With the air turned crisper, the days running shorter and deer hunting season just around the corner, we are gathered here to shoot our guns - deep within a Carroll County landfill at a county-operated range known as the Hap Baker Firearms Facility.
There's ol' Jim Cole, a bearded, soft-spoken former shop teacher who serves as range officer, making sure we handle our firearms safely and shoot at nothing other than the paper targets, located 25 to 200 yards away.
There's ol' Ray Cox and his cousin, Chuck Stein, who have taken the day off from their jobs at Home Depot to get ready for muzzle-loading deer season, which starts in most of Maryland today.
There's Daniel Kim, practicing with the handgun he keeps under the counter of his liquor store in Glen Burnie; and Francis Munoz, a collector of military weaponry who was headed last weekend to a machine gun-shooting fest in Kentucky.
And there's David Mick, who's only 11, but, under the watchful eye of his father - a psychology professor who's against hunting - handling his new .22 caliber rifle quite capably.
Maybe we aren't all good ol' boys, cut from the same camouflage cloth, after all. But we're relatively sure that - here in the 10 shooting lanes at Hap Baker's, where the air is regularly pierced with the crack of everything from muzzle-loading rifles to handguns to high-powered military-type weapons - there is not a lunatic among us.
Yes, there is a sniper at large, striking randomly and repeatedly from Virginia to Maryland. Yes, he may have honed his skills at a place like this, with a weapon not unlike these. And, yes, had he not been able to procure a gun, legally or illegally, nine people would not be dead of gunshot wounds.
But that - the men at Hap's will tell you, or most of them anyway - is no reason to ban all firearms, badmouth those who shoot for sport or further restrict the sale of rifles, rarely the weapon of choice for the commission of day-to-day violent crime.
Nor are one man's aberrant acts - though they make carrying around a rifle, buying ammo, hunting deer and visiting any of Maryland's 50 public and private shooting ranges more problematic than usual - reason to stop shooting.
Quitting, even momentarily, would be like forgoing driving every time the state experiences carnage on the highways. Besides, cars don't kill people, people ... Never mind.
Truth be told, I am but an honorary - or dishonorary, depending on one's view - member of this clique, having not fired a gun since childhood, having felt nothing but guilt when I bagged my first and only bird (pheasant, maybe?), and being, when it comes to firearms, more scared than enthused, more anti than pro, more ignorant than anything else.
Looking for a place to observe and talk to shooters, most of whom practice in private clubs, I have ended up in the Carroll County Northern Landfill, the farthest recesses of which is home to the Hap Baker Firearms Facility, one of only a handful of public ranges in the Baltimore area.
For $5 ($10 if you're out-of-county) you can shoot (anything but automatic or semi-automatic weapons) for two hours, longer if no one's waiting, and people often are.
With sportsmen's clubs offering few new memberships, and development gnawing away at the amount of wide open countryside available for shooting, the Carroll County commissioners approved building the range in 1995.
It is named after the late Clair D. "Hap" Baker, a gun-rights activist who spent seven years fighting for the range as president of the Carroll County Sportsmen's Association. Like tennis courts, playgrounds and horse trails, it is operated by the county's recreation department.
Although it drew protests - all from nearby residents concerned about noise and safety - the range, open Wednesday through Sunday, is now tolerated by neighbors, popular among gun enthusiasts and packed on weekends.
And as range officer Cole sees it, by getting shooters out of the woods, the range has made part-suburban, part-rural Carroll County a safer place.
"We get doctors, lawyers, families, ministers, people from all walks of life," Cole says. "Bad guys don't come here to shoot. Just good ol' boys who ... enjoy coming in and shooting and swapping stories."
There are times he might raise an eyebrow - when "Rambo wannabes" come in, or store clerks "who decide they better learn how to use the gun they keep in their Jiffy store," or customers who ask if they can use an ex-wife's photo as a target. (That request was declined, though judging from a shot-up Osama bin Laden target hanging in the construction trailer that serves as Cole's office, there are exceptions.)
But by and large, Cole says, his customers are people who have grown up around, and still like to use, guns.
"In Baltimore, when they hear gunfire, they duck and cover," said Cole. "Up here, you just keep doing what you're doing. It's not a big deal. It's just a way of life. We're country boys who like to shoot and hunt."
Hunting season was indefinitely postponed in four counties - Montgomery, Howard, Prince George's and Anne Arundel - by an executive order issued yesterday by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Aimed at reducing gunfire during the search for the sniper, the ban will end when the sniper is caught.
The order covers all recreational shooting except at approved shooting ranges.
It would not affect people like Kevin and David Mick, a father and son from Westminster who have no interest in hunting.
"Are there any lanes open?" they ask, in a scene that - except for them carrying a long skinny bag, and the sound of gunfire splitting the air - could have been at a bowling alley.
