It's 9 p.m. on a Monday, and I'm standing in Bay 2 at Rangemaster. Impact-resistant eyeglasses cover my regular glasses, and foam-cushioned earmuffs dampen the sound of the pistols fired around me to a gentle POP POP POP.
I'm at the "ready" position, just as I've been instructed — leaning forward with my weight on the balls of my feet, gripping my 9mm Beretta with both hands, my finger off the trigger, the barrel angled toward the floor. Over an intercom, the instructor barks, "Okay, I want you to take one shot and one shot only. UP!"
I raise the pistol, aligning the rear sight notch with the front sight until the barrel points dead-center at the vaguely human silhouette printed on the paper target just 10 feet away. With a steady squeeze, I pull the trigger until — BLAM! — the gun jumps in my hand and a ragged hole appears an inch below the target's "heart." It's a good shot, and I'm happy. I won't have any trouble passing the shooting portion of the handgun carry permit class. It's the written test I'm worried about.
I've been around guns since I was a kid, mainly plinking away with .22 rifles at cans and other inanimate targets. I was considered a crack shot by my friends, but as I got older, I sold my guns and turned to other, quieter hobbies. But a few months ago, I reasoned that — living in Memphis and all — it wouldn't be a bad idea to carry a pistol when my job took me into "interesting" parts of town. And so I decided to get a handgun carry permit.
Here's the procedure: You first have to take a state-certified course in handgun safety before submitting your application. A number of places and people around town teach these classes, but I went with Rangemaster on Mendenhall because I had seen their little target decals on car windows.
The "Basic Personal Protection Course" costs $99, which gets you a 26-page workbook, ammunition, targets, and range time. Classes are either eight hours on one day or four hours on two consecutive days. The two-day option was available, and on this evening in March I found myself at Rangemaster with 19 other students.
I didn't know who might sign up for these classes, but with my unruly hair and penchant for Harley-Davidson shirts, I was probably the scruffiest fellow in the class. My classmates included a twentysomething woman who worked in advertising sales for another publication in town, several women who struck me as Germantown housewives, and several fellows a bit older than me. Everybody looked so ... normal.
Raving gun nuts don't bother with handgun carry permits, I gathered.
Safety is a major issue at Rangemaster. We could bring our own weapons, or they would furnish Glocks for us. I preferred to use my own gun, and as soon as I walked in with my unloaded Beretta, the Rangemaster crew took it, put masking tape with my name on the handle, and carefully stored it away. I wouldn't see it again until we got on the range.
Other students began to file into the Rangemaster lobby, and everyone was quiet and strangely subdued. It was almost like we were embarrassed to be doing this. Nobody discussed politics (a hot issue in the gun world), bragged about hunting, or even talked about their guns.
Promptly at 6 p.m., we filed into a classroom and settled behind four rows of long tables. Posters on gun safety and operation were prominently displayed around the room, and an odd assortment of objects — including fake guns, a plastic knife, and a banana — was piled on a table at the front.
Our instructor introduced himself as John Parker, a former security officer with the U.S. Air Force. He was an affable fellow, all right, but it was clear that he meant business. Around his waist was a heavy belt that held a Glock in a leather holster, a pair of extra magazines, a flashlight, and a pepper-gas dispenser. He later told us that he was, in fact, carrying two other weapons that evening, though we couldn't tell where.
The class is a combination of personal instruction by people like Parker, interspersed with a series of videos hosted by Tom Givens, the chief instructor at Rangemaster, a fellow with so many firearms qualifications that it takes an entire page to list them in the class workbook. Parker explained that we had a lot to cover — too much, really — in just two days, so there would be no time for anyone to ask questions.
The first thing he did was ask how many people had never fired a gun before, and almost one-third of the class raised their hands. Then we got started by talking about gun safety, a topic that was never far off the table. "All guns are always loaded" was one mantra that we were told to memorize, as was "Never point your gun at anything you don't intend to destroy." Not wound or kill. Destroy.
