ever touched, and every shot went exactly where I wanted it, where my eye placed it. I never thought about my hand or my chest or my heart or my bones, just my eye and the sights and the target.
Just the world that I saw.
This will sound insane to all of you who don’t both shoot and make art, but shooting felt just exactly like writing. These were fundamentally the same activities.
After my son and I were back inside and warmed up, I asked my little boy what he’d thought of the shooting, expecting he’d repeat what he’d said when he was three and watched me shooting skeet with my dad – “Too loud!” That was despite my big blue ear protectors clutching his head.
But he didn’t. He was thoughtful, and he smiled, and he said, “It was good.” And since we’ve been back home it doesn’t seem like he’s been playing “HALO” at school. He spent some of his Holiday money on a NERF gun.
He doesn’t need to be told not to point it at people or pets.
The War On Gun Violence
Since the Newtown tragedy I’ve been having a lot of conversations about guns – in person, on Twitter, on Facebook. And I’ve begun to suspect that the most fundamental flaw in our national “debate” about guns is that so many of us think of them as tools that we can (or should, or might, or must) use to solve problems, instead of seeing them for what they are: Instruments through which we express ourselves, for better or worse.
I’m telling you all this because I don’t want to have a “debate” about “gun control.” First and foremost, I’m tired of “debates.” When we couch everything in the language of force and violence and coerced control – a war on poverty, a fight to end homelessness, stamping out childhood obesity – it becomes increasingly seductive to see violence as the go-to solution.
But more importantly, every indication is that we’re pretty good at controlling our guns: We set out to hurt ourselves and each other, and achieve that goal. About 100,000 Americans can expect to have high-velocity lead enter their bodies this year. Almost all of those will be fired in a conscious attempt to cause harm. About a third of these lead recipients will die from their lead. Almost all of those will be in acts of intentional violence, mostly acts of self-harm.
Guns are a problem, but I don’t think they’re The Problem.
The Problem is: There is so much we feel we can say only in lead.
 I’m making an assumption about you, Dear Reader, and it’s this: I assume that you, like me, want to minimize the amount of lead that goes into human bodies. You don’t want fast-moving lead entering your body or that of a loved one – or even a stranger. You don’t want to put lead into the body of another human being. You want to stay unleaded. If we can all agree on that, then we can move forward together.
 Just to clear up something that often confuses folks: A “cartridge” or “round” is the whole package. It comprises the bullet (i.e., the little hunk of lead that flies out of the gun and hurts things), the casing (in this case a brass tube), and the propellent inside the casing (gunpowder that’s ignited by a primer – usually a dab of pressure-sensitive chemicals not so different from a strike-anywhere match head).
 I’m not suggesting you do so! Remember, our overarching goal, for the next several columns, is keeping lead out of human bodies.
 In light of this, it should come as no surprise that the most natural shots I’ve ever met have all been artists, ’cause that’s the only other human endeavor that’s so much about perceiving the world as it is, rather than as we’d have it be.
The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of local columnists like David Erik Nelson. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. So if you’re already supporting us on a regular basis, please educate your friends, neighbors and colleagues about The Chronicle and encourage them to support us, too!