When my friend Joe asked if I wanted to go shoot some guns, I envisioned the sort of thing I used to do back in Maine—plinking a target with a .22 or bursting a gallon jug of water with a lever-action rifle. Even though I don’t own a gun, at some point my kids are going to end up at someone’s house where there is a gun, and I want to demystify the whole topic and lay down the rules. So a little refresher wouldn’t hurt. The location: a private outdoor range on a secluded farm.

Joe is a military guy. Special Forces. And this gathering was a word-of-mouth event among his peers. Now, in the movies, Special Forces guys are depicted as super-jacked, studly badasses who could kill you with their left pinky finger. In real life, though, that’s not really the case. They’d probably use an index finger.

A fellow named Dan introduced himself. One of his calves was emblazoned with a tattoo of the Grim Reaper, or maybe a skull with a scythe, but in any case a much more menacing tattoo than my tattoo. (I have no tattoo because needles are hurty.) “Which group are you?” he asked, assuming that I was also a total badass—a common mistake. “I’m a writer,” I replied. This information was met with a response that I’d describe as “polite confusion.” I hoped Joe wouldn’t get in trouble for bringing a guy who needs to be reminded which way the bullets go in the gun.

Dan brought me over to meet the owner of the property, a tall guy named Henry. “When I hear these boys out here, that’s the sound of freedom,” Henry said. I am generally a cynic, one who thinks the word “freedom” is often misappropriated to justify craven behavior. (You don’t want me to smoke in this hospital nursery? What, you hate freedom?) But my insistent urge to veer toward the snarky or ironic ran headlong into the freight train of his earnest admiration for these guys. “Yup,” I agreed. That said, Sound of Freedom would be a great name for a Toby Keith album, with cover art depicting a screaming bald eagle wearing a jean jacket and rolling coal in an F-350.

While I didn’t bring a gun, there were plenty to go around, mainly M4s, the primary weapon used by the military. “You can use the AK,” Joe said, producing a Bulgarian AK-47 from the bed of his truck. Beyond Ice Cube lyrics, the AK-47 is the gun of choice in all of the world’s finest hellholes. So if your occupation involves going to those hellholes, it behooves you to develop some familiarity. This is the standard-issue bad-guy gun. I slung it around my neck and jauntily declared, “Off to join ISIS!” Military people tend to embrace gallows humor, but Henry—standing within earshot—certainly did not. He grimaced and muttered something about ISIS being no good. Note to self: No ISIS jokes in front of the guy who owns his own gun range.

The remainder of the morning was spent experiencing varying degrees of emasculation as Joe and his friends gradually realized that I didn’t know how to do anything. You ever use a speed-loader? No. You know how to hold the gun while you load the clip? No. Did you bring gloves? No? OK, well, that barrel’s gonna get pretty hot. It’s like, hello, have you ever even shot an AK-47 before?

I’d envisioned that the shooting action would feature me holding the gun down by my waist and screaming “Arrrgghh!” as tracers lit up the landscape and then, off in the distance, things exploded. It’s a little more mundane than that. We did a timed exercise where you shoot 10 rounds standing, 10 rounds sitting and 10 more from a prone position, then add up your score on the target. The guy running the exercise, Neil, stressed breathing and form. It was like yoga with muzzle flashes. And just like yoga, I sucked at it. Excuse me, Neil? I’m stuck in Constipated Iguana pose.

Guns are obviously a fraught topic, especially these kinds of guns—semi-automatic rifles with high-capacity clips. But whatever you think of guns in general, you can’t have a qualm with what these guys were doing: practicing for the day in the not-distant future when they’ll be shipped off to a place where the bullets fly both ways. It’s like if I spent a Saturday learning how to use all the features of the latest Microsoft Word. Sometimes I loathe myself.

When I bid farewell, I said thanks to the commandos for accommodating a useless writer. “Hey, the pen is mightier than the sword,” Dan said, trying to make me feel better. Yeah, right on. I have a skill set too. And if anyone needs to learn how to format a document, I can do it with my left pinky finger.

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