I DEFEND those accused of criminal acts. Although many of my clients have had, and have used, handguns, I had never fired one. So when a friend of mine in law enforcement suggested I meet her at an indoor shooting range, I accepted.
Even with ear protection, in a confined space the crack and blast from a handgun are intense and unsettling. In this it is not unlike a prison where radio and television compete for domination of the same room; where the sudden crash of metal doors and the explosive shout of angry voices compete for domination of the inmate's souls. Noise can be more insidiously confining than the grotesque curls of barbed wire that hang from prison fences.
At the range, the firing line was partitioned into several stations. From each ran an overhead cable onto which one could clip a large human frontal silhouette with an overlay of concentric rings. My friend sent this target out about 25 yards, then demonstrated holding, aiming and firing her Smith & Wesson .38 police special. Each of her six shots scored torso hits.
"Now you," she said and handed me the gun.
I reloaded, extended my arms, aimed and slowly squeezed the trigger. The gun recoiled slightly after each shot but easily settled again along my line of sight. Four of my six shots hit.
"Now try the head at 50 yards," my friend instructed.
I had difficulty leveling and settling the gun on the small target offered by the head, which swayed slightly in the draft of the air conditioning.
"Just a moment," I said. "Could you bring the target back in?"
In large letters across the bottom of the target I printed the name of a government bureaucrat who had been making my life miserable for months. Then, from 50 yards, I squeezed off six rounds. Four ripped through the paper skull and two hit lower on the face, and I felt exhilarated. I thought the handgun a beautiful thing. It is smooth and sensual, and it responds wonderfully to the touch. Its force can be imagined, but the feel of its controlled explosions is indescribable.
How sublime it is to have such power! How easy it is to eliminate someone whose existence is bothersome! Just make a target of the person and take aim. And there is no guilt, no uneasy pang of doubt. You can do what you want to a target because it is only a target, not a real person.
In the same way, the person who is targeted by the criminal justice system ceases to be a real person. He becomes merely an accused, a criminal, a convict. The people in charge of moving prisoners from one jail to another lightheartedly refer to them -- whether convicted or not -- as "bandits."
But there is a false sense of power which comes from having reasonable control over a handgun. It is false because, ultimately, it is not the gun which needs to be controlled. The National Rifle Association is fond of pointing this out with slogans like "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." But this clever cliche misses the mark. The more immediate problem is as basic as survival.
As long as it is more desirable to control others than oneself, we will be fascinated by the weapons in our personal armory, be they social status, official position, looks, money or guns.
And as long as weapons are available, people will make targets to shoot at. The pleasure is just too primitive to resist.
Stephen J. Cribari is acting federal public defender in Maryland. F