Johnny, Get Your Gun?

One American's journey to (maybe) keeping and bearing arms in Rhode Island.
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Illustration by Vincent Zawada.

They’re not necessarily who you’d expect. One is a holistic healing practitioner. Another, a lawyer who has been targeted by threats of violence, wants to not only get her concealed carry license but also learn how to use a concealed firearm in a dangerous situation.

Steve is serious about guns, but not overzealous. It’s interesting to note the difference between his sober, rigorous approach to self-defense and the more, shall we say, exuberant attitude of Tom. Both agree, for example, that the handgun should not have a place of primacy in self-defense but take decidedly different roads to get there.

“I don’t want to draw my firearm,” Steve explains. “It’s my last resort” — one he turns to only after less lethal means like verbal intimidation and pepper spray have proven inadequate to counter a threat.

Tom, on the other hand, advises, “Your handgun is only your secondary weapon. You’re just using that to get back to your primary weapon, the rifle in your truck.”

Suffice to say, Tom and I have different ideas about the threats to personal safety we may encounter in our daily lives.

The bread-and-butter of Rising Shield Consulting is a basic handgun safety course that’s intended to prepare one for the Pistol Revolver Test and Certification — or the “blue card” test — one must pass to legally purchase a handgun in the state. Over the course of roughly two hours, in my backyard on a chilly afternoon, he walks me through the 101 class of handgun types and parts, how they work, how to properly handle them and, just as important, how not to.

As we cover the basics of “presenting the firearm” (i.e. holding and aiming it in preparation to shoot), sighting a target and safely dealing with misfires, I feel a new and unexpected sense of respect. The four handguns Steve employs for the occasion no longer seem like mere implements of violence or, for some, objects of fetish. They are tools and using them is a skill to be developed. Not that far back in our collective history, it would have been an essential life skill, like building a fire or navigating with a map and compass. I find myself wanting to learn.

So, Steve takes me to Wallum Lake Rod and Gun Club in Burrillville, where he is a member, for my first shooting session with a handgun. He brings a .22, two 9-millimiters and a .45, with which we run through about 200 rounds of ammunition.

People often describe the thrill and feeling of power that course through them when they fire a gun for the first time. Up in Vermont with the AR-10, I felt almost nothing. It just didn’t get me off. Firing a handgun for the first time, however, I did feel something. It is not a cheap thrill or delusion of bad-assery. Rather, I am humbled by an awesome sense of responsibility and discipline. In my hand I hold a tool that demands respect at all times. I would show it that respect by learning how to use it effectively.

Shooting a handgun with proficiency is difficult. Even my gun-loving friend Tom admits, “I’ve been practicing for years to just be okay at it.” It’s not like in the movies. For anyone considering a pistol for self-defense, thinking you’ll simply draw down and light up some bad guys John Wayne-style, think again.

In fact, that’s exactly the reason neither Steve nor Tom recommend handguns for the casual home defender. Instead, they suggest shotguns. They’re easier to use, don’t require much accuracy, and the universally recognized sound of a shotgun being cocked is a way of saying “Take another step and you’re going to have a very bad day” that transcends language.

This leaves me wondering: Are we just kidding ourselves about owning handguns for “home defense”? Safety protocol would dictate keeping it in a locked box, separate from the ammunition. Is the average person, who probably hasn’t practiced enough to achieve proficiency at a range, never mind in a high-pressure situation, really going to retrieve their gun and ammo in a moment of danger and effectively use them to neutralize a threat? Or are they just making it more likely that they or someone else in their household will be shot? As research by the group Everytown for Gun Safety notes, access to a firearm triples one’s risk of suicide and doubles the risk of death by homicide.

For perspective, I reach out to Steve Mondaca, a retired Army infantryman who served a combat deployment in Afghanistan. He’s also involved with Project Overwatch, a group that works to reduce suicide among veterans. He notes that simply holding a firearm is a show of force that can dissuade most intruders.

He also points out that his calculation when it comes to safety in the home is a bit different than mine. I live in Providence, near both police and fire stations. Patrol cars regularly drive past. I could probably sail a paper airplane into my neighbor’s open window from mine. By contrast, Steve is in central Coventry, set back from the road and out of sight from all but one neighbor.

