Blasting for Bush

The Young Republicans were locked and loaded.

“I was hoping we would get a target shaped like a donkey!” said a pouty fellow named Stephen after surveying the day’s one target option: a black-and-white bull’s-eye photocopied onto an eight-by-11-inch sheet of paper.

“Yeah, one for Kerry, Edwards and Dean,” said a young stockbroker named Nathan as he mimed firing off several rounds.

Stephen and Nathan were taking part in the New York Young Republican Club’s first ever “Pistol Target Shooting Day” on Saturday, Feb. 7. The Young Republicans had arrived at the Riverdale Police Pistol Range in Riverdale, N.J., in a rented white van at 10:29 a.m., one minute ahead of schedule. Of the 26 Young Republicans who attended, 17 were women.

The range was a nondescript buff-colored structure nestled at the edge of a middle-class suburban street. On the bottom floor was a firing range, a concrete room strung with movable targets; on the top, a white-walled classroom, where the Young Republicans gathered first for introductions and instruction.

For $50, members would be treated to a crash course in gun safety, ammunition and basic marksmanship, capped by nearly three hours of pistol fun-something they couldn’t do in New York City, where pistol-shooting is prohibited without a license. The idea was to create an outing that was part social mixer, part sporting event and part political consciousness-raising. But the reality was closer to Great Adventure meets The O’Reilly Factor .

“I’m here so that, when I do go out shooting with family, friends or the boyfriend, I don’t embarrass myself,” said a bob-haired brunette named Jennifer.

“Shooting a gun is very empowering, like driving for the first time or being able to conquer something,” said Nathan the stockbroker. “It is something that could potentially do a great deal of harm and damage, and you are master of it. It’s also just really cool.”

“Sport shooting is much better than golf, which is a horrible and torturous game,” said Young Republican Club vice president Kimberly Morella, who sported a Beretta-shaped pin above her heart. “It doesn’t require a lot of tedious skill, so there’s a lot more instant gratification.”

Before the Young Republicans could get their instant gratification, however, they had to sit through a “Pistols 101” lecture by Andrew Massimilian, an National Rifle Association–certified gun-safety instructor. Mr. Massimilian, who looks remarkably like Max Headroom but with darker locks, is the founder and owner of Manhattan Shooting Excursions, which offers an “entertainment experience” for gun-curious New Yorkers. Until recently, he worked as a financial consultant at Price Waterhouse Coopers; he said he is about to take M.S.E. full-time.

“I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine,” he said, lifting a silver revolver from a mustard-colored briefcase. The gun was elegant, the kind of archetypal revolver that Jesse James might have used. The class edged forward.

“The most important part of this game is mental,” Mr. Massimilian later told the class as he offered up tips on marksmanship (proper way to grip a gun: “like a firm handshake”). “Breathing control is very important,” he said. “You have to be one with the gun, so to speak.”

Being “one with the gun” proved remarkably easy for many of the Young Republicans. They came off the range smelling of gunpowder and smiling like kids who had just stepped off Space Mountain. They wanted to go again and again.

“I love it,” said Ronnie Grauman, 30, after taking her fifth turn with a .22-caliber pistol. “I have actually been wanting to go shooting for a while, so when I heard about this, I said, ‘Yeah!'”

Ms. Grauman works with guns every day of her life, but usually she’s regulating them, not firing them: she’s an inspector for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the government agency that keeps watch over the gun industry, making sure that manufacturers, distributors and owners are in compliance with federal law. The A.T.F. is widely reviled by firearms aficionados; but as Ms. Grauman sat in the basement of the pistol range, smiling over a stack of bullet-pocked target sheets, she didn’t seem like the enemy.

“I love my job, but I mean, I’m also here at this Young Republican event,” Ms. Grauman said. “I don’t really have a position. My job is just to enforce the laws that are in place. If someone knows how to handle a gun safely, I see no problem with everyone having a gun, as long as they’re acquiring it legally and using it safely. But I can usually see both sides of the issue, so I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.”

Not so for many of the other Young Republicans, who seemed to spend an awful lot of time thinking, or at least talking, about gun control. Just the mention of the words “gun control” brought sighs of frustration and sneers of disgust. The phrase “guns don’t kill people, people do” echoed like pistol pops throughout the day.

“If you really want to kill someone, there are a lot of different ways you can do it,” said Amy Heath, an actress turned TV producer and shooting instructor. “It’s not doing anything to deter the crime by having more gun laws.”

Ms. Heath, who sits on the Sports Shooting Committee for the N.R.A. and founded the New York’s Women’s Shooting Sports League, began shooting when she was 14. Her grandfather, Jeff Cooper, is an outspoken leader of the gun movement.

“The consensus is that no more than five to 10 people in a hundred who die by gunfire in Los Angeles are any loss to society,” wrote Mr. Cooper in a 1991 column in Guns and Ammo . “These people fight small wars amongst themselves. It would seem a valid social service to keep them well-supplied with ammunition.”

Ms. Heath, 33, speaks in subtler terms, but she doesn’t shy away from strong opinions, either. “Gun violence can be dramatic,” she said, “but it’s not necessarily the truth. I’ve been a gun owner all my life, and I’ve never seen a crime committed with a firearm. I just don’t think it exists as much as people say it does.”

To hammer this point home, Mr. Massimilian handed out a fact sheet at the end of the day filled with firearm statistics and trivia: “Every signatory to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution owned firearms.” He also offered a pack of Second Amendment “Hall of Shame” playing cards, which featured the smiling mugs of 52 “enemies” of the right to bear arms. The ace of clubs was New York Senator Charles Schumer. Al Gore was the ace of spades. Filmmaker Michael Moore was the joker.

As the day wound down, the A.T.F. inspector, Ronnie Grauman, won an “Annie Oakley shooting contest.” When Mr. Massimilian asked to take her picture, she smiled proudly and flashed her winning target sheet in her left hand, her A.T.F. badge in her right.

-Lizzy Ratner

Nicol vs. Power, Take 36

If you’re reading this on Wednesday, Feb. 25, and you’re not busy at 6:30 p.m., get yourself over to Grand Central Terminal and check out the latest installment of the greatest unknown rivalry in sports. It may or may not have been obvious, depending on whether you were rushing to catch a train or cross the picket line at the Oyster Bar, but the world’s best professional squash players have been smacking a small white ball around a glass box for the past week in the Bear Stearns Tournament of Champions.

Tonight, the show takes on new meaning. It’s just a semifinal, but so what? It’s the match the tournament’s fans-made up largely of the city’s financial class, Wall Streeters who played squash in prep school or college-will be packing Grand Central to watch: Canadian Jonathon Power and Englishman Peter Nicol will duke it out in their 36th meeting. Currently, Nicol leads-18 wins to Power’s 17 (although in their T.O.C. meetings, Power holds a 3-to-1 edge).

This year, the match has special significance because there’s a changing of the guard underway in pro squash. Half a dozen young pros have burst onto the scene, while Power has endured a spate of injuries, dealing a blow to his efforts to promote North American squash at a time when the game is dominated by Aussies, Egyptians and the English. Nicol-the defending champion, whose fitness has always been his biggest weapon-has been complaining of exhaustion in recent weeks. At 30 and 29, respectively, Nicol and Power have reached the age when professional squash becomes a grind.

Still, both guys have decisively raised their games since the tournament began on Feb. 19. The left-handed Nicol has looked as methodical as ever, dispensing opponents in the same way that 1970’s tennis great Björn Borg used to, by getting to every single ball and wearing younger pros down with tenacity and precision. Power-who, given his appetite for racquet-flinging and the berating of referees, has been compared to John McEnroe-is clearly not in top form, but he nevertheless gutted out a five-game quarterfinal victory over the No. 1 seed, Thierry Lincou of France.

Tonight, Nicol will grit his teeth and chase down everything Power throws at him. Power, sporting his who-gives-a-shit-I’m-brilliant-I-just got-out-bed look, complete with soiled dirty blond tresses, will hit every shot in his dismaying repertoire. He will play sexy, flamboyant, emotionally tormented genius squash. The more compact Nicol will counter with an implacable Anglo defense. With neither guy in top physical form-with neither able to dictate the pace-the match could easily go the limit.

Who will the fans root for? Power always tries to get the audience behind him. His operatic anguish is palpable, and it’s worth the price of admission-or simply the effort to stand around for free at the back of the court-to hear him bitch at the referee in his Canadian accent. All this will wash over Nicol, whose ability to focus is legendary. He’s a player who specializes in reducing defiant 20-year-olds to quivering puddles.

This is undoubtedly the finest theater the T.O.C. fans will see all year. After tonight’s match, of course, the tournament’s final will be somewhat anticlimactic. Nicol vs. Power, Take 36, could also very well be the swan song for their rivalry, the final meeting of two guys who tear each other to pieces in a court the size of a studio apartment.

-Matthew DeBord

Movie Review: The Passion of the Christ

A tad long.

-God

Blasting for Bush