Getting a gun license could be made as difficult as getting a license to fly an airplane, requiring dozens of hours of training.
— Sam Harris, “The Riddle of the Gun

- - -

The first thing we learned in the concealed-carry class was how to urinate safely.

“Guys, use common sense,” the instructor told us. “Don’t stand at a urinal where someone can smash you up against the wall and take your wallet or, God forbid, your gun. Go into a stall, lock the door, and pee in there. Ladies, same for you. Even if you’re in the employees’ restroom where there’s no need to lock the stall door, lock it. If someone wants your purse—or worse, wants you—they’ll be ignoring that EMPLOYEES ONLY sign in the hall.”

A week after receiving this guidance, we found ourselves standing at scarred wooden folding tables in the basement of a decaying “sportsman’s club” that reeked of ashtrays and mildew, but mostly gunpowder. The range room was maybe 30 yards long, but our tables had been moved up by our NRA-certified instructor to just seven yards from the target wall.

Seven yards—21 feet—is what a Salt Lake City shooting instructor in the 1980s determined to be the minimal distance that a gun owner has to shoot a running attacker before the attacker reaches the gun owner.

20 years later, researchers at Minnesota State University conducted time-motion studies and found problems with the “21-foot rule.” It was based on an attacker moving from a dead stop rather than a full run, for one. For another, even the best-trained police officers needed an average 1.7 seconds to unholster their service firearms and take aim.

The clumsiest “test attacker” could cross the 21-foot distance in 2.5 seconds. This left only seven-tenths of a second for officers to size up the threat and decide if deadly force was warranted.

Seven-tenths of a second is a ridiculously short amount of time.

Nearly all officers in the tests chose to fire.

- - -

There were twelve of us in the class. On the second day of the two-day sequence, five of us stood at our tables 21 feet from the target wall, facing blank white sheets of 11×20 paper. My wife and I, at the table on the right, had a Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolver, four-inch stainless barrel and six-round capacity. A woman named Darlene was at the middle table with a pink .32 caliber snubnose Charter Arms revolver, five round capacity. Another couple had the table far left and a Kimber .45 ACP semi-auto pistol, seven-round magazine and built-in laser grips. That gun cost a small fortune compared to the cute little .32 “pink lady” next to us, and even to the polished Smith & Wesson we had.

My wife shot first and did well. We’d fired 500 rounds the day before at the range near our house, not wanting to be embarrassed at our big shots-on-paper test. She slid the gun over to me. I took aim and put six holes into the approximate middle of the paper. “Yeah, you guys are ready,” the instructor said, “but you need to have at least three rotations through this part of the class. Stand by.” He moved on to Darlene and her pink revolver at the center table.

Darlene was a single woman who lived alone and bought her gun because she was afraid of break-ins. As we watched her, it also became clear that she was terrified of her pink weapon. Her hands shook as she lifted and aimed it at the paper, and when she pulled the trigger, nothing appeared on the target.

“You’re closing your eyes,” the instructor told her. “The gun jerks about three inches toward the ceiling when you fire.” My wife and I looked up. The upper wall was peppered with bullet holes above the target backstop from one side to the other. Darlene wasn’t the first person here with extra lift to her shots.

Four more rounds, and one hole finally appeared in the far left corner of the target. The other three bullets missed. “Okay, we have work to do,” the instructor said. “Let’s try five more.” Darlene reloaded and fired her pink gun five times. The target still had just the one hole.

“Deep breaths, relax, do some aim practice while I work with these other folks,” the instructor said calmly with an encouraging smile and moving to the next table.

Darlene looked at my wife and me. “I’ve never shot this thing before,” she said.

At the far table, Couple B demonstrated that they knew how to eject and load the magazine of their expensive sidearm, and the wife got ready to shoot. Because the laser sight on their gun switched on with a squeeze of the handgrip, a red dot appeared on the paper target first. But when the first shot exploded from the barrel, no hole appeared where the red dot had been. Nor with the second, third, or fourth. Finally, rounds five and six showed up, one at the right top edge and another in the lower left corner. Round number seven missed.

“Crap!” the wife said.

“Don’t rely on that laser,” the instructor offered. “Concentrate on how you’re squeezing the trigger. When you shoot, the laser’s jumping right off the target.”

The wife nodded and passed the gun to her husband. He ejected the magazine, reloaded it, clicked it back in, took aim: Pop-Pop-Pop!

“Slow down, cowboy!” the instructor said, alarmed. “At least a two-count between rounds, okay?” Smiling sheepishly, the husband took his last four shots more slowly. The target showed a tight 4-inch pattern in the center of the paper.

“I hate you,” his wife said, laughing.

Each table got three more turns at the firing line. My wife and I placed eighteen more holes apiece in the approximate centers of our targets. Darlene closed her eyes, jerked her gun, and hit the top edge of her paper three times in fifteen rounds. The wife in Couple B went nine for 21 and her husband nailed everything he shot. Then the instructor told us all to remove magazines and open slides in the pistols and double-check empty cylinders in the revolvers before placing the handguns into our range bags. We went out to the observation room and the next group came in.

With trigger fingers black with gunpowder, we took off our hearing protection and shooting glasses and traded a few awkward “good shooting” comments. We hardly knew each other, even though we’d spent eight hours together in a “classroom” inside the power plant of a nearby junior college a week earlier, learning what we needed to become licensed carriers of concealed, loaded firearms on the streets of our communities.

Our time in that room was a seven-hour blizzard of information. After our instructor greeted us and opened the session by schooling us in safe urination, he immediately began talking about businesses posting NO GUNS signs. To his credit, the instructor said this was the business owner’s choice and right, and as such, something to be honored. We could return to our cars and lock our guns in the trunk, or we could never patronize that business again because it wasn’t honoring our right to carry loaded lethal weapons through its doors.