We watched videos that explained the two basic types of pistols, how they operate, and their advantages for self-defense. Revolvers are easy to use, we learned, but they tend to be bulky, they don't hold a lot of ammo, and they're hard to reload. Only one person in the class, it turned out, had a revolver.
Semi-automatic pistols, which fire one shot with each pull of the trigger, are a better choice. They can hold as many as 17 rounds in the magazine, and then it's a simple matter to remove the empty clip and load another.
All this firepower is important because, Parker explained, "It's not like in the movies. When you shoot a bad guy, he's not going to fly backward and crash through a plate-glass window." In fact, depending on the ammo, he may keep coming toward you even after he's been shot — plenty of time for him to still shoot or stab you. In guns, we learned, size does matter.
Other videos showed us the different types and sizes of ammunition, how to pick out a high-quality firearm, and how to select a holster. After all, even with a carry permit, you can't strap on a pistol and walk down the street. That makes the police very nervous. The gun has to be concealed — usually by tucking it away in a special holster that fits inside the waistband of your pants or skirt.
The whole point of all this early instruction was to help us find a gun that would do the job when it was needed, a weapon that would be (and here's another mantra): "wearable, user-friendly, reliable, and effective."
Parker then walked us through a wide range of real-life scenarios, the purpose being to show us that — despite our handgun permits — we were NOT police officers, and we couldn't shoot people — or even shoot at people — just because we felt like it. If anything, we were told again and again to avoid confrontations whenever possible.
He presented one tricky situation that stuck with me: You're alone at home and you hear a window shatter. You pull out your trusty Smith & Wesson and venture downstairs. In the living room, you spot an intruder, so you bring him down with a couple of shots (again: one shot will almost never do the trick). But then you spot another guy, and he raises his hands and says, "I surrender! You got my buddy there, but don't shoot me."
What to do? You don't know if the first guy is dead, or just faking, and how do you hold your gun on another assailant — who may or may not be pretending to surrender — while you fumble with a phone call to the police? Parker said, "You tell that guy to get out the way he came in — through the window if he has to. You want that threat out of your way. Let the police catch him. That's their job, not yours. Then you hold your gun on the first guy until the police arrive."
And if you're ever involved in a shooting, he says, always clearly identify yourself to the police. The cops will have only seconds to assess the situation when they arrive, and they may decide that the main threat is the guy still holding the gun, and that's just too bad if it happens to be you.
So that's how most of the class went. We followed basic rules and guidelines in our workbook, while Parker and Givens illustrated them with real-life stories. Some instructions surprised us. For one, don't fire a warning shot. "A warning shot fired into the air will come down and hit somebody. A warning shot fired into the ground can ricochet," Parker said. "But the main reason? A warning shot tells the bad guy that you really don't want to shoot him."
The main lesson — and this was hammered into our heads again and again — is that you can't fire a weapon at somebody unless — and this is the direct quote from the workbook — you face "a type or degree of force that would be reasonably expected to cause death or serious bodily injury." You can't shoot somebody who simply angers or threatens you. The recent incident in the Trinity Commons parking lot, where one fellow allegedly shot another after an argument about their SUVs, was brought up as a perfect example of what not to do. "From what I understand, the threat was over," Parker said. "That guy should have walked away."
After two hours or so, we took a break out in the lobby. A few of my classmates mentioned offhandedly why they were taking the class. Two kinds of fear motivated them. Most wanted to protect themselves: "I just want something to carry in my purse," one woman said, and another said, "My father wanted me to carry a gun." But one fellow said, "I don't know if this is true, but I've heard Obama is going to do away with carry permits unless you're already grandfathered in." In other words, get one now while you still can.
After we filed back into class, we learned that we would be shooting real guns that night, not just aiming the plastic ones that had been passed around the class. Students were grouped into pairs. I was B-2, matched with another fellow whom I knew only as A-2. We would share Bay 2 inside the range.
Like schoolchildren going to recess, we lined up at the range door and picked up our "eyes and ears" — the protective goggles and earmuffs. We still didn't have guns. Once inside, Parker went over the basic rules of range safety, because things can indeed become dangerous very quickly when bullets are flying: Always keep your weapon pointed down-range. Don't load or unload your weapon until you are instructed to do so. If you have a jam or any problem at all, raise your free hand (the one not holding the gun), and signal for help. And so on. We got the message.
