Safer with a gun? A firearm novice makes her choice.
EDITOR'S NOTE -- All but four states allow people to carry concealed handguns. But for any individual, the decision to do so is personal. An Associated Press writer tells why she considered seeking a permit and the choice she finally made.
By ANITA CHANG
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
COLUMBUS -- The guns were laid out on blue rubber mats printed with the Smith & amp; Wesson logo.
I sat in my seat for several moments, just looking at the smooth metal of the barrels and the darkness of the empty chambers. I was surprised at how much they looked like the toys my brother and I used to shoot each other with when we were kids.
Tentatively, I stuck out my index finger and spun the cylinder on the revolver. Cooool. It was the first time I'd ever touched a handgun.
A revolver and a semiautomatic were set out in front of each of the 17 students in my class. We'd spend a long day together, eight hours in the classroom and four in the shooting range.
If we passed a written test at day's end, we'd be eligible to apply for permits to carry concealed handguns.
Summer camp, when I was 9, was the only time I ever shot a firearm, and that was a rifle. My aim was so terrible I asked the counselor if my gun was broken (it wasn't.)
So I was a little surprised three years ago when my father said: "You need to get a gun. And a concealed carry license."
I was moving away from my hometown to start my first real job in the big city of Dallas. I'd be living on my own for the first time.
Although scared, I wasn't about to admit it. The plan was, if things got rough, I'd get a big, mean dog.
The "real world" changed my outlook. I'm petite -- small enough to wear kid-sized T-shirts -- and look about 16, maybe 19 if I wear makeup.
I don't look tough.
Like many young women, I sometimes get harassed -- and not just when I'm out dancing at nightclubs but when I'm pumping gas, doing interviews or buying cereal.
I bought pepper spray to ward off one creepy security guard. Then I took up boxing. But I didn't think of myself as someone who should be packin' heat.
That was before the harassment on the highway.
A frightening drive
There were plenty of motorcyclists on the interstate that Sunday afternoon, but none as reckless as the two guys on sport bikes who were merging into traffic riding only on their rear tires.
As they sped toward me, one went on the passenger side, the other the driver's side. That one leered at me, his craggy, stubbled face just inches from my window.
Next, he sped off ahead and, while going at least 60 mph, did daredevil tricks -- at one point climbing off the seat and balancing on the foot peg on one side, skimming the asphalt with his sneaker.
Hopping on the seat again, he took off in a blast of speed, then leaned back and crossed his hands behind his head, riding as if sitting in a La-Z-Boy.
But it wasn't long before he slowed down and was right next to me again.
All I wanted to do was pick up some ground beef and milk from the store. Why wouldn't he leave me alone?
While his friend rode ahead, the maniac merged in front of me, then accelerated and slowed unpredictably. I resisted the urge to go around for fear I'd accidentally run over him.
The bikers exited the interstate with me. And kept following.
At red lights, I pretended to be changing channels on the radio. Without turning my head, I could see the guys pointing and talking to each other.
What would I do if they followed me all the way to the store? Into the store? A big dog couldn't help me now.
Two miles later, I turned and the jerks kept going straight. I turned into the grocery store parking lot, and sat there, shaking and sweaty.
Why was I so powerless to protect myself? That was my first thought.
My second thought: I need a gun.
The timing was perfect. Ohio's concealed carry law went into effect last April, after nine years of debate in the Legislature. Ohio joined 45 other states that allow residents to carry concealed handguns; only Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Illinois do not.
Generally, concealed weapon laws require a person be at least 21, not a fugitive from justice, and not mentally ill. Conviction of a long list of crimes also precludes getting a permit.
In some states, authorities must issue a permit to anyone who meets the requirements. In others, applicants must show a need. While a precise national figure is not known, tens of thousands of people in Ohio already have received permits to carry concealed handguns. I thought I ought to become one of them.
As soon as I got home from the store, even before putting my groceries away, I called the New Albany Shooting Range.
I figured applicants had to have some sort of previous experience with handguns ... or at least good aim.
"Not a problem at all," the man at the shooting range told me, explaining the concealed carry class, leading to a license.
"We'll provide you everything you need. Just bring yourself."
In the classroom
My class was about half men, half women. Most were middle-aged; I looked to be the youngest.
Instructor Terrie Bussey warned us as the long day started at 8 a.m., "You're going to be exhausted by the time this is over."
We started with a lesson in firearm safety (Rule No. 1: Always keep your gun pointed in a safe direction.). Then came descriptions of various kinds of weapons and ammunition, which we learned to load and unload.
