We have never shot a gun before—not a pellet gun, not an air gun, not a paintball pistol or laser tag blaster, nothing beyond the orange and white Nintendo Zapper used in Duck Hunt circa 1989—but we intend to catch up, and quick, with an AR-15. If there’s an “it gun,” it’s this firearm, a “military-style assault weapon” prized for its LEGO-like modularity, the civilian version of the classic military M16. Wired calls it a “consumer phenomenon,” The New York Times “the most wanted gun in America,” and when, this month, 70,000 gun owners converge downtown for the annual NRA convention, there will be many AR-15s on display. Their owners will almost certainly be aware that an AR-15–style Bushmaster rifle was the weapon Adam Lanza used to murder 20 children in a Connecticut elementary school, and that AR-15s sat atop the list of guns to be rendered illegal in the assault weapons ban subsequently proposed and ignored by the Senate. 

Our guide is an experienced shooter named Robert Cavnar, and for the record, he doesn’t believe any civilian needs to wield such destructive power. (After this he will send us a video of an AR-15-obliterated watermelon to emphasize the point.) But we aren’t hanging around a Gulfton shooting range called Top Gun to debate the morality of a regulatory regime; we simply want to experience something no doubt familiar to many of those convention-goers, which is what it feels like to launch a piece of brass-jacketed lead at 3,200 feet per second.

We have just explained the depth of our rifle-related ignorance to Robert, who tries not to look concerned. “Let’s start with a pistol,” he says, leading us through one door, where we don plastic earmuffs, then a second, where we enter a range thick with white male shooters of a certain age. He’s holding his own comparatively diminutive Glock handgun. It lacks the commando spirit of the AR-15, but then again it was a Glock with which Adam Lanza took his own life.

He hands us the pistol and brushes aside dozens of spent cartridges cluttering our floor space. It’s hard to feel stable, rattled as we are by the shots of fellow shooters, but we do our best, plant our legs, lean forward. Both hands on the gun, we place the pad of our right index finger gently on the trigger. We breathe deeply. We fire. There is a bright flash, the smell of gunpowder. The pistol jumps in our palms, willing itself upward. We fire two, three, four, five, more rounds, shocking the gun into life as if ramming a single beat into a stopped heart. At the far end of the range, bits of rubber jump with every bullet. We look down to find ourselves bleeding at the thumb-knuckle, two beads of blood where the gun leapt back so hard it tore the skin. 

“Are you okay?” our guide asks. “I don’t even know how you did that.”

Okay? We’re thrilled, adrenaline-high, and we want an upgrade. Which is when a shooting range employee in a kippah shows up bearing, with conspicuous care, that AR-15 in two hands.

It’s 39 inches to our 64, a slim cylindrical tube with a thickly grooved grip, and we think it’s exactly the gun we’d use to defend a bank in a developing country with security problems. Planting our hands along the body of this firearm requires a kind of kinesthetic commitment rather unlike grasping the Glock. When we pull the trigger the hammer will hit the firing pin, which will hit the back of the bullet, which will make the spark that ignites that gun powder that pushes the bullet out of the barrel at twice the speed of a Glock’s and then fragment—which helps explain the sad state of that watermelon. We steel ourselves for the butt of the rifle, the bruise it will make in the space between our shoulder and clavicle. We pull the trigger, hear the crack of a bullet on its way out. 

And … nothing. The gun doesn’t jolt upward, or downward; it weighs on our hands like something dead. We shoot again and again and again; we grow comfortable in the absence of any response from the gun, and a little bored. Meanwhile, bullets tear through the target, the gestural, half-hearted man-or-woman shape at which we’re meant to shoot.  Rubber fragments fly; spent cartridges roll about our feet. 

We just shot an assault rifle, we think, because we have to think. Nothing in us feels it. It’s a particularly loud absence, like a sullen conversationalist, like mechanical sex. We might be felling a pixelated duck with a beam of light. We’ll read later that for many this is the AR-15’s appeal—ease and “comfort of shooting,” as with a smooth ride that fairly floats over rough terrain. 

As for us—well, we would like the Glock back, please. We load, steady ourselves, fire; we bleed some more. 

On the drive home, we seek out cracks in the blacktop, sweep into the ruts and dips of the Richmond strip. We choose to feel ourselves caroming through space, the risk of running off the road, the chance, however slim, of barreling into someone else.