My heart is thumpthumpthumping like a thoroughbred on the final stretch, I’m panting more than breathing, and the earplugs I wear under a set of sound-deadening earmuffs make my personal percussive mix seem even louder: pant-thump-pant-thump-pant-thump.
I hold the rifle barrel straight as I press the butt against my shoulder. Rigid stance, feet planted firmly, I dig in my heel and lean forward to compensate for the inevitable kickback (I’ve watched too many YouTube videos where people knock themselves in the head, flat on their ass, or at worst, out cold).
Holding the rifle steady, I stare down the barrel and take a deep breath as I squeeze the trigger ever so slightly, firing off the first rounds of the AK-47 — the gun that had been sitting in a camo bag in my closet for the last several years, taking up space where my shoes should have been, and never used by me until this very moment.
Good ol’ Uncle Chuck had dumped it at my house when he moved back to Ohio (he couldn’t bring an AK on the plane), but assured me he’d retrieve it when he drove back down for a visit. That was eight years ago.
Because I had no real experience with firearms other than the time Chuck accidentally shot himself clean through the leg (I wish I was making this up), the AK’s presence made me exceedingly anxious, at least at first. I went through a period of deliberately putting it out of my mind, because pretending I didn’t have it was easier on my conscience than admitting I did. Then, at some point, I began to accept that the AK had more or less become mine. There hadn’t been any incidents during its stay; the big bad gun hadn’t miraculously jumped out of the closet to shoot me dead, loaded with ammo I had stored in another room. It was just … there.
In fact, the rifle became a comfort when I started living alone and the drug dealer across the street got more vigorous in his sales, which prompted a noticeable increase in traffic — car, foot, bike, taxicabs. After my neighbor was robbed twice in under a week, allegedly by the dealer or one of his associates, I was finally motivated to learn how to use it. Or, at least hold it right.
And here I am at Shoot Straight, an indoor gun range that kinda feels like a WalMart for firearms lovers, with a giant room full of guns, gear and taxidermied hunting trophies, accompanied by two of my dude friends who have a virtual arsenal at their fingertips along with the motivation to get me on the range, if only because they really want to shoot my AK. My aim is too high and I chip off a piece of the ceiling with my first set of rounds, though once I get it right, I really start enjoying myself and move on to a 9 MM, and then a sniper rifle (with scope).
A few months later, I decide a change of environment is in order, so I hit up one of the biggest outdoor ranges around, Wyoming Antelope Club, a nonprofit that offers an array of gun safety and marksmanship events (like the Cowboy Fast Draw) in addition to its rifle and pistol ranges. You have to bring your own gear, but the all-volunteer staff is helpful, and more than happy to show me how to load and shoot the 12-gauge shotgun I’ve borrowed from a friend. They even give me some birdshot to replace the slugs I’ve brought, which contain more gunpowder and thus would’ve increased the shotgun’s kickback.
And kickback there is, but damn, do I ever feel great afterwards. At both ranges, I manage to get my adrenaline pumping, work out my arms a bit (guns are heavy!) and enjoy myself while releasing pent-up stress in mighty blasts of gunpowder. I feel empowered, and at the same time I've gained a better understanding of why a gun is capable of inflicting such great damage.
The whole “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is a cliché that rings true to me now. My experiences taught me that safety is paramount and that certain strict rules (treat every gun as if it's loaded, keep your finger off the trigger until you're ready to fire, etc.) must be followed. I’ve also decided that I'd never want to shoot anything with the AK; I don't think I'm even going to buy ammo for it. Using it for threat purposes only will have to suffice, until I find something less destructive, perhaps a .38 Special. It can’t hurt to be prepared for the zombie apocalypse, right?
This is Florida, Jake. You don’t need a Concealed Weapon/Firearms License (CWFL) to own or shoot a gun, only to carry one openly; you can have firearms in your home or place of business, in your car (provided they’re unloaded and securely encased), and when you are going to, engaged in or coming from “sport shooting” (fishing, camping, hunting, gun range play). This looseness, and the fact that you can fire a gun on private property as long as you aren’t acting “recklessly or negligently,” is causing all kinds of controversy of late. Our suggestion? Find a friend with a piece if you don’t have your own, and stick to the ranges. —LP
Shoot Straight Eight-store Florida gun franchise with two locations in the Bay area. The indoor air-conditioned handgun range in Pinellas (16 lanes, 25 yards) accepts calibers up to and including .44 Magnums, and the rifle range (8 lanes, 25 yards) accepts calibers up to and including .375 H&H Magnums. Hillsborough County’s site has a 100-yard indoor rifle range and accepts any cartridge under .50 BMG (8 lanes, 25 yards, with 3 more lanes at 100 yards). Shotguns are accepted on both ranges (slug and buckshot only). Fee: $15 an hour per person; ladies shoot for free and pay for ammo and targets only at both locations Mondays, 10 a.m.-close (8:30 p.m.). 4594 Ulmerton Road, Clearwater, 727-546-4447; and 3909 U.S. 301, Tampa, 813-627-8550.
Wyoming Antelope Club An outdoor range means a broader range of shooting options. Airguns and bows and arrows, in addition to rifles, shotguns and handguns, can be shot here, all as far as 100 yards (no automatics). The all-volunteer operation promotes gun safety and sport, hosts specialized competitions and learning opportunities like the rifle marksmanship clinic and black powder rifle shooting. A Cowboy Fast Draw is held at 6 p.m. on the first and third Thursdays of the month by certified CFDA organization Flatlanders Shootist Society (the $5 fee includes a six-gun, holster and five rounds of fast draw ammo). Tuesday is Archery Night (6-8 p.m.) with 3-D Archery shooting; bring your own bow and arrows or use one of the club’s Genesis bows. Single-day shooting fee $20. 3700 126th Ave. N., Clearwater, 727-573-3006.
Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure A family-owned and operated sporting gear shop and indoor pistol shooting range that has been serving the area since 1976. Open daily and offers pay-per-visit (no time limit) shooting as well as three-, six-, or 12-month memberships. $10 per visit with ammo purchase. 9501 U.S. 19 N., Pinellas Park, 727-576-4169.
Shooting Sports No membership sign-up is required at this indoor range featuring three ranges (25-50 yards) and 17 stations for handguns, shotguns and rifles. On Ladies’ Nights, range fees are waived ($10.75 hand guns, $14 rifles & shotguns); hours are Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-close (8:30 p.m.) and each shooter receives one complementary target. 7811 N. Dale Mabry, Tampa, 813-933-3000.