From gun hater to gun owner, a firsthand experience of the right to bear arms
By Michael Sullivan 01/21/2016
Being born of a nurse and a school teacher in Ventura in 1980, guns were not a part of my regular vocabulary growing up, much less family recreational activities. When I moved to Atlanta, Georgia, at age 18, I met a young man in a hippy-esque neighborhood who had tried to kill himself with a gun, but survived and ended up with a big hole in his head where his eye and temple used to be. That was my first real encounter with gun carnage. Through my young adulthood, my personal experiences with guns only proved to me how dangerous they were — and this came well before latching onto any sort of political identity. Now, at age 35, my conviction is strongly against easier access to guns and a heavily armed society. But that conviction is not an American idea.
In order to try to understand why gun-rights advocates are so protective of not only their guns but the easiest access to them, claiming protection and safety issues, especially after gun sales skyrocketed after San Bernardino, I decided to cross my own personal and ethical boundaries and become a gun owner. This is my daily account of that experience.
Thursday, Dec. 3
I’ve been sick for weeks over the recent mass murders in Paris, Mali, Planned Parenthood and, well, yesterday, San Bernardino. It makes me ill but it doesn’t seem to faze gun-rights advocates. Apparently, this senseless loss of life is the price Americans pay for the right to own not just guns but assault rifles, or rather semi-automatic rifles. So as an American, fearful and sick of carnage, I wonder if owning a rifle or a handgun would change my view on these advocates and even the weapons themselves. Perhaps the process of gun ownership would make me feel that only sane and rational people can legally purchase guns. Maybe I would feel safer owning a gun. There was only one way to find out.
Contemplation and Exploration
Friday, Dec. 4
It’s amazing how much thought goes into buying a gun. This morning I considered where I would store a semi-automatic rifle. My office is inappropriate. Home feels strange since mine is in a nice little community and holding onto such a weapon feels like a nuclear bomb. Maybe a storage facility. I even called: $56 a month for 5×5 space.
Now off to the gun store in Oxnard. Inside, it’s business as usual. Mostly men, several older, some 30-somethings, a few 20-somethings, a couple of military guys and three women, including me.
Two 30-somethings were scoping out the gun case; one was looking at what appeared to be a hunting rifle.
An older guy asked for a certain kind of semi-automatic rifle — bulky, black and ominous. I wondered what he would be shooting with it later or if it was just one to add to his collection. He didn’t look like a novice.
These customers probably just enjoy shooting as a hobby, not killing humans. I know they weren’t doing anything wrong but it just seemed so quick after San Bernardino to be putting more highly lethal weapons into circulation in our communities.
I didn’t make any moves to purchase. I would be back soon.
Sunday, Dec. 6
I called my dad to let him know I was considering buying a gun. Given we are on the same page about guns, I wasn’t surprised when he said that the idea is a step into the netherworld and I could have blood on my hands if the gun fell into the wrong hands.
Monday, Dec. 7
My mother, who works at a community college, talked to me about the new run, hide and fight active shooter drills. My son told me about a speaker at his middle school who was at a nearby cafe in Paris on Nov. 13.
This is the new world, living in fear of mass shootings. While humans have always been violent, with the rapid spread of information, we know just how violent we are all of the time.
Tuesday, Dec. 8
My colleague called. He told me about my choices to purchase a gun online:
- Add to cart.
- Pick up at dealer.
With a clean background check, practically anything is possible.
Selection and Purchase
Wednesday, Dec. 9
One thing was obvious: mass murder is good for the gun business. Upon returning to the Oxnard store with my colleague, a clerk told us that prior to Paris and San Bernardino, they were selling 20 guns a day. Now, it’s 40. Another clerk said there used to be a typical kind of customer who would come in for a gun — an older white male. Now it’s anyone and everyone. I am a part of this abnormal demographic and so are women in general. She also spoke of several phone conversations, one where a man asked her if he should now buy a gun because of the mass shootings. She said, basically, “Yes, it’s the new normal.”
