Sunday, December 31, 2006
Handgun Safety Training
I've always been afraid of handguns, and of the people who own them. A handgun provides its owner the power to kill another person instantly with the press of a button. As with presidential candidates, one has to wonder whether anyone who wants that kind of power can really be trusted with it.
I have friends and relatives who own guns, and they don't worry me. I know that the vast majority of handgun owners handle them responsibly, and accidents are rare. Unfortunately, I've met too many handgun owners who scare me. They are unwilling to leave their homes unarmed, demonstrating an irrational level of fear and/or prejudice. They harbor fantasies about heroically fending off gangs of burglar-rapists. They hope they will someday get a chance to legally shoot someone who they think "deserves it." I know it is probably just macho posturing—I suspect the braggarts are more likely to wet their pants than draw their weapons in a life-or-death situation—but it worries me that people like that are walking around in public with concealed weapons.
In spite of my concerns, I've always believed people have a right to own handguns. Many handgun owners may be misguided, but I believe effective individual self-defense is a basic human right. I also know that, statistically, they are more likely to kill me with their cars than with their guns. I'd support a ban on SUVs, but not on handguns.
I recognize that my own fear of firearms is a little irrational, so I decided to educate myself and get some training. This fits in with the "becoming James Bond" theme of my recent hobbies, but I don't want anyone to think I don't take it seriously or that I have fantasies of battling international supervillains. What I've found most engaging about my flying, scuba diving, skydiving, and motorcycling classes is the fact that, while these activities seem dangerous, with proper training the risks are very manageable. As I've said before, I'm not a thrill-seeker; I like learning how to do things the right way, and relying upon reason and training to overcome fear.
I hoped to get three things out of this. First, I wanted actual experience with handguns so that I would have a better understanding of how they work, how to use them, what the safety features are, how useful they really could be in a self-defense situation, how likely they are to discharge unintentionally, and so on. Second, I hoped that meeting responsible gun owners would alleviate my concerns about the psychology of gun enthusiasts. Finally, I hoped I would enjoy it, and spending time at the shooting range would be a way to spend my leisure time when the weather precludes flying.
There are a few shooting ranges in my area, and all of them provide safety classes and other forms of training. I wanted to take a group class, so I could meet other handgun newbies, but the group classes weren't being offered during the Christmas season. Rather than waiting a few weeks, I decided to take a private lesson.
In the days leading up to the lesson, I scoured the Internet for handgun-related information and I read everything that seemed useful. I ended up with a pretty good understanding of how semi-automatic pistols and revolvers work. I learned about the features of the most popular models. I learned the safety rules.
I was surprised to learn how many people carry concealed weapons. I had always thought that only people in law-enforcement or other special circumstances were allowed to do so, but it turns out that in my home state, anyone with a firearms license can carry concealed weapons as long as they stay out of certain areas (government buildings, schools, bars, churches, political rallies, sporting events, bus, rail, airport, and a few others). Many other states have similar laws, and through reciprocal agreements, concealed-carry permits issued in one state will be honored in others. A large segment of the firearms industry is devoted to producing concealable handguns and holsters for private citizens. This doesn't scare me, but it was a surprise.
I read a lot about the various pro-gun-control and pro-gun-rights arguments. Both sides present statistics, studies, and anecdotal evidence to support claims that their strategies lead to a reduction in violent crimes and deaths. It's hard to find accurate and balanced information about such a politically charged topic, but I've come to believe that (a) guns are not as dangerous to society as the pro-gun-control camp claims, and (b) guns are not as useful to society as the pro-gun-rights camp claims. The likelihoods of being killed by a gun or of being able to defend yourself with your own gun are both very small.
I started following some of the online forums for gun enthusiasts. As with most Internet forums, the most vocal members are the least knowledgeable about the subject, and also the most wacko, so this did little to ease my concerns about gun owners. There were a lot of Camaro-vs.-Mustang-style arguments between advocates of various brands and models of guns, and a lot of ludicrous "what if?" self-defense scenarios. The gun owners' forums were similar to pilots' online forums in the frequency of references to "the liberal media" and arbitrary/stupid decisions by government officials. Still, buried in all the noise were some signs that there are smart, careful people who carry guns.
Having nothing better to during my week of holiday vacation, I spent an afternoon going to the county courthouse to apply for a firearms license. The process was pretty simple: I had to fill out a few forms and then get fingerprinted by the police. Assuming I pass the background check, I'll have the license in a few months. Until I receive the license, I can only carry a loaded firearm in my home, in my car, or on property where the owner gives me permission. Otherwise, I have to carry any firearm in a locked case separate from the ammunition. (As I don't own a gun, this is all academic.)
I bought myself an airsoft pistol for Christmas, so I could practice handling a gun and practice target shooting. I had toy guns as a kid, and a couple of BB guns as a teenager, but I had developed some bad habits with those. With this airsoft gun, a replica of a SIG P226, I concentrated on handling it as if it was a real gun. I was very careful about where the muzzle was pointed, I used the safety, and I kept my finger outside of the trigger guard except when ready to fire.
My lesson started at 9:00 AM on a Saturday morning. I was nervous as I walked into the gun shop/range; I hadn't been in one before. As with most gun shops, it wasn't in the nicest part of town, and the big iron bars on the windows and the featureless exterior weren't very inviting. The place was empty except for the three guys behind the counter. They were very friendly and we chatted a little while waiting for the instructor (I arrived early). When the instructor arrived, we picked out a gun for me to use (a Glock 19) and I took care of the fees for the private class, gun rental, eye and ear protection, and 100 rounds of ammunition. Total cost: $156.30.
