Happiness is a Warm Gun: Ladies’ night at a South San Francisco shooting range
by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published at the turn of the century on 06.16.1998 in the SF Bay Guardian. Re-intro July 2018 here.


GUNS, AND PEOPLE who own guns, are a distinct and often maligned element of America’s culture.

Timeworn archetypes of the typical gun enthusiast are varied and sometimes fear-inducing — the trailer-park militia member with 10 times more bravado than brain, the backwoods Deliverance castmember who eats road kill and sodomizes tourists, the loutish inner-city gangster who will fight to the death over $5.

Blind, dull, and mean, they’re seen as shining examples of life at the shallow end of the American gene pool — simpletons with a truly dangerous hobby and a disturbing lack of respect for life itself.

But at Ladies’ Night at the Jackson Arms in South San Francisco, seven girlfriends and I discovered that normal people like to shoot guns too. Even ladies like us.

eight young ladies rode to the shooting range in the greatest boogie van

eight young ladies rode to the shooting range in the greatest boogie van

The Jackson Arms, a storefront gun range in a strip mall by the freeway, looks from the outside as if it might be a place where wild-eyed, frothing commandos hang out and discuss passages from Guns & Ammo. But inside, once you get past all the handguns, rifles, weaponry magazines, handcuffs, and live ammunition, it’s as friendly as pie.

The sharpshooters popping off rounds in the little booths behind the glass aren’t wanna-be Manson family members, just college-age couples and off-duty cops. This puts us at ease, and our gracious host, Andre, helps us pick out our weapons of choice from a glass cabinet, patiently explaining the difference between gun brands, caliber, and level of difficulty.

We pick five guns, and Andre leads us to a room where Ben, our grinning instructor, gives us a $25 first-timer class on loading, firing, and gun safety.


I’ve always been terrified of guns. I heard my first 21-gun salute as a toddler, and later had my index finger smashed and mangled in a shotgun-shell-packing accident. I decided long before my first decade on earth that I was to have nothing to do with them — and I haven’t.

My companions, for the most part, share my sentiments, so as Ben explains how to load the various weapons we’ve chosen in the bare classroom behind the range, we’re all nervous as rabbits, even though he doesn’t actually load any bullets.

He demonstrates how to aim by lining up the front and back sights, he pulls the trigger, and we all flinch. Half of us instinctively put our fingers in our ears. (Click. Whew.) He makes us all practice aiming and squeezing, one by one, and our fear abates.

now wait a minute - absent the fear this is kinda fun

now wait a minute

After telling us some rules of gun safety (always assume it’s loaded, keep it pointed in a safe direction, keep your finger out of the trigger until you’re ready to shoot, keep the gun unloaded until you’re ready to shoot), we liberal city kids grill him about his personal philosophy.

“They’re like toys to me,” he says. But what about the fact that they can kill and maim? “Sure they can, but I have a healthy respect for what they can do, and I use them for sport only. Like most or all of the people that come here.”

But about 70 percent of all gun deaths are accidental, right? “People are stupid, and nuts are going to be nuts, no matter what kind of weapon they have.” … Good point, but we’re not quite convinced. After all, you only need to be 12 years old (with a parent) to shoot at the Jackson Arms.

We talk among ourselves: should America only allow ammunition to be sold (and strictly tallied) at gun and hunting ranges? Should rifles be the only guns allowed outside of ranges (since they’re harder for small children to load and fire)? Should we try to disallow guns altogether?

We tentatively decide that steps can be taken, but it’s just too late for America, the land of constitutional exploiters. Ben’s shifting his feet and looking at his nails. OK, never mind — we’ve got some lonely guns waiting.


saddle up

The Winchester .22 rifle we selected, like many guns, can take either regular or magnum (longer) bullets. The .22 revolver is “the best gun,” according to Ben, because it’s easy to load and aim, it’s small, it holds nine bullets instead of six, and it’s a “double-action” gun, meaning that you can fire it two ways – just point and squeeze, or yank the top trigger back first for an easier fire.

The Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum revolver is a standard double-action six-gun that holds either .357 Magnum bullets or .38 specials. The Glock (a gun favored by rappers and people in the movies) and the Ruger are 9mm semiautomatic weapons, which means the bullet shells dislodge themselves through a chamber automatically while firing.

With revolvers and rifles, unloading empty shells takes time away from picking off bad guys or disgruntled coworkers, but with a semiautomatic, when you’re done with the 10-round magazine that loads sort of like Pez candy, simply pull out another one and pop it in. Boom boom boom. Mulder, he’s coming up the stairs.

Ben shuffles us back into the lobby and gives us each a pair of airplane headphones, a pair of scientist glasses, and a pep talk. We go into the actual range, where the sound of gun discharge makes us wince.

With Ben and Andre hovering protectively, I delicately load the Winchester rifle as I’ve been instructed, anchor it in the crease of my shoulder, pray that my arm doesn’t fly off, and fire. Pop. No kickback, no dislodged body parts, and I hit the side of the bull’s-eye. My fear is gone.

in fact I'm falling in love

in fact I’m falling in love (not in a creepy death cult way just empowerment-wise)

The .22 pistol and the .357 Magnum also make for easy shooting. Confident, I approach the Glock and the Ruger, the powerful semiautomatics that have been intimidating my companions and deafening us all with their blast.

I brace the Ruger with both hands and fire: the moving chamber that discharges the shells causes me to jump. The shot goes off the chart, and the empty shell goes down the front of my shirt. (Guns are even more macho than I anticipated.)

We all rotate for an hour, each of us gravitating to and shying away from different weapons. We imagine how traumatizing it would be to actually fire at someone, and we hate ourselves for having so much fun with something capable of such destruction. Yet we do have fun, and lots of it.

so much fun

so much fun (again, this was in 1998 when americans hadn’t yet gone completely gun-insane)

Ben disappears for a minute, and without our fearless leader we lose all confidence. He comes back — “Hey, do you all wanna fire a .44 Magnum?” Well, what’s that? “It’s the kind Dirty Harry uses.” Oh yes!

He produces a gigantic revolver that seems to have been stolen from a cartoon, and when I pull the trigger, it’s like an electric shock. I don’t smack myself in the forehead from the kickback, as I feared, but I do feel like my hair is standing on end, my legs are about to collapse, and my teeth are going to fall out. In a good way.

I still advocate strict gun laws, I now watch violent movies with entirely different eyes, I’m more apt to tiptoe around weapons than ever, and I will never own a gun. But damn if I’m not going back to the Jackson Arms.


This is the 13th piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here

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