Me and my weapon

How I stopped worrying and joined the gun culture

Photo By Mark Lore

“Don’t take your guns to town, son Leave your guns at home, Bill Don’t take your guns to town”

—"Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” by Johnny Cash

It’s the Friday before Fourth of July weekend, and I’m feeling unnaturally patriotic. After blowing nearly $30 on fireworks at the American Legion booth in Oroville, I drive over to Huntington Sports in Oroville for some handgun ammo. Today’s the day I take my weapons test at Chico Rod & Gun Club, and I don’t want to come up short on rounds. The test is the first step toward getting a Concealed Carry Weapons (CCW) permit, a little slip of paper that will allow me to carry a loaded gun almost anywhere in California, and the thought of strapping on a piece and walking down the street has me giddy with anticipation.

Huntington’s is a pretty average gun shop, as far as I know. The walls are lined with the heads of deer and badgers and whatever else people shoot around here. I’m not into shooting animals, so I always feel a little out of place in these stores. I’m not the average customer here, and it shows. The old guys hanging around the shop, talking with the grizzled guy behind the counter, sort of eyeball me as I peer into the glass case where they keep the handguns.

I find a guy stocking shelves and ask him for some .22 rounds.

“Long or short?”

I have no idea. They’re for a gun that my wife’s cousin gave me—a little Derringer-style two-shooter that he bought from some mountain man when he was a teenager. He used to take it to church for some reason, right here in sleepy little Chico, Calif., where it seems like you’d be safe enough to not have to carry a gun around, especially in church.

I go and get the little pistol from my van and give it to the guy, who of course has to show it to all the old farts at the counter with apparently nothing better to do at 10 in the morning but hang around a gun shop. One of them says, not very admiringly, “That thing’s liable to go off in your pocket and shoot a hole in a quarter.”

“Or in something else,” another one says. They all laugh.

“Maybe I’ll keep it in my back pocket,” I mutter, as the guy hands me back my gun and a box of .22 long. Out in my van, I put the gun and ammo back in its bag and shove it in a box with the fireworks I had bought earlier, making sure to stash the whole bundle well out of sight.

It’s funny—the fireworks, which I plan on lighting off in the street to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, are illegal in the city limits. Yet in a few weeks, I’ll be able to carry a loaded pistol in my pocket and there isn’t a thing the cops can do about it.

Why would I want to carry a gun around? Honestly, I don’t know. As a white, middle-class male in my early 30s, I have very little reason to go packin'. Yet for a number of reasons, more and more people—I assume at least a few people like myself—are carrying guns around lately. This fact can be backed up by evidence both anecdotal and direct. At local gun ranges, classes for concealed carry permits are so full that managers have added more classes to pick up the slack, and still, they’re booked up for months in advance. Those are just the people who want to carry a weapon legally.

Photo By Josh Indar

According to Sgt. Dave Barrow, a spokesman for the Chico Police Department, more people are illegally packing as well. Arrests for gun offenses, as well as reports of public gunplay, are demonstrably higher than they were last year. In 2004, Chico had 68 arrests for weapons violations. This year, up to Oct. 5, there were already 89. Reports of firearms in public also went up, with 91 in 2004, compared to 117 so far this year.

Barrow had no answer as to why more people seem to be packing, but conceded that it could be part of a cycle.

“I suppose it’s possible, some of those people carrying could be reacting to that,” he said, “Although we’re more concerned with the ones who are carrying illegally.”

Barrow said he couldn’t speak for all the officers on the force, but said that the idea of civilians carrying guns bothers him.

“It’s kind of wild West,” he said. “Licensed or unlicensed, I don’t like it. I can remember doing vehicle stops and seeing a weapon or a holster. It really makes you nervous. You know, we [officers] are very well trained in firearms and most civilians are not.”

Whatever the reason, dangerous or not, I decided that if I wanted to write a story about how more people are carrying guns, I needed to join the crowd. So I headed for the Chico Rod & Gun Club, located on the lead-poisoned shores of an oversized puddle in Upper Bidwell Park known as Horseshoe Lake. The club’s headquarters is a dilapidated, mud-brown barn of a building housing an indoor public shooting range with fluorescent lights and a concrete floor that seems to amplify the sound of every shot, making the bangs and booms careen around like sonic ricochets. It is one of two indoor ranges (the other is Safer Arms) in Chico qualified to test CCW candidates on their ability to use a firearm.

