Today I went with some friends to a firing range in Baltimore. Handguns are illegal in Britain, so this was the first time I'd either seen or shot one, making it a significant (and surreal) cultural experience.
The 'silence' created by the mandatory ear protection (which blocked out all noise except the resounding boom of gunshot) was reminiscent of Gus Van Sant's Elephant, which made the experience even more eerie. We shot with both a .22 revolver (which I enjoyed) and a 9mm semi-automatic (that terrified me). Guns are such a huge part of the visual culture exported from Hollywood that the act of shooting - the 9mm especially - occurred in a strange space that occupied as much fantasy as it did reality.
It's hard not to succumb to instinctive fear when surrounded by gunshot and almost-present death. As time went on, however, we became more comfortable in the liminal safety/danger of sport and murder. The mastery of fear (and its shaking hand) combined with the shot of endorphins released by a skilful hit of the target makes shooting an extremely rewarding physical experience. You're not only fighting (all the targets at the range are unashamedly human shaped) but you're winning. Winning, unsurprisingly, feels good.
Watching a tragedy like Sandy Hook unfold from a distance, it's hard to understand anyone who would fight an attempt to tighten US gun control. Moving to the other side it's easier to comprehend. To regular and skilled shooters, regulation is not about safety; it's about removing a significant source of self-esteem. You may instinctively (and I do) associate a gun like the one above with death. But for others it can mean the opposite. Mastery of the body, exercise of power, a simultaneous denial and embracing of mortality: using a gun can provide a momentary glimpse of the visceral essence of life. This, I believe, is what the pro-gun lobby is fighting to retain - a sense of self identity that is inextricably tied in to the affective labour of the fire.