"Steady and relax," I whispered as my cheek fused to the stock of my .22-caliber rifle, waiting for the shot to break and launch a round at 1,800 feet per second toward the paper target downrange.
This would be merely one of thousands of rounds I fired in youth shooting-club practices and competitions while growing up in rural Texas. While some kids spent the majority of their extracurricular time on the ball field or practicing music, my interest was firearms.
If mastering challenges makes us better people, my formative years on the shooting range taught me countless lessons in self-control as I steadied a rifle, arrested my anxiety through controlled breathing and worked toward the goal of mechanical precision, round after round. Replicating that proficiency over and over was tangible evidence I was good at something.
In shooting sports, as in life, one can always improve. When I started as a special agent trainee at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, I was once again reminded that learning is a lifetime endeavor. As I stood on the firing line, day in and day out, flanked by two hotshots who never seemed to miss their targets, I felt that same positive competitive spirit I had when I was a kid, and was again reminded how influential firearms had been in shaping and improving my character.
Although I don't remember ever formally signing up to be a junior member of the National Rifle Association -- perhaps it was included in my shooting club membership -- I do remember receiving membership literature in the mail and proudly telling my friends. To me and my fellow shooting club members, the NRA represented a bond shared by firearms enthusiasts who appreciated responsible gun ownership.
But it was never political.
Today's NRA is simply unrecognizable from the days of the 1990s. If you were to ask me then -- when I was showing off my membership card -- if I could have predicted a day when the organization would find itself at odds with the friends and family members of shooting victims, I would have responded to the question with sheer bewilderment. Never would I have predicted seeing the NRA's chief spokesperson sickly accuse the press of loving mass shootings.
What exactly happened to the organization? How did a group originally founded by responsible gun owners to promote marksmanship evolve into an entrenched political faction picking fights with high school students? I suspect that somewhere along the way the NRA was corrupted by political operatives who recognized the electoral benefits of peddling fear to its members.
Although a sinister calculation, think of the political and financial benefits the organization would reap if it succeeded in convincing its members that they were under attack by a government seeking to rob them of their constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Get like-minded leaders elected, and you ensure your continued existence. Convince members they are perpetually under the threat of physical attack -- which can only be countered with a gun -- and their fears will never subside.
Although many have focused on NRA political contributions as proof of a corrupting influence, I think our primary focus should be less on donations to individual elected officials, and more on the organization's larger efforts to brainwash its members into voting en masse against candidates who support responsible gun reform.
As Vox recently reported, while gun reform groups have often focused on matching the NRA's mammoth fundraising efforts, the larger threat the organization poses is actually its ability to mobilize voters.
One tactic the organization uses to foment anxiety within its ranks is to perpetuate the notion that the government is attempting to seize the weapons of law-abiding citizens, and so any compromise would represent a slippery slope toward a total ban on firearms.
For proof of the lucrative effect of fearmongering, look no further than the historical spike in gun sales after mass shootings, which I believe can only be explained by efforts of groups like the NRA to instill fear in their members to stock up on guns now before the government regulates them out of existence.
Another favorite NRA technique is the "whataboutism," usually reserved for conversations about the actions of Russian intelligence services
Sure, the San Bernardino attack involved a firearm, but what about the attackers' radical terrorist motivations? OK, so the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooter had an assault rifle, but what about the fact authorities may have failed to properly investigate him? These somersaults of logic and linguistics are creative, but they fail to admit that the common denominator in gun violence is the gun.
Just as important as identifying how the NRA operates is focusing on the reason it engages in these tactics. The question NRA members should ask themselves is whether the organization exists to serve the interests of gun owners, or simply those of gun manufacturers.
If the latter, the public would be right to watch the organization's efforts with suspicion and to be on guard for manipulation. As long as the organization continues to receive revenue from the sale of some gun purchases, it will be tough to convince a skeptical public of its purity.
Fortunately, there is an antidote to the fearmongering: it is the hope generated in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, shooting by the thousands of students and responsible gun reform supporters who have determined enough is enough and the time for real action is now.
These students have inspired a wave of public support and give many of us hope that we can agree on ridding our streets and schools of weapons of war without threatening our Second Amendment rights.
For its part, the NRA can either get onboard, stop its vicious attacks on those working to save lives, and return to its roots, or it will find itself even further along the road to becoming a relic its former members once celebrated.
Contrary to the NRA's current narrative, the path to sensible gun reform isn't a slippery slope, it's simply uncharted terrain. And with support from those around us, we can all take a step in the right direction without falling down.