By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
It took $833.69, a total of 15 hours 50 minutes, four trips to the Metropolitan Police Department, two background checks, a set of fingerprints, a five-hour class and a 20-question multiple-choice exam.
Oh, and the votes of five Supreme Court justices. They're the ones who really made it possible for me, as a District resident, to own a handgun, a constitutional right as heavily debated and rigorously parsed as the freedoms of speech and religion.
Just more than a year ago, by a 5-to-4 decision, the court struck down the District's three-decades-old outright ban on handguns -- the most restrictive gun law in the country. In District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said the Second Amendment guarantees the right of an individual to bear arms, not just Americans in a "well regulated Militia"; the District's prohibition was therefore unconstitutional.
Reluctantly, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration set up a process through which about 550 residents -- now including yours truly -- have acquired a handgun. But as my four trips to the police department attest, D.C. officials haven't made it easy.
Which was exactly their intent. The day the Heller decision was announced, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) vowed that the city was still "going to have the strictest handgun laws the Constitution allows." Fenty decried the ruling, saying that "more handguns in the District of Columbia will only lead to more handgun violence."
Under threat of additional litigation, however, the city has already had to ease some of its initial restrictions by greatly expanding the range of gun models, including semiautomatic handguns, residents are allowed to own.
Meanwhile, the battle over the right to bear arms in the nation's capital continues. The lawyer who won the Heller case recently filed a federal lawsuit attempting to overturn the District law that prohibits private citizens from packing heat in public. Earlier this year, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) attempted to do away with the city's gun registration requirements.
For now, the D.C. regulations are still in place. That meant that on my journey to gun ownership, I had to prove proficiency with a weapon on the range and in the classroom. I had to allow the District government to fire my gun before I did so its ballistics could be recorded. I had to vow that I was mentally sound and not under indictment.
In the end, I got my gun. But I keep it locked in a box in my dresser. Because despite the fact that my government trusts me to own a gun, I'm not sure how I feel about having a weapon that can send a piece of metal the size of a thimble hurtling through space with such speed that it could make someone's head explode.
I've been surrounded my whole life by people who see guns as a cause of social ill, not a cure. But what if they're wrong? I live in a dangerous part of a dangerous city. I've heard gunshots from my bedroom window clearly enough so there was no mistaking them for firecrackers. And then, about a month or so ago, my wife went out to her car and saw the glass on the ground and then the shattered window. Nothing can make you want a gun more than that sickening, helpless moment when you realize you are more vulnerable than you had thought.
* * *
If I lived in Virginia, I'd simply walk into a shop, show my ID, fill out forms and then wait while the store calls for my background check, which can take all of three minutes. If I pass, the gun is mine. Or I could buy a gun from a private citizen and forgo the background check. No safety course required (unless I'm applying for a concealed-handgun permit, which is not even an option in the District). No need to register the gun with the government (unless it's a machine gun, which is, again, not an option in the District).
In Maryland, the process is more involved (though nothing close to what you have to go through in the District): There's an application, a background check, a mandatory 45-minute safety video and then a seven-day waiting period.
But I live in the District, where the path to gun ownership, believed by some to be designed to intentionally thwart gun ownership, begins first with a trip to the police department to pick up the necessary paperwork. Then there's a five-hour safety course (four hours in the classroom, one on the firing range) with one of about 30 instructors certified to teach the class.
For those experienced with guns, the class may seem unnecessary, even ridiculous. But I'm grateful for it. I've never fired a handgun. Can't say I've ever even held one. My experience with firearms is limited to .22-caliber rifles at summer camp, and a brief dove hunting excursion in Texas in which I never fired my shotgun.
The course I choose costs $250 (group lessons are cheaper), and is taught in Temple Hills by Isaiah Abraham, a behemoth of a man who also works as a Department of Defense police sergeant assigned to the Naval Observatory. He walks me through the basics: Always treat a firearm as if it's loaded; keep your finger off the trigger until you're ready to fire; never point at anything you don't intend to shoot. Then there's this bit of instruction that makes me shudder because I live in a Mount Pleasant rowhouse with neighbors on either side: Know your target and what's behind it because bullets can punch through doors and walls.
