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When the NRA was founded, there was no mention of self-defense or rights of any kind. Yet today, it touts itself as the champion for the Second Amendment and a defender of freedom. Before the 2008 election, the NRA distributed thousands of wallet-sized cards to its members: "Barack Obama's Ten Point Plan to 'Change' The Second Amendment." No. 1 was ban use of firearms for home defense. No. 4 was close down 90 percent of gun shops in America. No. 6 was increase federal taxes on guns and ammunition by 500 percent.
Though the association continues to provide education and host shooting competitions and events, the NRA is most visibly a political lobby, and one that has framed its cause as essentially American.
On a fall Sunday, the air freshly cleared of smoke from ongoing forest fires, Wes Mills meets me outside of his Bitterroot Valley home. He wears a wool sweater and faded jeans.
He shakes my hand, and immediately seems like the kind of person who would rather avoid situations that require handshaking. Wes is an artist whose work is shown and sold in galleries and museums in San Francisco, New York and Munich. In a 2007 booklet for the Portland Art Museum's exhibition, Apex: Wes Mills, his work is described as "existing in a place between the palpable and the ephemeral...[his] graphite and ink drawings emanate an intuitive sense of the universal."
He shows me into his house, and leads me into a room where he has laid out a dozen of his favorite guns on the floor. "This one is an AK-47. There are probably more of these in the world than anything else."
Wes was born on an orchard in eastern Oregon. For his family, hunting was not only a way of life but a means of sustenance. "We were poor, and ate a lot of venison and rabbit," he explains. "We weren't even allowed to have BB guns because they weren't safe but they weren't dangerous. They were kind of in between." Wes doesn't remember an early fascination with guns, but he had one in his hand from a young age, and what was his circumstance became his passion. He hasn't hunted for years and he long ago gave up competitive pistol shooting, but he still shoots at a neighborhood gun range notched into a hill below his house.
Before we leave the house for the range, Wes tells me he isn't interested in gun politics and he has nothing to say about gun laws. He tells me that when he was starting to compete in pistol matches, he would often get frustrated by the challenge, until one day an old timer set him straight. "This guy said to me I just need to think about the reality of what I was doing," he says. "Sending a projectile through space."
Wes tells me that he works at the Ax Men South gun store one or two shifts a week because the owners are "wonderful people." When I ask Wes why he likes to shoot he tells me that's a bigger question than I think. "More than anything," he says, "it's fun."
We start off by shooting pistols: a Walther P22, a Glock 17 9mm, a .357 Smith and Wesson. I feel more comfortable than I did with Stu and Jamey. I know to open the action and check the chamber, I know to keep the barrel pointing down range, I know that when a person walks in front of the firing line, put down the gun.
"This one here, this is a really cool gun," Wes says as he pulls a long-barreled pistol out of a leather holster. Wes tells me it's a .454 Casull made by Freedom Arms Inc. in Freedom, Wyo. He loads a bullet in the chamber, and hands me the pistol. It's heavy. I give him a searching look. He smiles, "You can shoot it with one hand. Just make sure the gun doesn't hit you in the head." I squeeze the trigger, and the recoiling pistol nearly leaps over my shoulder. Wes is laughing. I am laughing too.
Next we fire an AK-47 and a Siaga-12, which is a combat shotgun. Shooting becomes all-consuming; the action of the gun, the discharging of the bullet, contact with the target. You are overwhelmed by a whir of clanking metal, gaseous detonations and clouds of dust, and through it all calmly, deliberately, you must consider the next shot. Shooting is motion in half-time.
Wes suggests we go out to the 100-yard target to do something different. Tannerite is an explosive powder that only detonates when shot with a high-velocity projectile. In the following days I would question why such a thing is legal, but when he recommends that we shoot plastic jars full of Tannerite, I say yes.
At 100 yards, I look through the scope of an AR-15 and try to think about my breathing. Wes says the scope sights are true and I should aim right at the orange canister. The crosshairs wobble around the target. I let them. I fire. A cloud of dust and the canister is rolling down the dirt berm it was perched on. I turn the safety and set the rifle down as Wes sets it up again. Second try. Breathing, wobbling, I slowly squeeze the trigger.
When I killed the deer in Mississippi, my mom reacted not because I killed something, but because I used a gun to do it. To her, as to me, guns and the people who owned them represented the other side of a rift so wide that seemingly no amount of debate or logic or rhetoric could narrow the gap. But experience can transcend intellectualizing.
I wonder what my mom would say if she saw me and Wes shooting a high-caliber assault rifle at plastic canisters full of explosive powder. She wouldn't have liked the conversation with the men in Great Falls—the talk about rights and self-defense. The reasons Jamey Williams felt so strongly about owning firearms is the same reason my family feels strongly people shouldn't own firearms: Because there are bad guys out there. But I think my mom would like Wes. She's an artist who appreciates aesthetic in all aspects of her life. Wes is an artist who appreciates aesthetic and AK-47s.
Later that day, I leave Wes's house and meet some friends way up Miller Creek to shoot guns in the woods. Mike and Dave come to all my band's shows. They've seen our 10-song set a hundred times, but still show up, even if no one else does. Pat is there too, with his 6-year-old son, Wyatt.
We park our trucks next to a clearing in the woods. Pat, Mike and Dave have brought a small arsenal: .22 pistols, a Russian combat rifle, a 30-.06, several shotguns and an AR-15. There are already three people shooting rifles at the spot. We ask if we can set up some targets and they say sure and put down their firearms. Wyatt carries a hockey stick and uses it to shoot imaginary ducks out of the sky. Pat tells him to stay behind a line in the dirt. Wyatt never betrays his dad. He collects the spent shells of shooters who were here before us, waiting for the next flight of ducks only he can see.
We shoot for an hour, at targets and clay pigeons flung into the air with a plastic arm. I hit a pumpkin with the Russian rifle. For a moment, I think the recoil broke something in my shoulder. Mike smiles and confesses that the rifle kicks. Occasionally, someone from one of the two parties asks if they can go down range and everyone puts their guns down. Friends and strangers armed to the teeth.