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Gun Laws 101

Gun safety is the thread that weaves in and out of both the classroom and the range.

This is the second part of a three-part series on gun safety.

In a room predominantly filled with guns and men, silence filled the air as students waited for the concealed carry class at the National Rifle Association of America’s shooting range to begin.

One man, a hunter and experienced shooter, wanted to improve his gun safety knowledge and possibly apply for a concealed carry permit. Another man was recently mugged and wanted to see if a concealed carry permit would be a suitable match for him. Most of the other students kept to themselves, but everyone in the room listened attentively to four hours' worth of information on the laws, mechanics and responsibilities associated with cleaning, handling, owning and carrying a handgun.

The classroom at the range is a straight-faced place where safety is nearly overstated. Before stepping foot inside its doors, a range staff member inspects each person’s weapon to make sure there is no live ammunition loaded into the gun, or even present in the gun’s case. Once he or she gives the OK, one can proceed into the classroom where paperwork and gun safety literature awaits each student. Included in the packet of materials is the Virginia application for a concealed handgun permit, which students are eligible to apply for upon completion of the two-part class. All firearms brought into the classroom must sit unloaded on the table in front of each student, with the actions open and muzzles pointed toward the wall at all times. There are no exceptions. Even the plastic guns the instructors use as props are kept pointed away from each person in the room, usually to the ceiling or the floor. All of these rules imply the message they were created to send: guns are not toys.

The class is the first steps program, part of the Basic Pistols Program offered at the range and throughout the country with certified NRA instructors. It is a basic introductory course designed to teach enough knowledge, skills and attitude necessary to own and carry a firearm.

“We don’t mean to suggest by any means that this prepares you to carry a firearm,” said Greg Wodack, instructor and manager of the NRA range.

And by the end of the class, the man who was mugged decided carrying a firearm was not the right decision for him. Willie, who wanted to keep his last name anonymous because of fear from the muggers who stole his driver’s license, said he came into the class looking for a way to protect himself in the future. After hours of instructors talking about the responsibility that goes with carrying a pistol, Willie was convinced he was not ready for a situation where he’d have to make the decision to use deadly force. And since the jury ultimately decides whether deadly force was appropriate in each instance, Willie said he could not take that gamble.

“It’s just not worth it,” said Willie. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to make the right judgment.”

The range instructors said they aren’t trying to deter people from getting a concealed handgun permit, but they do want to make sure people fully understand every scenario associated with getting one. There are intricacies in the laws, as there are in every law, and people need to recognize that, said Mike Tartaro, NRA range instructor.

THE INTRICACIES don’t stop at the laws: the way the guns operate are complicated as well. There are many different aspects to focus on when shooting a pistol. Not only do shooters have to be in complete control of their weapon by being in complete control of their bodies, there are specific fundamentals each shooter needs to follow. Between the grip, sight alignment, trigger squeeze, follow-through and position, shooters also have to remain focused on breath control. That’s right: there is even a right and wrong way to breathe when shooting a firearm. And without dedicated concentration to each of these procedures, it can all go wrong.

“If you do your job at the gun, the bullet is going to hit the target where you want it to,” said Wodack.

After the run-through of the different components of a handgun, students learned about different holster options, cleaning techniques and Virginia gun laws. Since the majority of the class raised their hand when instructors asked who would be applying for the concealed permit, the holster selection was extremely relevant to the course since Instructor David Fenzl demonstrated how different holsters can be less comfortable, less accessable and some are even dangerous. Concealment is key when carrying a firearm in Virginia, and instructors made sure students understood what that entails. They also went over the consequences of using a firearm in many different situations. A concealed permit does not give shooters an exemption from any laws, nor does it provide any extra rights, said Heide Shintani, a former law enforcement agent and an NRA instructor.

“That’s one of the things about carrying a firearm,” said Shintani. “You may end up being arrested if you use it.”

Applying for and receiving the permit also means that more practice is necessary. Gun carriers need to know how to handle and operate their guns properly. Shooting is not like riding a bike, said Shintani.

“You can’t afford to miss. Marksmanship is a perishable skill,” said Shintani. “You will lose that skill very quickly.”

<ro>A Range of Gratification

<lst>The second part of the class came the day after the classroom instruction. All students were required to return to the range for live, one-on-one shooting instruction. After my first day at the range on July 29 for some shooting with some informal instruction, a lenghthy and focused lesson is exactly what I needed. The sweaty-palm problem persisted, and since my instructor was debriefed about my previous shooting experience, he had some napkins standing by. All students of the concealed carry class are required to shoot their first rounds from a sitting position, . While sitting was comfortable, it seemed more difficult than standing. It may have been because it was the warm-up phase and I still needed to get comfortable with the gun, but it just felt awkward, and it was hard to align the sights without slouching and turning my head. The recoil anticipation problem didn’t go away either. Each time I started to pull the trigger back, my hands would tremble and the gun would move around making aiming nearly impossible. Vince Cavaleri, a veteran instructor at the range, calmly talked me through my nerves and weaknesses. At first, I tried listening to what he was telling me, but it didn’t show because I couldn’t stop the shaking. It took firing several rounds and truly listening to the advice Cavaleri gave me to overcome the problem. Once my concentration was where it needed to be, I was hitting the target spot-on, almost every time.

Cavaleri had me shooting from 15 feet. He said most self-defense situations where the use of deadly force might be the only option would likely occur in or around that range. Running in the opposite direction or using something for cover might prove a more effective choice than deadly force at distances longer than about 20 feet, he said. I also learned from class the night before that drawing and shooting a firearm is always considered deadly force, whether the person actually dies or not. This is another responsibility associated with carrying a pistol, one that deterred at least one student from pursuing the concealed permit.

Back on my feet, I found a strong stance that made me feel confident and ready. I positioned my hands around the grip, with some finessing by Cavaleri, and felt ready to shoot from the standing position. My first 10 rounds or so were a bit inconsistent. A few shots were in the target range, a few just outside of it and a few on the outskirts of the bull’s-eye. Cavaleri discussed the different components with me again, and he watched my shooting carefully to pick up on my mistakes. Each time he corrected me on something, and I listened, my next shots improved tremendously. Wodack had told me the night before that Cavaleri was one of the best, and just 30 minutes into my lesson, I agreed.

After blasting through a couple targets, my concentration was refined and unbreakable. I became so focused on my target that my shaky anticipation problem nearly disappeared. It came back every 10 rounds or so, and when it did, I rested my eyes and arms. The rest allowed me to concentrate my mind as hard as I had been staring at my front sight and tiring my arm muscles for the last few rounds. After each rest I took, the very next shot always hit the center of the target, and I even hit the exact same hole several times making a large hole where my target used to be. The gratification from this was huge, and my smile was effortless. I was even happier because I felt like I wasn’t letting my instructor down. When someone puts that much time and concentration into teaching me how to do something right, all I want to do is make them proud. The look on Cavaleri’s face when I kept hitting my target was wonderful. He looked like a proud parent, and it brought me back to when I won swim meets as a kid. I would always jump out of the pool and immediately look for my parents. My mom always clapped and cheered loudly, much to my embarrassment, and my dad could barely detach his face from the video camera, also to my embarrassment. Cavaleri had that same look in his eyes, except this time the sense of accomplishment overpowered any other emotion. I walked out of that range feeling like I could run a marathon. Shooting guns is a practice and hobby I have come to enjoy in just two trips to the NRA range, but without enough practice, my initial bursts of confidence with a gun risk being shot down and forgotten.