In 1981, I drove with my college roommate from Middlebury, Vermont to Dallas, Texas for spring break. We road tripped in a black 2-door Chevy Camaro and listened to Stevie Ray Vaughn and Robin Trower on the cassette player. Sleep was not part of the itinerary.
My friend’s father was a wealthy business owner. I knew that because we sometimes joined him on the tarmac at Burlington Airport in his private jet for a beer and a bite to eat. That was beyond cool for a fresh-behind-the-ears public high school kid from Rockville, Maryland.
On my first-ever morning in Texas, my friend announced we were going to his Dad’s company picnic in West Texas. You might as well have told me we were jetting to Krakatoa. It sounded that exotic.
We piled into the Camaro and motored out to someplace flat and sandy and full of cactus and mesquite. We were greeted by a rugged-looking crowd of mostly men, who it turned out labored in the sand and gravel business. A man in a denim and wool vest greeted us, reached into a military camouflage green duffel, and handed each of us a rifle. That was a surprise.
I spent the next eight hours cradling a .22 over/under in my arms, craning my eyes into the flat Texas sky in search of darting tiny little birds. Every so often you’d hear the pop pop of what sounded like a toy air gun. It took me about half a day to get a single shot off. The kickback nearly broke my shoulder.
As the late afternoon sky started to darken to azure, I still had not come even close. The smell of burning mesquite branch announced that the barbeque had begun. 400 cement truck drivers and me in the coarse Texas scrub. I scoured the sky from one knee, desperate to come home with something more than just a good story. I saw the darting flit of what looked like prey. I squinched one eye closed and fired.
“Way to go, Ken,” my friend said. “Go get ‘im.” I had no idea what I had got.
We walked through the hardscrabble dirt until I came upon my prey. A gray dove, no larger than a baby chick, was spinning in flapping circles on the sandy ground. I was horrified and the bird showed no sign of giving up the ghost. I asked my friend what to do.
“Finish it off,” he said. I raised the rifle to my shoulder. “No, no. Here. Like this.” My friend stepped on the struggling dove’s wing and in one fell motion, grabbed its neck and pulled its head off. It was as quick and simple as peeling a shrimp. Done.
Later that evening we ate sticky racks of tangy barbecued ribs and cole slaw and drank Lone Star beers. A group of handlers from the events company managed the healthy mound of dead doves in a pile, which they plucked and feathered and roasted on marshmallow sticks. I tried one bite. No surprise, it tasted liked chicken.
That was the first and last time I ever fired a gun. It gave me a lifelong appreciation of understanding both sides of a debate. Shooting a bird out of the sky for entertainment was not for me. But in some perverse way I understood its appeal to others. I get to have this opinion because I tried it. A .22 over/under contains two shells and it is not so easy to reload. Hunting with one is sport. Opening fire with an AR-15, not at all.
As the world watches, New Zealand is taking steps to solve their gun crisis in one fell swoop. I sag like so many others, wondering how long our national stalemate will go on. Rather than regurgitating our grief over the next dozen US shootings, I had a thought. Why not let assault weapon owners hang onto their toys, but let’s lock them up. America is a big place and I suspect many, if not most of the heavy artillery fanatics live in the wide open spaces. Let’s build more gun ranges. Thousands of them, from sea to shining sea. Make every facility like a golf club, the only caveat being that your weapon lives on the premises. You park your car and check in. Your assault weapon concierge takes a look at your legal permit and fetches your gun from the facility locker room. Then you can go out to the field and unleash a barrage of unholy terror to your heart’s content.
Why not? Let’s end the ridiculous second amendment argument and let gun owners keep their guns. After a fun frolic on the range, you can have a drink and a meal at The 19th Hole. Plenty of wild game on the menu and no doubt the list of cleverly named cocktails would be endless.
We don’t allow Formula One race cars on the Beltway but anyone with a license can go to a race course and drive one. Isn’t it time to stop debating the “why” of guns and just get them off the street?
Ken Carlton has driven just about every two-lane highway in the United States. You can follow his travels on Instagram @mrswagnerspies.