*A Firearms Beginner Takes CCW and Lives to Tell the Tale*
It doesn’t take long for a new Rubie to figure out that personal preparedness might involve more than a well-stocked pantry and a couple Aladdin lamps. That lesson comes home more efficiently when one’s workplace has had a run of aggressive, drug-soaked, or near-psychotic clients over the past week, as mine did. So, with great reluctance and more than a little anxiety, this old timer stepped up to the plate to put her money (and person) where her mouth was.
I found information on my county’s regulations by googling “X county Missouri sheriff” – which took me directly to the county sheriff’s website. There wasn’t any immediate link from there to “CCW”, but searching through the county “services”, I found “gun permits”. That link lead to info on how to purchase a handgun and the regulations for CCW.
Every state’s regulations vary somewhat, but here in MO I met the initial requirements: over 23 years old and not a felon. I would have to take the CCW course from an approved instructor, and the website provided a list. I read down it, and selected the one closest to my home – a mere 3 miles away! They offered one course every month, two evenings from 6 to 10 p.m., for a total of 8 hours of classroom and live fire practice. The cost was $100, I was to bring my own handgun (if I had one – they’d provide loaners if not) and enough ammo to shoot at least 70 rounds. Practice would be with both a revolver and a semi-auto firearm. There was an email address, so I wrote the instructor that I wished to take the course. He answered a few hours later, and I was formally signed up for the class beginning the following Monday – in 3 days. That’s when the real anxiety began.
My previous experience with shooting consisted of just three occasions: once shooting a BB rifle and hitting a sparrow when I was 11; once firing my Dad’s old shotgun and missing the tin can target when I was 15; twice firing a semi-auto .25 “ladies” pistol and hitting the ground about 10 feet away when I was 45. So, my firearms baggage consisted of a sure knowledge that I couldn’t aim a gun worth beans, and that the dang things were SO loud that I would flinch wildly when pulling the trigger. In other words, I was a menace.
I left work early on Monday, picked up my ancient little S&S .25 semi-auto, and carefully placed it in a plastic baggie so it would be VISIBLE (i.e., not concealed!) when I went into the building. I wasn’t sure the pistol would even work anymore – I’d only fired it those two times, never cleaned it, and it had rested in the back of a closet for nearly a decade since.
The course was being taught in a large sporting/camping-goods store, using a formal classroom and the store’s own small firing range. Although I felt terribly conspicuous with my pistol in a baggie, no one in the busy business batted an eye – they were used to it.
I arrived 15 minutes early, but nearly every seat was already taken. There were 24 people in the assembled group – most grey-hairs like me. Only three of the group looked to be in their late 20’s to mid-30s. One elderly farmer wearing bib-overalls, in his late 70’s, was the oldest person there. Just 6 in the group were women -- all but one was in the grey-hair club.
The man in the seat next to me was one of the “youngsters” – mid 30’s. He said he was taking the course because he had two young daughters and wanted to do some travel-trailer vacations with them. He felt that having some protection along would just be sensible. He had thought he’d need a CCW to carry a firearm in his vehicle – but, when he found out he didn’t, he’d already committed to the course. (Missouri residents may carry a firearm in their cars or trucks without additional licensing.) Besides, he said, he had some nice guns and hadn’t shot them in over 10 years, so it would be a good chance to refresh his skills.
Our instructor was a patrol division Captain who taught the sheriff’s department and police academy firearms courses, with almost 2 decades of law enforcement experience. He was relaxed, professional, and precise, with a lean physique and thinning white hair. He’d taught the same CCW course 46 times already, and had a straightforward protocol and routine, enlivening the process with light stories and jokes. Missouri has had CCW for only 3 years. During that time, over 3000 people have applied for and received their permit in our county alone.
He passed out a written guidebook 52 pages long. The first night, we covered 34 pages – all of it dealing with Missouri statues and regulations on firearms, handguns, CCW, illegal weapons (such as switchblades and brass knuckles), appropriate use of force, and the penalties for breaking the law. I was surprised to learn that carrying a knife with a fixed blade longer than 4” would require a CCW permit – I’d just assumed CCW referred to guns only. It was interesting, too, to see that the state regulations had been written to confirm, repeatedly, that having a firearm on your premises, in your vehicle, or carried while hunting or during a “continuous journey peaceably through this state” were all perfectly legal (for non felons, that is). Missouri CCW is accepted by “reciprocity” in 31 other states, as well.
During one break, I brought my .25 to the instructor to inspect with the empty magazine tucked safely away in my purse. Sure enough, he confirmed that it was old (“probably from just after WWII”), but appeared to be in good condition. He did say that this kind of older gun might not hold up to regular use – or might give up the ghost just at a critical moment of need….maybe I should consider getting a newer model?
