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Its premise is that carrying a handgun and training to use it are virtues that are too often neglected, like dental care.
"Good people get killed and raped all the time because they fail to accept this basic responsibility of living in a violent, predatory world," says state-certified firearms instructor Dave Vaughn.
"People who die in mass shootings, whether they're in a high school in Colorado or a commuter train on Long Island or a Luby's restaurant in Texas, they all die the same way: unarmed, cowering . . . praying they won't be next."
A Glock pistol is tucked into the waistband of Vaughn's jeans. His black tee shirt reads "Happiness is being high on the food chain."
He continues: "Crowded, urban environments are the kill-or-be-killed jungles of the 21st century. ATMs are like watering holes, where predators wait for us to come for sustenance."
Vaughn paces in front of a dry-erase board that blares the dictum "No gun handling in the classroom!" He stops and grips a wood podium. His stare is deadly serious.
"The government and the media have conditioned a lot of people to be sheep, because it's a lot easier to control sheep than it is predators.
"Unfortunately, there are a lot of big, bad wolves out there. Us law-abiding gun owners are some of the last good wolves left."
Never mind that you won't find many wolves in a jungle (or, for that matter, many sheep). Vaughn's metaphor is mixed but effective. Counting myself, six students are enrolled in this course and four of them are nodding in silent, somber agreement.
After we pass this course and an extensive background check, we six good wolves will be sanctioned by nine states to carry a concealed handgun, joining an ever-growing pack of armed and dangerous abiders of the law.
In August 1998, Governor Hull signed a bill into law that requires the state Department of Public Safety to actively seek reciprocity agreements with other states where carrying a concealed weapon is legal with a permit.
(A CCW permit is legally required only to carry a gun out of sight. Owning a gun and carrying it openly do not require any sort of license in Arizona. Packing a concealed piece without a permit is a Class I misdemeanor in this state, same as peeing in public.)
As a result, anyone licensed to carry a handgun in Arizona may also do so in Arkansas, Utah and Texas, and vice versa. States with a reciprocity agreement in the works that recognize Arizona's CCW permit in the meantime are Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Wyoming and Tennessee (Vermont does not require a permit of anyone to carry concealed weapons).
The first CCW training facility to be licensed by the state -- there are now 342, including five in Bullhead City -- was the Urban Firearms Institute, based at the Caswell Shooting Range in Mesa. It has since earned a reputation for teaching the most rigorous CCW course in the state, demanding that its students far exceed the state's requirements, especially in shooting accuracy.
It is early February, and I've enrolled in a CCW course there, for the purpose of reporting this column.
It is 16 hours long, spread over four weeknights and team-taught by three instructors: Vaughn, a former guard on a maximum-security wing of the Arizona State Prison-Florence and one of the top-ranked competitive shooters in the country; Ben Gruner, who recently graduated from Arizona State University's Justice Studies program and is now about to get hired by Michigan's State Police department; and Susan Dunlap, a Desert Storm veteran and retired federal agent, who, by way of nonchalant introduction, says she's been "shot, stabbed and survived."
The state's requirements for a CCW course are loose and simple. It must be at least 16 hours in length, conducted on a pass or fail basis, and cover the following six areas:
1. Weapon care and maintenance
Gruner blows through this requirement in one sentence: "Don't over-lubricate, and read your owner's manual."
2. Safe handling and storage of weapons
Another quickie, dispensed with in less than half an hour, the time it takes for all of us to write down and memorize the "Universal Rules of Gunhandling":
1) All guns are always loaded.
2) Never point the muzzle at anything you don't want to destroy.
3) Keep your finger off the trigger until you have the target in your sights and have made a decision to shoot.
4) Be aware of your target, what's near it and beyond.
The remaining four requirements will wait. Gruner spends the balance of the first night teaching outside the lines.
First we view a 20-minute promotional video put out by Speer, manufacturers of Gold Dot brand hollow-point bullets. The video leads with the disclaimer "Intended strictly for viewing by law enforcement personnel." It shows lots of slow-motion footage of men and women in blue uniforms drawing their guns and pointing them at the cameraman in a blatant violation of Universal Gun Rule No. 2.
