Video: Handguns 101

By Mike Stuckey Senior news editor
msnbc.com
updated 3/25/2010 9:18:25 AM ET 2010-03-25T13:18:25

On a cool morning in the epicenter of Left Coast liberalism, I went looking for what it takes to pack a little heat.

Although the NRA held its annual meeting here in 1997, the Emerald City’s image is more often associated with Birkenstocks than Glocks.

In keeping with that image, then-Mayor Greg Nickels in 2008 banned firearms on all city property in the wake of a shooting at a music festival. But last month, the gun ban was thrown out by a judge who said it violates a state law that forbids local governments from regulating most gun-related matters.

Despite Seattle’s leftward lean, Washington state actually has some of the nation’s least-restrictive gun laws. For instance, it’s one of only seven states in which there is no minimum hunting age. And when it comes to concealed weapons, Washington wrote the book on “shall issue” systems, which enable most adults to obtain licenses to carry hidden guns on demand.

The state passed its measure in 1961, long before the “right-to-carry” movement surged in the mid-1980s, boosting the number of “shall issue” states and those where no permit is needed from nine to 39.

Never held a loaded handgun
As a native and 40-year resident of California, which has some of the nation’s most restrictive gun laws, including a “may issue” concealed-weapons permit system, I was not raised in a hunting or shooting family and, at 53, have never owned a firearm.

More than 20 years ago, I went trap-shooting with a friend and actually proved pretty good at blowing little clay pigeons out of the sky with a 12-gauge Mossberg. I also seem to remember squeezing off a few rounds from a rifle or two, though I’m not certain.

Going For Their GunsBut I know for a fact that when I applied for my Washington State Concealed Pistol License, I had never fired a revolver or semiautomatic handgun of any caliber. Not once. In fact, I had never even held a loaded pistol in my hands. And I had never taken a minute of formal firearms training.

The state of Washington cared nothing about this when it came to issuing me a license to carry anything from a .22 revolver in my jacket pocket to a .50-caliber Desert Eagle in my waistband. The state also had no interest in whether or not I own a gun.

Indeed, the only requirements under the Washington law that grants me the right to obtain a concealed-carry permit are that I am 21 or older, have no history of mental illness and no criminal past. I meet all three. And there’s no requirement that I exhibit any knowledge of firearms or experience with them to buy a gun.

That mental health question
Curious if it would really be that easy, I decided to go through the process of obtaining a concealed-carry permit of my own.

The King County Sheriff’s Office in downtown Seattle accommodated me with brisk efficiency. I filled out a single-page application with my vital stats, address, phone number and driver’s license number.

I then answered eight questions, seven concerning whether or not I’d been convicted of any crimes or had any other run-ins with the law and one that asked if I had “ever been confined in a mental health facility for more than fourteen days.” The answers to all were “No.”

Moments later, I presented my photo ID and $55.25 in cash for the application and fingerprinting fees and was soon ushered into a back office to be electronically fingerprinted.

Twenty-two minutes after parking my car, I was back behind the wheel. Less than one month later, as required by the law, I received my Washington State Concealed Pistol License. It is good for five years. Thanks to reciprocal agreements, it is also good in 21 other states.

Despite my best journalistic efforts at impartiality, I was amazed at how easy it was to obtain the license and nonplussed about the lack of a training requirement.

Many gun-rights activists say that’s as it should be, even though other states require a variety of training and testing, including basic marksmanship in some cases. While they are staunch advocates of extensive training for every aspect of gun-handling, they just as firmly believe the government should not mandate it.

“We encourage anyone who wants to learn more to go attend one of our classes or any class out there,” said Andrew Arulanandam, chief spokesman for the National Rifle Association, adding that more than a million people take NRA classes each year. But gun ownership is a constitutional right, not a privilege, he said, and the government should not require training.

Tom Gresham, the host of nationally syndicated television and radio shows about firearms training, said anybody who carries a concealed gun should take at least “a two- to three-day class,” and that much of the focus of the instruction should be on how to avoid using the firearm.

“The good courses will tell you if you go the rest of your life and never pull your gun out, you will have learned your lesson well,” he said. “When people are done with it, they stop flipping the bird when they’re driving, they stop doing anything that could possibly escalate a situation. … This is a parachute. This is a life-saving device. The only reason you’re going to use this is because everything else has failed and you’re going to die.”

‘A gun’s a simple item’
While Gresham believes that all “responsible” adults should carry a gun, he too does not believe the government should require training.

But doesn’t the government’s role in protecting the “greater good” mean it should require training and testing, as states do for driver’s licenses?

No, said Alan Gottlieb, president of the Second Amendment Foundation, which promotes and defends gun rights. “A gun’s a simple item,” he said. Unlike driving a car, “There aren’t rules of the road. It’s like, how does the gun operate and how do I operate it safely? How do I load it, how do I take the safety on and off and how do I shoot it? When you’re buying a gun for self-defense, you’re not planning on shooting somebody down the block. You might have to shoot something that’s a threat that might be pretty close to you.”

Gun-control groups couldn’t disagree more.

The main problem with “shall issue” permit systems is that they do not allow local police to decide who is qualified to carry a gun, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

“We should start handling guns more like automobiles, with registration and licensing,” said the group’s president, Paul Helmke.  The Brady Campaign has called for federal legislation that would mandate training for all handgun owners.

‘Constant state of paranoia’
The concealed-carry training issue is a moot point to another gun-control group, the Violence Policy Center, which seeks to ban handgun ownership by civilians in the United States.

“Do you want to live in a constant state of paranoia, which is what a lot of these people do?” asked the center’s legislative director, Kristen Rand. “To plan that you’re going to be confronted by some time and need to use deadly force, that’s never going to happen to most people.

“If you feel like you really need to have a gun, get a shotgun and keep it in your house.”

In my home state of Washington, that would be even easier than getting a concealed-carry permit. I could pick one up on the way home from work tonight, as could any law-abiding citizen 21 or older.

But for the record, and without going into whether or not it should be a government requirement, I have no plans to own any gun without extensive training in a classroom and on a firing range.

At this point, even though I had an introductory handgun lesson and fired a number of pistols under close supervision in the course of reporting this article, I still don’t really know how to load one.

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