The shooting range is a cavernous concrete chamber. Across the back are shooting bays — 10 booths separated by what I presumed were bulletproof walls — open at the front and back. A low shelf across the front of each bay holds your gun and ammo and keeps people — and you know somebody would do this — from walking toward their target while people are still shooting. A bench along the back wall lets the other shooters relax out of harm's way.
The paper targets are clipped to a pair of steel cables. An electric toggle switch in each bay brings the target toward you for changing and then carries it back to the firing line. Signs everywhere warn you how much you will pay if you miss the target — accidentally or on purpose — and shoot away the cable or other working parts of the range.
The 10 members of group A stepped into their bays, while the "B" folks waited their turn on the benches. Each student's pistol lay on the shelf in front of them, along with a box containing 25 rounds of ammo. Parker had everyone first go through "dry" firing — with the magazine removed, just holding their gun in the ready position, then raising it to the "up" position for firing — over and over until our arms ached.
Finally, it was time for some real shooting. Other instructors in the range showed us how to load six, and only six, rounds in the magazine — a fingernail-breaking process since it involved forcing bullets past a heavy spring in the clip. Parker shouted, "Ready!" We stood with pistols pointed downrange, our fingers off the trigger. Then, "Up!" and we raised them and fired at the targets 10 feet away. Even the people in class who said they had never fired a gun before hit the target. And so it went for the rest of the night, firing one shot at a time until the clip was empty. Placing your gun on the shelf and sitting down so the next group could do the same. Then firing two shots at a time, reloading, and firing three-shot bursts.
We did have a minor crisis that evening. After most of us had taken one shot, the young woman in bay 4 raised her hand. Parker said, "Cease firing. Hot in Number 4." The woman put down her pistol and walked quickly out of the range, accompanied by an instructor. Good grief, we thought — what had happened? It turns out a red-hot cartridge ejected by her Glock had landed inside her open blouse. Ouch! Most of us buttoned our collars after that.
By the end of the evening, we were allowed to fire six shots in a row. It was tempting to just blast away, but Parker cautioned us, "Take your time. It's about accuracy, not speed." Then we slipped the empty magazines from the guns, put the weapon and our "eyes and ears" in a plastic tray, and filed out of the range. The first night's lesson was over, and I drove home, my arms weary from holding the gun in the "ready" position for so long, my ears ringing, and my clothes reeking of gunpowder.
The next night, promptly at 6, we gathered again in the range. After getting to shoot 20 or so practice rounds, we were handed new targets, again with the human silhouette on them. An X on the target marked the heart, and vital areas in the chest, head, and groin were outlined. As much as everyone wanted to try a clean head shot, we were told to aim at the X in the chest.
This time accuracy was more important, because this was the qualifying test — 50 shots, in groups of three until we ran out of ammo — and each one had to hit the target. I carefully aimed my Beretta at the "Up" command and slowly pulled the trigger. The gun kicked in my hand, but I didn't see a hole in my target's "heart." Not even close. Instead, I had hit the "guy" close to the groin. What the ...?
"You anticipated the recoil and probably 'pulled it' at the last second," said the instructor standing behind me. "It's okay. You still managed to get his femoral artery." For the next shot, I relaxed and this time put my target out of its misery by firing shot after shot directly into the box on his chest. If that had been a "bad guy" he would be very dead indeed.
Shooting over, we washed the gunshot residue ("GSR" in all the CSI-type television shows) off our hands and trooped back into the classroom for some last-minute instructions. Again, Parker emphasized that firing a gun was a no-other-alternative situation. Even if the cops didn't arrest you, lawyers were ready with all kinds of civil lawsuits. It simply had to be a life-or-death situation, and you — the fellow with that brand-new handgun carry permit — had to make that decision in a matter of seconds.
He offered another stressful scenario. Parker tossed a fake knife to a student in the back row of tables and told him to stand up. Was that student a "deadly threat" to our teacher? No. Because it would take him quite some time to get around all the chairs and tables, and Parker might — he emphasized might — be able to get away without killing anybody.