Then came histories and comparisons of gun laws and recommendations of gun types and makes, no topic lasting more than a few minutes before moving on to something else. I finally perked up when the instructor warned that as concealed handgun carriers, we should not think of ourselves as superheroes, ever. If a bank got robbed while we were inside, let it. If a street fight broke out in front of us, let the fighters go at it, especially if they drew on each other. Get to safe cover.

“Make yourself small,” the instructor said. “Put something solid between you and the bullet heading your way. Tables, doors, trees—anything to absorb some of the bullet’s energy before it enters your body. Even better, something to deflect the bullet and keep it from getting in at all.”

So this was the order of the three main points we retained before lunch: How to pee in safety, how to not carry a gun where it’s not wanted, and the best way to get shot in fights that didn’t involve us.

Then focus turned to pistols versus revolvers, magazines versus cylinders, failures to load or eject in semi-automatic pistols, but limited rounds in revolvers. And the concept of stopping power. Big bullets stop big bad guys faster. But big bullets usually require big guns. Big guns are hard to conceal. They also cost big money, and so do their bullets.

“What about a .32 caliber?” Darlene asked at this point.

“Better than throwing rocks, but not ideal,” the instructor answered.

Then it was time to discuss exploded-view diagrams of handguns and the cleaning supplies to maintain them. One safety tip: make sure there are zero bullets in the room where a gun’s being cleaned. Why? Let’s say a guy’s cleaning his gun, takes the bullets out and leaves them on the table, then gets up and leaves the room for a minute to get a tool or take a leak.

While he’s gone his wife passes the table, sees the bullets, and helpfully puts them back in the gun for him.

The guy returns—Boom! Another tragic “Killed While Cleaning” headline.

This story seemed apocryphal. It assumed that the wife was either clueless about gun cleaning (she sees oils and rags and rods and brushes on the table along with the bullets, all indicators of the task at hand, but she doesn’t connect those dots), or she’s just homicidal and counting on this to look like an accident.

No time to dwell on the BS factor, though, because it was time for a written review test based on NRA Gun Safety booklets inside unopened bags at the back of the room. Since we hadn’t read the booklets, the test couldn’t really serve as a review, so the instructor turned it into something that could charitably be called a “teaching moment” where the questions became the answers. Nearly seven hours into our eight-hour day, we finally got to the very basic treat every gun as if it were loaded. (“When should you consider a gun to be empty? Never! Well, unless the disassembled parts are in front of you, and you’ve taken the bullets out of the room. Maybe then.”)

The test covered range protocol, ear and eye protection, stance and grip, and other fundamentals of the shooting process that our instructor hadn’t talked about and we hadn’t done. And then, toward the end of the exam, this Q&A combo:

Q. What can you expect if you ever have to shoot another person?

a. Periods of deep regret

b. Feelings of guilt

c. A desire to seek counseling

d. All of these are possible responses

The topic of shooter’s remorse had also not been covered in the class so far. “Yep, all of those can be responses; carrying is a big responsibility,” the instructor commented helpfully, his replacement of shoot with carry going mostly unnoticed.

This little aside, about the monumental psychological cost of putting a bullet into another person’s body and possibly killing them, was clearly not enough to drive the point home. A couple of minutes after the test ended, a woman asked: “Okay, I understand that we should always shoot to kill, but what’s the best thing to aim for? Head, or heart?”

The instructor’s cheerfully expectant expression, when the woman first raised her hand, visibly crashed. “No, no, no!” he protested with a waving hand. “That is not what this class is about! You’ll feel like shit if you ever shoot someone!”

Our classmate laughed this off. “Oh, I know, I’ll need counseling and all of that, but what should we aim for?” she asked again.

In some other country, the instructor could have seized on this as evidence that the woman lacked enough empathy and clarity to handle a gun responsibly, and he could have filed a report stating that she should never be licensed to carry one. But in America, that report would earn him expulsion from the NRA and force him and his family into hiding, so the defeated instructor could only use the question as a springboard into the final topic of the day: center mass.

Don’t shoot to kill, but do hit center mass. That would be our goal in the range portion of the class next week. We’d have three sessions at the firing line and ideally create holes somewhere near the middle of a sheet of paper that served as a stand-in for a bad guy’s heart and lungs. (If we were wild with our shots, then it would include his liver, kidneys, and stomach too).

At the decrepit range the next weekend, those were the organs we were all aiming for, at least symbolically. A tattered sheet of paper represented the actual gore that five to eleven hollow-point rounds in human flesh would make in real life. Or, as the “always shoot to kill” woman in our group would prefer it, in real death.

Only three passes through but broken into small groups, we’d spent nearly three hours at the range due to the individualized instruction offered to those who struggled to mark their targets. Having arrived at 5:00, by 7:45 we were hungry and looking like Army rangers with dark stripes across our faces from wiping away sweat with gunpowder fingers. Finally, the last group exited the range after its final turn, our instructor following close behind. He pushed his hearing protection up over his ears and studied us earnestly.

“Look, as far as I’m concerned, everyone has done just fine,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me if you hit that target once or every time. I know you’ll keep practicing every week. If you’re shooting the edge of the target but putting a decent grouping there, then you just need to adjust your sights. For now, I’m happy. You’ve all got your certificates.”

Opening a manila envelope filled with official-looking forms, our instructor called out the name on the top one.

“Congratulations,” he said warmly, shaking Darlene’s hand. By my count, she had placed fewer than a dozen inconsistent holes on her target, of at least 70 rounds fired. And now she, like the rest of us, had a document stating that she’d completed a training course and could apply for a license to carry a concealed lethal weapon to use if she ever determined, within seven-tenths of a second, that her life was in danger.