Although gun-rights people will always try to tell you it is hard to get a gun and almost impossible to get a concealed carry permit in California, I personally found it almost ridiculously easy. You pick up an application at the Sheriff’s Office (not to be confused with the city police—see sidebar, page 18), fill it out, and then take it and your gun to one of the designated shooting ranges to complete your test. I chose the Rod & Gun Club because it was cheaper.

Once there, I was met by a couple of old-timers whose job was to make sure I was qualified to carry a gun around. They watched me load my weapon—a Sig Sauer P232—that the fellows at the gun club told me was too small for defensive use anyway, and then counted off my rounds as I attempted to hit an 8.5-by 11-inch target, 26 times, from a distance of 21 feet. Sigs are known for their accuracy, so I pretty much would’ve had to have been blind, drunk or both to miss. The .22 was a different story and was a pain in the ass to load so I gave up on it. When you qualify for a CCW, you have to qualify with the gun you intend to carry.

I was supposed to be taking a four-hour class in firearms safety, but for whatever reason, the gun club guys decided I didn’t really need the training and skipped me right to the quiz, which would’ve been easy enough to pass without their tutelage, yet they still felt inclined to give me the answers before I took it.

One of the instructors, a hunting-capped guy with a gut and a mustache, brought me up to speed. He told me when it was permissible to shoot someone—any time I feared for my life—and what to tell the cops afterward: “I want to see my lawyer.” As he ticked off the answers to the quiz I was about to take, he told me about the nature of criminals, using information I found somewhat suspect.

For one, he said, criminals are too lazy to learn how to properly use a firearm and therefore only hit about one out of every seven people they shoot at. They also carry all kinds of diseases. He imparted this pearl of wisdom while informing me of one of the more “silly” rules of self-defense. If you shoot someone, you may be legally obligated to provide them with first aid, he said. My instructors both agreed that it was always best, when one is shooting a criminal, to “unload your clip in him,” firing until either you run out of bullets or the guy you’re shooting at dies. That way, they said, you don’t have to risk getting AIDS or hepatitis when you are forced by law to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

The quiz was so easy it took longer for the guy to score it than it took me to take it. I won’t give away any of the answers, but one of the multiple-choice questions is:

If you shoot a prowler outside your home and drag him inside, it will:

a) Probably be O.K. as long as you clean up blood and other evidence outside, or;

B) Probably result in your arrest and prosecution.

After 45 minutes, and with my signed quiz and target, I was off to the Sheriff’s Office to pay my fee and give my thumbprint. The application is pretty much what you would expect—straightforward questions about criminal background, drug use, citizenship and the like. The one that stumped me was “What is your reason for applying for a CCW?”

Jackass that I am, I wanted to write something like “Motherfuckers be all up in my grill” or “I am a poet of annihilation and bullets are my words,” or even the cryptic but currently fashionable “I refuse to be a victim.” Somehow I thought they’d pick up on that, so I left it blank.

At the Sheriff’s Office, the ladies at the front desk took my picture and thumbprint and helped me fill in my incomplete application. I had to list all my aliases, which gave them a good laugh. They made me fill in the part about why I wanted a CCW, so I wrote that sometimes the stories I write make people mad enough to threaten my life—which is absolutely true, although I try not to take that stuff too seriously. (Journalistic ethics traditionally forbid reporters from carrying guns, as it supposedly violates the rule of objectivity. This maxim is generally followed in the United States, but in other countries, such as the Philippines, Mexico and Afghanistan, where journalists are increasingly becoming targets of the subjects of their stories, more and more reporters are choosing to arm themselves.)

With my application filled out and my fee paid, I was ready to pack heat. Six or seven weeks later, after the California Attorney General’s Office had cleared me, I was street-legal.

