Stuck in a crowded classroom on a Sunday morning with 30 other gun enthusiasts trying to renew their concealed handgun licenses, I wished I’d brought my iPod. I get restless when stuck in one place, and I was going to be stuck here for six-plus hours. I don’t even like doing something I enjoy for that long. But I was lucky. If you’re going for your license the first time and not just renewing, you get to do 10 to 15 hours. Then, of course, there is the criminal background check. The examination of financial records. The fingerprinting. The photos. It’s a lot of red tape and colorectal-level scrutiny to exercise a constitutional right. But what Texas asks, we give—if grudgingly. And there are more than 260,000 of us. If you want to join our number, heed the following suggestions.
1. Shower and make yourself presentable. I rolled into the classroom at the Bullet Trap in Plano at 8:15 am, almost late. The classroom was all white drywall and cedar wood, industrial carpeting, creaky hardback chairs, Formica desks, and more firearms posters than Dirty Harry’s rec room. PowerPoint projector? Check. Ancient coffee percolator boiling sludge? Check. Next to it sat a thick stack of various self-defense and testimonial manuals that were for sale with titles like “Thank God I Had a Gun.” The room was packed pretty tight. And me a claustrophobe. Great. I squeezed into a seat at the back.
The thing is, I hadn’t shaved or showered because I’d awoken late and barely had time to dress and grab my range bag. This is normally fine. If you’re going to spend time on a pistol range—and I often do—you’re going to smell like cordite anyhow. But I forgot about the mug shots. So now, for the next four years, my gun license—that thing I have to pull out and show to any cop who pulls me over—has a picture that looks like a police advisory posted at a middle school.
2. Don’t go to pick up the ladies. By rough read, the crowd reflected the demographics of both CHL holders throughout the state and, now that I think about it, Collin County in particular: mostly over 40, mostly white, a few Hispanics, and one Asian dude. I counted just three women, slightly below the state average. Women make up only 18 percent of CHL holders, but they’re the fastest-growing segment. Sadly for me, none in my class was the kind who would make the “Stacked and Packed” calendar I get every year from G. Gordon Liddy.
3. Know how the bullets go in. We started with a review of the laws on self-defense and use of deadly force—all of which is on the final written test, but none of which is that important when common sense is applied. If I have time to engage my brain in a legal debate about whether I can use deadly force, I have time to run away. That’s not to say a lot of thought doesn’t need to go into accepting the responsibility of owning and carrying a firearm, but most of the tricky laws apply to situations I simply plan to avoid. I’m not going to put my own life at risk to stop a bank robbery or a dispute between two people I don’t know. My advice to anyone with me when there’s trouble is: “Follow the blur that looks like me.” And if some lowlife is climbing out the window with my 36-inch television? “Hello, Allstate, someone just stole my 60-inch plasma flat screen.”
At about 10:30, it was time to hit the range. We went in groups of five, each assigned a range master who put us through a series of timed firing drills. It was all basic stuff, ensuring you know how to safely load, handle, and fire your weapon of choice. Mine is a .45-caliber Glock 36, a subcompact with serious stopping power. The Glock 36 is small enough to conceal and holds a six-round single-stack magazine plus one in the chamber. Some love the high-capacity magazines, but the seven are all I need. I’m a crack shot, and if someone is still coming for me after I put six .45-caliber rounds in him, that seventh bullet won’t matter. I’ll be firing it over my shoulder as I run away screaming, because at that point there’s no doubt the attacker is a zombie.
Practice is critical. I try to get to the range twice a month. Consider this: even cops only have a 47 percent hit ratio in real-life encounters. Texas DPS officers miss 83 percent of the time with their first round in confrontations. Cops get their initial academy training, but after that they generally hit the range only for their annual qualifying (SWAT officers excluded). Plenty of cops visit the range weekly, but a lot fewer than you’d think. It takes commitment to train the way you need to when you want to overcome the tunnel vision, loss of fine motor control, auditory exclusion, and tachypsychia that overtake you when the adrenaline flows.
It also takes common sense. One guy with a shaved pate who arrived on a Harley failed the range proficiency portion for not maintaining muzzle discipline. Remember how your mother told you it’s rude to point? Yeah, like that. Only worse. Then one of the women in our group was disqualified for the way she loaded her bullets in her magazine. Backward.
4. Listen in class. Back in the classroom, our instructor, a pear-shaped good old boy in a golf shirt, was going through the section of the course on conflict resolution. He talked about philosophical issues and posed some moral and tactical questions. All of this is important stuff, but it’s stuff you need to work out on your own. The important thing is to listen to what they’re telling you about the impending written exam. Like in those driver’s ed courses you take to get out of tickets, they’re primarily teaching you the test.
For instance, according to the law, the reason you shoot is to stop an imminent threat. This is important. Not to kill, not to maim—to stop. It’s doubly important when you give your statement to the cops after a shooting, but the instructor emphasized it was important that day since it might be on the test. Somewhere, oh, say, between questions 34 and 36.
A quick break for lunch and we took the exam. Fifty-something questions. I wandered through the gun store while the tests were being graded. Every shelf was overloaded with safety equipment, reloading gear, ammunition, cleaning supplies, and, of course, guns. Lots of guns. I felt like my wife does when she peruses the shoes at Neiman Marcus.
The last part of the class was reserved for the instructor to chastise those who missed some of the obvious questions and to hand out our TR-100 proficiency certificates.
“On the question of the purpose of shooting in self-defense. The choices were A) to kill, B) to stop, C) to maim, or D) all of the above,” the instructor said, shaking his head. “I have never seen such a bloodthirsty group of people in my life. Half of you put D.”
5. Don’t get addicted. Or do. Anxious as I was to get the day over with, I hung around a while and talked. These are my people. Then I got a lane and cycled 100 rounds into man-shaped silhouettes, shooting from a combat stance, then single-handed strong side and single-handed weak side. Not sure you can really understand it until you do it. Focusing your breathing, becoming one with the instrument in your hand, putting a piece of lead downrange exactly where you planned—it’s very Zen. Loud, but Zen. Take the most staunchly anti-gun person you know, teach him the basics, drive him to the range, and put a gun in his hand. Before the magazine is empty and the slide locks back for the first time, he’ll be hooked.
I’d say it’s better than sex, but then you’d think I’m a nut.