When Rasha Elass, an "anti-gun urban liberal", joined the Caracal Shooting Club, she not only discovered a new hobby, but also some surprises about herself and her views. The first time I held a gun, it felt too small for my hand. I asked for an upgrade, and I was handed the 9mm Caracal pistol. Weighing in at 780g, it felt just right. My request seemed unusual for a woman with no experience of handling a gun and the trainers at the shooting club glanced at each other for a moment.
Finally, my trainer said, "You'll be charged the gun rental fee again." That was fine. My new adventure was an experiment. Who can count the number times we imagined ourselves in a James Bond film, or, in my case, my favourite series Alias? I had been looking for a new hobby, and it didn't take long for me to appreciate the virtues of aiming a handgun and shooting at a target. But when I posted my new discovery on Facebook, my announcement solicited an endless barrage of confused emails and messages from friends, who for years knew me as an anti-gun urban liberal.
But for me shooting was not about imagining my boss or colleagues as the target - a popular fantasy that my work friends exchanged when I invited them to the shooting range - nor about fantasies of saving the world like Jennifer Garner in Alias. Rather, by shooting a gun I discovered a rare moment of peace. It was similar to the time I went sky diving, when the trainer finally pushed us out of the aeroplane from 3,000 metres above ground and there was a point of no return. Outside the plane, there was only wind and loud noise. There was nothing else.
While the sky dive later felt like a cheap thrill, shooting a gun did not. When I pulled the trigger with one eye focused on the target, there was a thrust backward and a loud bang. Nothing else. So I signed up for a full lesson with Thomas Binder, the head trainer at the Caracal Shooting Club, inside the Armed Forces Officers Club in Abu Dhabi. Binder, a former Swiss army officer, explained in great detail the difference between a pistol and a revolver, a shotgun and a rifle, a single-action gun and a semi-automatic.
Inside the simulator, a room the size of a large classroom equipped with laser sensory cameras and a large wall that serves as a screen, Binder is playing training videos for me. The most interesting is one used by the police and military, which provides tactical training practice, using moving people as targets. "It used to be that out of every 100 rounds shot at a moving target, only two hit," explains Binder. "So then they started training on moving targets and reached an accuracy rate of 40 to 50 per cent."
The video which, according to senior management, is exclusive to the Caracal Shooting Club, features men running across a street at various speeds and distances. The club is careful about playing simulator videos with human targets, and clients who do not have professional police or military training rarely end up using it. "It's for police or military, so we don't show it usually to an ordinary civilian. We might show them one or two scenarios but not more," Binder explains.
There are other videos, ones with hunting animals such as elk and gazelle, but I did not have the heart to shoot at them. Caracal opened to the public in December, and it is the only shooting club in the UAE that has a simulation room open to the public and one of the few worldwide. The inside of the club has a modern, clean feel and a coffee shop with an outdoor terrace where high-powered meetings and low-key conversations unfold over casual cappucinos.
The idea of the club was conceived by senior management at Caracal, the Emirati gun manufacturer and the only gun to be made in the GCC. "We wanted to make shooting accessible to every day people, not just military personnel," says Saeed al Shamsi, commercial director of Caracal International. "You know, there's a hadith [a statement from The Prophet] that says: 'Teach your children swimming, archery and riding.' Shooting is part of our long tradition.
"We recruited trainers from the military and police force, and retrained them for three months to make sure they don't treat the customers as if they were in the army," he adds with a laugh. Staff at the club seem unusually alert - their antennae up and their focused eyes constantly aware of everything around them. Any unusual behaviour seems to be noted by someone, and small cameras appear to cover every square centimetre of the club. Inside the range, I notice my trainer observes me with look of slight concern when I jump at the bang of the 9mm.
I ask the staff about their training and what the plan would be in case of emergency - say, a psychopath with a loaded gun goes mad inside the range. Bullet-proof glass and secure doors could contain any situation that goes awry, but surely there was a reason for rules I found strange, like no food or drink in the rest area that overlooks the six-lane range where people aim their loaded guns and shoot at the target.
"If we allow drinks in, some people might create problems," said one trainer. Al Shamsi answered the question with a joke: "Oh, don't worry about that. You see, whenever you're aiming the gun at the target, our trainers take a step back and aim their gun at you." An interesting fact about sport shooting is that women do better than men, but only at first - as Binder explains. "When women start shooting, they feel it's something new to them, they're a bit afraid and they pay full attention to what they're supposed to do, so they do very well," he says.
"Men, on the other hand, think they know it all. But after they realise they don't know what they're doing, they finally start paying attention and suddenly their performance improves drastically. "Women, however, get to the point where they feel confident with the gun, then they stop listening to instructions. They figure, 'Oh, I know what I'm doing now and I don't need someone telling me what to do'."
I have learnt a lot so far from my lessons, the most surprising being that, in shooting, you must not only pay attention to your target but also to know what lies beyond it. A 9mm bullet moves at approximately 320 metres per second. It can travel for two kilometres, so it is crucial to know what stands behind the target, as Binder explains. "One guy in a small village in Switzerland was shooting at a target, but his bullet travelled over a hill and landed at a cafe," he informs me.
The best things I've learnt were the most obvious rules, which is what Binder kept repeating throughout our session. "Rule number one. Never assume a gun is unloaded." "Point the gun only in a safe direction and always keep your finger off the trigger. "Ignore one rule, and you're OK. Ignore two, and you're pushing your luck a little. "But ignore all three? You're dead!" That struck home. Not only because I don't want to be dead, or responsible for someone else's death, but also because it reminded me of the ongoing debate regarding gun control in the US, where I have spent most of my life.
"Guns don't kill, people do," is the common argument put forth by opponents of strong gun-control laws. Having lived very briefly in Beirut during the civil war, and having lived through a time in childhood when I heard more gun shots per hour than my age was in years, I always found the pro-gun argument disturbing. Guns do kill, along with people. Guns make it a great deal easier. Besides, in an age when parents struggle to protect their children from violence, be it real or simulated, as in television programming and computer games, why was I contemplating the purchase of an annual membership at a shooting club?
Columbia University professor Richard Bulliet introduced a theory a few years ago about the reason we pursue violence when we're one step removed from it. According to him, our species has become so far removed from its natural state of hunting and gathering that we now crave images of violence on television to remind us of who we are. Perhaps enjoying mock violence like target shooting serves us the same way.