We got our ticket, number 47. We arrived at 28. We waited about an hour and a half. Among those in front of us: several older men mainly, but there were a few young ones as well, including one waiting for his fiancée and one 30-something with a shaved head and some tattoos. There were also an older couple; a young woman in a tank top with tattoos, holding her toddler daughter in her arms; and a 60-plus-year-old woman with long, white, wavy hair in a pink shirt.
We were next in line behind the man who was waiting for his fiancée. From what I could gather, he was reserve military, said he hadn’t bought a gun in 11 years and now was the time. He chose some sort of semi-automatic rifle, black and blockish. A female clerk told him that the gun’s magazine had to be detached with a tool. He seemed disappointed but she said it was state law. That gun cost $2,000. His fiancée showed up and started looking at handguns. She was clearly no novice as she comfortably gripped the gun as any rock star would a microphone. The clerk told the man he could save $30 by doing both of their background checks at the same time. The fiancée, however, decided against taking the gun safety test. He said that she wimped out.
Finally, my turn. The impetus of this project was to buy a semi-automatic rifle, something similar to what was used in these mass shootings, to see how easy these weapons are to access and if owning one would somehow change my opinion about them. I found one on sale, a Smith and Wesson M&P 15-.22 rifle at $359, plus two free boxes of rounds.
The clerk found the last one in stock and brought it to me. When she took it out of the box and handed it to me, my first thought was, how the heck do I hold this thing? I just held it in two hands, palms up, holding it over the gun case. The clerk told me that I had to take the gun safety test to move forward with the purchase, which, she said, is basically common sense.
I took the test — multiple choice. While there is a 46-page study guide for the test online, I took my chances. I passed, failing two out of 30. If I had failed this test, I could retake it the next day. While the test is overly simple, I did find out that — and I made a lucky guess — sales or transfers can only happen along the bloodline from child to parent and grandparent, etc., and vice versa without a licensed dealer.
Now that I passed the safety test, I began to consider my gun options, specifically that M&P 15-.22 rifle. For a first-time gun owner or perhaps for any person not active in the military, for that matter, such a choice was ridiculous. A handgun, however, was different. Small. Compact. Easy to handle. Not so absurd.
After deciding between the cheapest handgun and an easier-to-use and more popular version, I chose the Smith and Wesson M&P Shield 9 mm. My friend said that it felt like butter in his hand. And it did. My Second Amendment right fulfilled in my grip. As I made my purchase, the clerk told me that she owned four handguns, an assault rifle and a .22. Quite a collection. For my new Shield: $431, plus $30 for the background check and $25 for my safety certificate.
My background check was on its way to the California Department of Justice to review my criminal history for felonies and/or any admittance to a mental health facility. The background check would be done on Dec. 19, a mandated 10-day waiting period.
Merry Christmas to me.
Thursday, Dec. 10
Today begins another series of waiting periods. Day 1 of my background check. Day 1 of the waiting period when I might decide not to get a gun. I guess this is supposed to be some proverbial cooling-off period for potential homicidal maniacs. From my perspective, 10 days seems short if one has years of hostility and rage built up — recall the Isla Vista rampage? (Didn’t the shooter, Elliot Rodger, buy his gun at the store I just visited?) I think a more suitable waiting period should be more like 10 years.
Friday, Dec. 11
Telling all my nearest and dearest — the breakdown of responses goes like this: emotional roller coaster; frustrated but understanding; totally fine with whatever choice I make, so fine that this friend wants me to read up on Info Wars and see how much more dangerous kitchen knives are than guns.
Second Amendment Fulfilled
Wednesday, Dec. 23
Pickup day. I just got the chance today but I had to pick it up before 30 days or I would have to go through this whole process again.
My colleague and I decided that in order to avoid any likelihood of a well-intended project going wrong, he would keep the ammunition and I would keep the gun.
At 3:04 p.m., I became an official gun owner. A male clerk told me I should not get live ammo after watching me nervously trying to load and unload an empty magazine.
