As I drove along the freeway to Clackamas County, I mentally prepared myself for the foreign world I was about to enter. It was an overcast day, yet sweat streamed down my face. I was simultaneously chain-smoking, biting my fingernails, and muttering words of self-encouragement. Okay, I admit it, I was nervous.

Though I pride myself in ordinarily being a cool customer, this adventure brought my deepest human fears to the forefront. For, in a rare moment of bravado, I, a mild-mannered arts critic and bookstore employee, had decided it would be a good idea to write about shooting guns.

I had never fired a weapon before, handled one, laid eyes on, or been in the same room with a gun. Growing up, my knowledge of guns was minimal. My dad's rifle would mysteriously appear from its hiding place every hunting season, disappear for a bit, and, upon its return the freezer would be brimming with disgusting venison.

But nevertheless, here I was, on my way to the Clackamas Community College Public Safety Training Center, and by god, I was going to do it. I was going to shoot a gun. As a card-carrying member of the Bleeding Heart Liberals, I possess a truckload of baggage regarding gun enthusiasts, NRA advocates, and the army of Republicans hellbent on preserving the 2nd amendment. It makes no sense whatsoever for me to shoot a gun--but I had this insatiable curiosity. I could not escape the seduction.

Images filled my head. What awaited me inside the shooting range? Perhaps a scene of Good Ole Boy luxury, including a lounge area with leather back chairs and cigar smoke lingering in the air--perhaps a few gilded portraits of NRA front man Charleton Heston alongside stuffed heads of wild game. More than anything, I was prepared for the bemusement of the male shooters. I was a woman entering what would almost certainly be an exclusively male world. I expected to be treated gingerly; I expected condescending winks and words of advice.

Pulling into the parking lot, I was surprised by the location. The newish facility blended well into the strip mall landscape. It's a stone's throw away from shopping paradise (Clackamas Town Center) and conspicuously close to Toys R Us. Its appropriate neighbor is the Clackamas County Sheriff. The parking lot was spotted with patrol cars. After walking in the door, I thought for a moment I was lost, that I had somehow stepped into the neighborhood YMCA. My confusion must have showed, for a spry, athletic fellow immediately approached me, and politely asked if I needed help. I stuttered nervously, explaining that I "uh, wanted to shoot some guns."


Stellar Performance, Real Smooth.

He grinned mischievously as he walked me through the bright, modern space toward a bank of computers. Here is where it all begins, I was told. A 20-minute video and follow-up quiz would have me on my way to handgun paradise. Phew, okay, no sweat. I can handle a video. A low-tech montage of sound, image, and text illustrated the big rules of gun safety, i.e. "The gun is always loaded," and "Don't point your firearm at anything you are not willing to destroy."

Destroy? Ah geez, who said anything about destroy? I could feel the lump forming in my throat. I began to pay close attention to the video, taking in every word as if it was gospel sent down from the gun-packin' gods.

Like a true geek, I reviewed the test questions a couple of times, and passed with flying colors. Now, I was getting freaked out. I could hear gun shots coming from the shooting range just a few yards away. With every loud pop my heart skipped a beat.

Standing in front of the impressive inventory of handguns, Joe asked me what I wanted to shoot. "Uh, I don't have a clue." Again, suave demeanor noted. I admitted my inexperience and explained my journalistic intentions to Joe, who said, "Ohhhh so you're a special case then." Okay, sure.

We agreed on starting with a .22, the smallest caliber available. (Sure, I wanted to go Rambo, but I also wanted to get to work that day without any embarrassing holes in my body.) I selected the Ruger pistol, mostly 'cause it looked cool. Joe patiently explained the inner workings of the gun, illustrating the firing mechanism, safety, and the loading of bullets. The situation was getting real. I looked longingly at the exit, considering escape. Why am I doing this?

Brad, one of the center's instructors, outfitted me with a target, bullets, and eye and ear protection. We went out to the range, a 10-lane room that went back 25 yards. The two people already shooting looked like cops or security guards. As I put my gear down on the counter, a loud boom gave me a jolt. Brad was a smooth operator. He paid no attention to the commotion around us and kept explaining proper stance and safe shooting. I strained to hear every word, afraid of missing a pearl of wisdom.

Though he was fiercely serious, I couldn't help but laugh at his teaching analogies. He explained that the proper way to squeeze the trigger is similar to squeezing a tube of toothpaste. Not a sudden burst, mind you, but one controlled motion. All right. He loaded the gun with five rounds and awaited my first attempt.

Gingerly, I picked up the gun, completely unsure if I could or wanted to actually shoot it. I took a deep breath, lined up my sights, and fired at the paper target about 10 yards away.

Pop.

Lord, what happened? I put the gun down, and looked around. Apparently chaos had not ensued; I was still alive. Hands still shaking, I picked up the gun and tried again.

Pop.

Wow I actually hit the target. I fired off the remaining rounds and took a series of deep breaths. Now I was feeling tough. Where were my cheering fans? Where was my medal of courage? I grabbed some bullets and started to reload the magazine. My hands were shaking something fierce, so it took a while. But before I knew it, I had fired 40 rounds and it was time to go. I turned in my gun and left in a near trance, hypnotized, amazed, and seduced.

Back on the freeway, I hummed along, consumed by my newfound power. I was a badass, I was cool, I could leap small buildings in a single bound, and shoot out a few windows along the way.

