Depressing the trigger, kickback hammers my body as the bullet exits the barrel.
The polished wooden stock jams into the part of my shoulder where it's nestled, rocking me back as I open my closed eye, hoping to catch a glimpse of what I hit more than 300 yards away.
There isn't a dust cloud, and the men at my back nod their heads in approval.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- SHOOT TO THRILL Members of The Liberal Gun Club take a lever-action rifle class on Oct. 26 at the San Luis Obispo Sportsmen's Association near Morro Bay.
I hit the target, and I'm determined do it again.
Shooters to my right and left are also firing. The sound ricochets off the wall behind me and the ceiling overhead. But I'm oblivious. Focused.
Hunkering into the seat, I close my eye, bend my head, and zero in on the tiny valley between the mountains of the iron sight.
Twice more I fire, absorbing the recoil from the .30-06 caliber leaving the M1 Garand, aiming at the upper-body shaped steel target on the hillside. More nods from the peanut gallery.
This semi-automatic rifle from World War II is one of the 5.5 million that were produced during and after the war, and no, I don't just know that. I got the rundown from its owner, who gave me all of the nerdy details and asked me if I wanted to try it out on Oct. 26 at the San Luis Obispo Sportsmen's Association's (SLOSA) Rifle-Pistol Range off Highway 1 between SLO and Morro Bay.
Of course I said yes.
It's the fourth and final gun I shot today, thanks to the national meeting of The Liberal Gun Club at the end of October. And I'm amped. All smiles and a little jittery beneath safety glasses and ear protection. We shout at each other through the fog of blocked sound.
"What'd you think?" one of them asks me.
"Super fun," is all I can think to say.
"You hooked?" another asks.
Maybe. It's exhilarating.
I was all nerves when I got here. The gunshots made me jump, shocking my ears and sending little injections of adrenaline through my body.
"Pop. Pop. Pop," was echoing from both sides as the range safety officer asked me if I had ear protection and pointed me to squishy orange ear plugs sealed in plastic.
The Liberal Gun Club Executive Director Ed Gardner walked me through the basics before they let me touch a gun. Barrel pointed downrange at all times. Index finger on the gun above the trigger and safety on, if you're not firing. How to load it. How to hold it. How to mitigate recoil. How to pull the trigger. Where to look.
Gardner's a certified gun safety instructor and took over as executive director in 2015. The gun club has been around since 2008, but it's changed a lot since its inception.
"When it first started, it was more of an internet forum," he said, "where people could go talk about guns without getting yelled at for voting for Obama."
Progressives and moderates, people of color, members of the LGBTQ-plus community, veterans, and yes, even middle-aged white men make up its more than 2,600 paying members across the country. Since Trump got elected, its membership has more than doubled and The Liberal Gun Club is starting to find its political footing—pro-2A (Second Amendment) but definitely left of center.
"We're trying to get those folks in the middle and to the immediate left to pay attention," Gardner said. "It's hard to have a conversation with a Democrat about guns without it becoming an emotional conversation."
But Gardner is a Democrat. And so are the other members. For them, talking about the Second Amendment isn't a partisan issue, it's a civil rights issue. Guns, though, are a political issue, and Liberal Gun Club members don't always feel comfortable talking to fellow liberals about the guns they own.
"We joke about it. It's a safe space," he said with a laugh.
Slow cookers, plastic containers, and serving bowls cover almost every inch of the folding tables against the wall below a deer mount and a sign letting everyone know that this space was "Made possible by a grant from the NRA Foundation."
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- NOT THE NRA The Liberal Gun Club has been around since 2008, but since Donald Trump got elected president, its national membership has more than doubled.
Vegan chili and beans, kale and broccoli slaw salad, sandwich fixings, giant bags of chips, and a lunch line out the door. T-shirts damp with sweat and marred by dirt and gunpowder rock The Liberal Gun Club logo—a minuteman (civilian colonists who formed militia companies and were some of the first to fight in the American Revolution) encircled by stars.
About 60 club members from all over the nation spent the morning out on some of SLOSA's 12 ranges, taking various gun classes before coming to lunch. Faces sporting tan lines from safety glasses glisten as people chat and eat.
After lunch, they have the choice of attending a Stop the Bleed seminar on administering first aid to victims with traumatic injuries or taking a lever-action rifle class. Later in the afternoon, there will also be a three-gun shooting competition on the Hogue Action Pistol Range.
SLOSA Executive Director Dave Pabinquit addresses the crowd, giving them a little bit of history—the gun club has been around since 1986, but the area, which is part of Camp SLO, has been used as a shooting range since at least World War II, when soldiers would train here before getting shipped off to the Pacific.
"It's a great range, and we're so happy to have you out here," Pabinquit says. "You're a great group."
One of the special things about this range, Pabinquit tells me later over the phone, is that you can shoot at metal targets, something that's apparently rare in the state. Plus, there are a variety of ranges to shoot on, including one that's reminiscent of an Old West cowboy town.
