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Learning to shoot gun not terrifying after all

By EMILY NIPPS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002

Each week this summer, staff writer Emily Nipps will attempt an off-beat sport or attend a unique event.

* * *

A sign at the front desk said, "Complaint Department -- Take a number." Attached to the "number" was a hand grenade.

Ah, weapons humor.

Running the Thonotosassa indoor pistol range is perhaps the happiest gun owner in the Tampa Bay area, Ken Zeller, and his dog, John Henry.

Zeller, a tall man with Santa Claus whiskers and a thunderous laugh, says shooting a gun is no different than shooting a basketball. Fundamentals are key.

"Practice, practice, practice," Zeller chanted as he gave me my first lesson. "You'll always come back to what you practiced."

But even the most skilled professional is prone to mistakes. This is why guns scared me, and this is why I shook when I picked up a loaded gun the first time.

Last month, a Citrus County man accidentally shot himself in the side (and survived) during target practice. The gun apparently slipped because his hand was sweaty.

Also in June, a man shot himself in the head at Dale Mabry Highway's Shooting Sports while about 10 people stood nearby.

But somehow I felt safe under the watch of Zeller and John Henry.

There are three fundamental rules of gun safety. 1) Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. 2) Keep your finger off the trigger until you're ready to shoot. 3) Keep the gun unloaded until you're ready to use it.

Rule No.2 was the hardest to remember. It seemed natural to hold the trigger when the gun was in my hand. Zeller gave me a .22 revolver for my first target practice and had to remind me a few times to keep it pointed away and take my finger off the trigger.

For target practice, I wore big, plastic glasses to keep gunpowder out of my eyes and headphones to muffle the sound. The cool, dark range had carpeted walls, which separated it into little stations.

After practicing with an empty chamber, Zeller demonstrated how to load the gun. He handed it over and pointed me toward a target about 9 feet away.

I'm not sure exactly what I expected, but the anticipation was more terrifying than the result.

I gripped the revolver with a shaking right hand and steadied my aim with a shaking left.

Would the blast throw me across the room? Would the shot blow my eardrums out? Would I drop the gun? Sprain my shoulder? Have a heart attack?

I pulled the trigger, and felt a pop.

"Wonderful!" Zeller shrieked, startling me more than the gunshot.

This was all there was to it? I could have done this all day. I fired the rest of the bullets in the chamber and happily reloaded for my next target.

Zeller adjusted the 10-inch target from 9 feet to 12, then 16, then 21. Each time, I got a little better, never missing the target.

I was either a natural, or shooting a gun is surprisingly simple. I'm guessing the latter is more accurate.

When my box of 50 bullets ran out, my lesson was complete. I washed the black powder off my hands while Zeller filled out my basic pistol course certificate. He also gave me a packet with applications for a concealed weapon license.

Zeller bought his first gun, a rifle, at a pawn shop when he was 14 and carried it home on his bike.

It was the only gun he owned when he opened the shop six years ago. Before that, he was a maintenance supervisor for the Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department.

He loved maintaining public parks, so when he decided to quit his job with the county, he did the only thing that seemed natural.

"I decided to maintain my own playground," Zeller said.

Zeller, an NRA Certified Instructor, offers free coaching instruction to anyone.

"That's in case anyone comes in to rob me," Zeller said. "I want people around me (who) know what they're doing."

And everyone should, he said. After all, "this is America."

-- Emily Nipps can be reached at (813) 226-3368.

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