Giddy-Up Girls' ATF Event

By SuzAnne Miller   
Issue 2 Article 4: October 2016
Cover Photo by Danielle Brooker
Dunrovin Ranch Lifestyle Magazine

Nearly every nonprofit understands the benefit of providing lots of wine before proceeding with a live auction. As my husband of many years loves pointing out to anyone within hearing range, I am an auctioneer’s delight.  A little wine most certainly removes whatever pressure I may have managed to put my “don’t bid” brakes on. I have been known to bid against myself.

And so it was that during the University of Montana’s Creative Writing Program’s Fall Opus fundraiser, I challenged the auctioneer. I offered to double my bid if they would bump the number of potential participants from 4 to 6 for their ATF (alcohol, tobacco, and firearms) auction item, which consists of a day spent shooting with firearms’ instructor Truman Tolson from the Missoula City Police Department, followed by bourbon- and cigar-tasting in the alley behind The Rhino Bar with the bar’s owner, Kevin Head. Well, talk about a quintessential Missoula event. I simply had to have it. I just knew that the Giddy-Up Montana Girls would love yet another uniquely Montana adventure. The auctioneer ostensibly called Truman to extend the package and, sold, it was mine!

The Giddy-Up Montana Girls are a group of women who, for the past seven years, have come to horseback ride in Montana with me. Dunrovin Ranch took a couple of them into the Bob Marshall Wilderness on a weeklong trip. After that initial trip, we became fast friends and have formed a tight group of older professional women who love getting off the grid and exploring Montana. Three of the women are from the east coast and are involved in the medical profession with some high-flying universities (Harvard, Boston University, and Duke), three of us are from Montana (an attorney, a nurse, and a biometrician), and one is from California (a photographer and graphics artist). Flip to page 20 of the spring edition of Distinctly Montana to read about our 2015 Giddy-Up Montana adventure.

Every year I try to add a uniquely Montana surprise to keep things interesting. Last year our trip took us over Pipestone Pass near Butte, where I detoured off the freeway, passed out little hammers, and told the group to saddle up, put the hammers in their horn bags, and follow me. They love the “ringing rocks” at the end of our trail, and we proceed to sound out a pathetic tune with the hammers.

You can judge for yourself just how terrible we were:

This year’s surprise was the ATF event. I told them nothing about it, and they trustingly went along me—until we drove down the road and the sign to the firing range appeared. Smiles disappeared. Silence replaced laughter in the car. I caught my breath. Had I totally misjudged their comfort zone? Had I violated their trust?

The answers are yes and, thankfully, no. I had misjudged their comfort zone. I did not understand our enormous differences with respect to guns. All of the Montanans had fired a gun before; none of the east coast women had ever touched a gun. The sound of a firearm means hunting season to Montanans; it means death in the streets to people living in New York City or Boston. These differences sink deeply into our emotional makeup and influence everything about the subject of guns.

It must be noted that I love these women. I wouldn’t dream of putting them in a compromising position. I offered to turn back, to take them somewhere else. But they trusted me enough to stay and experience something foreign and uncomfortable. I was humbled.

The Giddy-Up Girls getting started at the firing range.  Photos by Danielle Brooker

The Giddy-Up Girls getting started at the firing range. Photos by Danielle Brooker

Starting off tentatively, we paid close attention to Truman as he took us through the safety procedures and explained the differences between the various firearms. Each time we went to the firing line, Truman had us first dry fire, then step back and live fire. Each time he gently and firmly put his hand on our backs, not in a demeaning or superior way, but in a very supportive and steadying way.   He helped us breathe evenly and focus on the target. He wanted us to relax to achieve a steadfast hand.  

Truman assisting each shooter.   Photos by Danielle Brooker

Truman assisting each shooter. Photos by Danielle Brooker

His professional guidance quickly took the edge off, got us engaged in target shooting, and opened a discussion of guns like none of us had had before. The woman from Duke proved to have a “dead eye” with both the pistols and the rifles, hitting the bull’s eye time after time and loving the challenge of it. Talk turned to how gun manufacturers could easily make big differences in the ability of children to fire a gun. We swapped stories about our own experiences with guns, or in the case of the doctors, the aftermath of others’ encounters with guns. We learned that Truman’s assistant, Ken, had once been shot.

The Giddy-Up Girls shooting hunting rifles   Photos by Danielle Brooker

The Giddy-Up Girls shooting hunting rifles Photos by Danielle Brooker

Common threads emerged. None of us could emotionally disassociate the gun from what we perceived to be its primary purpose.  While I own a powerful 44-magnum handgun that I used for protection while fishing and hiking in Alaska’s bear country, all the others associated handguns strictly with human violence. Using the handguns disturbed them, especially with human-shaped targets (which are not even legal in Massachusetts). In contrast, hunting rifles were acceptable. We all found beauty in the handmade wooden stocks and appreciated the skills needed by effective hunters.

Firing an Ar-15 was "other worldly"   Photos by Danielle Brooker

Firing an AR-15 was "other worldly" Photos by Danielle Brooker

Firing an AR-15 rift was “other worldly” for all of us. It was amazing and horrifying that such inexperienced shooters could so easily hit a target 150 yards away, using the laser scope for guidance. Its power to destroy was evident and sickening. It is incomprehensible that ownership of such a weapon is not restricted. 

By the end of the shooting, smiles reappeared. The ride back was anything but silent. While I had revealed our next destination, it had little impact on them—they were blissfully unaware of just what an iconic watering hole The Rhino is. Upon arrival, I immediately took them to the back door and walked through to the alley. And in the alley there lay beautifully set, white-clothed tables sporting various bottles of bourbon. Laughter erupted. What a juxtaposition. We all just knew this was going to be fun. Truman and Ken were joined by Kevin Head, owner of The Rhino, a writer and well-known connoisseur of bourbon. Relief from the tension of the afternoon of shooting put us all in a giddy and silly mood. Bourbon and cigars seemed to be exactly the right way to end a most unusual day.

The table set for bourbon and cigar tasting.  Photos by Danielle Brooker

The table set for bourbon and cigar tasting. Photos by Danielle Brooker

Kevin, Truman, and Ken again did not disappoint. We learned how to appropriately sniff and savor the bourbon, and each found which of our nostrils was the most sensitive at picking up the subtle differences. Some of us followed Kevin’s suggestion of adding a tiny drop of water to the bourbon to “open the flavors” just before sipping. Before long, all of us were totally relaxed, sitting back with white-chocolate-laced ladies’ cigars and basking in the afternoon sun shining between the buildings in the alley. What a day it was.


Ending the day on a very high note with new friends and new experiences   Photos by Danielle Brooker

Ending the day on a very high note with new friends and new experiences Photos by Danielle Brooker

All in all, our ATF event was both successful and most memorable for us all. My mind repeatedly returns to that day and to how much I personally had learned. I was most privileged to have experienced this with these women.  My Montana roots clearly color my vision of guns. But for this experience, I am unsure that I would ever have grasped the intense visceral reaction to guns that many in America feel. Feelings towards guns reflect our country’s vastly different cultures. This experience strengthens my belief that meaningful ways to stem gun violence in our country will happen when responsible gun owners stand alongside those for whom guns are anathema. We can understand and support one another.