We walked through the streets of Microcentro, just Julian, the photographer, and me. We arrived just in time at the address but had to check the number twice before entering. From the outside, the place seemed like any classic Buenos Aires café and not exactly what we had in mind before arriving, the first of many preconceptions that would be shattered to pieces this afternoon. “I’m looking for Rubén,” I told a waitress, who signaled a staircase at the end of the dining hall going down. Once we reached the basement we got our first glimpse at the man, behind a big glass window.
Rubén is in his sixties, a large guy, the sort of build you would figure to find on somebody who served time in the army or maybe even prison. He was standing behind his desk, with quite the symbolic altar hung on the wall behind him: a figure of Jesus Christ and a machine gun placed below him. Even though the setting might have felt intimidating at first, any sense of that would disappear by the end of our encounter. Again, this is a story of shattered preconceptions, and no one I’ve ever met embodies that idea more than Rubén.
So why exactly were we here? Well, the short answer is that I wanted to fire a gun for the very first time in my life. The long answer might require delving deep into family history and cultural background. Suffice it to say that my parents were both gun enthusiasts: my dad from an almost fetishistic point of view, an admirer of guns, swords, and knives as valuable pieces of history; my mom from a more combative angle, having been raised in an extreme left-wing household that understood the value of arms from an almost tactical sense. To top it all off, I was raised in Caracas, the second most violent city in the world, where gun sounds were as common a background noise as bird chirps or car horns. So lets just say there was a curiosity brewing inside me, with a strong hint of fear and respect attached.
There’s one more reason why I was eager to attend the shooting range and, as Ruben would later tell me, it’s the most common one of all: to blow off some steam. For all its virtues, Buenos Aires is a pretty hectic city and these last months in particular have been tough for most. “The people who come here are usually fed up with their jobs,” Ruben says. “Judges, prosecutors, businessmen, employees. Here they can relax, it’s almost therapeutic.”
Ruben is from San Martín de los Andes so, like me, he has an outsider’s take of the capital. “My province is so calm, my work isn’t very sought after back there. But everybody has problems in Buenos Aires, everybody’s pissed. Moving here was like trading paradise for a mental institution but this was where I could find the most work.”
Rubén has been around guns for more than 40 years, first as a military officer and then as a gun instructor at Club de Tiro Independencia, where he still works. He also serves as a consultant to bodyguards and people who transport valuable goods, besides still working for important customers who are in need of protection. I had planned on interviewing him after shooting, aiming to get that out of the way before sitting down and going in depth into the world of guns.
But Ruben is a chatty guy, and a few introductory questions turned into a full fledged one-hour conversation that covered a lot of ground, from his background and the myriad of characters that have come and gone through the shooting range, to his views on the lack of work ethics in modern day Argentina and the importance of extensive background checks before shooting.
First things first. What exactly is legally required to shoot a gun in these parts of the world? Well if you’re wishing to shoot alone, without the presence of an instructor such as Rubén, then you have to be a legitimate user, which is sort of a driver’s license you can process once you’ve passed psychological and physical testing, handing over criminal records, and proving that you have lawful means of making a living.
This last point is quite possibly the most important one for Ruben, who’s been working since he was 13 years old, when he left his home. “I think Argentina is going through one of the worst moments in its history. We have so many people that don’t wish to live in a society, a lot who believe that they have the same right as those of us who work all day. I think handouts are a terrible thing for society.”
Case in point… He was recently approached by a guy looking for Rubén to sign a gun permit. As is customary, he gave him the lowdown on the requirements. “What exactly do you mean by lawful means of making a living?” the guy asked. “Well, something that some proof that you work, legally… You do work legally, right?” The guy told him that he was unemployed and that he had been since 2001, surviving thanks to his wife and his daughter’s social plans. Rubén denied him the permit and the guy threatened to sue. “I told him he had every right to pursue any legal action since that was his right as a citizen. But I just can’t give a gun to somebody like that, it’s as simple as that.”
Gun ownership in Argentina is not particularly high when compared to worldwide averages, with the country located on the 81st spot on the list of civilian held firearms per 100 people with 7.4 guns. For reference, the list is headed up by the United States of America with a whopping 120.5 guns per 100 people. Gun ownership in general (both licit and illicit) in Argentina has actually declined in the last years, going from 3,600,000 guns in 2012 to 3,256,000 in 2017.
Nevertheless, there were 2,583 deaths by firearms in 2016 in Argentina (the last official record available online) and the disarmament front has only been on the rise in the last years. So what does a guy like Rubén think about all of this? “I’m not worried about people owning guns but I am worried about who owns them. If it’s logical people that understand the responsibility of owning a gun, that want to live in a society regardless of guns, there’s no problem. The screening process is so arduous that the people that come in here are not troublemakers at all.” He also counts himself as a supporter of US gun policies, although he’s also quick to point out that he believes they couldn’t really work in Argentina. “If Buenos Aires were equipped with guns like, say Texas, we would all just kill each other during the first Boca – River classic.”
He presents me with a gun, a 9mm ambidextrous Bersa, made in Argentina, and we step into the shooting range. He hands me ear plugs and earmuffs, things that would have come in handy during the first portion of our interview, when I jumped every five minutes thanks to the gunshots coming from the range. Once we step in, Rubén goes all in on his instructor role, explaining some of the main things to keep in mind: always aim the gun toward the front of the room, make sure that you have your ear protection on before shooting and always keep your finger off the trigger up until you’re actually going to take the shot.