But by the time my permit had come in the mail, something had changed. I began to feel weird about carrying a gun around in public. The more I thought about it, the more I began to dread it. It’s not that I had any qualms about shooting somebody who was trying to hurt me. I was pretty sure that wouldn’t happen. I was more worried about getting shot by an overanxious cop, or “accidentally” shooting someone who shouldn’t have pissed me off.

So I let a few months slip by without really thinking about it. Once I finally got the nerve to holster my piece and step outside, I realized that the feeling of power I had originally expected was usurped by a nagging sense of anxiety that stayed with me all day, until I brought the gun home and shoved it into its safe.

Feeling unsure and more than a little under-prepared, I decided to check the Internet for gun-carrying advice, and I soon ran across a Web site for the United States Concealed Carry Association (USCCA), a Wisconsin group that publishes Concealed Carry magazine, as well as a bi-annual political newsletter dealing with 2nd Amendment issues.

On its Web site, USCCA founder Tim Schmidt wrote about how he felt that carrying a gun is a “social responsibility” that, if practiced more widely, would lead to a safer and more polite society.

So I called Schmidt and asked him if he really thought I was being socially responsible by bringing a gun to work with me. Schmidt, who said he regularly carried a Glock and a folding knife, admitted the “social responsibility” idea was “a little bit of an exaggeration to make a point.” Still, he said, “I think that people who make the decision to go out and arm themselves are being socially responsible. Not only are they looking out for themselves but they are indirectly protecting the people that don’t make that decision.”

That made me feel better, until I told him I had no real firearms training. Wasn’t I putting people at risk, rather than protecting them?

“Not really,” he answered. “You’re probably just a danger to yourself.”

Photo By Tina Flynn

Reasoning that he meant the state should have provided adequate training before it set me loose on the streets armed, I asked him if he thought we needed tougher carry laws. Not one to be tricked into espousing a “liberal” argument, Schmidt said we needed fewer gun laws and less government oversight.

“If you think you’re being responsible carrying a weapon then I guess you are,” he said. “It’s certainly no position of any government body to say that you shouldn’t be able to carry a weapon for your own protection. Don’t get me wrong, I think you need to have a tremendous amount of training to carry a weapon so that you’re safe and tactically smart enough about it … but because the government says ‘this is all you need to do,’ then there’s way too many people that think it’s good enough.”

Schmidt is obviously sincere, and his magazine is thoughtful and well-written, in contrast to some of the gun kook drivel that comes out of, say, the Firing Line, the official publication of the California Rifle and Pistol Association. One letter printed in that publication asks seriously, “Ever notice how a high percentage of gunophobes advocate Communism?”

Umm, no.

But I do wonder about the true motivations for some of these publications. Does advocating for more gun ownership actually stem from concern for the 2nd Amendment and the safety of Americans or does it come, at least partly, from the fact that there’s a lot of money to be made in playing off people’s fears—getting them to buy weapons, weapons accessories, magazines about weapons, and classes on how not to kill yourself with all the weapons you’ve bought?

By any estimation, the weapons trade is big business. In 2004, Californians bought 145,335 handguns. Using excise tax data, the National Shooting Sports Foundation pegged the U.S. gun and ammunition market at $1.88 billion, not including gun accessories, magazines and classes.

Pro-gun groups also generate tons of money for political causes and candidates, with the National Rifle Association giving almost $1 million a year, mostly to Republicans. While gun control groups such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence are relentlessly attacked in the pro-gun press, their influence on candidates seems negligible compared to the juggernaut of conservative cash and propaganda coming from the gun-totin’ right.

Many of the arguments against gun control are based on the premise that Americans are unsafe and cannot trust their government to protect them. But is America becoming a more violent society? Not according to the latest crime figures. Across the country, crime rates have fallen for the last decade, but gun ownership has gone up. In fact, the U.S. is the most gun-ownin’est country in the world, with nearly one gun for every American man, woman and child. Gun-rights advocates say that allowing citizens to bear arms helps us maintain a relatively free and open society. Gun-control advocates say it is the reason we have the highest homicide rate in the developed world. (Interestingly enough, the next gun-ownin’est country in the world is Yemen—not exactly a beacon of freedom, and certainly not a country most Americans, gun-owning or not, would want to emulate.)

