by Sarah M. Chen
I’m a crime fiction writer which often means there will be shootouts, cops chasing after bad guys, and government agents slinking around every corner in one of my short stories. I don’t include this in every story I write, but guns do pop up a good amount of the time.
But do I know a lot about guns? Not really. Which is why I don’t go into too much detail when a gun makes an appearance in my story. It’s either a big gun or a little gun. It makes a loud noise or it has a silencer. Sure, I do the usual research, like what’s the difference between a glock and an Uzi, but how does it feel to hold a gun? To shoot it? To point it at someone?
I decided it was time to change that. No, I didn’t get a gun and point it at my friend. Instead, I applied to the ATF Citizen’s Academy. I knew a few writer friends who did it and they said it was an amazing experience. I thought it would be a great way to not only get out on a shooting range but to obtain a greater understanding of what the ATF agent does on a day to day basis. I had no idea what that felt like. To risk one’s life to do something they believe in. And did I say, I get to shoot guns?
I had no idea what to expect because I didn’t think anything criminal happened in MB other than maybe someone illegally parking in front of someone else’s house (although, sadly, that’s changed these days with robberies, hate crimes, and even home invasions on the rise here). I got to ride along at the most exciting time too, between 9pm and 2am.
Yes, there were lots of down times where we went and chatted with the guys at the local pizza place or drove around aimlessly while I played with the equipment in the car. But it was clear to me that the Manhattan Beach police were well-respected and appreciated in the neighborhood. We even answered a possible domestic violence call. It turned out a teenage girl just locked herself up in her closet, but for a few minutes there, I was worried she had a weapon with her or was going to hurt herself. I’m sure the police thought the same thing. She turned out fine, but it was tense for a while there.
Since I didn’t get to participate in a violent shootout on my Manhattan Beach ride-along, I decided to go to an indoor shooting range when I visited my friend in Phoenix this year. It was quite an experience.
I discovered that it takes a lot of concentration to shoot a gun. I couldn’t imagine having less than a second to make a crucial decision like shooting a gun at someone. It gave me even greater understanding of what cops go through.
And now I’m finally participating in the ATF Citizen’s Academy. Yes, they called me. Only two years later, ha!
This week was my first week and I learned so much already on day one. An undercover agent showed us videos of his interactions with gang members who specialized in home invasions. It was frightening what these gang members are capable of and what their lives are like. It’s a whole world I don’t even understand, and yet, I’m writing about crime and violence in my stories. I felt like a fraud. Have I not been creating authentic “bad guys” in my stories?
The ATF agent then said something that stuck with me. He said these guys, some of them, are just truly evil. They have no moral compass. They’re driven by greed, and they’re sociopaths. Watching these videos, I wholeheartedly agreed. They gave me chills.
A lot of “bad guys” in my stories don’t think of themselves as bad guys. They’re actually just regular people who screw up or let a weakness take control of them. In my mind, they’re not evil. For me, truly evil people aren’t that interesting to write anyway. They’re too one-dimensional. I gravitate towards writing characters who are flawed yet there is an internal conflict going on that I find fascinating. They want to do the right thing, but either they don’t know how or feel like they have no choice.
Then the agent said something else that stuck with me. “Today is the BEST time to be a bad guy. These days, cops are terrified to do their job. And that’s a big problem.”
I have to agree. Yes, there are cops and agents who are racist and who deserve punishment. But there are also a lot of them who are just trying to do their job.
I am looking forward to learning more about being an ATF agent. These next six weeks are going to be eye-opening, I have a feeling. And not just for my writing (although I already have jotted down some great lines that these guys said!) but for a greater appreciation of what these agents do for us. And the police. And all the other officers and military who protect us from the evil lurking out there.
Check out Sarah M. Chen’s crime fiction short stories at http://www.sarahmchen.com