At another break, one of the older ladies came up to me. She was worried, she said, eyes downcast and brows knit. She didn’t know if she could even use a gun against another person – the very thought frightened her. She was sure she would hesitate at a critical moment, maybe even cost the life of her husband or grandkids. I didn’t have an answer for her, but agreed. The responsibility of self-protection was very large, no doubt about it. I kept thinking about three different stories I’d heard, where the CCW holder never had to actually use their firearm – just showing it to the person or people threatening them was enough to end the aggression. I hoped (and hope!) if I ever have to pull out my firearm, that is the most I will have to do.
Although this was the driest portion of the course, having the regulations in writing and thoroughly explained made firearm ownership responsibilities clear. We’d need to know all this for the written test at the conclusion of the course, too. I left that session with laws, responsibilities, regulations, and more worry in my head. Tomorrow night, we’d get our lessons on firearm safety, use, and care – and some time at the firing range. I was starting to get sweaty palms already.
The second four-hour meeting began with the instructor sharing his viewpoint on handgun use for personal protection. In his years as a law enforcement officer (LEO), he’d never had to do more than draw his pistol. He’d never shot at anyone, and hoped it would stay that way. However, if he had to fire his pistol, he would shoot for the center of mass, the middle of the attacker’s chest. The point of this would be to “stop someone”, not to “kill someone”.
Hitting that center of mass was the most efficient way to stop an attack. Shooting “to wound” by hitting a shoulder or – even less likely – the attacker’s own weapon, would be nearly impossible. The instructor reminded us that in a situation like that, with adrenaline coursing and your heart pounding in your ears, even trained LEO’s bullets miss the mark – in fact, less than 25% of the shots hit the intended target, he said. That’s why good technique and skill with a firearm are all the more important – you must have training to fall back on when an emotionally tense situation is upon you.
He figured that if there were 10 steps that led to the incident, the attacker took 9-1/2 of those through his or her life and choices. Only the last half-step to firing the handgun was the LEO’s responsibility, but it was a responsibility forced on him by the aggressor.
Next, he demonstrated and discussed the method to clean a firearm. Fortunately, the booklet he handed out on day-one included that information, because I was having trouble concentrating. I was worrying about the firing test. The instructor had said that their oldest student ever was in his 80’s, used a walker, and was on portable oxygen when he took the test – and he passed. And another older lady who had arthritis in her hands so bad that she couldn’t even rack the pistol had passed, too. Would I even be able to hit the target? I didn’t exactly have a good record, except for shooting the ground. I imagined the embarrassment of failing the test that an 80+ year old on oxygen and an arthritic old lady had been successful at….
After a break, the instructor discussed range safety, and demonstrated the proper “isosceles” or triangle stance – feet at about shoulder width, body facing toward the objective; arms at shoulder height, firmly clasping the firearm with the dominant hand and securing it with the weaker hand, thumbs along side the barrel. This was different than the only other “shooting techniques” I’d ever seen – James Bond running and jumping and still managing to hit the bad guy, the Terminator with his one-handed shotgun, and our Western Hero who was such a good shot he could knock the pistol right out of the villain’s hand without hurting him. Instead, this position was static, solid, and pointing directly at the target in line with the dominant eye. It was relaxed, yet stable. It looked simple. Easy, even.
“All right, let’s get our equipment and get some firing practice,” he said. I swallowed hard. Equipment included our own firearm, clips, and enough ammunition to allow at least 50 practice shots with both a revolver and a semi-automatic handgun. We also would need hearing protection, so I made a brief stop in the store and purchased some firing range ear muffs ($32). My glasses would suffice for eye protection. After practice, we’d get a fresh target and have 20 shots – 15 of them would have to hit on target to pass.
The firing range was set in an underground concrete room, easily longer than a bowling alley, with overhead sound-trapping ceiling tiles. There were five “lanes”, each divided from the other by a thick protective panel where the shooters stood. I laid my little .25 on the plastic table top in my cubicle. After seeing the huge stainless steel pistols some people had, I almost felt embarrassed for my black, tiny, ancient firearm. I only hoped that when my bullets went flying into the concrete floor, they wouldn’t ricochet around and hurt someone.
The instructor advised us how to load our weapons, reiterated the rules of the firing range (including that “cease fire” meant NOW), and helped people prepare for their first shots. The targets were a mere 7 yards away, a human silhouette of upper torso, shoulders, and head. Beyond that was a stop-wall that safely absorbed the fired bullets. I slipped on the ear muffs and outside sounds deadened – I almost couldn’t hear anything. My hands were shaking as I slid rounds into the pistol’s magazine, tapped the clip into the gun, and picked it up, careful to avoid the trigger.
Someone else had begun their firing practice. BANG! BANG! BANG! I jumped with each sound – not just a sound, but a jarring rumble that slammed through me like the San Andreas Fault snapping. I could feel the sound wave impact as much as hear it.
Concentrate, concentrate…. I carefully placed my feet in position, bent my knees a little, and squared up to the target. BLAM! BANG-BANG! I flinched uncontrollably. Focus….FOCUS… Firm grasp around the handle, left hand supporting, thumbs beside the barrel. Okay, now (BLAM! BLAM!), slowly, breathe….squeeze….squeeze….