There is more slow-motion footage of various calibers of Gold Dot bullets being fired into chunks of gelatin that bear the same density as human flesh, so as to illustrate the massive damage inflicted by Gold Dot bullets, whose destructive power is favorably compared to rival bullets in side-by-side demonstrations.
Gruner tells us the video is not intended to convince us to buy Gold Dot bullets, but to graphically demonstrate what a hollow-point round does upon "penetrating a fleshy media": bursts into a deadly flower shape which twirls through muscle and vital organs.
The Geneva Convention prohibits the use of hollow-point bullets in warfare, but they are the nearly universal choice of law enforcement agencies nationwide, for two reasons: They do far more damage than a round-tip bullet, and they use up most of their kinetic energy doing it, meaning they're far less likely to pass all the way through a body and hit a second person.
Gruner, a cop-in-training himself, recommends we load our guns with the same brand of hollow-point bullets used by our local police department, so as to discourage a prosecutor from ever using our high-tech ammunition against us.
One of my fellow pupils, an elderly gent enrolled in the class with his daughter, raises his hand. "Are you going to talk about bullets and tires?" he asks.
Gruner says, "What?"
"Well, you know, what kind of bullets are best to shoot out tires?"
"Sir, you can't shoot out tires with handgun bullets. They'll bounce off."
"Even if the tire's moving?"
"Well, what if it's moving really fast, like 80 miles per hour, and you shoot it at just the right angle?"
Gruner exhales slowly. "Sir, may I ask why you're so interested in this subject?"
The old man demurs. "Oh, no reason, really. I've just always been interested in bullets and tires."
Gruner calls for a 10-minute break.
Later that night, we learn the standard police-academy self-defense shooting rhythm, which goes like this: Two to body, one to head. Three to body, one to head.
"A penetrating head shot will shut down the central nervous system instantly, whereas if you shoot someone in the heart they might keep fighting for 10 seconds or more," says Gruner. "Unfortunately, the head is a small, mobile, hard-to-penetrate target. If your enemy is wearing body armor, though, it may be your only primary target, although you always have the groin area as a last resort.
"The bottom line is, the important stuff must be hit and destroyed."
3) Legal issues relating to the use of deadly force
Vaughn, the Urban Firearms Institute's legal scholar, leads the second night of class. He breaks down the differences between a civil and criminal trial, then teaches us what to do after we shoot someone in self-defense.
Call the police as soon as possible. Tell them next to nothing once they arrive.
"The only way to control your statement is to issue it through an attorney," Vaughn says. "So say this, and only this: 'He tried to kill me. I'm really shaken up right now. I'll be happy to answer all your questions as soon as I've consulted with my attorney.'"
(One of the handouts in Caswell's CCW class packet is a recommended list of 13 Valley criminal attorneys who've defended people who've shot someone in self-defense.) If the police keep asking questions, Vaughn says, tell them your chest hurts and you need immediate medical attention.
"It's easy to extract yourself from legal danger if you know how to play the game, and if you're going to carry a gun, you'd better know how to play the game, because the deck is stacked against you."
Finally, Vaughn says, do not openly hold racist views in your daily life.
"If you have any slurs in your vocabulary, I suggest you get rid of them, because if a prosecutor can play the race card on you, they will.
"After all, that poor little crackhead you just shot, everyone knows he was going to get off crack the next week and become a brain surgeon, right?"
Right. It's us Good Wolves versus the Crackheads of Color in our Violent, Predatory World.
Vaughn moves to a definition of deadly force:
"That degree of force which a reasonable and prudent person would consider capable of causing death or great bodily harm."
We then learn when you can and cannot legally blow someone away in this state. Four criteria must be met for a shooting to be justified by law: The person you shoot must have the ability to kill or seriously injure you, he must have the opportunity to do so, he must demonstrate a "manifest intent" to do you damage, and it must be "immediately necessary" to shoot him.
"Basically, all this boils down to one question: 'Do you believe you are about to be killed or crippled?'" says Vaughn. "If you can answer 'Yes' in your dark little heart, then pull the trigger."
Several of my classmates have to struggle with the new concept that, should they come home one evening to find an unarmed stranger ransacking their home, they are not legally entitled to kill him.
"That just doesn't seem right," one of them keeps saying.
Vaughn discourages us from using deadly force to defend a third party unless we know exactly what's happening.