But then he had the knife-holder move into the aisle, and Parker also moved into the aisle, still standing about 30 feet away. Now, was the fellow a deadly threat? Yes. "A man can run that distance in as little as two seconds. He can stab me before I can get a shot off." So in this case, the only course of action would be to shoot the fellow with the knife before he could attack — a sobering thought.
Again and again, he emphasized that we had to assess the threat level before shooting. He picked up a plastic pistol and pointed it at a lady in the front row. If it were a real gun, was he a threat? Could she shoot him if he did that? We all agreed yes, and we were right.
But then he picked up a banana — yes, a banana — and did the same thing. Would the lady shoot him now? She thought about it awhile, then said, "Probably not." We all laughed at that "probably," but the correct answer was no. The "robber" — no matter how crazy he acted — was not a threat armed with a banana.
Midway through the evening, Parker reeled off sobering statistics about the level of crime in Memphis: rapes, murders, and aggravated assaults. Then he said something odd: "Do you know what aggravated assaults are? They are really attempted murder, but a certain group of people in this country didn't like the sound of that, so they changed the term to aggravated assault. Yes, I'm talking about liberals."
Huh? Liberals? I began to raise my hand to protest but remembered we weren't supposed to ask questions. And I also remembered an unspoken rule of firearm safety: Never argue with a man holding a gun. Or, in Parker's case, three of them.
Putting It in Writing
Finally, it was time for the written test. We had heard rumors that it was 50 questions, or 100 questions, or all fill-in-the-blank. Whatever, the test was hard. In reality, we tackled 35 questions, some fill-in-the-blanks based on the basic rules we had studied the night before ("_____ guns are ______ loaded"). Others were multiple-choice questions: "A semi-automatic handgun: a. fires once with each pull of the trigger, b. has a magazine, c. has one chamber, d. all of the above." Not exactly brain teasers.
The last two questions asked us about our favorite radio stations, so I don't think they actually counted. The whole thing took about 15 minutes. When it was over, Parker gave away a secret that some of us had already noticed: "Yesterday I told you that you always had to be aware of your surroundings. Well, you could find every single answer on the test by just looking at the posters on the walls of this room." And so you could.
Every person in the class passed the shooting and written tests that night. We were given certificates and little Rangemaster decals to put on our cars. But as the evening came to an end, Parker warned us, in no uncertain terms, that taking this class did not prepare us for a gunfight in the real world, where the targets were often shooting back at you. To prepare yourself for those dire situations, Rangemaster offered other classes, such as "Tactical Pistol" and "Defensive Shotgun." They even offer a "Vehicle Defense / Anti-Carjacking" course.
When it was over, I confess I was surprised — and impressed. Even though all the instructors were trained and certified by the National Rifle Association, they never pushed NRA membership on us. They never harped about the Second Amendment. They never asked who we voted for. And except for a few vague digs about liberals, they never commented or complained about that Obama fellow who was going to take everyone's guns away. Some students did, but not the instructors.
Completing the Rangemaster class was just the first step in the complicated process of earning a handgun carry permit. You have to take your certificate, along with a passport or birth certificate, to one of the Tennessee driver's testing centers to apply for the permit. Anyone who has ever applied for a driver's license knows what an ordeal that is. After more than an hour wait, I met with a clerk and affirmed that I was not a convicted felon and had no plans to overthrow the U.S. government. They don't just take your word for it; that's why the application process takes 90 days. And don't even think about paying the $115 permit fee with a check or credit card. It's cash only or a certified check.
But there's more. Next comes the fingerprinting, taken at locations around town that offer digital fingerprinting services. Finally, you're done.
So let's see: eight-hour class, target shooting, written test, certificate, application, birth certificate, photograph, and fingerprinting. Total cost: $205. Getting a handgun carry permit is a long, expensive, and complicated process. But while I'm waiting three months (and probably more) for the permit, I suppose I'll take some target-shooting classes — and hope that the only thing I ever shoot is made out of paper.