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By Jeff Winkler

My family is not what you'd call "gun people." My Pops, a boomer hillbilly hippie, got his first gun for protection when I was around 12 because our home was under attack… from a squirrel. All other efforts to eradicate the infestation had been made and so, determined to protect his homestead, Pops purchased the family’s first firearm — a massive pistol capable of shooting a 410 shotgun shell. Its official name is “The Judge.”

One day, a loud bang came from the attic: Pops had tried to take out one of the squirrels, but missed. Sorta. The rodent got away, but the smell of rot somewhere between the walls crept in later that week. After that, The Judge was locked and hidden away. We didn’t see it for years.

The Judge returned when I was 21 and had bought my own .22 rifle. Retrieved by Pops while my family took turns shooting at bottles with my rifle, he told me to “see what the spray pattern looks like” by shooting the broadside of a plastic recycling dumpster. When I missed, he mocked my aim, and told me to get closer. The next shot definitely hit; I know because one of the pellets ricocheted and hit me squarely in the crotch. There are no words to express the instant fear of thinking you’ve just shot off your own genitals, nor for the embarrassment of ripping off your pants in an open field for an emergency inspection of said private parts. When the gunpowder settled and everything but my pride appeared to be intact, we went about our day, lesson learned.

Image: A Glock 27 .40 caliber handgun at the Southwest Regional Park shooting range in Tucson, Arizona. ((C)Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images file
Alexis Silva shoots her Glock 27 .40 caliber handgun at the Southwest Regional Park shooting range near the Crossroads of the West Gun Show at the Pima County Fairgrounds in Tucson, Arizona on January 15, 2011.Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images file

I grew up in Arkansas, lived in Texas, and now reside in Tennessee — always in the larger metro areas, but all places where people had a casual understanding of firearms and often enough nearby space for a homemade glass-bottle shooting range. Beyond the major coastal cities and media hubs, firearms are part of the background: Something known, even enjoyed, with the occasional real-world reminder that taking gun safety for granted can have prickish consequences.

Whenever public debate about gun control ramps up, it’s fought most loudly by rabid gun-nutty conservatives and city liberals with no hands-on experience — that one jerk neighbor nobody likes who walks into the diner proudly expressing his right to open carry, and that one coworker proudly expressing their superior worldliness.

The debate’s results are now aggravatingly predictable: The boisterous neighbor shuts downs — or shouts downs — all arguments when the citified coworker demonstrates that they have little understanding of an impressively simple tool. (A clip isn’t a magazine, the “AR” in AR-15 isn’t an abbreviation for “assault rifle,” etc.) The pedantic tactic, as perfectly described by firearm aficionado Adam Weinstein, is “gunsplaining.” For someone trying make a larger point about gun violence, gunsplaining can be infuriating but, for someone with a passing familiarity with guns, the audacity of a liberal trying to make a larger, sweeping point without knowing some of the basic concepts or having any hands-on appreciation can be equally so.

The issue of gun control and rights is complicated. Less complicated is just giving the actual shooting a shot.

Pro-gun people ask why they should listen too hard about sensible gun reform — like fixing the abysmal background check system and criminal gun tracing, actually allowing meaningful research into gun violence — when not only are basic terms misused by gun reform advocates, but general facts about firearms are glossed over in favor of fear of the unfamiliar. The number of school shooting victims has gone down since the last 20 years; handguns, not “assault rifles” are the weapon used most often in firearm-related murders; the majority of gun deaths are suicides.

The issue of gun control and rights is complicated. Less complicated is just giving the actual shooting a shot. You may experience a funny, tingling sensation that its actually fun, and that’s perfectly normal! But shooting a gun also has the added benefit of giving you more of a leg to stand on the next time a gun debate inevitably comes up.

I don't expect most gun virgins to suddenly become gun lovers. After all, my own mild lust for firearms and a fluctuating collection (both recent developments) have confounded my peace-loving parents and myself. But it’s surprising how quickly someone learns what “semi-automatic” actually means when they fire off a few successive rounds of a 9mm; why some folks actually do feel safer when they have a loaded burglar alarm; or yes, why shooting can be a genuine “hobby” (if you can afford it).

Image: A man fires an 22 Cal. look-alike AR-15 rifle at the "Get Some Guns & Ammo" shooting range on January 15, 2013 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A man fires an 22 Cal. look-alike AR-15 rifle at the "Get Some Guns & Ammo" shooting range in Salt Lake City, Utah on January 15, 2013.George Frey / Getty Images file

Hobbyists used to have a group they could join — the NRA. This was before the organization became the hardline Second Amendment army it is now. (The change happened suddenly, after an intentional takeover of the group’s leadership during an annual meeting in 1977 now known as the Cincinnati Revolt.)

The idea of a reverse takeover, however ludicrous an idea, isn’t new. But perhaps there is a more “sensible” approach to finding common ground on the issue: More people learning how to shoot. Rather than engaging in incessant shoptalk about freedom or judge-y fear about the evils of guns, spent some time with friends while blowing stuff up. And if you are surprised that you enjoy your gun range time, but want to do it with demographically friendly peers, there is most certainly a non-NRA gun group for you.

You wouldn’t take sex tips from a virgin (and abstinence-only programs are the epitome of bad policy). Consensual combustion doesn't have to be any different: The important thing is to have fun but be safe. And for God's sake, if you’re going to fire off The Judge, use protection.

Jeff Winkler is a writer in Tennessee.