The instructor was a former weapons trainer for local sheriff and police departments. He told me the material he was presenting was basically the same stuff that is used for police training. The main difference is that police officers fire about 1,500 rounds during their training, whereas I'd only be firing 100 rounds. Also, I'd be concentrating on short-range self-defense-style shooting, while police officers practice a lot of different kinds of situations.
We spent about 90 minutes in the classroom. He covered the safety rules, operation of the weapon, how to load it, how to clear it, and how to handle malfunctions. He concentrated on the specific operation of the Glock 19, but described how other weapons differed. He showed me a couple of different ways to grip the weapon and a few different stances, and recommended that I try them all on the range to determine what worked best for me. He showed me how to disassemble, clean, and reassemble the pistol. He discussed safe ways to store the weapon. He discussed legal issues.
Little of the information was really new to me: I had already read most of it during the previous week. Holding an actual gun in my hand while reviewing it made everything a lot clearer, but also made me nervous. Even though I knew the gun was unloaded, and the ammunition was left safely outside the classroom, I was constantly afraid the gun was just going to just suddenly go off. A little fear is a good thing; it kept me on my toes.
Then, it was time to go to the range. I put on my rented safety glasses and ear protection, and picked up my empty gun and two 50-round boxes of ammunition while the instructor grabbed a few paper targets, and then we walked on in. I had never been in an indoor shooting range before, so I didn't know what to expect other than what I'd seen in TV shows and movies. The range had six booths, with wooden walls between them, each with a little countertop where you can rest your weapon and ammo, and an overhead cable where you mount the target and then send it downrange.
I jumped a couple inches when I heard the first shot from one of the other shooters on the range. Even with the ear protection, guns fired indoors are loud.
The instructor sent the target down 15 feet, then told me to load the magazine with six rounds and fire them at the target's "center of mass" (middle of the torso). I fumbled with the rounds as I put them in the magazine, I inserted the mag in the pistol, then I pulled the slide back and let it snap back into place.
I now held a loaded, cocked, deadly weapon in my hands. My first solo flight in an airplane wasn't as nerve-wracking as this was.
I was able to ignore the screaming voice in my head, and just do what I was supposed to do. I pointed the gun at the target, lined up the sights, and put my finger on the trigger. I pulled it back slowly until it hit a point where it resisted, then I pulled as smoothly as I could while also keeping the sight on the target.
The recoil wasn't as bad as I'd expected it to be. I heard the clink-clink-clink of the expended brass bouncing off the wall, onto the table, and then onto the floor. I fired the remaining five rounds, then ejected the empty magazine and put the gun down on the table. The instructor brought the target back, and to my surprise, I had a nicely packed group of shots. (I think the airsoft practice paid off.) The group was centered about an inch below the center of the bullseye, so the instructor asked me to do it again, this time aiming about an inch higher.
Load six rounds into magazine. Insert magazine into grip. Rack slide. Sight the target. Finger on trigger. Aim and press. Bang! Aim and press. Bang! Aim and press. Bang! Aim and press. Bang! Aim and press. Bang! Aim and press. Bang! Eject magazine and put the weapon down.
This time, five of the six shots were inside the bullseye. Wow, this stuff seems pretty easy. Maybe Imperial Stormtroopers need some practice like this, to improve their aim?
The instructor ran me through a lot of exercises for the remaining 88 rounds, at various distances and with different variations. While my first couple of groups were good, they got progressively worse, due to fatigue and increasing stress. But even my worst shots never missed the target completely. Even my left-hand-only shots were probably lethal.
After an hour on the range, we went back to the classroom for a few minutes of final discussion. The instructor said I did very well for a first-timer (but I suspect he says that to everyone). Most of my misses were high or low, indicating poor breathing control, so I need to work on that. I didn't mention that I was scared shitless every second I held the gun.
I'm glad I took a private lesson instead of a group class. I got more out of the range time with the instructor's undivided attention, and I didn't have to sit through lengthy explanations of things I already knew. I'd like to meet other shooters, but I can meet them at the range, at advanced classes, or at competitions.
I found the Glock's magazine release and slide lock a little hard to manipulate with my thumb, but otherwise it felt pretty good in my hand. I'll try some other models if I go to a range again. If I end up buying a Walther PPK (James Bond's gun), I'll need to re-evaluate my motivations.
So, how do I sum this up? I learned a lot, and changed my mind about a few things. Guns and their owners still worry me, but the gun I used didn't blow up in my hand or put any holes in anybody, so I'm not as scared as I used to be. The thought of owning a gun doesn't seem as unreasonable to me as it would have a few weeks ago.
I am a little concerned about my change of opinion regarding guns. I wasn't afraid of criminals before I started reading the gun owners' forums, but now I am. Have I been enlightened, or brainwashed? If I start spouting ridiculous sayings like "An armed society is a polite society" or if I start referring to unarmed citizens as "sheeple," I hope somebody will smack me.
I've described my views on gun rights and gun control just to provide some context for this experience. I am not interested in any discussion on these subjects, and don't want my blog to turn into a forum for such debates. I will delete any comments about gun politics, and will delete any anecdotes about horrible things happening to people due to guns or lack of guns.
I don't plan to write any further entries on this subject. In the unlikely event that I am involved in some sort of shooting-related incident, anything I've written may be used against me.
I'm dissapointed in you, Kris's readership. This is the article he was willing to quit over and it's received not with a "Bang" (pun intended) but with a whimper.
I have received a few private responses. None have been negative.