Kevin Mick is a professor of psychology and sociology at the Community College of Baltimore County. His father, a gun collector, taught him to shoot as a child. Now he is helping David, 11, with the sport, which he got interested in through Boy Scouts. He recently got his first .22 and says target shooting has helped him learn to concentrate more, on the range and at school.
Kevin Mick, who was on a rifle team at school, brings his son to the range about once a week to practice sharpshooting. "It can be a very enjoyable activity, but you've got to respect what you have in your hands and follow the rules of society," Mick says.
Mick thinks gun control has its place - "considering the ready access to firearms in this country and the number of people with poor problem-solving skills. I wouldn't be unhappy if I lived in a society where guns were completely outlawed," he says.
That is clearly the minority viewpoint at Hap Baker's.
"Anytime someone is hurt by a firearm, that stirs the anti-gun people up," says Ron Brown, a retired Baltimore County police officer who visits the range regularly. "A lot of people think you can just walk into any place and lay your money down and get a firearm. It's not like that. There are all sorts of checks. I bought a rifle this weekend, and I thought I'd never get done filling out forms.
"You can get a loan quicker than you can get a firearm. That's the world we live in," says Brown, 59. He served as a firearms instructor for the police department, which closed its range to the public several years ago.
"All these people are harmless," he says. "They just want to practice, and shoot deer and punch holes in paper."
I, of course, am not getting involved in the debate. For one thing, reporters don't do that. For another, gun-control debates never seem to get anywhere; it's more hurling slogans at each other than anything else. And for another - this is one rule I do have about guns - I don't argue with people who are holding them.
I am nodding in agreement with everything anyone says - a lot of which I can't even hear because of my required ear protection - when Ray Cox asks if I want to shoot his muzzle-loading rifle.
I cite my inexperience, but he assures me, scope technology being what it is, I can't miss.
"You'll be in the bull's-eye the first time you sit down, barring any bad form," he says. "I guarantee you'll hit it."
While content to observe, the truth of the matter is that, as I watch, I really want to try. Partly, I guess, for the challenge of hitting the target - the same thrill one can get throwing darts, or, for that matter, rolling bowling balls. But the power of the weapon, the allure of the gun, I think, is drawing me as well.
I agree to take a shot.
Each lane is equipped with a bench to sit on and a foam-lined four-sided box through which to shoot. The shooters rest their rifles on small canvas bags full of kitty litter to steady their aim. With those shooting muzzle-loading, or black powder rifles - as most are - minutes pass between shots. They load, they plunge, they shoot. Plumes of acrid black smoke waft up from the guns and into the air. Then they look through scopes - sometimes for minutes - to see how they did before starting the whole process over again.
"The more time you put in here, the better you are," Cox says. "I don't like to miss, it upsets me. When we're hunting, the clean kill is what we're after. We like one shot."
He loads for me. I listen. I sight the target, 100 yards away, through the scope and fire away, hitting the edge of the sheet, but not within the circles. He reloads and I try again, hitting about an inch from the circles. Switching guns, I try his .12-gauge, and a 50-yard target. This time, on my first shot, I get a bull's-eye.
Then a terrible thing happens: I realize I am having fun. I can even, for a moment, picture myself buying a rifle - probably not going so far as to hunt, as the grocery store fulfills my limited meat needs.
But I can see learning more about guns (no invention, for better or worse, has so shaped American history); I can see how they teach concentration and responsibility; I can see having my own rifle (kept under lock and key, and perhaps another lock and key), keeping it all clean and shiny and occasionally breaking it out of its case for target shooting.
There are, after all, far sillier, and more expensive, hobbies - though few are more potentially lethal.
And that, I realize, is part of the appeal. If it were all about simply hitting targets, or knocking things down, bowling would suffice.
My thoughts are interrupted by Jim Cole, who turns on flashing red lights and shouts, "All right folks, cease fire. Cease fire and unload."
The range goes quiet. The plink of shell casings hitting concrete subsides. The clouds of black powder dissipate. Ray Cox empties the chamber of his shotgun. Daniel Kim puts his handgun away.
"I wouldn't use it unless my life was in great danger," he says of the gun he keeps in the store to protect himself from robbers. "With all the lawyers' fees, it's cheaper to give out the money than to shoot somebody."
After a signal from Cole, the shooters walk onto the range, retrieve targets, compare shots and fold them up like bowling scorecards for the trip home.
Ten minutes later, some customers have left, some new ones have arrived, and I'm still standing there in my protective ear muffs - still stuck on the bowling vs. bullets question, still waffling back and forth on how I feel about guns - as Cole lets the good ol' boys at Hap Baker know that all is clear.
"OK," he shouts, "Line's hot. Load your fire. Commence firing."