There was a fair amount of pressure to do it right, to understand how it works, to make sure my finger is straight and watch where the gun is pointing. I did this loading and unloading of a dummy bullet several times, and each time I felt a little more uneasy. The thought of people who have hurt others just trying to load and unload a gun as well as clean it ran through my head, including when I lived in Fresno and my neighbor blew buckshot through his wall and injured a loved one. While the clerk expressed sincerely that I should use a dummy bullet at home to learn how to load and unload, the store didn’t have any for sale. He told me to go home and buy one on Amazon. I skipped that option and bought live ammo instead.
A woman at the counter next to me asked about my choice of gun. I told her that it was my first and I really knew nothing about it other than that it was 9 mm. She then told us she wanted to get her son up and firing as soon as possible. She said he was 12 years old.
A man behind me at the counter gave me some advice: “It’s just like learning how to drive a car, kiddo.” I fundamentally disagree. In order to learn how to drive a car legally, the person learning how to drive has be with a licensed driver who is also insured, in case of an accident. Also, in order to get my license and to be able to drive a car without another licensed driver in the vehicle, I have to pass a written and an actual driving test. To own and use my new handgun, all I have to do is pass a background check, i.e., I can’t be a felon or be clinically diagnosed as a danger to myself or others, and have a basic understanding of common-sense principles.
At the Gun Range
Wednesday, Dec. 30
Time to learn how to shoot this thing: a 30-minute wait, apparently one of the busier times of the week or maybe the year. While we were waiting, the clerk in the gun shop at the range told us about gun sales right after San Bernardino, that at 5 o’clock that day, the shop was packed, filled with customers, mainly buying smaller guns, like mine. “Couldn’t keep them in stock,” he said. He said about three-quarters of the buyers were new gun owners.
At the window of the range, we watched shooters using various targets. For our gun range package deal, silhouetted human shapes were our only options besides some really tough and small targets. Why we need to practice on human-like targets, as if there is any point in learning how to shoot someone who is holding perfectly still as we hold perfectly still, is beyond me. We chose one target of a blank silhouette and another of a silhouette armed with two guns. Then we waited our turn.
On entering the range, the noise was overwhelming, so loud the ground vibrated. I think that I was the only one grimacing in pain. As the shooting went on and the shells kept flying, my struggle to load one of the ultra-stiff clips that came with my gun made me shake with nervousness and frustration. And the free ear protection that came with our package, two pieces of orange foam, was pointless.
Finally, locked and loaded — fire! My first time, I shot three bullets of the seven that were loaded at the blank silhouette. I was having trouble getting the gun to actually shoot. I had to keep checking the chamber to see if there was a bullet in it, because after pulling the trigger a few times it wouldn’t fire. By doing this a bullet would eject from the chamber. It would have been nice if it were required that I learn how to use this gun before I bought it because I was in fear that it was going to backfire in my face.
Second time, I shot seven rounds as the shells from my own gun hit me in the face. The gun’s recoil is almost uncontrollable. It was all so loud and frightening, just terrifying to think of San Bernardino. All of that rapid fire made me just want to duck and hide, not fight. Sure, everyone says that they would take on an attacker until they are actually being attacked.
My goggles steamed up. I let out a little cry each time I fired. It was all so startling.
Third time around we used a target of the armed silhouette. I tried to shoot the gun in the target’s hand; I shot the barrel once. Then I shot the figure in the neck and several other places. I can’t imagine trying to be calm and precise while shooting in a life-threatening situation regardless of the training.
Target practice on armed silhouette, aiming for the gun — one shot to the barrel of the gun and one to the neck.
There was a young woman, a teenager, behind us; her knee was bobbing quickly. I saw a young boy in the range earlier, maybe 7 years old, and I don’t recall him using any sort of decent ear protection.
Still in the lane, I placed the gun down but didn’t check the chamber to make sure there was no bullet — scared myself again.
As my friend took his turn, I spoke to the young girl, 18, now seated next to her mom; it was her first time. I asked the girl about her experience: loud! She told me that she came with her dad. As I walked away, the dad, who had been shooting in the lane, turned to look at his wife and daughter, beaming with pride and a slight smile.