Finally, it was time to fire some guns.
The walls and ceiling of the front portion of the shooting range were covered with egg crate foam to absorb sound. Six booths, separated by thick plastic, looked onto a 50-foot range, like a bowling alley with concrete walls.
A long table covered with green felt held more than two dozen revolvers and semiautomatics from which we could choose for practice. A red plastic shopping basket under the table held more powerful .45-caliber pistols.
I began to feel butterflies as Bussey turned on the fan that blew downrange, so the smoke and lead from the cartridges wouldn't cloud around the shooters. I put on blue plastic earmuffs and smudged safety glasses.
What does a gun going off sound like in real life?
I soon learned, jumping like a skittish horse the first time someone fired, then again with the next shot. I squeezed the earmuffs even tighter to my head.
Finally, it was my turn to shoot.
First, I practiced dry firing, aiming the unloaded 9 mm revolver at the center of the paper target and squeezing the trigger a few times. The gun looked cartoonishly oversized in my small hands, and I tried to hold it steady, lining up rear and front sights, squinting at the target about one car length away.
Click, click, click.
My clammy fingers shaking, I loaded a cartridge into the one o'clock position of the cylinder.
Again, I stared at the bull's-eye, squinting -- or did I shut my eyes? -- and squeezed the trigger.
It was as if a bomb went off in my face. A flicker of flame burst from the barrel, followed by a curlicue of smoke and a whiff of gunpowder.
Firing a gun is portrayed on TV and in movies as a fluid and natural action, something that can easily be done with one hand and while running, driving or jumping out of a burning building.
For me it was violent and jarring. The recoil made me worry that the gun was going to jump out of my hands.
I later fired a .45-caliber, which was like being jolted on the tight turns of a rickety roller coaster. My neck and head snapped back, and the gun ended up above my head because of the recoil.
(Bussey was right. The next day, my arms and back were sore, as if I had been lifting weights.)
After stationary target shooting, we had a new challenge. A target with the silhouette of a man's torso and head was programmed to move toward the shooter from 50 feet away at about the speed of someone running.
The instructors told us to yell, "Stop!" -- which in real life would, you hope, get the attacker to pause -- then shoot five times.
Up to this point, I'd been soaking up the safety rules and gun basics, and I even hit the target with all 10 of my shots during the first practice round with a semiautomatic. I was beginning to feel confident.
When the newsprint target started fluttering toward me, I squeaked "Stop" as authoritatively as I could, then squeezed the trigger five times fast.
I couldn't even hit a target moving in a straight line in a well-lit room. How was I supposed to shoot a bad guy in a dark parking garage?
I thought: What if I had a concealed gun and was confronted? Would I have the time, not to mention the composure, to pull the gun out, aim and shoot accurately? If I didn't bobble the gun and shoot my foot, there's still no guarantee that the bad guy wouldn't just snatch the gun out of my hands and use it on me.
Know the law
Even as a person whose job is to follow the news, there was much I didn't know about Ohio's concealed carry law.
It requires a person with a gun to use any means to ward off an attack before resorting to deadly force. In my confrontation with the bikers, I could have driven to a crowded public place or called the police.
In this state, unlike some others, a gun can be used only when a life is threatened, one's own or someone else's -- not, for example, to protect property.
And I learned more. My instructors said there's no point in carrying a .22-caliber because the bullets are so small. They don't always kill. Since the only time you'd be using the gun is to protect a life, you'd better make sure your one shot is deadly. That was a chilling thought.
Then there are the rules about where you can't carry a concealed weapon. Police departments, courthouses, churches, schools and many businesses (including my office) don't allow firearms. The Ohio law says the gun must be hidden when you're in public, except if you plan to carry it on your body in the car -- where it must be in plain sight. Other states have widely varying quirks in their concealed carry laws.
The class made it clearer than ever: Owning a gun is a huge responsibility. Not only do you have to know the law inside and out, not only do you have the cost of the gun itself and firing range time to keep skills current, but you have to keep close tabs on a firearm at all times.
A personal choice
After thinking it over, I paid $45 and got the concealed carry license.
Why not? I completed the class and scored 100 percent on the open-book test at the end of the day. It's my right as a law-abiding citizen, after all.
The card looks like a driver's license, and I made sure to smile nicely because I knew I'd be showing it to a lot of people. I keep it in my wallet, where it's stuck in a stack of grocery receipts, business cards and dry cleaning tickets. It's a great conversation piece.
I feel better -- safer -- with the license.
Maybe one day I'll change my mind and get a gun, too.