I jump out of my skin, but my instructor Cliff doesn't even flinch. As he resumes his explanation of how to aim and fire the Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine gun, I'm bracing myself for the next one. The shooter is mere feet away, separated from us by a handful of metal partitions that are barely wider than Cliff's polo-shirted shoulders.


I jump again. My heart's pounding but I'm doing my very best to concentrate. Cliff deftly loads the 9mm magazine, just like they do in the movies, and explains that when I switch from semi-automatic to fully automatic, I should aim for my target's heart, rather than its head.

I nod my head, before sheepishly adding: “I'm a bit scared of the noise”.


Needless to say, Cliff isn't scared. He doesn't even flinch. He later tells me he first fired a gun aged five, and signed up for the military aged 18, so it's safe to assume he's heard plenty of loud bangs in his time. He's still young – mid-thirties at most – and I wonder what chain of events led him to this machine gun range in Miami, Florida.

Catriona Stewart: Incel culture can only be tackled by reassessing masculinity

The facility – called Lock and Load – might not be quite what you're picturing. Most shooting ranges in the United States serve gun-owning clients, who bring their own weapons and are required either to know what to do with them, or to learn properly. These generally aren't places where the customers are encouraged to clown around taking selfies. By contrast, Lock and Load is marketed as a tourist attraction, where just about anyone can fire the kind of fully automatic weapons that are usually reserved for police officers and soldiers. No questions were asked about my firearms experience before I signed up to fire 75 bullets from three different guns, and my UK driving licence sufficed as ID. Had I brought children aged 10 and over with me, they could have joined in too.

A visit to Lock and Load is an “experience” rather than a serious target practice session, although according to the New York Times it's also become a popular lunch-break destination for those working in the nearby financial district. If that is conjuring up an image of sharp-suited executives blowing off steam, the vibe of the surrounding area could not be more of a contrast.

Think of Finnieston in Glasgow or Leith in Edinburgh and you're getting close to the vibe of Wynwood, which over the past few years has undergone an impressive transformation from gritty industrial area to bona fide tourist draw with a TripAdvisor certificate of excellence to prove it. The big draw is Wynwood Walls – a free outdoor museum of international street art – but eye-popping graffiti also adorns walls, sheds, fences, parking lots and abandoned warehouses across dozens of blocks squared.

Thanks to a public art project, the walls of Eneida Hartner Elementary School is no exception, with vibrant murals on the playground, including one of a monochrome janitor sweeping away colourful graffiti tags. There are limits to freedom of expression here, of course – the Black Panther-style raised fist that's been added to a striking image of a young black girl has been daubed over with white paint, leaving just the stump of a forearm.

Catriona Stewart: Incel culture can only be tackled by reassessing masculinity

Just a few years ago this was an area where only the bravest or most foolish would walk around after dark. Now, thanks to gentrification, it's a mecca for tourists and hipsters (and hipster-tourists) where you can find everything from to craft ice-cream and artisan ice pops to Japanese/Latin fusion green tea and gourmet mac 'n' cheese. The sprawling Wynwood Yard is now a street food and entertainment destination in the same vein as Glasgow's Big Feed and Dockyard Social or Edinburgh's The Pitt.

This is a community that has passionately resisted moves by retail giant Wal-Mart to gain a local foothold, with a petition declaring that “the standard bearer of international corporate power and conformity just doesn’t fit the image that so many have worked to create for Midtown and the Wynwood Arts District.” But while there was some initial local resistance on similar grounds to the plans for Lock and Load, it appears hearts and minds have been changed and the 14,000-square-foot centre – whose walls are adorned by a cutesy logo of a gun-toting panda logo – has been accepted. A little bafflingly, the New York Times reported that “local gun opponents seemed won over by the range’s eco-friendly policies”, as well as “the sophisticated parties that Lock and Load hosted during the area’s marquee art festival, Art Basel.” In other words, the concerns were less about the glamorisation and normalisation of lethal violence, and more about whether this was going to be carried out a downmarket, uncool way.

Back at the range, I have the butt of my first gun pushed into my shoulder, my finger on the trigger and my cheek pressed against the barrel. Clearly I wasn't paying attention any time these weapons were fired in films or TV shows, as I hadn't realised my face – gently moisturised this morning with Vitamin E cream then carefully covered in Factor 50 sunblock – would be quite so involved in this activity. Soft skin meets hard metal – and that's before the bullet cases start flying everywhere.


A jolt of recoil, the smell of gunpowder, a hole through the torso of my paper victim and a brief flash of burning metal, like a midgie's nip.

“You'll be getting plenty of hot brass,” warns Cliff, explaining that the guns aren't designed for lefties and so spew out their empties to the right hand side.