Statistics relating guns to crime—or the lack of crime—are notoriously slippery. According to the California Department of Justice (CDOJ), violent crime in California has fallen from a high of 992 incidents per 100,000 residents in 1994 to 569 such incidents in 2003. Over that same period, gun sales in the state fell almost by half, from 642,197 to 315,065. So do fewer guns on the street mean fewer crimes? Not necessarily, for a host of reasons. Crime seems to happen in waves and may correlate to the economy or shifting demographics, or different approaches in law enforcement, education or even civic planning. Gun sales might correlate to rises in crime rates, cultural trends or any number of intangibles. There are so many variables it seems impossible to make a reasoned argument either way.

But there are those who have made a career out of making such links. On the gun-control side of the argument there is Michael Moore, whose movie Bowling for Columbine got under the skin of the gun-rights lobby by asserting, that much of our cultural fascination with guns stems from racism, fear and a childish form of machismo borne out of being the youngest and ass-kickin’est country on the global block for the last century-and-a-half.

Moore’s movie predictably came under fire from the usual suspects, who claimed that his arguments were subjective and one-sided and that he edited his film in sneaky ways to make gun advocates like Charlton Heston look like racist nuts who don’t care about the victims of gun violence.

On the pro-gun side, there is John Lott.

Lott claimed in 1997 to have found a causal relationship between a decrease in crime and an increase in the number of concealed weapons permits issued in some states. His book, More Guns, Less Crime, was hailed by NRA-types as providing “unimpeachable evidence” that states that issued more CCWs had a corresponding decrease in crime. The premise at work was that criminals began finding it more and more difficult to find victims, as they didn’t know who might be packing heat.

Lott’s book, though, has problems. Not only has he been convincingly accused of faking at least one survey, he has openly admitted that much of his research was improperly “coded,” leading many academics to dismiss much of his analysis. Then he was caught using a fabricated identity to tout and defend his book over the Internet. Lott, who formerly taught at Yale and the University of Chicago, now works for the neoconservative think tank American Enterprise Institute—you might remember AEI as being one of the main proponents of our president’s invasion of Iraq.

I’m no economist, but I have to wonder about Lott’s premise. Why, for instance, does Kern County, which issues the most CCWs of any county in California, have such a higher percentage of violent crime than Butte County does? Kern, with a population roughly three times that of Butte, regularly issues three times as many CCWs. Yet when you break it down to a percentage, an average Kern County resident is almost twice as likely to be a victim of violent crime. (These figures come from the CDOJ’s statistics division.)

Clearly, other factors are at play, though I’d be asking for trouble if I tried to guess what they are. What I will say though, after becoming acquainted with firearms and the culture that surrounds them, is that when it comes to debating gun control, both sides seem to be off the mark.

Conservatives like to pretend that all liberals are out to take their guns away, a ridiculous notion considering that, according to the General Social Science Survey, about 30 percent of people who consider themselves liberal already own guns themselves. And liberals like to portray gun-rights advocates as a bunch of tobacco-chawing xenophobes who are trying to compensate for the tiny size of their wieners.

The cops will tell you that if you don’t have a reason to be carrying a gun then you shouldn’t carry one. So then why did they give me a permit? The 2nd Amendment presumably gives me the right to keep and bear arms, yet it qualifies that right with a vague statement about “a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state.” I’m not sure how I qualify as my own militia. I may be regular (I drink a lot of coffee), but I don’t know that I’m all that well regulated. Do the Branch Davidians qualify as a militia? How about the Crips or the KKK?

And now we get to the heart of the matter. The gun-rights lobby likes to pretend that it is a culturally cohesive group and it assumes that the people who will end up carrying the guns they advocate for are people much like themselves.

This can be illustrated by a piece written by John Connor, a self-proclaimed “gun crank” writing a presumably humorous column for American Handgunner Magazine. He writes: “How ’bout a ‘Gun Rich Zone’ restaurant"? Wouldn’t you be comfy eatin’ at the Smith & Wesson Supper Club, ‘Armed Citizens Always Welcome?’ There’d be no snail-like service and NO snotty waiters. Customer service always seems to improve when there’s ordnance on your hip.”

