Monday, November 5, 2007

Forensic University Starts with a BANG!

Last Thursday, nearly fifty mystery writers and fans traveled by limo to Bullseye Shooting Range in St. Louis. This was the unofficial start of Sisters in Crime's Forensic University. For many of us, this was our first experience with actually firing a gun--although quite a few of our number had written books with gun play involved.

Our instructor was a real pro, a man who'd been involved in several violent incidents and who regularly carries two firearms on his person. He explained, "When it absolutely, positively has to go bang--carry two guns." With great patience, he put each of us through a quick hands on demonstration of the "combat grip." He schooled us in gun safety: always treat every gun like a loaded gun, never point an empty gun at anyone, keep your finger trigger straight along the side of the gun above the trigger until you are ready to shoot, never hand a gun to another person (instead lay it down and let the other person pick it up), always turn the gun butt toward you before picking it up, and more.

We were each given safety glasses and hearing protective "ear muffs." To enter the gallery, you must pass through two doors that muffle the sound. The rule is "never let both doors be open at the same time." From there we walked a long narrow corridor--another safety precaution because you can't pass people while carrying a gun as you traverse the corridor.

I loaded my clip myself. My fingers shook a bit as I matched the bullets to the second slot and dropped them in. When I slammed the cartridge into the butt of the gun with the heel of my palm, I felt like a character in a movie. The noise of people shooting around me was surprisingly loud. Later Lee Lofland and my pal Rick McMahan would tell me that during a gun battle you don't hear the sound of the blasts, but right then, I was keenly aware how loud a gun is.

I took my stance: both hands wrapped around the gun, arms out, sighting down the barrel and lining up the notch and post, semi-squat position. I stroked the trigger.

My first shots were a little wide. I hadn't accurately lined up the notch and post--I was too scared. Yes, scared. I was so very conscious of the fact I was holding a lethal weapon, an inanimate object that I dislike on so many, varied levels. Seeing the target with the form of a human on it, well, it both sickened and excited me. The smell of gunpowder coated my nose and mouth like the smoke from a cigarette smoker, invading my being involuntarily. The random "pop, pop, pop" of other guns startled me. The knowledge my instructor stood at my elbow waiting made me uneasy.

I remembered a portion of a Jack Reacher book where Lee Child wrote about how important breathing was to the accuracy of a sniper. I began to time my breathes so I could stroke the trigger on that space between inhales and exhales.

Then I blasted the heck out of the red center of my target. By the time I moved to the bigger gun, I was deadly. True confession: I loved shooting. And I know I'll be going again.


Monica Ferris said...

Guns are fascinating, aren't they? They are scary, like poisonous snakes, and yet, handled correctly, they are safe. They are surprisingly heavy -- I remember that as my first thought on picking up a handgun. The macho people in the movies sling them around as if they weigh a few ounces, but they don't. To me, one of the scariest sounds in the whole world is that kuh-CHUK sound a pump shotgun makes when a new shell is put into the chamber. That is the sound death makes clearing his throat. But I, too, enjoy shooting a handgun. I used to be very good at it, but now I have to work at being accurate.

Camille Minichino said...

Joanna, I was breathless reading your blog! I hope you'll save that description and use it in a book.
I look forward to hearing more about the conference. Are you planning one for '08??

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

We're talking about having another Forensic U. We've received nothing but rave reviews. Someone pointed out to me that this was the first conference totally centered around an opportunity for writers to learn about our craft--to perfect our ability to make the crime portion of crime fiction accurate and compelling. So...we'll see!

Deb Baker said...

Wish I could have been with you. I've fired weapons my entire life. I'm from the Michigan Upper Peninsula where we target practice on weekends. That's what we called family time. But we shot at tin cans or tried to knock the knobs off of clothes pins. Never humans. That might be unnerving. Way to shoot!

Felicia Donovan said...

Joanna, there's nothing like the first time. I grew up around BB guns, then .177, then .22's, but it was a very different experience the first time I ever shot a "real" weapon - a .44 magnum packed with a lot of punch.

As for the "pop, pop" sound, my department has its own range on-site, so we're pretty used to it. Everyone is extremely safety conscience despite being so used to weapons, as it should always be. Good for you for hitting your mark!

Felicia Donovan

Lee Lofland said...

Forensic University was one of the best conferences I've ever attended. That's a huge compliment coming from me since I speak for over a dozen writers conferences across the county each year.

One of my favorite parts of the For U were the looks from the hotel guests when they passed by and heard all the murder talk coming from such a nice, timid looking group. It was priceless.

I wish you were hosting another one next week!

Sheila Connolly said...

I've tried shooting twice, first with a Second Amendment Sisters group, and more recently with a Sisters in Crime group. What scares me is how good I was, with no experience, and how much I enjoyed it.

Actually, the first time I went was to test a chapter I had written, in which my protagonist, who has one afternoon's practice with a police friend, has to shoot a guy barrelling down on her in a pick-up truck, and she nails him right between the eyes. Possible? Yes. The first time I fired a pistol, I hit the bulls-eye. The instructor was so surprised he had to reel in the target to check.

I think every mystery writer should try it once, just to know the reality of it. It's not like what you see on television or movies.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Lee is right--we drew some strange looks. What he doesn't know is that I discovered three young men with their ears pressed against the door of the room where he was making a presentation on realistic fight scenes with Rick McMahan. The young men were at the hotel for a church gathering! Imagine what they said to each other after listening in!

And I agree with Sheila, it's different if you are imagining the gun shoot and when it really happens. That said, I'm sure glad I wasn't on the target end of the practice!

Anonymous said...

Shooting was a sport I could enjoy as an asthmatic child (things were different in the 50s), so I grew up around guns and hunting. Used to shoot the spots out of playing cards with a 22.

I suspect that if more people were familiar with the proper use of guns there would be less irrational opposition to legal gun ownership.

Glad you discovered the joy of the sport! That was a terrific description!