Once I've punched out a neat line from my target's forehead down to his belly, it's time to switch to fully automatic mode. The flick of a switch, an adjustment of grip, and then …


My heart rate accelerates accordingly, and the shots veer off to the left, messing up my earlier handiwork. While it's not possible for the average American to buy a full automatic weapon, this rapid fire can be simulated by fitting a “bump stock” to a semi-automatic one. Donald Trump recently vowed to ban these, and such a move might seem uncontroversial – after all, what possible legitimate use could a “responsible gun owner” have for such a device? – but the non-profit group Gun Owners of America nonetheless protested. The gunman who killed 58 people in Las Vegas last October was able to fire more than 1000 rounds in 10 minutes from a hotel window thanks to the use of bump stocks, but it seems this matters not to those who regard any form of gun control as the first step on a slippery slope towards having their own weapons snatched away.

Catriona Stewart: Incel culture can only be tackled by reassessing masculinity

Talk of such matters is frowned upon at Lock and Load, perhaps all the more so in the weeks since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, which is less than an hour's drive away. But really there's been little debate about whether guns-for-fun attractions might be part of the problem – or simply in poor taste – since it opened in 2013. According to The Miami Herald, more than 300 children were killed by gunshots in Miami-Dade County in the decade to 2015, including 18 aged under 13. The following year was a particularly grim one, with six-year-old King Carter killed by crossfire on his way to buy sweets in the February and eight-year-old Jada Page shot in the head while playing in her front yard in the August. The violence showed some signs of abating in 2017, with the newspaper proudly proclaiming in the summer that “only one teenager under the 18 has been shot and killed so far this year.”

Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence was established in 2016, shortly after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando that left 49 people dead, but since then it's managed to drum up fewer than 500 Twitter followers. By contrast, the young survivors who established the #NeverAgain movement after the Parkland shooting – and led the massive March For Our Lives last month – are becoming household names and scoring significant political victories, including senate approval for reforms that would raise the age for gun purchases from 18 to 21.

Back in the foyer at Lock and Load, and overhearing English, French and Spanish accents, I'm pondering whether the existence of such places might say more about the mentality of foreigners than locals when a gaggle of college-aged American boys wander in. They're like kids in a toy shop when they clock the weapons.

“Look at the safety on this!” exclaims a floppy-haired young man in shorts and flip-flops as his eyes land on one monster firearm. His friends – also dressed for the beach this Spring Break weekend – take in the huge cache of replica guns on the wall. It's clear they know what they're talking about – the brands, the bullets, the mechanisms. At first they're tentative, lifting the guns, feeling their weight, not quite believing this is all allowed, but before long they're all posing for pictures with one in each hand.

Perhaps sensing that this youthful tomfoolery is unlikely to translate into any sales of $100-plus shooting packages, a staff member appears to enforce the one somewhat arbitrary rule: no photos with fingers on triggers. The group mutter apologies, but their spirits are barely dampened. They might technically be adults, but when it comes to big guns it seems boys will be boys.

To hear many Americans talk, the nation's gun culture is about hunting traditions in rural states, or the right to home defence in crime-ridden urban ones. Amid all the passionate defence of the Second Amendment, few will advance the argument that they want to have guns because shooting is fun, exciting and empowering, and their right to that particular type of exhilarating activity trumps the right for wider society (or indeed even their own families, who are most at risk from a clumsily handled gun) to be safe.

Fewer still will concede that gun ownership might be an important dimension of a fragile sense of masculine identity, especially since mass shooters are overwhelmingly male.

“Because size matters” reads a poster on the wall in Lock and Load advertising the .50 calibre sniper rifle, from which patrons with a disregard for their hearing can fire a single round for $50. “Girls like 'em big,” declares another. The biggest package on offer, pardon the pun, is called Automatic Gratification. The message is clear: guns are sexy, and men with guns are attractive.

Catriona Stewart: Incel culture can only be tackled by reassessing masculinity

So what's the appeal for female patrons? I asked 33-year-old Amanda Hendricks, who visited the range with colleagues after they staged a conference in Miami earlier this year. “I don't see guns as a macho activity at all,” she said. “Where I'm from it's very much a family activity, and youth are taught gun safety from a very young age.” She isn't a member of a gun club back home in Utah, but she and her husband do own a trio of weapons, including a handgun that's kept for protection as well as sport. She describes the visit to Lock and Load – laid on by her employer – as a nice rest for the team following the event, and says she didn't detect any “macho tone”. A picture of her in action is proudly displayed on the centre's Instagram account, with tags including “#gungirl”, “#badasschick” and “#pewpew”.

With my rolled-up target sheet under my arm, I venture back out into Wynwood and meander round another huge outdoor marketplace. I pass a woman pushing a small dog in a child's buggy, and note the dog is wearing a pink tutu.

Back at my hotel, I scroll through photos on my camera then lie down for a nap. In my dream I'm unfurling my huge target sheet, then holding it in front of me to pose for a photo. One minute I'm grinning, hamming it up for the camera, and the next...


I've been shot in the chest, having made myself the target. I'm still standing, looking down in a daze as a bloom of bright red blood spreads across the paper.

My subconscious clearly doesn't accept that guns are normal, and shooting them is a leisure pursuit or team-building event like any other. I'd like to keep it that way.