What I learned at the shooting range

OREM, UT - FEBRUARY 15: Semi-automatic AR-15's are for sale at Good Guys Guns & Range on February 15, 2018 in Orem, Utah. An AR-15 was used in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
George Frey/Getty Images

Prop rifle butt firmly against shoulder. Line up red dot to cover target. Squeeze trigger.

This first-time shooter — an extremely near-sighted baby boomer wearing prescription sunglasses — fired five rounds that hit their mark 50 yards away. All it took was a Bushmaster XM-15 with Trijicon Reflex optical sight.

I had never touched a firearm before. My only gun-related experience involved childhood visits to a relative’s dairy farm in upstate New York, where my born-in-Brooklyn father would inexplicably spend a morning trying to shoot a woodchuck with a borrowed rifle. Thankfully, he never succeeded. That’s the way I feel about all hunting. As for guns, generally, I like to imagine a world without them. But offered a chance, with colleagues, to learn more about them, I recently spent several hours at a shooting range.


My prejudices came with me. A firearm, loaded or not, is menacing. A “cold” shooting range, with flags flapping to signal it’s safe to walk across, is still scary. But I did learn something. I started off believing there’s no reason for a nonmilitary person to own a semiautomatic rifle. After firing one, case closed.

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Some firearms are definitely harder to use than others. For example, General George S. Patton Jr. called the M1 Garand rifle “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” But the World War II and Korean War soldiers who carried this semiautomatic military rifle had to continuously feed clips loaded with eight rounds. If not done quickly enough, the bolt slams on your thumb. Ouch. Meanwhile, peering through the iron sight line is tricky. I hit nothing but the berm – maybe — and my shoulder ached from the recoil.

A Colt AR-15, circa 1984, is sleek and lightweight. However, the rear sight assembly is challenging. But the Bushmaster, with the red-dot sight? A dream. Or, rather a nightmare.

Five blasts confirmed this weapon is as reliable and accurate as advertised. All I could think about was what it would be like to be on the other end, at a church, a nightclub, or a concert; or at a school, where children are the target and the shooter is feet, not yards away. At Sandy Hook Elementary School, one of three recovered firearms was a Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle. At Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the shooter used an AR-15. The hotel suite used by the Las Vegas gunman last fall to kill 58 concertgoers contained an arsenal of 23 weapons and accessories, including semiautomatic rifles, scopes, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

Massachusetts has an assault weapons ban, but that doesn’t mean there are no legally possessed rifles, like the AR-15 or Bushmaster, in the state. “There are thousands and thousands and thousands of them,” said Jason Guida, a lawyer and former state firearms official who now represents prospective gun owners, including those appealing license denials. Legal ownership is complicated. If lawfully possessed before Sept. 13, 1994, when a federal assault weapons ban went into effect, the weapon can be lawfully owned now. The federal law, no longer in place, also enumerated specific weapons that were banned. Weapons not on the enumerated list could also be legally possessed. But the circumstances for that changed in July 2016, when Attorney General Maura Healey issued a notice to all gun sellers and manufacturers in Massachusetts, warning that her office was stepping up enforcement of the assault weapons ban, including a crackdown on the sale of so-called copycat weapons.


Gun rights advocates believe semiautomatic rifles should be available for competitive shooting, where participants follow strict safety rules. Hunters use these weapons, too, and it’s easy to see why: A woodchuck wouldn’t stand a chance. Then there’s the NRA’s favorite argument: A good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun.

Yet if someone like me can easily hit a target, it’s terrifying to imagine the same weapon in the hands of someone on a mission to kill. Actually, there’s no need to imagine it. Just watch the news.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.