“The body is the best safety there is,” he says in a somewhat wise tone. He’s full of these phrases, and is keen on throwing them around. “I always say that there are no apologies in this activity“, he likes to say. “If I accidentally step on you, then I can say I’m sorry, it’s something simple. But with a gun, there’s no amount of regret in the world that can fix the damage it can provoke.”
Rubén loads the gun with the first bullets. He illustrates the position of my legs and hands and then lets me carry it myself. Even though he made sure to explain it several times, I still forget to put the earmuffs on before preparing to shoot (a clear sign of some of my pinned up nerves) but Rubén is always there to take care of safety precautions and he reminds me to wear them.
Results-wise, my first cartridge is pretty unimpressive, with all of my shots landing to the far right, nowhere near the bullseye. But emotionally, there’s no denying how exhilarating firing these shots actually was, the rush of adrenaline that takes a hold of you, the weight that seemingly gets lifted from your shoulders. As soon as I finished, Rubén gave me some pointers, mainly to change the position of my finger and aim more to the left. Sure enough, my aim was much better the second time around, a testament to his virtues as a teacher, more than to my abilities as a shooter.
For some of Rubén’s clients, the experience of shooting for the first time has been a lot to bear. “Once, a girl came in with her boyfriend. They began to shoot and I could see her laughing, so I thought everything was going well. But at some point I began to see that the smile wasn’t a smile but she was having a nervous breakdown. I stopped the whole thing, sat her down and got her some water.” But this is more of an exception than the rule. The overwhelming response to shooting is much, much different, a kind of cathartic release that leads to some deep soul-searching. It’s in this stage of the experience that Rubén turns into something else, a counselor, a psychologist, a sort of priest at a confessional. He’s had the chance to listen to some people’s darkest secrets, their deepest frustrations, gotten glimpses into their hardships, their dreams. “They arrive here with their heads filled with stuff and they just unload in here,” he explains.
Rubén seems to deeply enjoy this part of the job, even more than the instructor portion of it. He swears he has become a much better listener in time and genuinely likes letting people talk to him about their lives. He even has a couple of regulars that come to the shooting range without any intention of grabbing a gun:
“There’s this older lady, about 80, that came in here some years ago. She sort of stumbled by accident into this place and as soon as I saw her I knew she was lost. She had lived closed by when she was young and was surprised that this place existed. I grabbed her by her arm and offered her a guided tour. When we got close to the shooting range I asked her if she wanted to try to shoot. She was startled at my offer and very hesitant but eventually accepted. She took one shot, with a .22 caliber. That’s the only shot she ever took, but she was so happy that she was able to do it that she stops by all the time to just talk to me about life. The same thing happens with an older man that comes by once a week. I always imagine they don’t have family or nobody listens to them anymore so when I have time, I listen. I like to listen.”
Before we leave, I ask Rubén to take some shots himself. I do this for two reasons: First, I want to see him in action, see how a true shooter does his thing. But second, and most importantly, I wish to see if this whole therapeutic thing happens to him as well, if firing a few rounds can get him to speak about some of his most inner stuff. For all his openness so far, I can’t shake the feeling that he has been dodgy at times, keeping back when discussing his past in the military and some of the more famous customers he swears to have. “Discretion is important in my line of work,” he said a couple of times as a method of self-defense. He grabs the gun and shoots a round, all head shots. No surprise there. But what happens next is a bit of a shock.
Rubén is a father of three (one son and two daughters), who live in New York, Montreal, and Buenos Aires. He also has five grandchildren whom he loves deeply. For years, his greatest fear was that his kids would find his guns at home and a tragic accident would occur. To deal with that he would store the guns in one place and the ammo in another. But he also taught them as much about guns as he could, from how to clean them to how to arm and disarm them. His goal was to get rid of all the mystique around guns, hoping the would lose their luster and the forbidden would seem almost trivial.
It’s safe to say he succeeded: all his kids can shoot but are not gun enthusiasts and pretty much just practice the activity to have something to share with Rubén every time they visit. He lives in Tigre, in a house by the river, away from it all, where he actually campaigns against hunting animals whenever he speaks to his neighbors. He’s been shot at three times in his life, with a bullet once passing inches from his spine and leaving him two weeks in intensive care. He considers himself a religious man, although he likes to say he believes in his own way, which is to say his probably not keen on going to church and all that.
All of this he tells me after shooting his last bullet. He speaks and speaks non-stop, dropping life lesson after life lesson. To live life at its fullest, to learn to do a little bit of everything, to avoid confrontation at all costs. “Life is too short to spend it looking for trouble,” he says at one point. I can barely get a word in, but i’m mesmerized at his transformation. I had come to this place to see what I could find out about myself but ended up completely fascinated by this man, a paradox of sorts: a gun instructor talking about peace of mind and resolving things without guns. He even tells me about that time he was approached at the shooting range by a guy who wanted to hire him to kill somebody else, “no matter the cost,” he emphasized. He confesses that he refused immediately, that he had grown to believe in time that nothing in this life was worth losing sleep. “He came back once more with an even bigger offer but I told him I would tell the police if he didn’t leave. “And they guy never came back.”
When we leave the Club de Tiro Independencia, Julian and I can’t stop talking about the experience. But not about the shooting part of it, which we both agree is probably not for us (sorry mom, sorry dad). It’s about this larger than life character that we had just met. “He was like a preacher,” Julian recalls. The shooting range turned out to be all the cathartic release I had been searching for, but guns might not have been the main reason why… Who would’ve thought?