I've never liked guns. Not based on any bleeding-heart-liberal point of view, but simply because they always seemed to be more or less evil. They're designed to kill things, and though I've certainly enjoyed indulging a variety of destructive urges over the years, killing was never high on my list. My dad had a few weapons hidden away in the house when I was a kid; I'd sneak into his closet and peek at them tucked behind his underwear. Big old handguns that looked like hams of black steel, reeking of death and bad news. I never had any desire to take them out, figuring it'd just be too easy to start shooting people, myself included.

But that was many years ago, long before I lived in downtown Washington, D.C., and became quite comfortable being serenaded to sleep by a lullaby of popping hot lead from nearby parks and alleys. But I still had no desire to actually shoot a gun myself.

Then I moved to Arizona.
The West. A land of guns for everyone. Guns concealed and otherwise, guns in smart leather and Velcro holsters, guns jammed into waistbands at the small of the back. Guns on racks in pickup back windows, guns displayed like trophies from every pawnshop display case. Guns as common, legal and loved as household pets.

I went to a yard sale a few blocks from my house a couple of months after I moved in. There was an old couple out front in lawn chairs listening to football on the radio, eating sandwiches. I looked over their fine selection of Tupperware lids, Reader's Digest condensed books and war-torn garden tools. Then the man looked me up and down for a second. Said: "Hey, you need any guns?"

What was I supposed to say?
"Sure, I always need guns."
He led me around to the carport where there were a number of handguns and rifles laid out on a card table. I looked them over, squinting, picking them up, testing the heft. I was tempted to aim one and make a loud shooting sound, but held back. The guy seemed a bit disappointed when I didn't make him an offer, so I bought a couple of knives from him and went home.

Then last weekend I made a date with a Charter Arms Bulldog .44. A man can't call himself a true Arizonan until he's unleashed a few bullets into pristine desert terra firma; at least that's what my friend Mike told me. Mike, ex-Army, a pro with many a weapon, had recently come into possession of that sweet little Bulldog .44--which he repeatedly referred to as "the caliber that won the West"--and wanted to see what she could do.

But being law-abiding citizens, we weren't just going to level a surprise attack on some helpless saguaro or defenseless animal. We needed different targets, something that would present a challenge and also be fun to destroy, two of the major concerns in good, clean arms fun.

So I went shopping.

Sometime after dawn on Sunday, we turned off Beeline Highway near Four Peaks, onto a series of dirt roads that winds like varicose veins across the desert. We passed a bunch of dads and teenaged sons dressed, for some reason, in jungle camouflage outfits. The sons had rifles propped against their thighs, business ends aimed at the heavens, in the classic Lee Harvey Oswald, backyard-snapshot pose. The dads gave us casual, friendly nods; I really started to feel like just another sport shooter out exercising his constitutional rights.

We found a lovely spot around some burned-up cactus, the Superstitions and Weaver's Needle in the distance. It seemed remote, but if I thought we were going to be out on our own in some kind of ponderosa solitude, I was way wrong. As soon as we cut the engine, you could hear barely distant shots ringing out like a Western soundtrack. We were merely a part of one big, happy firing squad enjoying an idyllic Sunday morning.

It was time to unload the targets, and load up the weaponry.

I had really hoped to bring along a large, Sixties TV console, but the 19-inch Radius computer monitor was going to have to do. I judiciously donned my safety glasses and cowboy hat, and extended the Bulldog, savoring the Elvisness of the moment. Pulled the trigger and sent that thing to hell. The report was loud, real loud, coupled with a slight orgasmic twitch. Nothing exploded, but it sure made one heck of a hole in the screen. I began to understand exactly what bullets are capable of, and quickly pumped off two more rounds. All money shots.

But so much for the monitor; I needed something fresh.
The Billy Jack soundtrack album seemed like a good idea, and I managed to pick off tracks six and ten from side one, "When Will Billy Love Me?" and "A Rainbow Made of Children." Of course, if you're looking at it from side two, that's "The Loving Hand" and the classic "One Tin Soldier."

Still, beyond the thrill of accuracy, there was no great payoff here. Mike suggested we take aim at "The Texan." I don't know why this fellow was called The Texan (I certainly have nothing against Texans); he was a stuffed toy that looked like a slice of pepperoni pizza. The T was dressed in a cowboy hat and boots. I guess that was the Texas part. He also had a nasty look on his face that put to rest my initial qualms about shooting a stuffed toy as I emptied three chambers in his direction. I thought I'd missed, but when we went over to check out The Texan, boy, was I wrong!

All three had been direct hits, and there were big, wormlike frothings of polyester stuffing distending artistically from his back. The Texan's label said, "For children 4 years and up"; if they only knew.

Sad to say, but Nolan Ryan's Strike Zone Baseball game was a real disappointment. It was a big plastic board with a picture of a batter, catcher and ump; you were supposed to throw baseballs at it and an "electronic voice" would give the call. We had a speed ball of a different sort in mind, but all the bullets did was pass right through--very near to the catcher's mitt, I might add.

The sun was getting higher in the sky as we propped up the complete Susan Powter Stop the Insanity diet plan kit. For this, the potential was great: two cassettes, a video, a recipe and an information booklet, and a personal letter from Susan ("Hey, guys! I'm so glad you're going to 'Stop the Insanity'") Mike did the honors, and, when we opened the box, we found that he'd managed to score direct hits on the letter and recipe book, and reduced the video to shattered plastic.

At this point, our ears were ringing like a Catholic bell tower on Easter, and some 40 rounds of ammo lay spent on the dirt. Yet the grab bag was not empty.

Have you ever wondered what it'd be like to open up on one of those little Seventies statuettes with inane slogans written on their bases? I know, me, too. For this particular experiment, we chose a statue of a big-headed, Keene-type character with "Beautiful Things Happen When You Love Somebody" on it. I couldn't agree more, but let me tell you, beautiful things definitely do not happen when somebody fires a .44 at you. Whether you love him or not. In this case, what happened was a hole the size of a nickel through the plastic forehead. But it didn't blow up or anything.

And then the fun was over.
Mike set out to police the area, filling a Hefty bag with jagged mementos of a hard day's destruction. I holstered up, the perfume of cordite teasing my nostrils, at one with the Bulldog. And wondered how one would look tucked behind my underwear.

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap