East County has always been a strange, foreign planet to me. It's sort of like the basement baby of San Diego, or the weird child that parents hide whenever people they want to impress come over for dinner.
"Where's your other daughter?"
"She's at a camp for, um, sword-fishing. Look! Dessert!"
We dazzle tourists with our beautiful, well-adjusted beaches and frolicking zoo animals, but when they point east toward the mountains and ask, "Now, what's that over there?" we block their view with an unnervingly happy face. "Oh, that's just East County. Nothing to see there. Look! A panda!" And East County descends back into the basement.
I'm a San Diego native, yet the area is a mystery to me. I grew up in the South Bay and Tijuana, which have their own weirdness. Whenever I tell a story about the things I got up to as a kid in TJ, I get a look that says, "How do you still have both your arms?" I get that from most people, except anyone from East County. They've seen some shit. School shootings. Racism. The Unarius Academy, where you can contact "space brothers" through group meditation.
It's not like I've never been to East County. I've just never been to "East County," the mythological place that's become notorious through ridicule. So, my friends Justin and Ramon, my boyfriend Brian and I went to explore an activity that is quintessentially East County. We knew we'd crossed the invisible threshold when a huge billboard announced the upcoming appearance of Jeff Foxworthy at Sycuan Casino. No one here cares about freeing Pussy Riot.
We drove for what felt like 20 hours before arriving at P2K Shooting Range in El Cajon, a place that looks from the outside like where bin Laden was trained. Guns are a touchy subject at the moment. The Aurora shooting, the Sikh-temple shooting and other incidents have people talking about gun control again. Every day, someone who has no business owning a gun shoots someone else.
"No one here is going to do anything like that," assured a manager, a large man with a shaved head. "There aren't any crazies here—just behind the counter. I'm kidding."
Another manager assured me that the only scary thing is the constant blasting of gunshots. Every few seconds, I practically jumped out of my skin as a gun went off. Still, there were kids no older than 12 holding guns. I'm not a praying woman, but I was willing the Virgin Mary to beam me down a bullet-proof vest.
We had to read a manual and take a short true-or-false test before being allowed to shoot. Apparently, these gun-toting kids who haven't sprouted pit hair yet passed the exam, so it's safe to say we're not dealing with the LSATs here. When a tough-looking young woman named Crystal asked which guns we wanted, we stared blankly, as though she'd asked us which baby we'd prefer to deliver. How should we know? The only thing I've ever shot was an 8-bit duck during a heated run of the classic Nintendo game Duck Hunt. She made some recommendations, and we went with a 9-mm Glock Model 17 and a Smith and Wesson Model 617. Even as I type that, it makes no sense.
In the shooting gallery, there was a teenage boy shooting a huge semi-automatic weapon while a scrawny blond boy looked on, holding a hunting rifle. A man was firing off blast after blast of some insane-looking gun the likes of which I've seen only in the recent Batman movies. At any point, they could've turned around and started shooting up the place and we'd all be goners. It's a realization that lingers like an odd smell: I could be shot dead by a kid who doesn't reach as high as my nipples.
Once I managed to stop being so squirmy, Ramon handed me the Smith & Wesson revolver. It looked and felt like a prop from an old movie where some gruff detective puts a hole in a gangster's chest to save a troubled dame. I pointed the gun at the man on the paper target, put my finger on the trigger and kept my eyes wide open. It went off with a small pop—kind of anticlimactic after hearing those bone-rattling blasts. I tried the Glock and was told that under no circumstance should I cock it to the side like Ice Cube in Boyz in tha Hood despite all inclinations to do so. That one blew me back as I let it off. That one assured me this was no joke.
Holding a gun felt foreign. I didn't like it. According to my target sheet, if an intruder were to enter my home and I were packing heat, their shoulder and the area two inches away from their head would be experiencing major pain. The guys seemed to handle it better—if the man on their paper target were real, he'd be shopping for an urn right now. I'll try to remember that the next time I consider teasing them.
When we left, I went all Psych 101 on them and asked what they thought, how they felt.
Justin said his vast experience with video games was helpful, but, for him, shooting a gun was odd.
Brian agreed: "It's just weird going into a room with strangers and shooting guns. They're a dangerous weapon, you know. I kind of focused on that more than having fun. I guess I'm just not comfortable in that setting."
Ramon, meanwhile, shared this interesting bit: "When I asked the guy helping us if the safety was on, he held up his trigger finger and said, This is your safety.'" This is how East County lives. You don't need a safety; you are the safety. Perhaps this is why it has a bad reputation, and why a day out there is unlike a day anywhere else.