Eric Wooten, a Liberal Gun Club member who grew up in Morro Bay and now lives in Atascadero, eats lunch as he tells me another unique thing about the range: You don't have to be a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) to be a SLOSA member. He used to belong to a private gun range in Atascadero, where members were required to belong to the NRA.
"I had to join the NRA. I made up for it by giving an equal amount of money to the ACLU," he says between bites of food. "So the whole Constitution was covered."
Wooten doesn't belong to that private range or the NRA anymore, but he's been a member of the Liberal Gun Club for the last six years. The first time he shot a gun was seven or eight years ago.
"I just knew I wanted to try it once," Wooten says. "The only way I can describe it is that feeling you get when you knock all the pins down."
Instantly hooked, he's owned and sold just about every type of gun on the market since then, although now he's really into double-action revolvers. That's pretty much all he owns.
"They're just so zen," he says.
This range, Wooten proclaims, is one of the best in California. It's something a lot of the members tell me over the course of the afternoon. In June, California's two Liberal Gun Club chapters—north and south—met in the middle at SLOSA for a weekend of shooting, which they do twice a year. This national club meeting has drawn in people from all over: Massachusetts, Oregon, Texas, Mississippi, Washington, and more.
Many of these people tend to keep the fact that they own guns close to their chest, Wooten says, because there isn't a lot of "cross-pollination" between sides.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- LUNCH SPEAKER SLOSA Executive Director Dave Pabinquit welcomes Liberal Gun Club members to the range, saying club members have always been wonderful and are welcome back anytime.
"The hard thing is, a lot of these folks are either closeted gun owners with their liberal friends or they're closeted liberals with their gun friends," he says. "A lot of them are uncomfortable with being outed."
As the club has become more active in the press, online, and politically, it's drawn in more members as well as garnered interest in the online community, such as on Facebook. The club has members in every state, chapters in 24 states, and gun safety instructors in 20 states. Education and gun safety are a large part of what the club does.
"We are seeing people come in who are looking for something other than the NRA. Who are sick of Trump," he says.
Root of violence
After lunch, Wooten, Gardner, and I mosey over to the picnic tables at the Trap and Skeet Range. The range dog greets us with a panting smile as he runs to the end of his leash. A bright orange clay pigeon flings into the air in the opposite direction as the shooter fires, breaking the target into pieces that scatter, joining the other bits of clay already littering the ground.
Gun control, Gardner says, is an issue that Democratic politicians use to prove they're liberal. It's a false indicator, he adds, pointing out that U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) is a great example of the sleight-of-hand that politicians use to prove their partisanship.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- SAFETY LESSON Safety instructor and The Liberal Gun Club Executive Director Ed Gardner gives a lesson on how to properly and safely handle this variant of the AR-15, which was modified to shoot .22 caliber bullets and is 10 percent as powerful as a regular AR-15.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) gave her a 73 percent in its Congressional Scorecard on votes between January 2017 and May 2018.
"She's really not that liberal," he says. "Rather than saying, 'Oh, let's raise the minimum wage,' or, 'Oh, let's get universal health care,' it's, 'Oh, let's get gun control.'"
The gun control laws that elected officials such as Feinstein advocate for may make some people feel better about themselves, but that legislation doesn't actually do anything to address the deeper issue, Gardner argues.
"Are gun homicides a symptom or a problem?" he asks. "Our view would be that it's symptomatic of other problems."
If you had a living wage, if you had access to mental health care, it could change the levels of violence in the country, he says. The club focuses on something it calls "root cause mitigation," which basically means that rather than looking at the symptoms of violence, such as gun deaths, solutions should be based on addressing the root causes of that violence.
He uses the nation's suicide rate as an example. The suicide rate in the U.S. has increased by 33 percent since 1999.
Of the nearly 40,000 people who died from gun-related injuries in the U.S. in 2017, 60 percent were suicides, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Almost 24,000 suicides in 2017 used a gun, but that number accounts for only half of the suicides in 2017. In total, there were a little more than 47,000 suicides in 2017, according to the CDC.
"When I look at that, it tells me that we have a suicide problem," Gardner says.
And when he looks at homicide statistics, he sees that a majority of the murders involving firearms aren't committed by long guns such as the assault-style weapons banned in California; Connecticut; Washington, D.C.; Hawaii; Maryland; Massachusetts; and New Jersey.
Of the more than 15,000 murders reported to the FBI's Uniform Crime Statistics in 2017, almost 11,000 involved firearms. A little more than 7,000 of those homicides were committed with a handgun, 400 with rifles, and 260 with shotguns. In the remaining 3,200 murders related to a firearm, the type of gun is unknown.
According to the FBI statistics, long guns (rifles)—which include the assault-style firearms that mass shootings have made famous—make up way less than 1 percent of gun homicides, Gardner says.
"The problem isn't the existence of the rifles, it's about what's around the people who are around the rifles," he says of perpetrators of mass-shootings. "Banning assault rifles doesn't make sense."
