It started on Facebook, when my cousin tagged her husband in an ad featuring a coyly smiling couple standing back to back. Both of them were holding guns (the classic spy film pose) and the ad read "A Date on the Shooting Range." Along the bottom paraded a row of hearts formed from shotgun shells. While that particular graphic was advertising a range in Wyoming, it got the wheels in my mind turning toward Boise, where they always eventually come to rest. With Idaho's strong pro-gun culture, demonstrated Sept. 8 by a Second Amendment Alliance rally at the State Capitol, gun ranges as date-night destinations seemed not only possible, but likely.
- Sarah Radocha
Fast-forward four months, and I stood on an empty tract of land outside Boise city limits with dust swirling around my Nikes and a black AR-15—perhaps the most controversial gun in America today—snugged against my cheek. Under the instruction of retired police officer and NRA-certified instructor Mike Hassoldt, I slid my right foot back slightly, bent my knees and leaned forward, training the gun's red dot sight on the center mass of a paper target roughly 25 yards away. When I flicked the safety selector to fire and squeezed the trigger, there was much more sound than kick, and the 5.56 nato round vanished in the muffled-but-still-raucous detonation. It was impossible to know if I'd hit the target—at least to my amateur eye.
"You definitely hit something," Hassoldt said, a smile twitching his beard.
That was the first day I'd ever shot a gun, and though the AR-15 wasn't the first I tried (both a Smith & Wesson M&P 2.0 pistol and a Smith & Wesson 686 revolver preceded it under Hassoldt's watchful eye, my ears still ringing with his safety briefing), it was the biggest. Hefting, aiming and shooting it was part of an attempt to get in the cultural trenches and try to understand what might attract couples to Idaho's gun ranges, whether indoors or out. While I mulled over my own conclusion, and the question of whether I'd ever be tempted to make a return trip down Pleasant Valley Road to go shooting with my own boyfriend, I sought some more expert opinions.
Ryan Later, the general manager of Independence Indoor Shooting Range in Meridian, arrived at his answer after nearly a decade in the industry, and shared it with me in his office two days after my evening on the desert range.
"Shooting in itself presents challenges. There's also a little bit of excitement, an adrenaline feeling to shooting a firearm sometimes," Later said. "... It checks a lot of boxes for fun and entertainment as well as sport, and there's a whole other athletic element to it. There's a whole area of competitive shooting that people can get into, so I think that's a big part of the attraction that makes it potentially fun for dating."
He added that despite the common perception of ranges as "guy shops," women shooters make up one of the fastest-growing segments in the industry—and many seem to start out on dates.
"We see a lot of couples come in Friday night, kind of early Friday, before or after mealtime," Later said. "It's fun to see a lot of couples come in and [the man] will introduce [his] female companion to shooting a gun for the first time." In fact, Later said that's how his own wife started shooting.
- Lex Nelson
Independence has 21 indoor shooting lanes clustered on three different ranges, one of them the only 100-yard shooting range in the Northwest. The ranges are bunker-like, and Later and I donned safety glasses and noise-cancelling headphones at a station near the rental desk before ducking into their section of the facility; a necessity, as I'd been able to hear the shots discharge from the parking lot, even through the building's thick walls. Before I pulled my headphones on, Later gestured to a wooden rack of paper targets to choose from nearby, which were brightly colored and patterned.
"We try to keep things kind of fun," he said. "We mix up our targets all the time—we have skee-ball targets and mashed potato targets where you shoot a potato, tic-tac-toe, Battleship, things like that, so we can kind of create that gaming environment when you shoot on the range."
On my way to the range door, I caught sight of one target bearing a cartoon zombie in a red t-shirt, a crosshairs placed dead center between its bulging eyes.
At 11:30 a.m. on a Friday, it was a little early for daters: The ranges Later and I peered into were sparsely populated by bearded men, though one woman wearing bright pink headphones shot me a smile. Clearly, I'd have to look elsewhere for other perspectives on what drew folks to ranges for romance—and who better to ask than someone who'd been sharing the range, if infrequently, with his girlfriend for years?
Mark Long, a 30-year-old gun enthusiast and the producer of Independence Shooting Range's weekly podcast, Range Minded, fit the bill, and based his answer more on logic than emotion. He and his girlfriend, 25-year-old Connor Massey, are transplants from Illinois, where Long first took Massey shooting at an indoor range. He said that for him, shooting together was a way to introduce her to his hobby, while also serving as an informal test of character.
- Lex Nelson
"You know, if [your date isn't] being necessarily safe on the range, it kind of shows you how respectful they are," Long said. "Because obviously with firearms, first and foremost, all the time every time, is safety. You can see how seriously somebody takes that, and it really shows you their maturity level and how much respect they have for things like that, which can be indicative for other things."
Since moving to Idaho, Long and Massey have gone shooting together a handful of times, each time on BLM land outside of the city. Long is a regular at Independence, but he said Massey opts not to join him. Though she had fun on her first range trip, even out-shooting him—"I think that was the part that she really enjoyed," he joked—the practice didn't become a joint hobby, an outcome Later frequently sees at Independence. Instead, it's something they do occasionally with friends, and Massey likened it to the affectionate tolerance of any other hobby: Even if a woman doesn't share her boyfriend's interest in cars, for example, she'll often still go to a car show to support him. It can be the same way on the range.
Katie Williams, the voice behind the Boise-based blog The Traveling Spud, was more enthusiastic. She went on her first and only date to a gun range nine years ago, when she was 21, but the sense of excitement and adventure she found there is still on her mind. In fact, it made a strong enough impression that the venture ended up on her "17 Best Summer Date Ideas in Boise, Idaho" list, the blog post that helped me find her.
"I had never shot a gun before in my life," she said. "... I didn't know what I was doing."
Williams and her date were in and out of the range in 45 minutes, and though she couldn't remember its name, she clearly recalled the feeling of shooting her first rifle.
"I'd always had that kind of on my bucket list, to learn how to shoot a gun. And the fact that I got to do it and had someone actually show me—because I don't think I would ever go out to a gun range with my girlfriends—it was a unique experience in that way," she said, adding, "It was competitive against the partner I was with I think, so it brought out a little spark in me to hit the target. Which was fun, [there was] kind of a little competitive flirting, you could say."
Williams plans to do a take-two on the date eventually, though this time she'll opt for shooting outdoors, with a different partner.
- Sarah Radocha
Finishing up on the dusty range and helping Hassoldt pack away his equipment, I came to a conclusion close to Williams'. I'd be lying if I said I thought shooting an AR-15 was sexy—but I'd also be lying if I said it wasn't fun. Attempting to hit the target had kickstarted my competitive side, and it was easy to imagine a friendly rivalry arising on a date, each of us attempting, as Long and Massey had, to outdo the other with well-placed shots. The thrill of pulling a trigger didn't take precedent, a fact underscored by something Long said later while reflecting on the reception of his hobby in Idaho:
"It's a lot more a sport, really, than anything else. People go out to BLM land or wherever, and are making mile-long shots or 1,000-yard shots ... People view guns as more than just weapons for self defense or killing or anything like that around here. I think there's a lot more [emphasis on] recreation and utilitarianism."
I fell firmly into that lot, and had a Swiss-cheese target in the pickup bed behind me to prove it.