Days passed. I told everyone about my sudden leap from ordinary gal to action heroine. But I found myself needing more.

I decided to explore Portland's other public indoor range, The Place to Shoot. Like the Clackamas facility, The Place to Shoot was positioned just off the freeway, amidst a series of mini-malls, a GI Joe, and a couple gas stations.

I walked in, rattled through my "I'm a writer," spiel, and got fixed up with a .380 Beretta--a step up in size and power from the .22 Ruger. It's a sleek semi-automatic, made famous by James Bond. I didn't have to go through much rigmarole, just a signature here, an initial there. No video, no test.

This time, I wasn't handed a sleek gun case, but a white plastic bucket that held the semi-automatic and 50 rounds. I opted for a silhouette target, a black and white outline of a man's back. Personification was creeping into the equation.

Out to the range I went, feeling all-powerful. The room was similar to the PSTC but somewhat dimmer. Putting down my stuff, I tried to put the target up. My hands were shaking uncontrollably; I couldn't get the damn paper onto the clips. I froze, realizing I was scared shitless. I slunk back to the front counter and sheepishly admitted, "uh, I'm a little nervous." A trainer was already on his way to the rescue.

He quickly rattled off the finer details of the Beretta, then stood back to watch my first couple of shots. I had the impulse to give him the gun and have him shoot it for me. A knot formed in my stomach.

But, I wanted to save face. So I shook out my arms, took a calculated breath and squeezed. Boom. I opened my eyes (Yeah, I know--keeping my eyes open would have been smart). I looked at the gun and watched an attractive swirl of smoke rise from the barrel.

My nervousness quickly evaporated. I fired more quickly. An adrenaline rush took over. I lined up my sights on the chest area of the target, BAM! BAM! BAM! Then I began gunning for his head, BAM! BAM! BAM! Whoa partner, slow down. I regrouped, taking time to remind myself that this was piece of paper, and not that person I really, really hate.

In what seemed like five minutes, I blasted 50 holes through the thin paper. I then turned in the gun regretfully. I had blown my shooting budget of $40 and besides, I had to get to my day job. For two days, I kept the Beretta experience to myself. I guess I didn't want to admit that I liked it. I mean, really liked it. My mind began to turn. Yes, yes. The Beretta was too small. I needed a .45.

Speeding back to the Clackamas range, I came prepared with a list of guns I wanted to try, based on nothing more than Hollywood notoriety. My first choice was a Glock, a tough, blocky weapon. I didn't know anything about the gun except that I liked saying "Glaawkk."

With gun in tow, I crept out to the firing range. There were a group of Brinks security officers going through training. Their eyes widened as I loaded the gun and prepared the target. I tried to ignore the stares, but the Girrrl in me wanted to show them what was up (which isn't easy when your hands are shaking).

I took a full breath and pulled back the trigger. Boom! A shudder went through my body. The Glock made the .22 feel like a BB gun. Looking at the target, I saw I'd barely caught the edge of the paper. One of the Brinks trainees came over and offered some tips, which I graciously accepted. I knew my limitations. I squared up and fired again. Ooh, it felt good. The fifty rounds were gone in a flash, leaving me hungry for more.

I went back to the armory and traded up. I needed something meatier. I returned with a Smith & Wesson 629 revolver. The Brinks guys whistled at the size of my gun and dubbed me "Dirty Harriet."

By now, they realized I was no shrinking violet. One of the guys even said, "It's inspiring to see a woman shooting a gun like that." Whatever, I just wanted a gun like Clint Eastwood's. My confidence was growing, but considering the pinky-sized bullets I'd been shooting, I knew I was in for a ride. I loaded the six bullets into the revolver.

The S&W was a mean-looking gun and fueled my newfound coolness. I lined up my sights, cocked the gun, and pulled. To the amazement of my male counterparts, (and myself) I blew a hole right in the center of the comic book target. My comrades clapped and hooted, "look at that shot!"

Yep. By now I was feeling pre-tty good about myself. In a frenzy, I ripped through 50 rounds. No doubt about it. This gun rocked.

While it took a few moments to get used to the recoil, that same power made the S&W the most interesting to shoot. The gun felt like it belonged in my hands.

I left the Clackamas range ready to conquer the world. I was Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider, I was Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, and yes, I was Pamela Anderson in Barbed Wire. I was an unstoppable force of Woman. Now, I had to somehow contain my new zeal and prowess and return to the planet "Work." After an hour or so of schlepping books around and guiding customers to the latest title from Oprah's Book Club, the adrenaline from my adventure slowly drained from my body. And I began to realize I was actually not Angelina Jolie.

I was better than her.


Clackamas Community College
Public Safety Training Center
12700 SE 82nd, 650-6677
Drop-in rates: $15.99 to $23.99, depending on size of gun. Membership, classes, and tutorials available.
Special note: Sub-Machine Gun tutorial for $69.99
Hours: Sunday 10-8, Mon and Wed 12-5, Tues, Thurs, Fri 12-9, Sat 10-9

The Place to Shoot
904 N Hayden Meadows Drive, 283-1995
Non-members: approx $40-$45 for gun, ammo, target, and eye/ear protection.
Note: An individual year membership is a good deal--only $50, which drops the price per visit considerably (about $20). Lady members pay no lane fees on Wednesdays! Classes, tutorials available.
Hours: Mon-Fri noon-10 pm, Sat-Sun 10-7