I e-mailed Connor to find out why he assumed that the waiters in such a restaurant would not be armed, the same as the customers. He didn’t write back, but he didn’t need to. The implication is clear: Those who have less social standing than Connor will not be afforded the privilege of being armed.

Do the gun-rights folks really want someone like me—a left-leaning, antisocial, misfit with an attitude—carrying a gun around? Or do they think that I, along with the rest of the freaks out there, am too stupid, too scared or too poor to arm myself? I’ll say one thing to the John Connors out there: the fact that my country is currently flirting with fascism and an economic collapse of epic proportions, coupled with the fact that the word “liberal” is becoming almost equivalent to how the word “Juden” was used in the Weimar Republic makes me, and I would guess a whole lot of others, much more likely to embrace and exercise our 2nd amendment rights.

Many CCW advocates go as far as to claim that gun control is inherently racist. As evidence, they cite a raft of legislation written in the early days of America that was expressly written to forbid blacks, Indians and Hispanics from owning guns. (In the case of state law, this is probably true. Federal gun legislation, however, first introduced in 1934, likely had more to do with prohibition and organized crime than race.) But in some ways, the premise still holds. Before Oakland’s Black Panthers took to the steps of the state Capitol armed with shotguns to protest police brutality in 1968, it was perfectly legal in California to do so. By the next legislative session, it was not.

Around that time, panther Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver blasted gun control laws using a similar, but more unabashedly race-based, argument heard more and more often coming from the mouths of modern gun enthusiasts.

“Politicians who are known to be the enemies of the black community [are] in the forefront of the forces calling for gun control,” Cleaver said. “All this ballyhoo about gun legislation, we feel, is aimed at disarming the black liberation struggle and the allies of that struggle in the white community.”

The irony is that, by using the gun lobby’s own logic, if anyone has a right to arm themselves, it is the black population. After all, a black man in the United States is nine times more likely to be shot and killed than a white man. Blacks are also disproportionately affected by crime, much of it at the hands of gun-wielding crooks who also happen to be black. Yet in most black neighborhoods guns are considered, at least among law-abiding folks, as more of a menace than a solution.

Poor people are also disproportionately affected by crime. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, those who make $7,500 or less per year are three times more likely than those making a living wage to become victims of crime. Yet the gun industry doesn’t market their products to poor people, nor do they run ads featuring photos of Huey P. Newton or even 50 Cent. (Look in any gun magazine—almost everybody’s white.)

Yet they do increasingly market firearms to women, often using the ugly specter of rape to do so. Advertisements in gun magazines expose a schizophrenic view of gender roles, commonly featuring on one page, a busty female “cop” posing half-naked with a shoulder holster, and on another page, a fearful yet determined woman, fully clothed, brandishing a .38 snubnose in a dimly lit parking garage.

Certainly if any group of people should be carrying concealed weapons, it is women. By some estimates, one in three women will be sexually victimized at some point in their lives, a statistic that must have something to do with the skyrocketing sales of handguns to women.

The National Sporting Goods Association reports that the number of women involved in target shooting sports rose by 1.2 million between 1998 and 2003, and according to Gallup, at least 27 percent of women have a gun in their home.

Gay men, another group that is often subject to violence and harassment, are also cited as a fast-growing group of gun owners. Groups such as the Pink Pistols, a gay-friendly gun-rights group with chapters across the country, argue convincingly that the old liberal saw about creating a violence-free society is a pipe dream that ignores both human history and human nature.

Honestly, I have to agree. But while I’ll proudly throw my lot in with the armed queers and pistol packin’ mamas, I feel a little bit weird about it, because at the same time, I seem to be inadvertently joining the redneck nation, a place I feel neither safe nor welcome.

But hell, maybe I should just get over that. With the country as divided as it is, any common ground might be better than none at all, even if it means we all have to be armed in order to get along with each other.