"Say you walk into a Circle K and you see a longhaired guy pointing a gun at the clerk's head. Can you shoot him?"
A couple students say yes.
"Wrong," says Vaughn. "That longhaired guy is a DEA undercover agent, and he's busting the clerk for dealing meth from behind the counter. You've just killed a federal agent, and you're going to prison for a looooong time."
4. Mental conditioning for use of deadly force
I own guns. Real estate agents describe my central Phoenix neighborhood as "in transition," so I have a shotgun for home defense. When I was younger and dumber than I am now, I had guns pulled on me three times in three months, and had my life threatened by a rap group to which I gave a bad review, so I bought a more portable 9mm and learned how to shoot (a skill not required for a 12-gauge at close range).
More than once I've found myself daydreaming about using the guns I own in a shoot-out, then shaken off the bloody reverie because I thought it wrong. One of my greatest concerns about fellow gun owners is I imagine them regularly fantasizing about shooting people.
Which is just what Vaughn teaches my CCW class to do. He calls it "Game planning."
"Whenever you have free time, you should visualize yourself in self-defense scenarios, employing the weapon you train with," he says. "If you mentally prepare yourself for the worst, you'll more capably deal with it when it happens."
When. Not if.
I decide Vaughn is paranoid. Then I remember his job used to be guarding and observing maximum-security prisoners, many of whom are now out. He knows better than most how evil the lesser members of our species can be, and how many they number.
I'm not a crack shot, but I believe I could pass the state's minimum CCW marksmanship test blindfolded and huffing WD-40.
Here are the rules: To get a permit, you have to fire five rounds at a human silhouette from 10 feet and five rounds from 15 feet. Seven of the 10 rounds must hit the target. This is little more than a point-and-click exercise.
There is no time limit. Even so, instructors at some state-licensed CCW schools will reload a student's weapon for him, and allow the use of stabilizing bench rests.
The test for my class is far harder, but still easy. We must fire 20 rounds at distances ranging from 15 to 30 feet, repeatedly reholstering and drawing our weapon, with Gruner shouting orders behind our backs. A score of 75 is required to pass the course, meaning a student cannot miss more than three times badly, or five times slightly. I put one shot into my target's throat instead of its head and score a 94. The lowest score in my class is an 86.
Not many people fail CCW courses, and most of those who do wash out because they can't shoot straight. But they can come back and try again, in a reduced-price session which concentrates on marksmanship.
I've seen a group of remedial CCW applicants trying to pass the Urban Firearms Institute's test for the second time. One old man's hands shook with palsy. He could barely hold up his long-barreled .357 Magnum. Next to him stood a tiny woman firing a .45 semi-automatic whose recoil knocked her off balance. The instructor would bark orders like "Two! Two to the body!" and the old man and tiny woman shooters would throw lead in all directions, knocking paint off the walls and putting holes in the cardboard above their target. Few rounds found their mark.
Upon a command to fire one shot into the target's head, the woman drew her .45 and promptly blew to bits the clothespin clamping her target to its holder, two feet away. It fell sideways and dangled. She put down her gun and buried her face in both hands.
6. Judgmental shooting
The state requires CCW schools to run students through a battery of verbal scenarios, "what-ifs" where the students must decide whether to draw their weapon and/or open fire.
Caswell's Institute also runs its students through the Range 2000, a live-action simulator used to train police officers. Susan Dunlap, the retired special agent, drills us through the low-rent holodeck in groups of four. She picks me to go first while the other three watch.
Dunlap directs me to stand behind a line about 15 feet in front of a massive projection screen. She gets behind a computer to my left, which she would use to select scenarios and control their progress according to my reactions. Dunlap gives me a semi-automatic pistol altered to fire invisible beams of light which appear on the screen as circular splashes of red. Not unlike a video game.
The lights go out. A disembodied voice announces, "You have just been involved in a minor traffic accident. You and the other driver have pulled to the side of a busy road."
The screen comes to life, showing the world from a first-person perspective. Both vehicles come to a stop. I get out of my car as the other driver exits his pickup truck. He is enraged, and begins screaming threats. I politely ask him to calm down. He grabs a club from inside his truck's cab. I draw my gun and shout for him to put down the weapon. He charges. I blow him away. He crumples to the pavement. The club rolls from his limp hand.
