I’m not going to lie – I did feel uneasy at the sight of so many white people strapped with guns of all shapes and sizes.
It’s a chilly 6am start at the Cecil Payne Shooting Range in Florida, western Johannesburg, where Gun Owners of SA invited City Press to a woman-only gun event last Saturday.
The range doesn’t look that different from a paintball arena, except that the guns used here will do more than leave your shirt splattered with different colours.
Everybody gets a pair of ear plugs and safety goggles.
“Keep your eyes and ears open at all times,” warns Lynette Oxley, the mastermind behind the Girls on Fire initiative.
All the regular shooters have fancy electric headsets that block out sound. It’s very James Bond.
Organiser Tim Flack can draw his pistol and get a headshot in eight seconds, or so he says.
He doesn’t look like he can, though, which is what he says is the case with most gun owners.
About 3 million South Africans have licensed guns.
Safety cards are issued to everyone on the range as Alicia Keys’ track Girl on Fire rings out.
Sharon Barnard of the Johannesburg Metro Police Department was the safety officer on the day.
“You can have the best skill, but if you’re not mentally prepared to deal with things, the firearm won’t help. Once you take the gun out, you must know exactly what you plan to do with it,” she says, urging women to give shooting a try.
“We want to empower women. Don’t sit in the corner feeling sorry for yourself. Earlier, a few of the girls were scared to shoot the 50 calibre rifle and I told them this was the perfect time to do it – to take something that seems big and you do it. It becomes smaller and it’s empowering.”
An ambulance is also on standby.
Glancing around the range, we see a Spar Northwood sponsorship sign. So, heads-up: it would probably be best not to try to run up on that particular Spar if you are of the stick-it-up kind.
In fact, running up on any of these people would be a bad move – some of the sisters looked ready for war.
Towards the lower part of the range, two 50 calibre rifles are being set up for the women to take shots at some targets.
This gun is huge: Rambo-sized weaponry that Flack says can remove a limb from up to 4km away. It can even blast through cinder blocks.
“Shooting is not for everyone, but it can be very enjoyable when you’re into it. Within three days, 150 women from different backgrounds booked for this event,” Flack says.
All of the women who signed up to this friendly shooting contest wore orange and black shirts that read “I’m every woman #victim no longer”, referencing the lyrics to Chaka Khan’s 1978 hit.
As the women prepare to fire the 50 calibre rifle, safety officer Bianca Bell instructs all doting dads and hovering husbands to leave the women alone as they set about busting more than a few caps.
The range is hot
The women were told not to go gently with the 50 calibre. Most of the sisters hit the target easily, then they move to the next station, where they fire at a target 100m away.
Shots reverberate around the range as the heat rains down on metal and wooden targets. Bullets burst out of an array of guns, from hand pistols to the massive Browning machine guns.
The first round from the Browning is shattering. For real. You have to be around it to fully comprehend the might of this machine.
The noise shakes the ground and unsettles the dust.
You don’t know what loud is until you hear this. Everybody grins, and some women raise their fists in the air.
“The range is hot!” shouts one.
A group of black women is having a great time. Tshepi Mmekwa is an avid shooter and seems to relish her time on the range.
“I’ve been shooting since 2013. I just wanted to try something different. A friend of mine was doing this and they invited me to the range,” she says.
She pauses and chuckles.
“From the first time, it took my breath away and I haven’t stopped since. Some people swim and do stuff like that, this is what I love.”
Does having this much shooting experience make her feel safer?
“Yes. I’m able to use one even if I don’t have one in my possession,” she says.
Her friend, Khabo Mathope, says: “I’m a novice, but it feels so amazing. I’m a little indifferent when it comes to guns. They fascinate me, but I wouldn’t say I’m a shooter – just gun curious.”
Mmekwa reflects on what learning to shoot has taught her: “Besides the skill of being able to shoot a gun accurately, I’ve learnt quite a bit about the various laws around guns. But, most importantly, shooting has taught me that sometimes it’s just best to walk away.”
There is something surreal about watching women squeeze the triggers of pistols. It seems like the movies, or perhaps the guns are not real.
Hold it like you’re holding a woman
I was invited to shoot after the women were done. My Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty experience came in handy.
Your reporter and photographer, as it turns out, have the makings of a sniper pair.
“Hold it like a woman and breathe,” said the instructor.
Channelling Jamie Foxx in Jarhead, I breathed out and hit the target four times with the silenced Browning machine gun.
I felt like I was high.
In the moments before and after you squeeze the trigger, everyone on the range vanishes and the target looms.
Guns may be a deadly scourge in crime-ridden South Africa, but most of the gun users and owners we spoke to assured us that people don’t lose their minds simply because they have guns.
Most were adamant that it was all about sport, and the thrill of ticking shots off with an AK-47 and smelling the gunpowder wafting in the air.