Banning assault rifles could maybe prevent another Parkland or Las Vegas, he says, but what about all of the other deaths by firearms. It's not the guns, he argues. It's whatever is driving that violence.
"The solutions to these problems are hard," Gardner says. "There is no magic wand."
Although they don't agree with much of the gun legislation that gets proposed, Gardner says, unlike the NRA, he knows just saying no to everything that restricts guns isn't the right approach.
He uses "red flag" laws as an example of something that could help if they're done right. These laws have been passed in several states, including California, and they put a process into place for filing protective orders to remove guns from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- TARGET PRACTICE Instructors accompany a gun club member who's honing his rifle skills on one of SLOSA's 12 ranges.
"If you do those wrong, you're actually taking away the rights of a citizen," Gardner says. "Currently, the Second Amendment is a right guaranteed to us under the Constitution. ... We don't just arbitrarily and administratively take things away from people."
The ACLU agrees with that position. In a 2018 blog post, the ACLU stated that red flag laws can be a reasonable way to further public safety, but the process must be fair, nondiscriminatory, and heard in court.
California became the first state in the nation to pass a gun violence restraining order law in 2014, after the Isla Vista shooting and stabbing that took the lives of six victims. The law now gives family members and law enforcement the ability to petition the court for the order. The ACLU said it believed that the law struck the right balance between public safety and civil liberties.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation in October known as AB 61 that expands the list of people who can file for a protective order to include employers, co-workers, and teachers.
The ACLU came out against AB 61, saying that it poses "a significant threat to civil liberties by expanding the authorization to seek ex parte orders," according to a Sept. 5, 2019, Assembly Floor Analysis.
"An ex parte order means the person subject to the restraining order is not informed of the court proceeding and therefore has no opportunity to contest the allegations," the ACLU stated. "We support the efforts to prevent gun violence, but we must balance that important goal with protection of civil liberties so we do not sacrifice one in an attempt to accomplish the other."
"Ping. ping. ping."
Metal targets move, one after the other, about 20 yards in front of me.
The small .22 caliber bullet firing out of this variant of the AR-15 are hitting the metal targets in front of me, but never the one I aim for. I laugh at myself because my arm is getting tired and I can't hold the gun steady.
This thing is heavy. And although it may look like an assault weapon—one of the ones that's banned in California—it's not. Black, with a magazine that clicks into place below the trigger, this particular gun is about 90 percent less powerful than a standard AR-15 because of the size of the bullet and the way it fires.
Details like this are key to understanding guns, according to Michael Sodini who founded Walk the Talk America and was the keynote speaker at that night's Liberal Gun Club dinner. The only difference between something like the AR-15 and a hunting rifle in many cases—Sodini told me over the phone later—is that one's painted black and has a bunch of tactical extras.
"When I say tactical, it almost means scary looking," he said. "Assault rifles aren't automatic; they're semi-automatic."
Every time a bullet comes out of a semi-automatic weapon (and this is most of the guns available for purchase), someone had to depress a trigger.
Sodini said he spends a lot of time explaining details like these as part of the work he does for his nonprofit, which is attempting to bridge the gap between the mental health and gun communities. He takes mental health professionals to gun shows to talk about mental health and the stigmas associated with it. And he does the same in the mental health world exposing mental health professionals to firearms, gun culture and safety, and the associated stigmas.
The goal is to expose the two to one another and hopefully get people the help that they need in the process.
"It doesn't matter what you are. It doesn't matter what you believe in or what your philosophies are. Let's help people stay alive and get help, get mental help, if they need it. That's what our message is," Sodini said. "I feel like mental health and firearms ownership run parallel to each other but didn't communicate. There are narratives both ways, right?"
Narratives such as every mass shooter is a crazy person with a gun.
"The only future predictor of violence is previous violence, not mental health diagnoses," Sodini said, referring to a white paper put out by Mental Health America, an organization he partners with. "We've created programs that encourage treatment engagement and educate people on the misconceptions about mental health."
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- PREPPING FOR CLASS Lever-action rifle class attendees load up their guns with ammunition before the lesson starts on Oct. 26.
A lot of people in the gun community, Sodini said, believe that if they seek out help to deal with something like post-traumatic stress syndrome, that a mental health professional could take their guns away. And that isn't true in most states. In New York, though, counselors can put their patients into a database that essentially takes that right away (another form of a red flag law). Laws like that, Sodini said, also take away the incentive to go get help.
"Let's not just pass what I like to call 'feel good legislation' that we just think is working," he said. "Suicide rates are very high within the first responder and veteran community, so the approach is—I understand, you feel like this will work, but you also understand that if we create a society where I won't go get help because if I go get help, they might take away a right that means something to me."
Conversations like these are difficult, but Sodini said the key is to allow people to say what they need to say.
"There needs to be space to communicate different ideas," he said. "We're so far from that now. I want to try to bring that back." Δ
Reach Editor Camillia Lanham at firstname.lastname@example.org.