Gun can save your life or get you sent to prison
00:00 am 10/26/05
PHIL BRINKMAN [email protected]
DEERFIELD - My "attacker" was just 15 feet away, which, I have to admit, was bad news for him. Even though it's been years since I've fired a handgun, hitting the green, life-size target was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
The more immediate question was: What was he doing there, and why won't he leave me alone? In real life, the green guy should have taken a cue from the Czech-made 9 mm pistol I was thrusting toward him and run off.
With a faint sense of something resembling pity, I fired on my impassive foe, ultimately sending 30 rounds through him although one or two probably would have done.
On the street, that kind of enthusiasm isn't something you want to explain to a jury. But in the safety of this basement shooting range Tuesday, it was the final step in my training to legally carry a concealed handgun - in Minnesota, at least.
I had spent most of the previous day with certified firearms instructor Gene German, seeking to learn what sort of training might be required here if the Legislature overturns Wisconsin's 133-year ban on carrying concealed weapons.
German, an affable and enthusiastic backer of the measure, was invited to offer the training (for a $150 fee) to lawmakers, their staffs and media people by the bill's chief sponsor in the state Senate, Sen. Dave Zien, R-Eau Claire.
About a dozen of us attended the day of classroom instruction at the state Capitol, while I and Nathan Berken, an aide to Rep. Gabe Loeffelholz, R- Platteville, completed the required coursework at a shooting range in Deerfield.
I don't have a position on the bill. But whether you're pro or con, it's reassuring to know that the only path to a permit (with some exceptions) is through a class like German's.
The first thing you learn: Marksmanship isn't the half of it.
Outside of the sterile environment of the shooting range, in the messy, real world, here's how my confrontation with the green guy would have gone: Stabbing fear would close around me, leaving me with tunnel vision. My strength would increase exponentially, but my dexterity - my ability to deftly aim the weapon, pull the trigger and hit the target instead of a bystander - would drop. Time would slow down.
My ability to endure pain would increase dramatically, but so would my attacker's. And, unlike in the movies, he likely wouldn't fall over with the first shot, or even the first several. Even after a shot to the heart, a person can have full "voluntary function" of his or her faculties for 10 to 15 seconds, enough to do me serious harm.
"Pain is irrelevant to survival," German said.
But the story of that confrontation starts even before that point, with the decision to strap on a gun at all.
'Do it wrong, go to prison'
Carrying a handgun in public, either under your jacket or openly on your hip as German does in his home state, imposes a special obligation on the bearer to avoid conflict, since any dispute is essentially an armed confrontation, he said.
"I think I'm a nicer person when I'm armed," German said. "When somebody cuts me off (in traffic) I wave at them now with all five fingers."
German, 55, said his "primary weapon" remains his cell phone, which he carries on his right hip; his Smith & Wesson .357-caliber Magnum rides in a cross-draw holster on his left.
If conflict finds you, four things must be true before you can legally even pull out a gun:
You must be a reluctant participant. Walking into a bar fight to break it up or chasing after a mugger doesn't count.
You must reasonably believe you're in immediate danger of death or great bodily harm. If a mean-looking dude simply demands your wallet, you're better off handing it over; if he's got a weapon, it's a different story.
No lesser force will do. Can you resolve the situation by calling 911, fending off blows with your arms or fighting back? You must eliminate those options before reaching for your gun.
Retreat is not practical.
Weighing those questions in the safety of a jury room is difficult enough; staying lucid enough to do so in the heat of a violent attack is perilous.
"You do it wrong, you go to prison," German said. "These are high stakes."
The circumstances get even muddier when you decide to intervene on someone else's behalf.
Not only must the four elements for use of lethal force be true for the person you're trying to save, but you'll need to be certain of the relationship between the victim and the alleged attacker. Do you know, for example, that the gun- wielding "attacker" isn't an undercover police officer making a drug bust?
Advocates of changing Wisconsin gun laws sometimes say crimes might have turned out differently had bystanders been legally armed with concealed weapons. But German strongly discourages people from seeking permits to become "junior G-men." License holders should be concerned first and foremost for their own safety and that of their family, he said.
"We're not deputies (and) we're not deputizing anybody," he said.
Even a justified shooting will have lifelong consequences, German said. First, you'll almost certainly spend some time in jail until the police can sort out what happened. You may have to defend the shooting in a criminal or civil trial.
Simply unholstering your gun in a confrontation could cost you $10,000 in lawyer fees, German said - and that's in a state where carrying concealed handguns is allowed.
Other than the range exercise, there is no final exam for these classes, no way to know how license holders will behave in a crisis. Ultimately, "it's between you and your god," German said of the decision to use a weapon.
But he defines success by whether or not participants leave the session with serious doubts about whether they should get a permit at all.
By that measure, the class was a smashing success with me.
Doubt doesn't begin to describe the ambivalence I feel about taking on this awful responsibility. I consider myself normally level-headed, but I don't trust myself to make the right decision when seconds can mean the difference between life and death.
I'm guessing the fancy certificate I got for completing the training will go in a scrapbook somewhere, never to be presented to a Minnesota sheriff for a background check and official permit. I'll hang up my target and risk nothing more than the "Dirty Harry" gibes from my coworkers.
But that's me. To German and thousands of others like him - people who are far more familiar with guns, train regularly and consider violent crime a very real possibility - those doubts are surmountable, and carrying a gun in public is an undisputed right, recognized in 46 states.
"I have the right to be my own first responder," German likes to say.
They call themselves the "good guys," responsible gun owners, the ones most likely to apply for permits. The certifiable bad guys - the felons, the drug addicts, the ones with a history of mental illness - aren't eligible for a permit under Minnesota's law, or the proposed Wisconsin law. Permits can be revoked for reckless behavior.
Others say that whatever the merits of the training it will never make up for the increased risk they see of more people being hurt or killed by guns, including their own.
"I understand there are people who are really trying to get the message out that there needs to be restraint and you must be responsible. That's a good thing," said Jeri Bonavia, executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, which opposes concealed carry. "And yet, I'm just so alarmed about the bill as a whole."
Bonavia agreed that "a lot of the people who get permits are good guys." But the often middle-aged, middle-class permit holders are usually also at low risk of being victims of crime, she said. She said she feared that giving them licenses might embolden some to walk into dangerous situations.
German said that doesn't describe the permit holders he has trained, who he said are, on the whole, "bashful people."
"The fact you carry a spare tire in your car doesn't mean you're afraid you're going to get a flat," he said. "It's just that should that occur, you want to be prepared."