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Block after block of vacant lots, hand painted store signs, and rusty chain link fences. Mount Vernon, New York felt like a warm memory of sidewalk for miles and miles to make sure that the cracked concrete never ended. I pulled up in front of a West Indian store where two old ladies sat outside on folding chairs and a white board advertised soul food. My destination was next door: Gold Shield Training Center. It seemed like a safe place to park. I fed the meter and went in.
To get a pistol permit in Westchester County, there are a few hoops you have to jump through. Beyond the usual amount of paperwork, you also have to complete an NRA certified gun safety course and submit four character references from Westchester residents. Fresh from New York City, I was a little short of locals who could vouch for my integrity, and being one character reference shy, I asked the real estate broker who had sold me my house if he could help out. Before I could even explain what the reference was for, he almost jumped in the air, getting a gun license! That great! He gave me the reference, plus a lead on where to take the safety course. Which brought me to Mount Vernon.
Walking into a gun store for the first time is like your first time walking into a sex shop. You get the uncomfortable feeling that you being sold on some deviant agenda. You surrounded by strange, hyper specific literature and odd looking accessories of unclear purpose and intent. Everyone can tell that you have absolutely no idea what you doing.
This visit to Gold Shield was just to sign up for the class and pick up the course materials. The employees were friendly, and I did my best moved here from the Midwest sort of schtick, figuring that the Midwest must be some kind of gun toting Valhalla to 2nd Amendment fans on the east coast. Never mind that I haven lived there in more than ten years, it an easy routine once you know it. I was still chatting and collecting forms when two men walked in carrying rifles in both hands. It was a movie moment; I expected one of them to toss me a gun and yell, me! Who knows what the old ladies outside thought. It turned out that the taller, older man was Charlie, the safety course instructor.
The next time I saw Charlie was a few days later, when I returned with my wife for the class. My wife was involved in this because she wanted us to have a hobby together that didn involve gallons of vodka and embarrassing lapses of judgement. At a shooting range they don permit either. We found the classroom above the shop and took our seats near the front, ever the good students. It was air conditioned, and very normal looking except for the poster of a semi automatic cross section on the wall.
Eventually Charlie arrived, with a .40 caliber Glock on his hip and a cigar box full of guns and bullets for visual aids. He looked like the old guy on the block whose backyard you knew to stay out of, but once he started to address the topic at hand, his manner made him for what he was: a classic retired cop. Very concerned, very attentive, and completely patient with a roomful of civilians who wanted to know about guns. He was like a benevolent Archie Bunker. He was like the gun toting Irish uncle I never had.
And like any good uncle, Charlie was more about telling us stories than just reading us the rules. Police stories, gun stories, weird things he seen stories. He also taught us the stuff in the book, of course: how to tell a pistol from a revolver, where to put the bullets in, which way to point the thing; but the fun part was having an old cop pass his Colt .45 around and tell us about the time he had a gun cleaning accident.
The small class was almost entirely black, excepting me (a long hair) and my wife, Jen. Not exactly the sort of crowd that would have been hanging out with the boys in blue in the 60s. But in this day and decade we were all just slightly bored citizens who were trying to make it through a long lecture to get a gun permit. Charlie was all about people, all people, having gun permits, and he wanted us to know that. From the beginning, he singled out Jen to assure.
true that there didn used to be many women at the gun range, he said almost out of nowhere, almost apologetically, that changed now, and that good. regular intervals, between monotone readings from the textbook, he re assured us that we each had the right to be gun owners, no matter how we might be made to feel about it. Was he talking about gun laws or outdated social attitudes? Was he trying to empower us as individuals or as potential gun rights activists? Was he including me when he ranted about bleeding heart liberals? It was a little confusing, but nothing with guns is simple. There are always cultural strings. Political strings. Ethnic strings.
His straight shooting delivery and his all inclusive message almost collided while he was explaining what to do if you get pulled over with your gun in the car (no, I don think that this is part of the usual NRA course).
depends on who you are, he said, mean, if I stopped you at two in the morning, well indicating a black student in the front row. There was a barely audible groan. New York has had its share of horror stories that start along those lines. Charlie collected his thoughts.
he resumed bluntly, a black man with a gun isn easy.
The class stirred a little. I cringed quietly in anticipation of the imminent shipwreck. Finally someone spoke out,
It was a surprising catharsis. Some very frank and practical discussion followed on.
Once we finished off the remaining required chapters, we passed a short multiple choice test and received our signed certificates to make it official. The certificates were what we come for, but it was Charlie approval that was tangible. Outside in the cool air, we all waved good night to each other and started back to our respective corners of the county. Charlie was the last to leave, and I heard the old ladies next door call out to him,
Mr. Charlie! summer night in Mount Vernon. Nice place, right?
Momma tried to warn me I have no intention of becoming one of our scary American stereotypes (warning! Dead animals!).
To Charles: Congratulations, and great picture! I think your essay alludes eloquently to what many of us feel (and should overcome!): the feelings of guilt and bad when choosing to own and use a gun. The more you handle it, clean it, transport it properly, load it and unload it in accordance with your local shooting range rules (and believe me, the old hands there will give you maybe one chance to mishandle your gun in their presence), and yes, shoot it, the more you will demystify and demythologize gun This is a good thing.
In my opinion, a gun is like money: sitting there on the table it is inherently a value free object. Its and/or is derived solely from the intent of the person who chooses to pick it up. Choosing to never pick it up is to continue to live in the myth you described. That you have chosen to deprogram yourself is wonderful indeed.
Have fun, and when you visit again, we go to the range. I have picked up my second gun by then : D (most likely the Baby Glock Model 26). Kim is a naturalized American citizen born in South Africa, a true connisseur and lover of firearms, and a staunch defender of the American Second Amendment. Of course, many of you may find him (and America affair with guns) repugnant; so be it. Once read, some of you may still argue for gun control, but at least (I hope) you agree that he has presented a thoughtful and well reasoned argument. I admit up front that he is speaking from a distinctly American, US Constitutional perspective. As they say, your mileage may vary.