I also should point out that carrying a gun in public is, for me at least, impractical, and it’s not much fun either. For one thing, it’s uncomfortable. Everyone who carries will tell you that if you have a gun on you, it should be loaded and accessible at all times. This means you either have to wear a big, heavy jacket to keep it hidden (good luck with that in Chico in July) or stuff the thing way down in your pants. I suppose there is the fanny pack option (worn in front for easy access), and women can always keep a gun in their purse. But I look like an idiot with a fanny pack and I doubt I’d look much cooler with a purse. I knew a guy once, a small-time drug dealer, who kept a piece in his backpack. But as I learned one hot summer day, there are huge problems with that.

I generally wear a backpack to work every day. During the course of my carrying a loaded handgun for this story, I once got lazy and decided to put the gun in the zipped pocket of my backpack. What happened next, as I was leaving work, illustrates perfectly the trouble I had with packing.

As I was heading for my van parked around the block, I ran across a group of about six teenagers—the youngest was maybe 14, the oldest maybe 19—as they were stumbling out of Annie’s Glenn, obviously having spent the afternoon polishing off a bottle or three of Boone’s Farm wine or some other alcoholic concoction. One of the little drunkards asks me what time it is, which, where I’m from means “I’m going to kick your ass and you should run now,” but in Chico usually just means “what time is it?” I never wear a watch so I said, “I don’t know.”

So the kid decides he doesn’t like that answer and starts saying some not-very-nice-things. Now, I’m not accustomed to taking verbal abuse from ninth-graders, but the gun in my bag presents a problem. Do I tell the kid to shut up and risk the possibility of him and his friends jumping me? If that happens, do I swing my bag around and pull out my gun? If a fight breaks out, I can’t put the bag on the ground or one of them might take it, then they’d be drunk and armed—and it would be my fault! I don’t see myself pistol-whipping the kid just for being snotty, and I certainly don’t want to shoot him. What would a jury think? Besides, nowadays, those kids are just as likely to be armed as I am.

So tell me: what good is carrying a gun around when some suburban runt gets to call you an asshole and all you can do is pretend you didn’t hear him?

I’ve had guns pointed at me at least three times. Once by a junior high friend who thought it would be fun to level his dad’s loaded M-16 at me; once by a guy who, at the behest of a juvenile hood rat, held me and a friend at gunpoint while neighborhood kids pelted us with bottles; and once for attracting unwarranted police attention by simply driving down the street in Cleveland, Ohio. If I’d whipped out a piece during any of those incidents, I doubt I would have lived to tell the tale.

Gun-rights folks are always claiming that carrying a gun can keep a person from being a victim. After lugging one around for a week, I can honestly say I didn’t feel any safer. In fact, it seemed a lot of the time like a recipe for disaster. I don’t feel relaxed and confident when I’m carrying a gun—I’m a nervous wreck! I’m always pulling the tail of my shirt down to make sure no one can see the pistol sticking out of my ass crack. I’m afraid to stop at a bus bench and tie my shoe because my gun might go clattering to the sidewalk. And I can never decide whether to carry a revolver or an automatic.

(Schmidt, of the USCCA, admitted to a similar phenomenon, saying “I don’t know about you, but when I carry a gun around, I almost become a different person. I become Mr. Conflict Avoidance—I don’t want to take the chance of anything escalating.")

By law, I’m not allowed to bring my gun into any bars, or political demonstrations. I probably can’t go to San Francisco since they passed that asinine law forbidding handguns in the city limits, although someone with a CCW will likely make a test case out of it soon. I’m not allowed to break any laws or consume any drugs or alcohol while I’m carrying, nor am I allowed to pretend I’m a cop or otherwise “impede peace officers in the conduct of their activities.” So carrying a gun pretty much ruins my social life, too.

As it turns out, carrying a gun is an intensely personal experience, one that made me hyper-aware of every situation I found myself in, and made me question every move I made.

I, like a lot of other people who go through the whole process of getting a CCW permit, generally leave my gun at home nowadays. Yet I still feel better somehow knowing that, if for some crazy reason I felt the need to carry it, I could do so without breaking the law. A lot of people might not want me carrying a gun around. Maybe they think I’m not responsible enough or that I shouldn’t have the right to defend myself if attacked. A lot of those people might even want to give me shit about it.

Maybe what those people need to ask themselves is; “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do you, punk?