We go over the parts of the gun so I can identify the difference between the hammer and the firing pin. Soon I'm learning to load a .38-caliber revolver with dummy bullets.
From the moment I wrap my fingers around the grip, the gun feels uncomfortable, unwieldy and so surprisingly heavy that my entire arm dips a bit as Abraham hands it to me. A toy it is not. As I adjust my grip, the muzzle dances wildly around, pointing its deadly black eye all over the room.
Disapprovingly, he takes the gun to show me how to hold it properly, and in his experienced hands the weapon is immediately obedient. Then again, guns have long been a part of his life. Growing up in Southeast Washington, he saw one of his friends get shot in the head "for candy money" when he was in middle school. As an adult, he worked as a security guard in the projects, and later, as a D.C. cop, he patrolled some of the toughest neighborhoods when crack cocaine was driving up the homicide rate.
It's a cruel, violent world, he says. Which is why, when we get to the range, he's going to want me to shoot with my left hand as well. Why? I ask. "If you get shot in this arm," he says pointing to my right, "I don't want you to give up."
If I get shot, I think, it's game over. Instead, I just nod and realize that beyond the safety requirements, general gun knowledge and instructions on stance, grip and breathing, he's also preparing me to shoot at another human being. Because, really, isn't that what a handgun is for? It's not for squirrel hunting -- certainly not in the District, where the law prohibits me from taking the gun out of the house unless I'm going to a "lawful firearm-related activity" such as the shooting range.
That's why Abraham tells me to always aim for the "center mass of your available target" and to "pick up your weapon as if ready to fire" because, as he warns, a gun battle typically lasts just a couple of seconds. That's why the targets on the walls of his office are in the shape of torsos, some with faces on them, so you're firing at something that's looking back at you.
And that's why at the range, he wants me to pick up the gun and fire three shots in four seconds. Which makes my palms sweat even more. My hands shake, which causes the gun to quiver and Abraham to say: "If I can just get you to relax. Loosen up."
The first shots are an absolute shock, a full-body experience I feel in my shoulders, hips and knees. The gun doesn't fire so much as explode, kicking back ferociously, releasing a hot whiff of air and a bright red flash from the muzzle. It's louder, more violent and more cannonlike than I expected, and I realize that part of me is more than nervous. I'm a little scared.
But also thrilled. There is a rush, a blood-pumping high, which builds with each shot as the once foreign sensation becomes more familiar and evokes a basic, even primitive, emotion. Like Zeus throwing lightning bolts, I control that frightening explosion. I make the red flash. I make the smoke curl from the muzzle.
Plus, it turns out I'm a decent shot.
I get several in the bull's-eye. I'm no expert, but with each round, the gun feels more comfortable. The test feels like a game -- an adult version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.
I completely forget that the gun I'm holding is a deadly weapon.
By the end, I find myself having so much fun that I ask for the target to be moved back. For my last test, I want to try shooting two to the body, one to the head, which is more difficult than going for the bull's-eye in the middle of the target.
I hit the body twice, but miss the head.
Later, studying my target, Abraham says I pass, which is a huge relief. But he points to a bullet hole a few inches to the right of the head.
"That's an innocent bystander," he says.
* * *
It may be legal to own a gun in the District, but you still can't buy one within the city limits. At least not in a gun store because there are none. Instead, you must make the purchase in one of the 50 states and have the weapon transferred into the custody of one man: Charles Sykes, who plays an odd role in the transaction.
As a licensed firearms dealer, he could, theoretically, sell guns. But he chooses not to because "I don't want to have to carry an inventory," he says. "Too much liability." Instead, he's the middleman, the only licensed dealer willing to help D.C. residents acquire handguns, a nice little side business for which he charges $125.
So I head out of the city to Maryland Small Arms in Upper Marlboro. After shopping around a bit, I settle on a used Taurus Model 85 .38-caliber revolver. I like it because it's just like the one I used during my instruction, though smaller. And at $275, it was a relatively cheap beginner's gun, even though the dealer tacks on a $35 fee for transferring it to Sykes.
But the only thing I can bring home is the receipt. Only Sykes can bring the gun into the District, which he does two days later. The following week, I meet him at his office in Anacostia, and we fill out the registration form. Then he hands me paperwork from the federal Department of Justice that asks, among other things, if I am a "fugitive from justice" or if I have ever "renounced" my U.S. citizenship.