“If something happens in my home, it’s incumbent on me to be able to handle it. If I’m away, my wife is home with two kids. She’s cut off from the world,” he explains. “We have to be able to handle whatever happens here before we are able to reach out to the police or fire department. I have this house set up in such a manner that we can react to anything we need to and then call 911 for support. That extends from the firearms to the fire extinguishers.”

Point taken.

Everything I am learning and experiencing is nudging me closer to gun ownership. Still, I can’t help feeling my perspective is incomplete. I am well within the NRA’s core demographic and am getting all my advice from other members of that demographic. I really want to speak with someone whose experience is much different from my own.

A friend connects me to Colin Mapp, former Marine, national outreach director for the National African American Gun Association (NAAGA) and member of the Bass Reeves Gun Club in Georgia.

Colin grew up in Queens, New York, in a neighborhood where “crime was an issue,” as he puts it. Despite New York City’s strict laws around gun ownership and concealed carry, he began packing a firearm for personal protection. “I did it anyway because I felt my safety was that important.”

When he moved to Georgia about six years ago, he found a stark contrast with respect to limitations on gun ownership. “Second Amendment rights are different down here,” he notes. “I applied for a concealed carry license and within eleven days it was in my mailbox.”

While local laws might be more amenable to his self-defense, the culture wasn’t always so welcoming. There were gun stores adorned with Confederate flags. He would flip through the NRA’s holiday catalogue (they have a holiday catalogue?) and not see a single person of color. It was the same at gun ranges.

“There is this myth that firearms are only for white, middle class, conservative people, that the Second Amendment is for them and not for us,” he says. “The Second Amendment was instrumental in the security of African-Americans.”

Hence, his involvement in NAAGA, whose goal “is to have every African-American introduced to firearm use.” He sees it as a vehicle for his community to take ownership not only of the Second Amendment, but gun culture. “We have a mission to develop responsible, legal, ethical gun owners,” he says.

Diana Garlington is another person whose belief in responsible gun ownership for personal safety comes from experience, not political ideology. She is about as far from the stereotype of the American gun owner as one could imagine: a fifty-two-year-old Black woman who lost a daughter to gun violence and is heavily involved in the local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

She purchased a firearm in 2005, when her daughter was in a relationship with a dangerous man. “I became very protective,” Diana recalls. “I felt I needed my firearm as protection.”
In 2011, Diana’s daughter was riding in that boyfriend’s car when another car pulled alongside them and opened fire. She was pronounced dead on arrival.

That loss spurred Diana to get involved with Moms Demand Action, to help other survivors “amplify their voices with their stories.” Despite that, she still owns a firearm.

“I always try to explain that I am not against owning a gun. I am against people who use guns for purposes they shouldn’t be used for,” she says. “I feel that everyone has the right to be protected.”

A t this point, I’m still not quite committed to keeping and bearing arms, but I know I have to see it through at least as far as the blue card test. And so I set out on a snowy day, when the grocery stores are closed but the gun stores are still open.
It seems like a sound idea: To purchase a handgun, you must educate yourself on safety, then take a test proving that you understand it.

The reality is a bit different. The free study guide available at any gun store gives the impression that earning your blue card requires comprehensive knowledge of handguns — the different types, their uses, the mechanics of how they work — but the actual test is focused almost exclusively on safety practices and principals.

It’s fifty questions: twenty-five multiple choice and twenty-five — I kid you not — true or false. And these questions aren’t exactly the math problem from Good Will Hunting. A sample question, which I’m paraphrasing but only slightly, is, “True or false: When someone passes you a handgun you should first look down the barrel to make sure that it’s clear.” No one outside of an old Warner Brothers cartoon should have trouble answering that one.

Oh, and did I mention that you take the test at a gun store? That would be like taking the road test for your driver’s license at a used car lot.

Even Tom allows that it’s a bit silly. “I believe everyone has the right to own a gun and should have as many guns as they want. I don’t believe in any limitations on that,” he says. “But if you can’t pass the blue card test, you have no business owning a firearm.”

I’ll soon find out whether I have any business owning a firearm. It takes about two weeks to receive your blue card in the mail after the test, assuming you pass. (You have to score at least eighty percent.)

As of this writing, I’m still checking my mailbox. I haven’t made a final decision about what, if anything, I’m going to do if I get my blue card — but I know what America wants me to do.