Perhaps the most boring thing that gun-controllers throw at advocates of the right to bear arms is the assertion, almost guaranteed to rear its doltish head in any conversation about the Second Amendment, that it is easier in the United States to own and operate a gun than it is to own and operate a car. This contention most often takes the form of a rhetorical question. “Every state requires its residents to pass a test in order to drive a vehicle,” its adherents ask. “So why doesn’t it require them to take a test before they can own a lethal weapon?”
As is typical, this inquiry misses the glaring truth that keeping and bearing arms is explicitly recognized as an unalienable right in the country’s Constitution, whereas driving a car is a privilege that is subject to the plenary powers of the states. The 2008 Heller decision correctly recognized the right to bear arms as an individual right, and the subsequent McDonald ruling applied that right to the states. No such guarantees apply to motor vehicles, nor should they. Nevertheless, in almost all states, in order to carry a weapon, one does in fact need to take a test and acquire a license. The “keep” part of the Second Amendment is fairly unregulated, yes; but the “bear” part? Not so much.
As a result of a 20-year trend toward liberalization, in which many states now have some sort of concealed-carry regime, and of the president’s recent push for gun control, concealed-carry applications are soaring. A Wall Street Journal survey conducted this month revealed that “early figures for 2013 show that many states are on pace for their biggest year ever.” This has provoked the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth from the gun-control crowd, as well a new round of witless predictions that the rise in the number of armed Americans will inexorably lead to a national Shootout at the OK Corral.
I live in New York City, which for some reason will issue concealed-carry permits only to those who can afford armed bodyguards. As I am neither famous nor a politician, I am not likely to be considered worthy. Still, as there is nothing to stop me from taking a gun class elsewhere — or, for that matter, from applying for CCW permits in states of which I am not a resident — I thought I’d have a look into how the system works in freer parts of the country. After a little research, I elected to do the National Rifle Association’s “Basic Pistol Course,” which is accepted as a training requirement in almost every states and which doesn’t expire. (A few states have their own proprietory training requirements.)
My instructor for this course, whom I found online through the NRA’s website, was a charming and kind retiree who conducts pistol classes for small groups primarily because he “enjoys teaching.” At the outset of the day we chatted a bit about the gun-control issue, and he expressed reasonable frustration at the manner in which gun owners are stereotyped. “I don’t have a pickup truck, I don’t hunt, I don’t like country music, and I don’t like the Confederate flag,” he told me. Instead, he takes frequent trips to Europe with his wife, grows his own wine grapes, and enjoys jazz. Not exactly your cartoon hoplophile. I sympathize with his irritation: “You try going back to England and telling your friends that you think you should be able to own a machine gun . . . ”
From the outset, the focus of the course was safety. “If you’re not going to take owning it seriously, please don’t buy a gun,” I was told. “Please. Because a bullet has no brain, no morals, and no conscience. It will go through a wall — or through anything, really — until it hits something very hard. Owning a gun is an awesome responsibility.”
In the first few hours of the class, I was shown many different types of weapon — semiautomatic pistols of both hammer-fire and striker-fire varieties, single- and double-action revolvers, all sorts of different caliber ammunition, etc. — and I was taught in detail how they worked, what the various component parts are called, and what those parts are designed to do. I was then shown how to load and unload the weapons, what to do in a jam or misfire, how to keep the weapon safe, and how to stand and aim. At no point was I allowed to progress to the next stage until I had demonstrated practically and theoretically that I had grasped what I had been taught.
As my session was held in Connecticut, I was taken through firearms and self-defense law in that state in painstaking detail. I now know that in Connecticut one has to keep weapons locked up at all times, that the Castle Doctrine applies only to life and not to property, that there is no Stand Your Ground law, and that one is not allowed to fire warning shots or to warn an assailant that one is armed. I know that one cannot carry while in federal buildings, or carry while consuming alcohol, or carry in any business that posts a sign announcing that firearms are prohibited. I know also that if a gun is lost, that loss has to be reported within 72 hours.
At the end of the course, I had to pass a 50-question written test, after which I was taken to a local range where I had to fire 50 live rounds under supervision and to demonstrate that I could put into action what I had learned in the classroom. Once my instructor was satisfied that I was proficient, he issued me a certificate saying so and the day was over.
Now, none of this is to say that I regard concealed-carry permitting as ideal. On the contrary, I am a happy foot soldier in the march toward “constitutional carry” — i.e., concealed carry with no licensing requirement whatsoever. Vermont, not Connecticut, is the model. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the liberalization of gun laws has by no means occurred in a vacuum and that its price has typically been mandatory education and licensing.
Questions of liberty to one side, it cannot hurt that so many citizens in a country awash with firearms have been taught in detail how to use them. This will never please those who cover their confiscatory instincts with slippery talk of regulation. But those who genuinely want to see America adopt a vehicle-style certification system might absent themselves from the freak-out over concealed carry and recognize that the status quo is a compromise of sorts — and one in which they truly have got at least some of what they want.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.