I did feel more at ease shooting a target that was pointing a gun at me. I probably would have felt even better shooting at something like a bull’s-eye target.
I saw my mom shortly after. Regarding the fact that I now owned a gun, her response, “I don’t want anything to happen to you or [your son].” I told her that my friend was keeping the ammunition. She seemed relieved.
Important to note: It’s become apparent to me that some gun owners think that, while it’s their constitutional right to own one, they also seem to think everyone should own one, learn how to use it and not be scared of it.
I also suspect that owning a gun for self-defense is not really why so many own them. Some people just like owning guns for recreational purposes.
In the Moment and into the Future
Thursday, Jan. 14
Posing for the cover shoot seemed so commercial, promoting gun ownership. I suppose it doesn’t really matter what it was other than it was the truth: I own a gun now. Gun ownership, however, doesn’t make me feel safe but I do know that having a gun with live ammo together wherever I store them makes me feel unsafe, period. I don’t know if I will sell it yet. Surely there is plenty more to learn; perhaps I will even take my place in the year-long wait for a concealed-carry weapons permit, for which applicants no longer need “good cause.” The Sheriff’s Department has seen a 307 percent jump from November to December.
I don’t know if this story is finished and I am also not sure that my view on guns has changed. One thing is clear, though, I have now crossed a line that can never be undone.
20 Feet From Deafness
Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit in the 1960s, deer season was a part of life.
Starting around Thanksgiving it just blended in with the holidays and was a major part of the economy of northern Michigan, especially the state’s upper peninsula.
My parents were both deer hunters so the fact that there were two .30-30, Winchester rifles stuffed into a closet at the bottom of the stairs was in no way unusual.
No scopes. Lever action. Old school.
As a kid I would sometimes rummage around in that closet, pull those rifles out and “play” with them. Along with the sawed-off, double-barrel shotgun, a .22-caliber varmint rifle and a few other various firearms that were accessible to me around the house.
Some would say that my parents were negligent having those weapons unlocked and accessible to curious young children and at this point in my life, I wouldn’t argue. But those were different times and I never saw any ammunition for those guns.
As I got a little older I attended a classic rite-of-passage, city-sponsored “rifle” class at a place called The Chip. All boys in my town took rifle class at age 12, and as part of the class we were automatically enrolled as life members of the NRA.
I remember thinking how grown-up I felt when I received the membership card.
This uniquely American, early firearm indoctrination, sanctioned and supported by the NRA, led me to have an appreciation for the hardware and an understanding of the power of the gun and the sport of shooting.
I say all this because while I grew up with and understand the sport I no longer see any point in it, and ideologically have moved to the extreme left of gun ownership.
For me, Sandy Hook did that.
I had been gradually moving in that direction for some years but when 20 first-graders are slaughtered in their classroom, I no longer see any point for over 300 million registered guns in this country to exist.
After seeing a full-page ad in a local daily paper for every imaginable type of firearm, including a sale on an assault rifle similar to or exactly like one of the two weapons used in the San Bernardino shootings, VCR editor Michael Sullivan decided to cross over, buy one and try to get her head around why so many people want to own a firearm.
I decided to accompany her from start to finish partly because I have some cursory knowledge of guns, partly because we would need some art to go with any story she may decide to write and partly because I wanted to go to the range with her and shoot.
After all, shooting is fun, right?
But after Michael fired the first round at the range with her brand-new 9mm she put the gun down (actually, she nearly threw it to the ground) and fought back tears as she looked around at me and all the other, mostly male shooters in the range.
One round, shooting at a paper target and she was broken-hearted.
One round and she found out what she needed to know. She didn’t need to shoot any more, but she did.
And that is not to say that she is weak (she is most definitely not) or just reacting the way so many women might react.
I was also profoundly affected. Emotionally and physically.
The decibel levels in the room. The sheer destructive power of lead projectiles traveling at over 1,000 feet per second is nothing if not intense.
Between us we fired approximately 100 rounds.
I left the range that day with nearly 90 percent hearing loss that lasted at least 48 hours and yes, I had the squishy ear plugs.
— T Christian Gapen