“You missed this one,” Officer James said to my wife, pointing to a place on the two-columned page containing her test. “You don’t have to lock your guns up at home, but it’s a good idea, especially if there are kids in the house.”
Beyond this one false guess, my wife had nailed the other questions on her brief handgun purchase exam, and I’d already scored 100% on mine. “Some people use the locks that come with their guns, others don’t,” the officer explained. “What kinds of handguns are you folks planning to get?”
I told him we’d whittled our lists down to Ruger or Smith & Wesson .38 revolvers. The officer brightened at this. “The choice of law enforcement for decades — can’t go wrong there. Do you guys have your concealed-carry course certificates? Drivers licenses too, please.”
We handed these over, along with our questionnaires asking if we were criminals, buying a gun for someone else, illegal immigrants, on drugs, and other yes/no basics that had a zero percent chance of identifying any but the most stupid of applicants with bad intentions.
The officer turned to his computer keyboard to enter the information. I nodded as he asked me to look over everything on the screen as he typed, and then I asked him, “Didn’t I read somewhere that our legislators think it’s too complicated to buy a handgun, and they want to get rid of the step we’re doing right now — going to the police station to start the process?”
Officer James grimaced. “Dumbest thing they could do. I’m the last, best line of defense against the wrong person buying a handgun. See, right now I’m just making small talk with the two of you, but I’m also sizing you both up. And I’ve got a pretty good gut-level ability to spot people who shouldn’t be allowed to buy. There aren’t many, don’t get me wrong, and I need super-solid reasons to flag an application, but I am it. I’m all this community has in terms of an actual human screener before the gun board votes. If the state scraps this step, that extra layer of security goes away. I’m all for guns and believe citizens should carry if they’re able, but the process is easy enough. Look at the little ‘test’ you both just took, right? Kind of a joke.”
I rolled my eyes. My wife laughed and said, “So many questions!”
“Yeah,” the officer concurred. “This interview is basically the only part of the process with any teeth left to it. I know, it adds one more stop, ten more minutes to the buying process, but—”
“It’s for buying a handgun,” my wife volunteered. “Pretty important.”
The officer looked around in mock alarm. “You said that, I didn’t,” he told her, handing me a completed purchase permit from of his copier.
None of this exchange came across as a government employee trying to save his job. The state’s requirements for buying a handgun and becoming a licensed carrier were “relaxed” to an almost comic level, and pretending otherwise would be silly. Still, I was impressed that he trusted us with his assessment, which for all I knew could’ve gotten him fired.
Or maybe he was just faking in order to solicit our responses? If so, he was really good at the game. I imagined some people going on verbal anti-“tyranny” tirades and showing their true vigilante colors in his tiny office. Would that be grounds for keeping them from being able to legally carry shiny new 9-mils or .45s anyway? An attitude isn’t the same as a threat.“Here you go,” he said to my wife a few minutes later, handing over another printout from his copier. “Enjoy those police specials!”
With that and a parting handshake, the hardest part of our gun buying adventure was over. City Hall, where we’d fill out the applications for our concealed carry permits, was on the opposite side of the building, and the county sheriff’s office complex, where we’d donate two sets of fingerprints to the concealed-carry cause, was a block over. This three-stop ordeal was what our benevolent legislators hoped to ease by knocking out the in-person screening, while leaving intact the two steps where no one asked you anything unless your name or fingertips revealed a criminal record.
We stepped into the city clerk’s office where a young guy with a wispy starter beard was deep in a phone conversation about affordable data plans. After a minute he finally hung up and gestured toward us.
“Concealed carry?” he asked, seeing the forms we’d placed on the reception counter. We nodded and he quickly made more forms appear in front of us. When those were complete he reached into a desk drawer to pull out a digital camera. “Picture time!” he said happily, producing a hand mirror from the same desk drawer. “Have a look, and when you’re ready, just stand against that wall behind you. Who’s first?”
My wife glanced into the mirror and was visibly annoyed to see that some makeup needed freshening. So I took the mirror and stepped back to arrange my smile. What kind of smile did a person wear for a concealed carry license photo? Full teeth? Lips only? None, I decided; a smile might make the five members of the Gun Board think I was trying too hard. But I didn’t want to go all Clint Eastwood menacing squints, either. So I ended up with basically a classic mug shot, just without the menu board.
“Only fingerprints left now,” the clerk said when my wife had finished posing for her photo. “Should only take a few minutes on a scorcher like today, with everyone staying home indoors.”
