Student Range Visit Reflection #2: Shooting is Fun But Targets are No Joke

This is the second of several planned posts featuring Sociology of Guns Seminar student reflections on our field trip to ProShots, a local gun range. I provide the actual assignment in the first post, and you can also see it in the context of the syllabus itself.

This student refers toward the end of her reflection to me making “a joke about purposefully avoiding the human paper targets.” Although I probably said this with a smile on my face, I did not mean it as a joke. In fact, the first time I took a class to the range in 2015, we (without thinking) put up humanoid targets.  One of the students – pictured below — asked to shoot a non-humanoid target. We had an excellent discussion in class after about the ethical significance of target selection. Since then, as much as possible, I have tried always to use non-human/humanoid paper targets during our field trips.

Sociology of Guns student wearing Christian Peacemaker hat at Veterans Range, 2015.

Lily Walter
January 30, 2019

In the weeks following our trip to the gun range I told almost everyone I knew that I shot a gun for the first time in one of my classes. I also told people that, surprisingly, I didn’t hate it, and actually had a lot of fun. As someone who grew up without guns, I was uncomfortable coming into the gun range, and was prepared to experience a level of moral outrage and disgust when I held my first gun. When I experienced the opposite, I was both surprised and confused. Our time at Pro Shots challenged my assumptions about guns. At one point during the class session with Richard Talbert, I declared to the class that I’m a cynic and a skeptic when it comes to the laws and systems we have in place surrounding guns. However, the trip to the gun range showed me my lack of knowledge regarding the actual processes surrounding gun purchases, ownership, and culture.

The wide range of courses offered at ProShots intrigued me. On one hand, Talbert emphasized the importance of proper gun safety, teaching us the four main rules, and noting that his classes are especially valuable to gun owners with children. He spoke a lot about the importance of preventing children from being harmed accidentally by gun use. In other words, Pro Shots was not in the business of promoting negligent gun ownership. On the other hand, the beginner class is also a gateway into the world of guns. Pro Shots offers advanced courses in handguns, shotguns, and AR-15s, some of which include tactical situations and obstacle courses. As these courses get more intense, there is a shift in focus from safety or recreation to self-defense. I have always thought a demarcation existed between the recreational gun users and self-defense gun owners, but that boundary appears more blurred to me now. Other sociologists have studied the socialization process through which people become comfortable around guns. Through increasingly intense courses, Pro Shots helps people grow more comfortable with the idea of using a gun against another human being.

Talbert focused a lot on gun safety, even explaining that he occasionally taught classes to children. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a sketch by Sacha Baren Cohen on Who is America? In the sketch, Cohen’s character and a firearms fanatic discuss the value of arming children. While Talbert’s comments immediately brought this to mind, he was more focused on the importance of ensuring that children would not accidentally shoot themselves with a parent’s gun, and not the value of arming children to make America safer. I previously thought anyone in favor of educating kids about guns was simply trying to raise their kids to be fervent defenders of the 2nd Amendment. In reality, there is actually a lot of value in teaching children how to be safe when there are guns in the home.

Our time on the range was both fun and disturbing. Shooting at a cartoon mole wearing a caving helmet did not require any kind of moral reckoning for me, but watching another patron shooting at a human target did. I believe Dr. Yamane made a joke about purposefully avoiding the human paper targets because we were not ready to deal with the ethical ramifications of that yet, and I understood his sentiment. I was really uncomfortable watching another range patron shoot a powerful rifle at a paper human target.

I tried to keep an open mind throughout the trip, but I will admit most of my opinions about guns have remained the same. Nonetheless, the actual experience of shooting a gun gave me insight into the appeal guns have, and shown me of the complexity and nuance of the gun debate.

[DY NOTE: I have very lightly edited this text for length and to correct glaring spelling, grammar, and/or substantive errors.]

12 thoughts on “Student Range Visit Reflection #2: Shooting is Fun But Targets are No Joke

  1. I started shooting under my dad’s wing at around 8 years old, and as soon as I demonstrated safety and competence with a rifle, I was allowed to move to the “combat” range (my dad was a police officer, and we used the police range) to shoot at silhouette targets. All of my pistol shooting is done at humanoid targets, because that’s the purpose of practice. Rifle targets tend to be the classic round, because I’m measuring accuracy at distance, not lethality.

    I’m loving reading your students’ reactions. Introducing non-shooters to the range is one of my favorite pastimes.


  2. I’ve been thinking about your comment related to the moral implications of the type of target you are using. I’d love for you to blog about this in more detail. At the gun range I visit most we all get one free target with the lane rental and its a human shaped type target. Actually when I think about it, its on the small size, probably more kid sized than adult. I guess the question is if we are not training people to shoot at other people rather than at a target? For many people who own a gun primarily for self defense I would say that in fact I am practicing to shoot at a person. Also, I am practicing to pass the TX carry license class, which has a shooting component on a standard target that is human sized. The thought here is to be sure that a person will at least hit the target and not miss, risking other downrange (at least that is what was explained to me). As someone who has been involved in roleplaying and LARP for a long time, the idea of role-playing simulated violence (hitting people with foam swords, or acting out killing creatures and enemy humans in an imaginary setting, is something I’ve also thought about a lot; and I in part think of gun ownership and target practice in much the same way. When I was in grad school one of my professors spoke of a concept he termed ‘dark play’ which is a type of fantasy play that adults perform, similar to children’s games but with a type of dangerous edge. If there are moral implications in shooting at targets that look like humans, I would wonder if there are not also implications in denying people an outlet for this type of dark play. Perhaps the act of shooting live rounds at such a target could be examined as a type of performance ritual, one with a dark edge to it.


    • Thanks for this input. I think for your purposes, the humanoid target is appropriate. The challenge for me was in taking my class, most of whom were brand new or inexperienced shooters, for whom the humanoid target was less appropriate, especially given the many non-humanoid options available. If they decided to continue shooting and shooting for defensive purposes then there is no shortage of humanoid and human targets to shoot.

      In terms of your deeper question about the ritual and possibly cathartic dimensions of certain activities, I’m afraid commenting on that would get me out of my depth very quickly, but feel free to share further thoughts if you have them.


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