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Learning about our gun cultures: I’m getting a permit to carry a pistol

The second time I ever shot a gun, I passed a safety class that qualified me to legally carry a pistol in Minnesota.

Baseball hats, oversized clear goggles and buttoned-up shirts protected our flesh from singeing by errant hot brass ejected each time a gun fired.
Courtesy of Mike Cronin

This coverage is made possible by a grant from the Joyce Foundation.

The second time I ever shot a gun, I passed a safety class that qualified me to legally carry a pistol in Minnesota.

I fired 50 rounds of 9-millimeter bullets — which I bought at a Minnetonka gun shop for $16.95 — two weeks ago from a black Glock 17. I shot a human-shaped target that was 15 feet away at first, then 21. Part of the time, I shot using my right hand only. The rest of the time, I shot using both hands.

My instructor, Andrew Rothman, 44, who is certified by the National Rifle Association, told me I scored 97.33 percent — tied for second-best out of a class of five. I squeezed my right eye shut so I could line up the gun sights and the target properly.

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As the least experienced, I went last. But I didn’t wait for my turn in the lobby of the Burnsville indoor range.

Ears stuffed with expanding foam plugs, then covered again with rectangular plastic guards that hugged my head, I hovered within inches of Rothman, absorbing his lessons, as he used hand signals to direct my fellow students how and when to pull the trigger. Watching others, I learned that my two-handed grip must be very tight or my aim would be off.

In a confined place and up close, gunshots are loud. “Hearing loss is cumulative and irreversible,” Rothman told us.

Burnt gunpowder odor pervaded the stalls. Its flavor settled into our mouths. Imagine breathing and tasting the aftermath of hundreds of exploded firecrackers in an enclosed space. Once each person expended a magazine, smoke and haze obscured vision downrange for a few minutes until the ventilation system cleared the air.

Baseball hats, oversized clear goggles and buttoned-up shirts protected our flesh from singeing by errant hot brass ejected each time a gun fired.

We had to be mindful of lead dust, not just lead bullets, too. The heavy metal is everywhere at a shooting range. Rothman, a computer programmer who lives in Chanhassen, made sure we knew to wash our hands and faces thoroughly before leaving, and to take a shower and throw our clothes in the wash before eating, drinking or smoking.

A mass shooting

The day before my gun-safety class, on May 23, in Isla Vista, California, a mentally disturbed 22-year-old man killed six people in a gun-and-knife rampage, then shot and killed himself.

I wasn’t aware the murders and suicide had occurred until the day after my class. The massacre never came up between 9 a.m., when I arrived at the Lakeville home where Rothman taught us, and 6 p.m., when I left the shooting range. No one mentioned it later that night either, when I went to see the latest X-Men movie.

Perhaps mass shootings in the United States no longer merit discussion, let alone outrage — unless the violence affects one’s family or social circle. Perhaps they’ve become routine, part of the hassle of living in today’s world.

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The website, shootingtracker.com, shows that an incident involving a gun harming or killing more than one person has occurred almost every day since Jan. 1, 2013.

Americans, it appears, have been helpless to halt those attacks. Even a gunman murdering 20 first graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012 yielded no effective policies to cope with the societal malady of gun massacres.

“In America, however, guns are everywhere and easy for someone with a criminal intent to acquire,” writes Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 2013 introduction to his book, “Gun Fight.” “Those guns are here to stay, which means — awful as it is to admit — that mass shootings are here to stay as well.”

Later in the book, Winkler writes that “Americans are not likely to adopt effective gun safety laws until they come to grips” with those realities.

In an effort to do precisely that, I’ve decided to set out on a journey in which I will learn about America’s gun cultures: The gun-rights culture, the gun-control culture and other gun cultures within our country. I plan to share what I find out in MinnPost.

At the range

We didn’t head to the range until about 4:30 p.m. Except for about a half-hour lunch of roast chicken, tossed salad and potato salad, Rothman spoke in front of the dining room table of another pupil.

Rothman drilled us in the four rules of firearm safety:

  • Every gun is always loaded.

  • Never point a gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.

  • Keep your finger off the trigger until you are on target and ready to shoot.

  • Know your target and what is behind it.

That all guns are loaded became a kind of un-Buddhist mantra throughout the day.

All guns are loaded. Any and every gun is loaded. A gun is never not loaded. Even when you “know” a gun is not loaded, the gun is loaded, Rothman said.

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Rothman interrupted a lesson about the cognitive stress effects of a deadly force encounter and asked us whether one of the guns on the table in front of us was loaded.

The answer is always, “Yes.”

Rothman also stopped sections on gun storage, holsters and state statutes and asked us if this gun from that bag was loaded or that gun in that box was loaded.

“Yes,” we learned to say. “Always.”

Still, even the professionals forget this.

Our instructor showed us a video, famous in gun circles, of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agent talking to an elementary-school class in which he shoots himself in the foot during the class with a gun he just finished telling the students was unloaded.

Why people chose to carry guns boiled down to three reasons, Rothman said: occupation, responding to a specific threat and general self-defense.

And the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a gun, regardless of membership in a militia.

Rothman compared possessing a gun to wearing a seatbelt and owning a fire extinguisher.

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“Does wearing a seatbelt mean you want to get into an accident?” Rothman asked. “Does having a fire extinguisher mean you want there to be a fire? No, of course not. And carrying a gun does not mean you’re looking for trouble.”

In fact, Rothman urged us to stay away from potential problems. Firing a gun should be just about the final option, not one of the first.

“Courtesy is the social lubricant that keeps us from killing each other,” Rothman told us. He added, “Sometimes when a man is right, all he can do is apologize.”

He listed situations that should not lead to a gunfight, including someone vandalizing property. “Always ask yourself, ‘Is it worth a shootout?’” Rothman said.

The consequences of firing a weapon include being arrested, seizure of the gun, jail time, criminal charges, a legal defense that could cost tens of thousands of dollars and prison time, he said.

“Guns don’t solve problems,” Rothman told us. “But in certain situations, they make horrible situations a little less horrible.”

To determine if that’s true, I plan to apply on Monday for my permit to carry a handgun in Minnesota from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff personnel must grant or deny my permit within 30 days of the application date, according to state law.

To be eligible, I cannot have a felony conviction, be guilty of a misdemeanor crime of violence, a drug offense or a stalking offense, been involuntarily committed to a mental-health facility or drug-treatment program or be a suspected gang member.

I must also complete the type of course I passed under Rothman’s guidance.

If approved, I will become one of about 171,000 permit holders in Minnesota. The permit will be valid for five years. It allows me to carry as many guns as I want, be they pistols, revolvers, shotguns or rifles. Minnesota law enables me to carry my firearms out in the open or concealed.

I don’t yet own a gun. But I plan to buy one if my permit application is approved. I don’t know when or how I’ll carry that gun either. But I plan to discover what that’s like.

I’m aware I live in an unsafe world, but I don’t live in fear of any immediate threats.

Will possessing and carrying a gun make me feel safer?

That’s a good question.

Mike Cronin is a Minneapolis-based investigative journalist who has reported for newspapers, public radio, public television and websites.