Photo - Max Stainkamph

Guns n’ more guns

by Max Stainkamph | @maxstainkamph

It’s not an easy place to find. The sign is like any other on the highway from Shepparton to Benalla. It’s old, a bit rusty and that pale, faded off-white that just belongs in the country.

You hear the popping as you wind your way to the clubhouse. It’s a strange cross between throwing loose bits of gravel onto a corrugated iron roof and popcorn in the microwave. You can hear it from the road. As I turn in, a massive BOOM is let off.

I instinctively duck behind the wheel, and hit the brakes. I pause, breathing. I then realised the popping was rifle fire. The boom was something much bigger.

What have I got myself into? I ask myself as I drive up to the Shepparton branch of the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia (SSAA).

It’s not easy to get your hands on a gun in Victoria. To buy yourself one, you need a Gun License, and a License to Acquire a firearm – which is different for different types of guns.

If you want to try outside of this, you need to be at a registered gun club, like I am, or on private property.

All in all, it takes most people a few months to actually go from deciding they want a gun to getting one.

A gun license is difficult. There is a lot of mucking around with ensuring you have “genuine reasons” for wanting a gun, which range from sporting,  to hunting to commercial.

These ‘reasons’ are thoroughly checked out, crossing with gun clubs and the type of license you are applying for. You need a medical test, fingerprints, an identification reference, attendance at a safety course and that weird 100-point ID system Victoria has.

28 days of twiddling your thumbs later, and your licence arrives.

To describe a License to Acquire is difficult. Basically, it needs a whole bunch of information from what sort of gun you’re after, a whole swathe of personal details and more complex details if you’re a collector or getting higher category guns.

Another 28 days pass, and your permit arrives.

All in all, it takes most people a few months to actually go from deciding they want a gun to getting one. Once you’ve got it, you need to store it in a safe, and ammunition in a separate safe. You need to have the keys to both safes on you at all times.

Photo - Max Stainkamph
Photo – Max Stainkamph

None of this is incredibly difficult to do, Shepparton SSAA range officer Andrew Gibb tells me. It’s just slightly irritating and very time consuming.

He also speaks about how safe shooting is. I nearly laugh at what appears to be an oxymoron, but he shows me.

“It’s not too hard, but I think [the restrictions] are like that for a reason,” he tells me. Andrew lives in town, and hasn’t had a gun license long. He says the change in the laws “definitely got rid of the rednecks and jokers from the sport.”

He also speaks about how safe shooting is. I nearly laugh at what appears to be an oxymoron, but he shows me. The range is sort of like a golf driving range.  You aim your gun through a hoop which restrict its movement.

No-one loads their gun until it is in position, and then they shoot out into the range. After a while, the Range Officer takes out a big flag, hangs it up and declares the range closed. Then everyone heads out to have a look at how they did. They return, have a moment to ensure everyone is accounted for, and continue shooting.

Photo - Max Stainkamph
Photo – Max Stainkamph

Andrew doesn’t see a huge amount of appeal in hunting, although he has gone out – without luck – once or twice. He introduces me to Mal, who has done a lot of hunting in his native state of Tasmania, his new home of Victoria and big game hunting overseas. “I eat all I kill,” Mal says.

“I don’t believe in waste. I don’t like to shoot things I don’t eat.” He has wallabies in the freezer at home from his last trip to Tassie, and he tells me similarly to home-grown vegetables, the meat you’ve taken yourself tastes better than out of a butcher.

Andrew disagrees, saying he doesn’t like killing things for the sake of killing them, even for meat, but nearly all the game shot in Australia aren’t native. The only natives that do get shot are kangaroos, which can considered to be pests too.

“If a mob of roos come through it’ll ruin your crop,” Mal says. “They’ve just got to be taken care of sometimes.”

I want to ask him about the suffering animals go through when being shot, and if he thinks about when eating game, but pause. It seems like a stupid question. Do I think about the meat I eat and how it died?

John Howard is revered for two things by our generation: DJing like a mad cunt, and ridding Australia of guns.

I have more on my conscience. I don’t know if the animal I ate died well, or if it spent its life in a tiny paddock before being bustled into a crowded truck and then a blood-soaked abattoir. But, I don’t think about that. Mal’s wallabies were in their habitat, wild and carefree but not for those final seconds.

Young Australians have a peculiar relationship with guns – especially young city folk. We’re terrified of them. I’d never seen a gun held by someone who wasn’t a police officer or in the armed forces before. Most friends I’ve spoken to are the same.

During my time at the Shepparton SSAA, I continue flinching as some of the bigger rifles go off. It’s instinctive and I can’t help it. The sounds of unexpected gunshots are a sound of terror, projected through the scariest bits of the nightly news.

Every time anyone suggests loosening gun laws, like David Leyonhjelm – the Liberal Democrats Senator from NSW did in the wake of the Sydney siege – they get slammed.

John Howard is revered for two things by our generation: DJing like a mad cunt, and ridding Australia of guns.

We don’t shake our heads at America’s inability to rid itself of guns, but their lack of any basic controls over who can buy one.

A climate of fear has been built around guns as Australians decided they didn’t want them in their society. Any step in America’s direction in terms of gun control is now almost un-Australian.

Photo - Max Stainkamph
Photo – Max Stainkamph

In the country, it’s different. It’s just a culture thing. People don’t think about it. On the range, I meet a sixteen year-old. He has one of those big-arse BOOM guns. I ask him what got him into shooting, expecting him to point to his father behind him.

“All my friends are doing it,” he says. “I’ve been hunting for rabbits and foxes, but I’ve upgraded to a deer rifle.” He gestures to the one in his arms, “today’s the first time I’ve shot it.”

Guns are like the estranged lovechild of a chainsaw and a cricket bat. On one hand, they’re tools. They get used only on very specific occasions, for very specific jobs, and take care when using them.

But they also have a sporting edge; there is an art in what sort of gun you have and what it is for. A bolt rifle might be for clay targets at 100 yards, a bigger rifle for shooting 500 yards or more. But they’re spoken about in the same way cricketers speak about their bats.

It’s the first time the phrase “it’s not the gun, but the person behind the gun” has sounded rational.

And that was the thing that really stood out. I’m not entirely sure what I expected – but it certainly wasn’t to find an ordinary sporting club.

Guns are like the estranged lovechild of a chainsaw and a cricket bat.

They show me how the guns work, talk me through what ammunition is what, what different guns are used for, and give me a shot. I start off with a small bolt-action rifle, one of the ones making the popcorn noise as I arrived.

I shoot clay targets sitting on a mount. Once I figure out I’m a left-hand shooter, I find it more relaxing than archery or golf. You sit there, move the rifle a bit, take a shot and watch the clay target explode into a puff of clay on the odd occasion you hit.

Later in the day, when only Andrew and Brent, another range officer, are still around, Andrew pulls out a big gun, the sort of one that had me ducking for cover as I entered. It makes the one I used seem like a pea shooter.

He offers to let me try it. I line it up, bracing it on my shoulder.The gun I used before didn’t have kickback, but this one definitely did. It was like getting punched. The pile of dust kicked up – a mile from what I was aiming at – is huge.

My heart races and my ears ring. I decide to call it a day. The road is silent as I drive out. It’s the warm, faded sort of silence that just belongs in the country.

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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