Armed, dangerous and terrified

All computer gamers fancy their shoot-'em-up skills. But how is it to fire the real thing? The Independent's console queen Rebecca Armstrong spent an afternoon flexing her trigger finger at the Los Angeles Gun Club
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I like to sit in the dark and shoot lots of people. I also like to fight ninjas and save the world from alien invasion. My heroics are performed from the comfort of an armchair, and the computer games console is my weapon. However, I've long been curious about the reality of shooting the weapons I tote so easily in Tomb Raider and Hitman: to see what it really feels like to be armed and dangerous. So when I was presented with the opportunity to visit the indoor pistol range at the Los Angeles Gun Club, I jumped on the first plane.

I like to sit in the dark and shoot lots of people. I also like to fight ninjas and save the world from alien invasion. My heroics are performed from the comfort of an armchair, and the computer games console is my weapon. However, I've long been curious about the reality of shooting the weapons I tote so easily in Tomb Raider and Hitman: to see what it really feels like to be armed and dangerous. So when I was presented with the opportunity to visit the indoor pistol range at the Los Angeles Gun Club, I jumped on the first plane.

From outside, the club looks unremarkable, notable only for its lack of windows. Inside, the shooting range is reminiscent of a down-at-heel bowling alley, though the first things you notice on entering are some inspirational posters for Dirty Harry and Die Hard. The range of firearms for hire and for sale is vast - handguns pile up under the glass-topped desk, rifles line the walls, boxes of bullets are stacked at the back - and I had free rein to chose my weapon.

After some discussion, my companions and I were issued with five guns: a Beretta 9mm pistol, a Smith & Wesson .44 magnum, a Smith & Wesson .357 magnum, a Glock 9mm, and a Walther P99 9mm. They're all handguns, and - apart, perhaps, from the magnums - relatively sensible for beginners to have a go with. I was tempted to hire a revolver with a scorpion engraved on the handle, but was dissuaded from doing so when a disapproving look from the staff told me to plump for something less tacky.

Next, I chose my targets. There were endless variations on offer at the club, each designed to meet the needs of the marksman in question. For my first target, I chose a picture of a overweight white guy holding a gun, looking for all the world like he had hate in his eyes and carjacking in his heart. Elsewhere, another small target was decorated with a range of woodland creatures. Any marksman who could shoot through the hearts of these tiny rabbits and squirrels would have to be one hell of a shot. Other, more serious-looking targets seemed to be tailored to the requirements of the cold-blooded professional killer, with a special emphasis on head shots.

As I waited to collect my firearms to take them into the shooting booth, I took a closer look around the foyer. From the huge gun mobile hanging over a display of Girl Scout cookies to the notices that read: "To help prevent suicides and to obey insurance requirements, we will not rent firearms to single users. Bring a friend!", the club queasily combines its sport with a touch of death-wish. One man turned up alone and was denied a gun, and then spent the next hour trying to sell us a holster - an encounter that confirmed, in every possible way, that if people can't be trusted with friends, then they shouldn't be trusted with firearms.

The two members of the staff assigned to help us, Tina and Alfonz, were friendly and relaxed, swapping stories about the range and showing off the targets used by some of the celebrities whose pictures cover the walls (Ben Affleck needs practice, apparently). Curiously, Tina described the place as "very relaxing", adding: "Shooting is fun, depending on the way you think. People get a negative idea of it, but if you are shooting for the challenge, it's relaxing."

That's as may be, but I didn't feel very relaxed during the rather cursory run-through we were given on gun safety before we were let loose on the range. I felt even more nervous as I put in my earplugs and pulled on my protective mufflers. The fear receded a bit when I looked in a mirror and saw what a fool I must have looked to the more experienced gun-toters around me, but it returned when we crossed the foyer and entered the shooting range proper.

The rules stated that we had to keep each of the guns in one booth; that we should move to the guns; and that they should stay where they were. For the first shot, we should only load one bullet, so we would know exactly how many shots the gun would fire. We must never turn around with the gun, and we must never point the gun at anyone.

After putting my target in place via a wire and pulley system that raced up and down the range, I was joined by my supervisor, Carlos Castro, an ex-marine who was so tough he only wore earplugs. I felt better with him at hand. He showed me how to position myself to shoot; how to hold the gun (in both hands); how to stand straight on to the target; and, most important of all, how to squeeze the trigger, not jerk it.

It was once put to me by a gun-loving Texan that "girls always cry when they shoot guns". I had already decided that this was not going to be the case with me. Gingerly, I picked up the Beretta. With my right index finger held off the trigger, I gripped the butt of the gun with my right hand and clasped my left hand around the knuckles of my right. Then I curled my trigger finger through the guard, took aim at my paper enemy and gently squeezed the trigger.

