August 12, 2023
“Why are you here?” The eyes of our instructor shifted from one face to the next. It was August 6, 2022, and I was starting a “Concealed Carry” course at a shooting facility called Home On The Range in Winfield, Kansas.
On the wall beside me hung messaging that read, “When seconds matter, help is minutes away.”
Three weeks prior to the course, a man named Eli Dickens stopped a mass shooting in Greenwood Park Mall with his concealed Glock 19. In response to the instructor’s question, many students referenced that incident in Indiana, and the phrase, “Evil is everywhere,” was nearly ubiquitous in their answers.
When it was my turn, I started to name my own reasons aloud, then started to trail off the moment I realized it wasn’t a list. It was my personal history in no chronological order, a split-second slideshow of those I love: My youngest daughter at home, learning to walk, tiny fists wrapped around my wife’s fingers; my oldest daughter, sorting through new school clothes, preparing to start kindergarten. Getting the gist, our instructor cut me off and started the class.
The truth is the reasons people choose to carry a self-protection firearm are varied and personal. During the first year of COVID, an estimated 8.4 million people bought their first firearm. Conceal carry permit applications rose by an estimated 2 million versus the previous year — a 10.5 percent increase. “Self-sufficiency” was the predominating mentality for many people, or to put it in present parlance: “No one is coming to save you,” and, “You are your own first responder.”
Fear may be humanity’s strongest emotion. Others may argue it’s anger, or love. Was fear the reason for 8.4 million first-time gun owners in 2020? Was it the reason for the other nine people seated with me in my CCH class? I can’t say. More likely it was a mix of all those emotions spurred by crisis, change, and a desire to preserve life – one’s own life, and the lives of loved ones.
I’ve had family members, in-laws and friends ask either indirectly or directly, “As a gun owner, what are you afraid of?” From their end, it’s like a fork move in chess, with the implication being, “If you’re as tough as you think you are, you shouldn’t need a gun.”
But I don’t think I’m tough, instead I try and make myself prepared. So, I revise their question for them: “What are you prepared for?”
I grew up in Park Forest, Illinois, a suburb 34 miles south of Chicago. My parents still live there. It was a good place to grow up, but between the time I started playing little league to when I moved away for college, our town transitioned. Despite the hard, selfless work of the men and women in politics and in law enforcement, the neighborhood became a tougher place to live.
When I moved away for college, my parents experienced two home-invasion attempts. I remember my brother and I, both in our early 20s, both well-built, sitting in the courtroom as our mother testified against one of the men. My dad told us before he left for work that morning, “Never stop looking at that man. Make him too scared to ever come back.”
Years later, a man was gunned down, pointblank, 100 feet south of where I played with friends during grade school. Evil is everywhere.
My first experience with the concept of concealed carry and armed self-defense came at Marquette University in Milwaukee. I majored in English: Writing Intensive and minored in Criminology and Law Studies. During my junior year, 2005, Wisconsin was in the initial discussions regarding concealed carry in the state. I was enrolled in a criminal defense course taught by a nun who was also an attorney in the Milwaukee area. She was brilliant, passionate and when she told our classroom, “The mere idea of allowing someone to carry a concealed firearm is beyond reason,” I could see it in her body language. Slumped shoulders, head hung low, an exhausted cadence to her speech — to her, concealed carry was a deplorable notion, incomprehensible. I respected her. I respected her opinion. I still do, even if I don’t agree.
After college, when I moved to Spokane, Washington, at the age of 26, I called my brother after visiting their Sportsman Warehouse for the first time. “You won’t believe this,” I said, “but they have guns lining the entire south wall of their store.” For me — having lived only in Milwaukee and the Chicagoland area, having attended Catholic schools for 15 years where we were taught to love one’s neighbor and turn the other cheek — the experience was a culture shock. I had never seen a long gun in person prior to that day. In fact, the only time I had seen anyone shoot a gun was when I was 4 years old, I watched my aunt plink cans with her cousin in the backyard of my great-grandmother’s home in Hazard, Kentucky.
But I met new people in the Pacific Northwest, engaged in dialogues that helped expand my point of view. I enrolled in hunters’ education and hunted for the first time at the age of 27. I purchased a .45 ACP Glock 21 pistol to serve as my open-carry sidearm during backcountry trips to bear and mountain lion territory. Over the next several years, I learned as much as I could about hunting and the firearms I chose to carry. I moved around the country and worked freelance for various outdoor publications. I took a job in Wichita, Kansas, for an ad agency representing major brands in the shooting and hunting space. Amid deeper, more-focused self-study, I started to understand there was so much I still didn’t understand.
Kansas is one of 28 states that allows for Permit-less Carry (or Constitutional Carry). Many individuals here exercise this right, and never seek a CCH (concealed carry handgun) permit. There is the saying “Casual carry creates a casual mindset.” I don’t believe that’s the case for everyone who takes advantage of living in areas with permit-less carry. For me, though, the process of obtaining a CCH offered a deliberate path that would force me to reflect on the undertaking. I researched holster options, learned more about ammo advancements, and went down the rabbit hole of pros and cons between subcompacts, compacts and full-size handguns.
Via social media, podcasts and various forums, I voraciously consumed the input of current and former military and law enforcement professionals. I came to appreciate personal defense is far more than a gun in a waistband. To that point, after taking my CCH class, I started dieting hard and exercising — I lost 75 pounds within 6 months.
I also invested in first-aid equipment, enrolled in various training courses, and engaged in discussions with my wife regarding my decision to carry daily. Together, she and I are working at her pace to get her comfortable with this level of personal defense, to talk out the nuances, to settle on mutual views. It’s an ongoing process, but one I am actively and deliberately engaging in.
Weeks before writing this, I found myself on the hillside of a hog-hunting property outside Austin, Texas. While we were glassing for signs of an incoming sounder, approximately 220 miles away another mass murderer was committing evil in Allen, Texas. After hunting hogs and carving off backstraps until 4 in the morning, a friend and I sat up drinking cold beverages and asking each other, “Why?”
“In all of the states where someone would stop a shooter, why was it another cop coming to the rescue?” he asked. Put another way, in a place where average people are empowered to render aid, why was no one prepared? We talked only of speculative answers, and came back to overall question again, “Why does this keep happening?”
I have to believe conversations like this are taking place all over the country. No complex problem has a simple solution. But the first question leads to another – How? How can I prepare myself? How can I take care of my loved ones?
For me, beginning the journey toward a more prepared lifestyle included learning to use and carry a firearm for self-protection.
I remember at the end of that Concealed Carry class, shop owner Chris Jarvis offered a final piece of advice to the classroom: “I saw some of you today, a bit shaky in the hands,” he said. “If you’re going to carry, you should consider shooting competitively.”
I felt like he was talking to me. I was nervous during live-fire qualification — my palms sweaty, heartbeat audible in my ears, louder than the gunshots outside my muffs.
“For civilians,” said Jarvis, “the best way to simulate the adrenaline rush, the pressure of a shooting situation, is to compete.”
In my mind, I recalled the phrase, “Complacency is the enemy of progress.” Jarvis’ advice made perfect sense. For me, it was time to move past peppering paper, patting myself on the back for a quick string of tight groups from 10 yards. If I wanted to grow as a shooter, I needed to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
As Jack points out, there are more new gun owners than ever, and more people working through the mental and practical aspects of taking control of their personal defense. We’ll continue sharing Jack’s journey here at Guns & Ammo, and invite you to share yours with us at email@example.com — use “Sound Off” in the subject line.
— The Eds.
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