By Robert C. Koehler
You may find this shocking, but a little over a decade ago I spent a weekend learning how to shoot a handgun — under the auspices of the NRA. I wound up earning myself an NRA “personal protection in the home” certificate.
For years I have pondered writing about this weekend, but never found quite the right context for doing so. But the recent decision of the Supreme Court in the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen — declaring that the possession of pistols in public is a constitutional right — has pulled that weekend up from my memory (as well as from the pages of the journal entry I made afterwards, on May 2, 2011).
The ruling, as Karrie Jacobs has written, intensifies the danger we all face simply by being out in public, noting that in its wake “our sense of security in crowded places may be more permanently damaged than it was by the pandemic.”
She adds, “It advances a perception of the United States as a dystopian nation where day-to-day survival depends on being armed.”
This is the American paradox in full blossom: The more people there are carrying guns, especially in public places, the more dangerous it is simply to be out and about; the more dangerous it is to be out in public, the more credibility Second Amendment aficionados have when they claim they are only safe if they’re carrying a weapon.
I had been writing about guns for years, often annoying the hell out of people who were otherwise good friends. One of those folks was the late Doug Rokke, a former member of the U.S. Air Force, who had served in both Vietnam and Gulf War I. He gained international attention telling the world about the horrific risks of depleted uranium, with which the U.S. made bombs and missiles — which upon explosion spread nuclear radiation far and wide. The U.S. military may as well be waging nuclear war.
I wrote a number of columns about DU and got to know him well. While he was extremely critical about U.S. militarism, he was also a total gun enthusiast. He lived in central Illinois, not far from Chicago, where I live, and I had visited him at his home. One day, in the hope of penetrating what he assumed was an obtuse anti-gun prejudice of mine, he invited me to an NRA training weekend coming up near where he lived. Well, why not? At my deepest level, what I am is curious. Here was a chance for me to step into a whole different world.
Participants had to bring their own guns, of course, so he provided me with one of his: a Smith & Wesson .38. Before the weekend was over, I had fired off at least 200 rounds of ammo from it, and actually started hitting the target. At the weekend’s conclusion, as certificates were being handed out, one of the instructors declared: “Bob is definitely the most improved shooter of the weekend.” I was applauded.
I mention this paradoxically. My experience that weekend was utterly fascinating, and sharpened — but in no way changed — my thoughts about armed America. There were four instructors at the weekend and all four of them were incredibly positive and encouraging. There was no bullshit “be a man” swaggering during the weekend, and indeed, of the 37 participants, 17 of them were women. A word the instructors used over and over was “love,” as in, “I feel a lot of love here.” The goal of the training was more than just the sharpening of participants’ shooting skill or intensifying their gun safety awareness. It was creating camaraderie.
One problem: This was camaraderie based on the presence of enemies. Lots of enemies. The instructors, in their continuing lectures throughout the weekend, peddled fear and created scenarios of horror and hell. In Argentina, they told us, there were now home invaders wearing body armor who broke in and tortured the residents. One of the brochures on display showed an attractive woman in a red dress shooting a hideous man, clearly a rapist, coming toward her with a knife. Another brochure showed a stern and serious fellow shooting a vicious rattlesnake — and the snake had the same snarling, “I’m gonna get you” look on its face as the rapist.
As I wrote in my journal the next day: “The gun society is a no-nonsense social dualism, precisely divided between good guys and bad guys.”
And despite the “love in the room,” despite the respect and patience the instructors showed to everyone present, despite the wisdom and clarity of their words — shooting is a “Zen process,” one of them said — the weekend’s essence was the reduction of life to that one reptilian option: fight or flight.
In the NRA’s words:
“Using firearms responsibly and ethically for personal protection involves: Mental preparation for an encounter (what will I do before, during and after?), a willingness to use deadly force (can I do this?) and recognizing use of a firearm as a last resort.”
In other words, to join the camaraderie of the good guys, you have to declare a willingness to use deadly force. Only when absolutely necessary, of course — whatever that means. It’s an individual determination. But once that willingness is officially declared . . . what? The need to be armed is ever-present. The need to be on the lookout is ever-present. You are now armed and scared. You are a good guy with a gun.
What weekends like this do, I decided afterwards, is spread the willingness — and the presumed right — to use deadly force, not to mention the false belief that being unarmed means being unempowered. That was a decade ago. Look how much safer we are now.