I’d forgotten to rack the gun. The instructor, who’d been watching this over my shoulder, carefully reached over and showed me how.
Now, square to target, knees bent, hands in the right position, focus… FOCUS… breathe… squeeze….
BANG! A small kick in my hands. I blinked – I’d fired it! I looked at the target, could barely see the tiny hole near the lower edge of the silhouette at about “belly button” level. Next to my right ear, the instructor’s voice barely coming through the muffs, “A little low – lift your front sight higher.”
I take the position again, concentrate. I move the front sights up a bit and notice that the peg is longer than I’d realized. Breathe…squeeze…BANG! I see the hole quickly this time – it’s near the “neck” area of the target. “Better,” he says into my ear. “Put the next one between those two.”
Slowly, taking my time, I fired the rest of the clip. They ended up between my first two shots. I was so strung out, I couldn’t remember how to remove the empty magazine! Once again, the instructor showed me how. He must have done this a thousand times with other rank beginners, but he remained calm and patient. I kept jumping involuntarily each time someone else fired. The sound was physically stunning.
I fired the full clip again, taking my time to reorient between rounds. It was me, the front sights, and the center of the target – and the continuous crash of firing around me, like a thunderstorm in the same room. Again, the instructor was behind me. “Try this,” he said in my ear, handing me a Ruger .22 semi-auto pistol. “I think you’ll like it.”
I picked it up – larger and a little heavier than my own firearm. In position again, I squeezed the trigger – BANG! Loud, but not overwhelming. Easy to sight. Fast reloading. Smooth action. He was right – I did like this one. Strangely, three spent cartridges flipped back toward me, and they were HOT! One stuck on my right cheek and two bounced down my blouse, causing me to do a little panicky dance to get the heated metal off my skin – all three left small blisters. Even so, my shots were hitting in a cluster with this pistol, right in the center of the target. Was I miraculously turning into a crack-shot, or was the effect of holding a pistol better suited to my big hands (and probably in better shape) improving my aim?
Last, as required, I fired a .22 revolver. I loaded and fired and unloaded two cylinder’s worth. My shots were on target, but the revolver felt big and clunky and front-heavy in my hands. Squeezing the trigger made the front sight rise a little, too. It was very simple to operate, though.
By this time, I’d fired over 50 rounds and completed the first requirement. I reeled in my paper target, and the instructor stapled a new target up. This was it. I had to place at least 15 of them within the silhouette to pass.
I requested the use of the Ruger for the test, and got it. After the big revolver, it felt like coming home, a sense of security. This was something absolutely new to me, calm with a firearm in my hands – even though I was still flinching to other people’s fire.
I loaded the magazine, slipped it into place, clicked the racking button, and took my position. My throat was bone dry, hands cold and slippery. I sighted on the center of the target. Okay, this is it. Ignore everything except the target. Forget the hot cartridges. Breathe, squeeze…
Fire. Again. Again. Finished the magazine. Reloaded another. Focus. Focus. Concentrate. Fire. Fire. Fire…. Finish. Reload. Focus. Fire…..
Out of ammo. I slowly laid the pistol down on the counter in front of me. I was afraid to look at the target for fear there would be shots all over the place. I took a deep breath and looked up as the instructor reeled it in. All the holes were clustered in a 6” area in the center of the target. “You pass!” the instructor said, smiling. The student behind me grinned and gave a thumbs up as I moved out of line.
All I could think of, right at that moment, was that I had to find a rest room – FAST!
As I splashed cool water on my face with trembling hands, the older lady who had been so worried came into the rest room. She was elated – she’d passed, too. But there was something else, a difference about her. She wasn’t worried anymore. There was a new steely sense in the way she looked me directly in the eye. Confident, where before she had been frightened. I was still reeling – it would be hours before I would come down from the anxiety buzz – but she had made her peace with self-protection reality.
Back in the classroom the written test – 20 multiple choice questions – went by in a flash. I passed that, too. The young father with the two daughters happily told me how he’d been able to use each of his firearms, and how his shooting skill seemed to come right back. He was going to see if he could get his wife to come down to the range for a little practice, too – he thought it would be good if both of them were comfortable with the handguns he had.
Finally, the instructor answered a few questions, and then passed out completion certificates. The whole group was bubbling with good cheer – everyone had passed both tests. Next, we would need to make formal application for the CCW at the sheriff’s department, pay a $100 fee, and be fingerprinted. Assuming no detrimental records from a seedy past, we would have our CCW permission within 45 days. Then, we’d take that down to the driver’s license bureau, pose for a new photo, and acquire a new driver’s license with the following key words just above our pictures:
Those key words in red on a Missouri driver’s license acts as the formal CCW card, which must be carried whenever we had a concealed firearm.
In the meantime, I was going to take my little pistol back to that range and practice. Perhaps with repeated exposure to the fierce noise, I could quell that flinching. Maybe I could tighten up that hit cluster, put 20 shots into a 2” circle? Or hit on target at a greater distance?
And, I thought, I might just be doing some shopping….for a new Ruger .22 semi-auto!
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