"Good shoot," says Dunlap.
The screen goes dark. The voice comes again. "You are walking through a neighborhood park when you come across what appears to be a drug deal in progress."
On screen, a group of young men dressed like gang members are making hand-to-hand transactions when they spot me. Most of them take off running, but two assume aggressive postures. Words are exchanged. The one on the right pulls a gun from his baggy jeans and fires a shot that misses. I sidestep, draw my own weapon, and shoot him twice in the chest. He falls. His friend flees. This pleases me.
The voice: "You have just come out of a grocery store when a stranger approaches your car." A man runs up to my passenger window. He bangs on it, screaming, "Give me your car! Give me your car!"
I draw my gun and shout something to the effect of, "Get the fuck away from me, motherfucker!"
The man backs away, frightened. This also pleases me. The screen goes dark.
"You just committed aggravated assault," Dunlap says. "That man needed your car because his father just had a heart attack, and he needed to get to a hospital."
For the last scenario, I am a cop.
"Remember," Dunlap says. "It's a police officer's duty to always protect your partner."
"Say it back to me."
"Always protect your partner."
"Okay. Here we go."
It is a routine traffic stop. I walk to the passenger's side window as my partner, on the opposite side, asks the driver for his license and registration. The driver is argumentative and looks drunk. I keep my eyes on his hands, which grip the steering wheel. Quick as a cobra, the driver grabs the handle of a gun I hadn't seen, barely protruding beneath his thigh, and shoots my partner through the glass.
I see my partner go down as I blast the driver three times in the ass, then once in the head. He slumps over the steering wheel.
"Well," Dunlap says, "you got the bad guy, but you didn't exactly protect your partner, did you?"
"You must be ever watchful, grasshopper."
I am not proud of my performance inside the Range 2000, but it beats the hell out of my classmates, who shoot babies in the midst of domestic disputes, fire rounds that miss a fleeing burglar but hit a Girl Scout camp, and gun down a man found breaking into his own car with a slim-jim.
"I thought it was a gun," the shooter says afterward. "Christ, it looked like a gun."
On the last night, we get fingerprinted. Before we're approved for a permit, the Department of Public Safety will run our name and prints through seven state and local background-check databases, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation's.
State law prohibits anyone from carrying a concealed weapon if he is under indictment for a felony, addicted to a controlled substance, or an illegal immigrant, or if he has been committed to a mental institution, dishonorably discharged from the military, convicted of domestic abuse or has a restraining order against him.
By contrast, handgun buyers undergo only an instant background check through one database.
As Gruner calls us to the ink pad, one by one, we watched a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms training video narrated by Sylvester Stallone. It shows clips of Stallone machine-gunning Soviet troops in Rambo III interspersed with ATF agents describing what it's like to be in a gunfight.
"Remember to do whatever you gotta do to survive," Stallone says. "Dig deep into yourself and find steel. . . . There is no surrender."
We take an open-book and multiple-choice exam. We trade tests and grade them. All but one of us score 100. Then Vaughn literally rubber-stamps our CCW applications. If we pass the background check, our permits will be good until 2004. Then, according to the current law, we have to take a six-hour renewal course.
Six hours is not enough. Nor is 16. Arizona's CCW law is a tragedy pending. The state is a sitting duck for a wrongful-death lawsuit.
I've known two women in my life who were raped in their own homes, in their own beds, by men they knew. Both believe a gun in their bedroom would have made a difference, and say they would have used it without hesitation. Both have since bought a handgun and carry it as a habit. I would not deny them this small comfort.
Still, based on my CCW class experience, I believe that many of the people who apply for a concealed-carry permit should not receive one, either because they're not smart enough or they can't shoot or because they don't react well under pressure. Or all of the above.
Vaughn leaves us with these words:
"Being good with a handgun is not like riding a bike. It's a perishable skill, requiring constant upkeep. A gun is not a magic talisman to ward off danger. You have to know how to use it for it to do you any good.
"As time has gone by, we've grown a little disillusioned with the state's program. Half the people who come through our CCW renewal class cannot handle their firearms safely, and could not hit the broad side of a barn under combat conditions."
"Okay," he says. "Be safe out there."
Contact David Holthouse at his online address: email@example.com