He was right about the heat, which was pushing 100 by midday. We crossed the street quickly to pull open the doors of the vast sheriff’s office and corrections complex and plunge into a pool of humanity we’d only seen in movies. Criminals on tether stood in line waiting to get their GPS tracking info reviewed by case officers. Families of criminals stood in another line waiting to post bail or pick up their incarcerated miscreants. Mothers, wives, and girlfriends sat at stations along the wall holding old-fashioned telephone receivers and watching grayscale video screens as they visited with prisoners somewhere in another part of the jail.
Almost hidden by this bustling sea of people was a small window ahead of us with a solitary clerk behind it, an engraved brown sign saying LICENSES propped up against the corner of a pane of security glass. My wife found a seat in the waiting area while I went to the window to deposit our growing collection of forms through a slot. The clerk lifted her gaze and, recognizing one of the documents, said flatly: “You need fingerprints.” Not a question, just a simple declarative.
I turned to look at my wife, sitting between a tattooed leather couple straight out of a biker movie on her left and a skater boy with a clearly visible ankle tether a couple of seats over on her right. The overwhelming impossibility of what was happening here hit me with sudden clarity. My wife, who had never shot a gun until a little more than a year ago, and who left the room whenever a TV show erupted into any kind of violence, and who wept during the National Anthem at baseball games, was at the county sheriff’s office waiting to be fingerprinted after having her mug shot taken so she could tuck a handgun into her purse and join the millions of other armed citizens in the United States of Artillery.
I wasn’t sure if my heart should swell with pride, or break in sorrow.
“Have a seat,” the clerk said behind me. “We’ll call you.”
We spent the next 40 minutes watching a stream of jail visitors come and go, processed with speed and efficiency. But there was no sign of activity at the LICENSES desk. The clerk never looked up again.
Never having had much patience for lines or waits in general, I began to see how this whole thing was backwards. My wife and I were not criminals, yet the criminals were being served quickly while we were left to rot. We were the good guys — and being treated worse than anyone else here. I suddenly felt a lot of pro-gun, anti-paperwork resentment that I wouldn’t have understood just a day before. I wanted to complain to my state reps, the attorney general, the governor — everyone — about the clear injustice.
There were way too many flaming hoops to jump through for a simple handgun purchase. Why couldn’t we just go to the store and buy one, anyway, like we could buy a fishing rod or a bowling ball? Take all of this preliminary nonsense down to one step: I fill out a form, you fingerprint and photograph me, and then you leave me alone. I was not the criminal here!
As I shared all of this and more with my wife in a long oratory delivered in a seething whisper, the security door next to the clerk’s window suddenly buzzed and startled both of us. A female officer with a blonde ponytail stepped out, gesturing that one of us should come inside. My wife indicated that I should go first, and I fairly sprang from my chair to follow the officer to an area even more mysterious and daunting than the shooting range had been when I first visited it, what seemed so long ago now.
This time, I stepped into a sterile white room with some framed government posters on the wall bearing simple legal reminders: If you see it, report it. County Parks belong to YOU. Buzzed driving is drunk driving. To the left was an impressive machine with a big flat-screen monitor and LED indicators over a scanner bed and recessed keyboard. I looked around for a black metal box like the TV cops had, where I’d dip my clean digits in ink. But nothing like that was in sight.
“We do it all by computer now,” the officer explained, clearly having seen my reaction in a thousand others and able to respond on cue. “Step there, please.”
I stepped onto an outline of shoes on the floor in front of the scanner, and the officer got down to the business of scanning my fingerprints, palm prints, full-hand prints, and outside-edge-of-my-hands prints, from my wrists to the tips of my little fingers. The images appeared on the display in front of her. When the screen had filled with gray scans of the ridges, furrows, and whorls that were my unique calling cards in the universe, and that would now be sent to the State Police for permanent storage, she said simply: “Okay, all set.”
A punk down the street who regularly committed armed burglaries might go his whole life without so much as a pinky print taken, if he was never arrested. But I had just provided a complete 16-piece set. And my wife, whose crime record was as blank as mine, would do the same now. This imbalance between criminals and law-abiding citizens was fucked up.
But that evening when the heat had eased a bit, I reflected on all of the unreasonable demands that had gone into our gun adventure so far. Eight hours, a few dozen bullets, a handful of questions, one photo, sixteen hand scans, and now only five fellow taxpayers on one local gun board left to go. These numbers didn’t really add up to a trail of hardship.
We’d wanted to experience something new, and that we had definitely done. A heavy black curtain had been pulled open for us to not just peer behind, but to join the cast in a passion play where we never dreamed we’d have co-starring roles.
As long as the gun board smiled on us, of course.