Next, I have to go to the police station -- my second visit -- to get fingerprinted and pass a 20-question exam that covers D.C. gun laws, a hurdle neither Maryland nor Virginia requires. Then I have to wait 10 days -- considerably longer than in Virginia or Maryland -- while police run a criminal background check.
Only then will the gun be mine.
* * *
The assumption from the beginning was that I would never keep the gun. This was to be a solely journalistic exercise: See what it takes to get a gun in the city. My editor, who had to persuade higher-ups at The Post to allow a reporter to expense a handgun purchase, assumed I'd sell it back when I was done reporting. My colleagues assumed that as well. My wife insisted on it. (I believe her exact words were: "There's no way you're bringing that thing in the house.")
Guns are dangerous, especially in an urban environment. I've read the horror stories, and even wrote one a few years ago about the 3-year-old son of a White House Secret Service agent who shot and critically wounded himself with his father's .357 semiautomatic.
The chances of something bad happening with a gun in the house might very well outweigh the chances of using it effectively in that kill-or-be-killed situation. What's more likely: a Plaxico Burress-esque accidental discharge or a wild-eyed murdering-rapist crack addict breaking into the house?
"Criminals prefer unarmed victims," read a bumper sticker I saw at a gun show a few weeks ago in Chantilly while mulling whether to keep the gun. Better to have and not need than to need and not have, I was told again and again by gun owners.
While I'd love to believe I will never need, my wife and I have often seen drug dealers in our alley doing their business. To no avail, we have called the police. A couple of years ago, a neighbor was nearly abducted in front of her house. And then my wife's car was broken into while parked directly behind our house. Which led to another of the should-we-move-to-the-burbs discussions that have become more frequent of late. Once again, we talked about better lighting and alarm systems.
But is that enough, I wonder. Even with the fastest of 911 responses, isn't a gun the only real protection in a doomsday scenario?
Still, I'm torn. Say the murdering-rapist crack addict is charging up the stairs, coming to get us. Would I, as he raises his gun, be able to fire mine? The District can make me take a five-hour class and pass an exam. But none of that ensures that in the heat of the moment my hands won't be shaking so badly that I send a bullet hurtling not into the center mass of my would-be assailant but instead into the bedroom of my neighbor's teenage son.
All of which raises perhaps the most difficult question of all: Does the gun indeed provide a much-needed layer of security in a dangerous city, or does it merely provide the perception of security?
* * *
After the 10 days, my background check complete, I go back to the police station (Visit 3) to pick up my registration, now stamped "APPROVED" in red ink. But that's only the first step in what becomes yet another series of gun-related errands that eat up three hours of my Monday. With my approved registration in hand, I have to go back to Sykes's Anacostia office, where he then turns the gun over to me.
When I get to my car, I put the gun in the trunk because the law says it cannot be "accessible from the passenger compartment of the transporting vehicle." I'm still not done. Next, it's back to the police station (Visit 4), this time so they can fire the gun and put its ballistics on file, which will help them identify the firearm if it's ever used in a crime.
Then, finally, I can take it home. Two weeks after it began, the journey to gun ownership is over.
Unloaded and locked in a box, into the dresser it goes, in between my jeans and sweaters, out of view but not out of mind.
The act of firing the gun is a genuine thrill, and the gun itself is, I realize, an alluring work of art. The metal is sleek and smooth, the trigger tight, the sight a precise, simple and altogether new way of looking at the world. I take the gun -- my gun -- out of the box and, knowing it's unloaded, pull the trigger. I love that satisfying snap as the hammer drops and the cylinder clicks into place, ready to fire once again. The gun's weight, once solely the cause of angst and discomfort, now feels impressive.
My wife is adamant that that thing can't stay, and makes a compelling case that it's more likely to cause harm than to save us from it. And the more I think about keeping it, the more I'm convinced that the range is where the gun belongs. Not here at home, where it feels out of place, an intruder that shakes our sense of peace more than bolstering it.
Maybe it's the wrong decision, maybe I'll later regret it, but the gun is going back. And so am I . . . to the range, where I'll shoot rented firearms. I think I've found a new hobby.