The shot hit the target (left thigh) and immediately I felt jubilant, although slightly shaken. Shooting is much more physical than I had expected; my hand jumped and I feel slightly dazed. The sensation was a million miles away from that of wielding a virtual Uzi in an Xbox game.

I reloaded the gun and fired off another few rounds. Between shots, Carlos proudly told me about his little sister, a better shot than either of his two older brothers, apparently, although she's only 15. "She shoots better than most of the people who come down here. She started shooting when she was 11: she saw her brothers shooting and got interested."

The fact that children can come down to the range was news to me - and slightly alarming news at that. Carlos put me straight: "An adult [over 21] can come to the range and bring a co-shooter. The co-shooter must be aged 10 or over. Ten-year-olds can come and shoot if they're with a co-shooter." The idea of any of the 10-year-olds I know learning to shoot real guns with live ammunition is utterly terrifying.

After the Beretta, I shot with the Walther and then moved on to the two Smith & Wessons. It was fun, but nerve-racking - I couldn't shake the feeling that I was "playing" with a deadly weapon. Even so, once I got used to having a gun in my hand, it started to feel worryingly enjoyable. It certainly felt more natural than firing with a games console controller.

Finally, I picked up the most fearsome weapon in my arsenal, the big magnum revolver - one bullet, six chambers. I put in one bullet, as instructed, and lifted the beast. The gun was bigger than my head, and incredibly heavy. Aiming, I squinted and pulled the trigger. Click. Empty barrel, exhale nervously, inhale, try again. Click. Click. Click. I was shaking with anticipation. BANG. The shot gave me an almighty adrenalin rush. I'm almost ashamed to admit how much I enjoyed it. That said, I was extremely relieved to put the gun down again.

During a break, I asked Carlos about the kinds of people who go to the LA Gun Club. "Lots of LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department] guys come to shoot here. They have a range at the LAPD, but they can't shoot with their buddies there. That's why they come down here to shoot."

I asked him if the cops were good shots. He shook his head. "Really?" I shrieked, alarmed at the thought. He hastily corrected himself by telling me that only the new LAPD guys are poor shots. "The new cops are bad. The older ones are good, they take your advice because they want to learn to get better. We also get a lot of tourists, a lot of Orientals because handguns are forbidden there. They like to shoot when they come here because they can."

I went back to shoot some more, this time trying to work on my aim, which, frankly, wasn't great. Unlimited ammo and enhanced aim may get me by in computer games, but the real thing is much harder. Carlos was very encouraging, so I asked him about the other female shooters he'd met.

"When they come in with their boyfriends, the guy will come in all macho, thinking he knows everything. But often, for the girl, it's the first time, so she pays attention to the instructions I give her. The guy just wants to release some stress and shoot some guns, so when they both go to the range, the guy misses and he's like, 'Whatever', and just keeps shooting off rounds. The girls, when they miss, they question why and go back to their techniques to see where they can improve. They follow the instructions and take it step by step, so they make better shooters than men."

Although I was enjoying playing the assassin, it was a sobering experience to fire real weapons rather than virtual ones. Marie-Claire Suter, one of my companions at the range, was less enthused by the experience. She works for Xbox and is an avid gamer, but her response to shooting for real was very different from mine.

"Firing a real gun is 100 per cent different to shooting in computer games," she said. "I love games because they're escapist, they're not real. Shooting is too real." Marie-Claire admitted to having felt uncomfortable as soon as she walked into the building. "It hit me how serious it was - we walked in, picked a gun from a cabinet, grabbed some ammo and were told to get on with it. I wanted to like it. I'm a tough girl, and I wanted to go in there and kick everyone's arse, but I found shooting frightening and stressful. It's too loud, we had too little instruction, and no one seemed to think twice about the fact that we were using real guns. It wasn't a game."

It wasn't so much the actual guns or shooting that unsettled Marie-Claire, it was the casual way the guns had been handed out and the lack of one-on-one tuition. "I wanted military precision, a supervisor each, an uncrowded range and fewer guys messing around saying, 'Look at my gun!'" She won't be returning. "I'm glad I did it, but I won't go again. I scared myself."

I felt chastened by her reaction, but I can't say that I didn't enjoy the experience. I'm glad that I've learnt how to shoot. It's helped me to understand the seriousness of firearms and their purpose - to kill things. I hope that I won't be quite so gung-ho when it comes to pumping innocent characters full of lead, even if it is only in computer games. A quick examination of the figures relating to gun-related deaths - in 2002, 68 deaths in the UK and 11,127 in the US) brings home the fact that virtual guns are a lot safer to play with. I'll be happy to stick to shooting make-believe magnums in the safety of my sitting room.