They sat on wooden tables like a museum display: a Glock, Ruger, .22-caliber semi-automatics, .44 Magnums, Colt .45s, bolt-action rifles and the weapon that needs no introduction — the AR-15.
All the gun metal glistened.
Loren Reese stood at the back table in the cabin over a white DPMS Artic Panther, the scoped assault weapon broken down into two pieces, at the receiver. Two AR-15s sat on either side of the rifle and eight women listened as he spoke.
There are more than 30 AR-15 manufactures in the global and domestic arms market today. And the guns, which start at $800, are extremely customizable.
“You can put chrome barrels on there, fat barrels, skinny barrels, stock barrels,” Reese said — some guys even get rid of the stock altogether, slug the gun with a pistol grip and a short barrel and call it an “AR Pistol.”
One woman looked concerned.
“Do these guys have a kick in your shoulder?” student Michele Aranguiz asked.
“None,” Reese said.
“It’d be literally like this,” he said, jabbing his shoulder twice with two fingers. “Nothing.”
Since the AR-15’s national popularity rocketed in 2001 it’s gained a sinister reputation, according to Reese.
“It’s always associated, unfortunately,” he said, “with mass shootings.”
But the rifle is so much more than its harrowing history — people buy them to target shoot; protect their homes; or hunt coyote, lynx and wolf. Predator calling is popular, too, on the Kenai Peninsula, Reese said.
Fourteen women cycled through the Snowshoe Gun Club’s cabin during Saturday’s Women on Target clinic, the last of the year. One group stood at the semi-automatic handgun table; another stood at the revolver table. All 22 students learned how to safely handle handguns and rifles.
“When it comes to firearm safety, you have to be on your A-game all the time,” Clinic Director Elaina Spraker said, “because once that bullet goes down the chamber, you can’t call it back.”
The national stigma the AR-15 has garnered is a shame, Spraker said. A shotgun, loaded with the right shells, would kill more people than the assault weapon — a single shot has at least a three-foot spread, she said.
And with the AR-15, like any firearm, the danger is in the shooter, Spraker said, not the weapon.
“I could take a nail gun and put it to your temple and kill you,” she said. “It’s just a tool.”
But the tool requires training. That’s why “trigger time” is important, she said.
And that’s why Janet Jones signed up. It was her second year in the class — last year’s lessons had become rusty.
Jones lives in Sterling, in a remote house, and she worries about brown bear. The high-density plastic bear barrels that store her garbage outside her home are riddled. She said bear teeth are to blame.
While an AR-15 fires too light a round to easily kill a brown bear, Jones wants to generally learn more about shooting and owning firearms. She is also interested in hunting.
“Guns are for protection and gathering food, and I want to be comfortable in both those things,” Jones said.
And though she doesn’t like to dwell on it, if she owned a firearm, she could defend herself from a human invader, too, she said.
After Reese finished explaining to the women the assault weapon’s attributes — it also packs so low a recoil, he said, that it’s a fantastic rifle to train with — Katie McCafferty, another instructor, held up a sign. On it were the three golden rules:
Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.
Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.
Keep the gun unloaded until it’s ready to use.
About an hour later a group of the students stood at the firing range. Two AR-15s lay on the square tables, their barrels pointed down range, their magazines next to a box of bullets.
Reese grabbed the DPMS Arctic Panther’s white magazine and thumbed in five golden rounds.
Kym Cross walked up and sat down at a table. She fiddled the rifle in place.
“So what I’m going to do is load this for you,” Reese said.
He pressed the magazine into the rifle and released the slide. It snapped shut and the rifle shuddered.
“OK,” Reese said. “Now the gun’s hot.”
Cross rested her cheek on the stock and her finger above the trigger, and she searched for the target 25 yards down range.
Her hair blew in the wind.
Her finger slid down.
Bang — her shoulder recoiled. Then she fired four more, laid the assault weapon down, stood up and stepped back.
Her 10-year-old son is at a “curious age,” she said, another student taking her place at the stand, and he has started skiing biathlons.
The student fired a round. Cross was hard to hear through ear plugs.
Her husband also likes firearms, she said, but her son doesn’t shoot regularly yet.
Another round fired.
“If I were going to have guns in the house,” Cross said, “I want to know how to use them.”
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.