Pistol packin' passion
By Mike Melanson, Enterprise correspondent
Kathy Hill won't hunt bears because she doesn't eat them. Lara Madison loves shooting pistols for the joy of watching things blow up. Gary Davis brings extra handguns and ammunition to Sunday morning fellowship sessions. Others compare their passion to church and baseball.
There are thousands of sportsmen and sportswomen like them who form the membership of local rod and gun clubs.
These gun owners say the uninitiated misunderstand their character-building passion for firearms and the role their clubs play as athletic and social institutions. They say they are responsible people who enjoy a good time in good company.
They are not recluses. Club officials say their membership forms the fabric of their communities.
The Samoset Rod & Gun Club in West Bridgewater is a crossroads where members from all walks of life gather, said Eldon Moreira, club chairman and a town selectman.
"It's a place where knowledge is exchanged. It's definitely a place where you can get the answers to probably most of your questions. Whether it's something that's happening in town, or something in the sports world, you'll usually get the answer," Moreira said.
Samoset offers a social venue in which club members make their own fun.
"It's like one big family here. Everyone gets along, and that's nice," said John Wallace, a member who hustles in the club's kitchen cooking pizzas for bustling Friday night crowds.
"I actually look forward to it," said Steve Leonard, another club kitchen volunteer.
Club member Donald Gillis said club members look out for one another.
"Being among good people is hard to find sometimes," he said.
But Samoset is foremost a sporting club, said Kathy Hill, the club's president.
"You can't just walk in off the street. You've got to have some sort of sportsman's background," Hill said. "You can't just come in and say, 'Oh, I want to join the club because it only costs two bucks for a beer,' or you can smoke cigarettes (inside)."
Hill said she wants to restore Samoset to its original role as a hunting and fishing club.
In October, in preparation of bird-hunting season, Samoset will release 160 pheasants the club has raised into West Bridgewater's wildlife management area, she said.
"This way, they have a couple of days to run free in the woods and get used to the woods, because they're hand-fed here. You don't want them walking up to the hunter, and saying, 'Hey, shoot me.' " she said.
Hill hunts pheasants, deer and she fishes too. But she does not hunt bears.
"I don't go bear hunting because I don't eat it. I'll only hunt what I'll eat," she said.
Others prefer another sort of chase: the perfect target-shooting score. The marks here may be inanimate, but the intensity gets the adrenaline pumping just the same.
Armed with a 9mm pistol, Lara Madison, 35, takes her place on the firing line at the Taunton Rifle & Pistol Club. Armored with headphones and goggles, she squeezes the trigger and punches holes through a torso-sized target 50 feet away.
The Bridgewater resident said she isn't afraid of anything in particular. She just likes firing guns for sport.
"It's fun. Things blow up. Pieces of paper get torn up. It's just fun. There's just something fun about shooting a gun," Madison said.
She picked up the hobby about a year ago after she joined Becoming an Outdoor Woman, a statewide program that offers courses and networking for women who like shooting, camping and archery.
Now, she looks forward to the Tuesday night competitive pistol shooting matches and practices.
"I hang out with people I normally wouldn't hang out with. It's just a totally different group of guys than I would meet at work, or through my family," Madison said.
Ben Dewhirst fired his first gun at age 6.
Now 23, the Taunton resident calls his childhood passion a "good male-bonding exercise" that has deepened his relationship with his father, Eric Dewhirst, the president of the Taunton club.
"When I was younger, it helped me focus a great deal. I made a lot of friends," Ben Dewhirst said.
"It's wholesome. It's non-violent," he said. "It's fun. It's something to do on a Tuesday night. It keeps me out of trouble."
Justin Kelly, 19, also enjoys rubbing shoulders with his dad, a teacher who did not want to be identified out of concern his public school colleagues would hold his hobby against him.
"It's relaxing. It gives you a lot of respect for firearms and what they can do," said Justin Kelly, a mechanical engineer student enrolled in Boston University's Naval ROTC program.
"You can get into the history of it," the Raynham resident said. "They (guns) really are a thing of beauty. ... They're collectibles as well as functional tools."
Regulars at Sunday morning "pepper-poppers" outdoor sessions at the Holbrook Sportsmen's Club say a passion for guns helps establish fellowship.
"Some people go to church. We shoot. It's the same type of get-together," said Gary Davis, secretary of Holbrook Sportsmen's Club. "To us, this is our sport. This is what we like to do."
In pepper-poppers, a player draws a pistol from a holster and squeezes off shots at a series of steel silhouette targets. The top gun is the one with the fastest time and best accuracy.
Newcomers need not be afraid because matches are safe and well-supervised, and experienced pepper-poppers are friendly and helpful, he said.
"Anyone can come in and try it out. I have extra ammunition, extra guns with me, just for somebody who's never tried it out and wants to," he said.
Trapshooting, with 12-gauge shotguns and catapulted clay pigeons, is another popular outdoor Sunday draw at the club, said Fred Marshall, an Amateur Trapshooting Association coordinator and club board member.
"It's an eye game," Marshall said. "You couldn't hit a baseball if you were looking away. You can't shoot a clay target if you're looking away. It's the same thing."
Guns are part of the fun, but alcohol is not, Marshall said.
"We don't have a bar. We don't have that type of scene up here," he said.
When not shooting, members fire up grills or watch football in the clubhouse, he said.
"We'll play a double-elimination game of cribbage, which is the exciting part of the afternoon. We wager a few pennies, no more than $2. That's the social aspect right there," Marshall said.
Davis said recreational shooting is no different from other games and sports.
"A gun is nothing but a tool to us to participate in the sport. It's like a hockey stick. You need a hockey stick to play hockey. You need a gun to shoot," he said.