I never thought I’d shoot a gun. But here I was, standing at the glass counter, looking down at an array of gleaming pistols laid out like deadly jewelry.

“I don’t even know where to start,” I said to my friend Steve. He already had his eye on a heavy black thing that looked like it could kill someone without even being fired. He wanted something with some kick. “Look,” I told the guy behind the counter. “I want the smallest, easiest, least dangerous gun you have.”

The guy gave me the kind of smirk you give a vegetarian who orders a cheeseburger with no meat. I’ve been that vegetarian. Now I was that girl at the shooting range.

“You probably want a Walther P22,” he said. He pointed to a pistol not much bigger than my hand. It was like a little steel squirt gun. Its stubby barrel was barely longer than the trigger.

“James Bond uses that,” Steve said with approval.

I took it.

I had traveled from my blue corner of Ohio to the deep red part to give a talk in conjunction with the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, which Steve, a friend from grad school, was helping to organize. The day after I delivered my talk about peace as a literary effort—war runs on plot, peace relies on character—Steve gleefully seized the guest-in-town opportunity to justify a trip to the shooting range. I quashed my trepidation and thought, Well, maybe it will be good for my fiction. I’m from northern Minnesota, where just about everyone has a rifle and a deer license, but my dad was not among them. I never even picked up my little brother’s BB gun. I quit meat at fourteen. When violence erupts onscreen, I reflexively hide my face. The only video game I can handle is Tetris. What I’m saying is, among gun freaks, I was the freak, then and now.

And now I was signing a very alarming contract, and being handed polycarbonate safety glasses and a pair of yellow headphone-like hard-shelled earmuffs and told to go choose my target.

The shop was as fluorescent-lit and banal as a mom-and-pop convenience store, but with guns in the glass counter cases and bullets on the shelves. Waiting for our lanes to open up, I tried to reorient my thinking. This is totally normal for many people. It’s just shooting. It’s just shopping. I browsed the wares. NRA t-shirts. Pepper spray disguised as lipstick. Concealed-carry holsters that strap your gun to your body under your jacket. Tons of ammunition, packaged in flimsy cardboard boxes no more daunting than cheap fireworks, belied by the text on their sides that detailed exactly how the contents were designed to enter flesh and cause the most damage possible.

“We’re up!” Steve announced gleefully.

I put on my tiny ear- and eye-armor and claimed my gun. Bespectacled and earmuffed, holding our boxes of ammo and our unloaded guns, we pushed through two soundproof doors into the dim, grim shooting gallery.  As soon as we passed through the second door, gunshots exploded like popcorn around us. I winced at every shot, blinking and twitching as if beset by electrical problems.

“You’ll get used to it,” Steve said. I didn’t, it turned out. But I gamely followed the instructor to my curtained-off lane. Men stood in the other lanes firing lustily at their targets. I was the only woman.

The instructor showed me how to clip my plain little bull’s-eye target to what was basically an electric clothesline and send it toward the back of the lane. He demonstrated how to hold the gun and watched me shakily load the cartridge. I could not believe that I was putting bullets in a gun. The gadget-nerd part of me found the springiness and click curiously satisfying. The forgetful, stumbling, dropping-things part of me—essentially, the vast majority of me—produced terrifying visions of blowing up my own face, or worse, Steve’s.

I have never in my life followed instructions so closely. Lean forward. One arm straight, the other bent. Right hand, then left hand, squeeze tight. Easy on the trigger finger. Line up the sights.I pulled the trigger.

There was a bang and then a hole appeared in my target. I looked around. That was me? Absurdly, I had pictured watching the bullet sail through the air, like an arrow or a dart. This was so fast it was just noise. When I was nineteen I was in a car crash, and what had shocked me most was not the jolt of impact but the huge sound of it, like being shot through a cannon.

I reassembled my careful stance and fired again. Bang, hole. Again. As I shot and shot, my bullet holes moved closer and closer to the center. I emptied a whole cartridge and had to reload. I was starting to feel this buzz, a hot jumpiness, as if the gunpowder were blowing right through me. Spent casings from the guy next to me kept sailing over and bonking me on the head. I winced but kept going.

I was still trembly by the time my bull’s-eye was fully perforated, but my hand was steadier when I set down the gun and switched to my second target. This one was a human silhouette from head to waist, black with delicate white lines encircling the target zones.  It was from the “police practice” category. It cost a dollar.

I clipped it up and pushed the button that sent the black silhouette floating silently down the lane until I let go and it stopped, waited for my bullet.

Can I take a moment here to talk about the targets available to the recreational shooter? There’s your basic bull’s eye, in many formations. There are playful targets, with images of card games or colorful puzzles, as if they’d been dug out of a military CrackerJack box. Of course there are animal targets: game, like deer and pheasant and turkey and bear, or varmint packs with coyotes, groundhogs, prairie dogs, raccoons, crows.

