Fall Guide: Shell shocked 

Besides 'Orlando' or maybe 'Tiger Woods, skanks,' few Google search terms conjure local love more than 'death, gun range.' Poppin' a cap in a piece of paper has long been a Florida pastime, but a recent rash of murders, suicides and combinations thereof around town have added an extra element of danger to what is typically, in NRA-speak, a rollicking hobby for both grownups and the kiddies: target practice.

In the spirit of good sport I hauled my gun-virginal self over to Shoot Straight, a regional chain that's taken a few public floggings in the last year, thanks to their sudden status as the maniac's playground du jour. An avowed anti-gun nut, the very thought of grasping the deadly steel turned my stomach, a feeling driven home by the wood-carved sign in the shape of a handgun greeting me at the Casselberry location: 'We don't call 911.' (I breathe easier knowing it's just hubris 'I've heard recordings of the calls.)

Within minutes, I've surrendered my license, signed and initialed here and here, and purchased a month's membership in Shoot Straight's range club — the only way they'll let you rent a gun and bullets on the spot — and parted ways with $50 plus. Suddenly, I hear the sound I've been dreading: the thump of a handgun on the counter, awaiting my touch. Disconcertingly young, Greg and Josh, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to my trembling Ham-let, have selected for me a SIG Sauer P226, the German monster favored by Navy SEALs and Black-water security guards. They show me how to load the clip (or is it magazine? One of those words is commonly mistaken, they tell me), cock it and fire. They're both safety conscious. I'm barely conscious.

'It's a machine, so be firm with it,' says a muffled voice barely penetrating my sonic barrier of panic. They have me practice once. 'You're a natural,' says Josh, who I'm sure says that to all the girls. I grab a pair of thin goggles and earmuffs and head through the door plastered with warnings. We don't stop to read them.

'What would you like to shoot at?' asks Josh at exactly the moment I set my eyes upon a special target with a raging zombie in the cross hairs.

I allow myself a moment of geekdom. 'Can I shoot the zombie?'

'I would never deny you the right to shoot at zombies,' he grins, and a seedling of fun plants itself in my gut next to the crippling fear.

And then â?¦ I'm alone — with a loaded gun filled with full metal jackets, held back by nothing but my index finger. I look out the double-sided glass partition and get a reassuring thumbs-up. In front of me is a zombie. I slowly lift the gun, and I notice my hands are shaking. That's never happened to me before, and that's when I understand why: This is not a video game. In a matter of hours, I've gone from dressing my son and daughter for school to holding the potential for mass carnage '15 shots before I'd have to reload' in the palm of my hand. It's too easy. In fact, it's better that way. The more you relax and just let your finger squeeze, they tell me, the more accurate your shots will be.

I pull the trigger and the pop is more powerful than I'd imagined. I see the flash, feel the recoil and smell the gunpowder burn, and for a moment, I wonder if it backfired. I can't see any damage in front of me. Am I dead or just a terrible shot? I squeeze again and again. Eventually, I nail my zombie. I reload in seconds, switch to a standard target and now I'm hitting my mark. Fifty rounds later, I'm instantly adequate at killing someone 'anyone can be. Meeting people is easy, says Radiohead; ending them is cake.

I emerge from the sweltering range to find an eager Josh and Greg awaiting confirmation of the kill and the thrill. I'm surprised to find that I can give them both. For some reason, I'm grinning from ear to maniacal ear and I can't stop. I suppose it's the visceral pleasure of taming something more powerful than yourself, like horseback riding, only way more badass. For once, I wasn't outside of myself, looking at the world through the prism of my own internal narrative. I was completely and utterly in the moment, in control of my own fate and fully aware of it, like a teenager behind the wheel for the first time.

Am I a gun convert? Not a chance. I'm more convinced than ever that these 'machines' serve only one terrible function. But there is something to be said for peering over the edge of the mortal cliff and not falling over. I think that would put a smile on anyone's face, no matter which association they belong to. Besides, I do have another 29 days left in my membership.

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