A picnic with macaroni salad and machine guns on the menu is my kind of party. When it's being thrown by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, you might call it a can't-miss event.
But after watching reporters attempting to ventilate targets with various FBI firearms Friday morning, "can't miss" would not be, journalistically speaking, accurate.
Not that journalism was the order of the day. It takes more than newsgathering to lure over 40 newspaper, television and radio staffers from Niagara Falls to Rochester to the Tonawanda Sportsmen's Club.
It takes the FBI, America's top law enforcement agency, throwing a Media Shoot, a press relations event combining several features irresistible to reporters like me. Namely, free food, and a chance to test-fire FBI guns ranging from a .38-caliber revolver to the Heckler Koch MP-5, a 10mm submachine gun favored by modern SWAT teams and commando squads.
Top it off with a nifty demonstration by a highly trained FBI hostage rescue team, featuring a helicopter, snipers and live ammunition, and even reporters will pay attention. FBI Special Agent Bernie Tolbert, head of the Buffalo office, said the Media Shoot was designed to give reporters a chance to meet FBI agents and ask about what they do.
"The more you know us," Tolbert said, "the better our relationship will be."
If the assembled reporters felt vaguely disoriented by hearing the FBI, the tightest lips in law enforcement, express interest in relationships, they hid it well. We asked plenty of questions, with only a few thinly veiled requests for more handouts ("Where's the hats and T-shirts, ha ha").
Why the FBI would go to all the trouble and expense of making friends with reporters was quietly discussed in the back of the pack. The reflexive cynics pointed to FBI embarrassment over the 1993 Waco debacle, where evidence turned up that contrary to long-held denials, the FBI used tear gas canisters capable of starting a fire. But the plans for the Media Shoot were laid well before that news broke on Aug. 23.
Tolbert received a big laugh from the crowd when he declared, mock-seriously: "I want to guarantee you that we will not be firing any incendiary rounds today."
He went on to deliver the FBI's view: When the dust settles, the evidence will show that the FBI did not start the fire that killed 75 adults and children in the Branch Davidians' Texas compound. Tolbert said FBI audiotapes revealed Davidian leaders discussing how to set the fire and keep it going.
Tolbert later explained the FBI's policy on shooting, which, contrary to "The X-Files" and other media portrayals, does not include firing warning shots. "We don't shoot you in the leg to knock you down," said Tolbert. "We don't shoot the gun out of your hand. We're not that good shots.
"We shoot to eliminate the threat."
After a bomb disposal expert demonstrated the preferred method of disarming a pipe bomb, it was time for the hostages. Two FBI staffers sat on chairs in a "room" outlined by two-by-fours and yellow crime scene tape.
The drama was make-believe, but the adrenaline rush was real as a helicopter dropped into the field carrying a black-clad hostage rescue team. Hidden snipers blew up diversionary explosives nearby, a flash-bang device exploded inside, and the team hustled the women out.
The "captors," being life-size photographs, were neatly shot in the head.
When it was over, reporters finally got their chance to play gunslinger.
FBI firearms instructors showed people the basics, checked their hearing and eye protection, and let them pot away. Reporters lined up for their chance at the 12-gauge shotgun, 9mm Sig Sauer and .40-caliber Glock semiautomatic pistols, the .38 revolver and the MP-5.
The 12-gauge shotgun was a wake-up call, its stock leaving a stinger on the shoulders of novice shooters. The semi-automatic pistols, especially the FBI standard-issue Glock, were a revelation. Their mild recoil made placing shots easier than expected, even though reporters were shooting at a range of only seven yards.
Note for the future: When an FBI guy nudges you on the shoulder and says, "You got a nice tight group," he isn't asking for a date. He's just complimenting you on getting all your shots within a few inches of the bull's-eye.
As satisfying (and possibly undeserved) as a marksmanship compliment was, I had my eyes on the prize: the MP-5.
It's a guy thing, I suspect, but it's also the truth: I've wanted to fire a machine gun since I was maybe 8 years old, playing Iwo Jima in the back yard and budda-budda-budda-budda wiping out the Japanese mortar crew with my imaginary Thompson. The fever was never bad enough to prompt gun purchases or military enlistment, but it burned all the same.
So when I finally laid my sweating palms on the plastic grips of the MP-5, I had more than 20 years of itchy trigger finger to deal with.
Put the stock to my shoulder, place my feet right, aim for the bull's-eye, pull the trigger --
In the silence, the FBI instructor said, "Um, here's the safety."
Fine. I pushed the fire selector to single-shot, to warm up.
Pop. Pop. Not much recoil, almost like a .22-caliber plinking rifle.
Tried the two-shot-burst setting. Pop-pop. The second shot went a foot high, as the barrel was pushed up by the first shot. Thumbed the selector over to full auto.
Braaaaaaa, the gun said, the barrel jostling upward, a dozen bullets flying in a second. Most, I am certain, hit the target somewhere or other. Those movie pistoleros, firing machine guns from the hip like a stream of water from a garden hose, have earned my everlasting disdain.
Felt warmer then the sunshine would explain. Was it the fever burning itself out? A dopey grin on my face, I handed the empty MP-5 back to the instructor. "Sweet," I said, just one crack marksman to another.
When the shooting was over, the sulfurous tang of burnt gunpowder wafting with the scent of roasting weenies on the midday breeze, the reporters drifted back to the cookout.
Among the piles of FBI literature, alongside the soft drinks and the potato salad, was a glossy FBI recruitment brochure. I glanced behind me to make sure none of my journalistic brethren was looking. Then I slipped it under my arm, and took it home.