And then there are the human targets. They range from acceptably abstract to disturbingly specific. The one I chose was the simplest possible, one step up from a restroom symbol. Steve took one that looked like an X-ray; vital organs glowed red behind a white skeleton in a luminous blue body.

If you shop around online, you can find targets with more detailed illustrations, many of which look like a teenager’s sketchbook drawing of a bad guy. But you can also find life-sized color photographs that stage hostage scenarios (a man holding a child at gunpoint, an angry woman with a gun to a man’s chest); lone men of ambiguous ethnicity and/or dressed in the mullet-mustache-plaid combo that suggests they’re rural poor or in a Brooklyn band; a “jihadi” firing from behind a dusty desert wall, who in real life is probably a white NRA enthusiast swathed in an Urban Outfitters keffiyeh in an Arizona back yard.

But all human silhouette targets are life-sized, and all of them, even the simplest, pinpoint the vital zones, draw maps on their subjects of how to kill them. I’d picked mine because no way did I want to shoot an animal, and because Steve egged me on a little, and because I figured if ever in my life I needed to shoot a gun it would be in self-defense. My target wasn’t a person, I reminded myself, just a shape that represented a person who might threaten me.

I stared down the lane at my shadow opponent. Was I looking at his back or his face? I didn’t know which was weirder.

So I assumed my stance, and squinted down the view finder, and pulled the trigger. I shot him in the waist. Then the shoulder. Then the lung.

The supervisor ambled up to check in on me.

“I think I’m getting the hang of it,” I shouted over the din. My shots were getting closer and closer to the heart. I was really killing this guy.

“We’ve got a real Annie Oakley here,” he hollered approvingly.

O supervisor, your aim was true. As a kid I’d lived a vivid Wild West fantasy life, based on reading every outdated book from the public library and my father’s childhood collection about cowboys, Indians, and horses. At first I just pined for a horse, which in the Old West was an indisputable acquisition, but I swiftly fell in love with that quintessentially American™ fantasy of endless land to explore and the right to be left alone. Minus the grisly truth, of course—in my imagination I could be both cowboy and Indian, outsider and insider, a girl and respected. In the mythology I inhaled, everyone important was a man, with the sole exceptions of Calamity Jane—a liar, a drunk, a murderer of Indians—and Annie Oakley, Little Sure Shot, a good girl from Ohio, good with her gun. Today I find awful Jane the more interesting gender outlaw, but back when my bike was my horse and my dirt road was the range, I had Annie on my mind. I’d longed for a nickname of my own. So I’ll admit, when this man said it, I broke into an uncontrollable grin. I felt proud. I had come in a trembling novice girl; I was leaving a trembling adrenalized man-killer.

It was easy to feel empowered with a gun in my hand. I was still terrified, yes, but also in control. And for the first time I understood something major about America, and why Americans love guns. It’s easy to feel strong when you can manufacture a threat and then annihilate it, when you’re shooting down a phantom enemy who doesn’t fire back.

On the way to the shooting range Steve had pointed out the auto factory that had closed and fired all the union workers, then reopened under a different name and hired non-union people for nine dollars an hour. Later we drove around Dayton’s once-grand old neighborhoods, ravaged by neglect: beautiful grand old houses boarded up or shot up, rubble-strewn fields, shells of supermarkets, a quiet still as death. The real enemies of this region are so complex and intangible—globalization, neoliberalism, racism, bad public policy—you wouldn’t even know how to picture them on a 2’ x 4’ sheet of paper. It’s a lot easier just to target people.

The next day we went to an airy glass-walled atrium for a brunch to honor Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat, who’d won that year’s Dayton Literary Peace Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Brother, I’m Dying, books where guns killed actual people. I thought about my talk I’d given two days earlier, my thing about how war was the easier narrative because it was all plot and action and generalization, whereas peace required a literary kind of attention to character and complexity, to humanizing. I liked the ideas in it, but I’d written the conclusion in a crazy rush, still typing on my laptop as Steve and I pulled into the parking lot. I had a long-distance girlfriend in distress because I had been erratic about calling; I blamed it on the time zones, but it wasn’t really their fault. I’d also been revising a story that involved friends of mine from childhood, one that tells a serious story that isn’t my own, one I’m still worried about because for all the no-nonsense advice to write anything you want, fallout be damned, I’m not fully convinced that causing a friend pain is valid collateral damage for my so-called art. In all the noise, you can miss that real shots are being fired.

I wish I handled everything that mattered to me as carefully and as intentionally as I handled that gun. I wish I treated relationships, friendships, writing, my home, with that attention to detail, that meticulous care, making sure I got things exactly right every time, without hurting anyone or myself. But it is so much easier to be precise in defense than in love.

Chelsey Johnson's stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Avery Anthology, and Selected Shorts. She teaches creative writing at Oberlin College and is working on a novel. More from this author →