A split second after I reached for the handgun hanging at the side of Paul White’s hip, his massive arm clamped down on mine and his opposite hand swooped in to secure the pistol grip poking out of his desert-tan army-grade holster. Once White knew I couldn’t get a hold of his gun, he quickly threw his elbow toward my chin, hitting me in the lower lip and sending my head flying back a bit. “Retention!” White barked with an authoritative, booming voice characteristic of the former army drill sergeant that he is. “How are you going to keep people from taking your gun?"
We were at the front of a crowded classroom at Memorial Shooting Center, an indoor shooting range and gun store that shares a parking lot with a church next door. I was there for the training course required for those seeking a concealed handgun license. White was the instructor and I was one of his 37 students on Saturday, the day after Texas’ new open carry law went into effect. Aside from taking an elbow to the chin, I'd found the class pretty easy so far. But I had yet to take the shooting test.
As I returned to my seat, White explained why he doesn't especially like the new open carry law. He said he thinks it will cause problems for law enforcement, and he said it could make open-carriers easily identifiable targets for criminals and unlawful shooters. He also said the state, a word which he often sarcastically follows with the phrase "in its infinite wisdom," makes it too easy for people without proper training to legally carry a gun in the first place — people, I thought, like myself.
White represents a more moderate pro-gun crowd, one that wants to preserve what they see is a necessary and constitutionally protected right to buy and carry a gun, but does not view that right as a substitute for responsibility. Instructors like White have been put in a difficult position as Texas continues to remove barriers from legally buying and carrying a gun, effectively encouraging people to use their legal guns in a growing number of complex situations like suspected home invasions or possible mass shootings. In doing so, the state (as White might say, "in its infinite wisdom") has also made it easier for us to own, carry, and use a gun in public without actually having any idea how do so safely.
We at the Houston Press wanted to put the state's test to the test, so my editors thought it would be a good idea to put me, a native New Yorker who has never held a gun before, through the process of getting a concealed handgun license. If I somehow managed to pass the training course, would I feel like I could confidently handle a weapon in public, as the state allows?
If I had taken the class a few years ago, then perhaps the answer to that question would have more likely been "yes." But in 2013, Texas passed a law reducing the mandatory minimum length of the training course from 10 hours to just four. White told me that was a mistake. He said he has trouble fitting in everything that a gun owner needs to know in the current course, and that a student will not learn how to use a gun solely by following the state's requirements. White recommends people seeking a concealed handgun license spend at least a few hours training with their gun before taking the course, and said they should continue to train afterward.
Not all instructors share White’s sentiments that the training course should be longer. In 2013, one of the state's concealed handgun license instructors told the Dallas Morning-News that he used to fill time in the old 10-hour course with “lighter material,” including "videos of a bruiser chimpanzee that springs from car trunks at the touch of a button to thump people." The level of instruction clearly varies across the state.
"Just because you have a license doesn't mean you know what you're doing," White told me a few weeks before I took the training course, when I sat down with him at Liberty Gun Range in Bellaire, where he also works as an instructor. White said he has been a certified concealed handgun license instructor since 1997 and runs Tac-P solutions, a “tactical training” company with a minimalist military-green logo of a spartan warrior’s helmet — likewise, the screensaver on his laptop is a scene from the movie "300," with cartoonishly muscle-bound Spartans strewn across the screen. White looks like he’d fit right in. His sculpted biceps are about the size of a small child each, and appear to be doing everything they can to escape the confines of his short sleeved shirt. With or without a gun, he is an intimidating human being.
White handed me a brochure for Tac-P Solutions which had a quotation on the front page of Edmund Burke, a classic political theorist credited by some scholars and biographers as the "founder of modern conservatism." According to White's brochure, Burke said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
It's easy to connect that quote to the "good guy with a gun" theory driving the pro-gun crowd's open carry and campus carry arguments: if someone with a gun plans on using it to kill innocent people, then those innocent people are better off defending themselves with a gun than being left without one. But that logic is statistically unfounded — guns are hardly ever used to kill criminals in self-defense.
Early on in the concealed handgun license class, White asked each of my classmates to say their names, what they do for a living, and how often they shoot. There were teachers, engineers, lawyers, secretaries, a Child Protective Services investigator, a few ex-military members, a teenage Marine recruit taking the class with his father. They had shot guns a few times a month, a few times a year, a few times in their life. Three of us had never shot a gun before.
White asked which of us wanted to open carry, and about five people raised their hands. He asked each of them why they wanted to carry, a question most of them had trouble answering beyond "because I can." White pressed them for a more specific reason, and, after careful consideration, they each decided they wanted to open carry to "deter criminals." White took a few minutes and grilled some of us on the mechanical specifics of each of our guns, and we again struggled to come up with acceptable answers on our first try.
Is that gun a single action or double?
How many safeties on that gun?
Later, White talked about the importance of having a 540 degree awareness when carrying a gun. Still, one student said all that was needed when shooting a gun was to stare straight down the sights at your target — White quickly corrected him, pointing out that in chaotic situations, like mass shootings, you need to be aware of everything around you and watch for innocent people passing in and out of the path stretching from the muzzle of your gun to the intended target.
White told us his gun does not come off of his hip until he goes to bed, and he keeps one to two guns in every room of his apartment. He emphasized tactical preparedness, but said our mindset is just as important. “How many of you have thought about taking a life?” he asked. Most of the class did not raise its hand. “Then why are you taking this class? You’ve got to change your thinking."
There was a long break in the course while White led each of four groups onto the range for the shooting test, and I asked the man sitting next to me why he wanted to get his concealed handgun license. He told me he just wanted to get his license because he could. He said he didn't know if he’ll actually carry his gun, and said the test is too easy. He told me his grandmother, who he said is practically blind, has a concealed handgun license. I asked him if he plans on doing any of the additional training White recommended. He said the courses were pretty expensive, so he probably wouldn’t sign up.
There was a written test, too, a new 25-question multiple choice quiz that White had said just came in the day before. “These questions are stupid," White said as he thumbed through the test. "They really didn't put much emphasis on this test." I got a perfect score.
When it was my group's turn to take the shooting test, I grabbed my protective ear muffs, plastic goggles, my paper target and my gun, which lay safely disassembled in a blue rubbermaid bucket, and headed to the range. Earlier, White had taken a few of the more inexperienced shooters aside to show us how to load bullets into the gun, but when I stepped in my stall I struggled to fill the magazine, fumbling with a few bullets that clattered to the ground and rolled out of my reach. I got off just one shot, at three yards away, before the trigger got stuck. White came over and had to show me how to properly load the gun again, and I shot the rest of the remaining rounds.
We shot from three, seven, and 15 yards. I did my best to aim at the "X" in the middle of the target, but I had trouble tracking each shot to the hole it ripped through the blue paper torso — beyond the squeeze of the trigger, I felt I had no command over the gun, its metal grip warm in my sweat-soaked palms, my fingertips stained black with lead (after the test, we lined up at the bathroom sink to scrub away the black dust packed in the grooves of our fingerprints and underneath our nails). By the end, my target was riddled with bullet holes lumped loosely around the middle, with a few stragglers that landed outside the scoring zone. I did not hit the "X."
White walked in after he graded our shooting tests. “I told you before class how to hold a gun, but the majority of you still did whatever the hell you wanted to do," he told us. "Most of you couldn’t hit the X from three yards, and that’s in a calm, cool situation. Once you learn the right way to do something, you have to do it repeatedly to be good at it."
I looked around the room and tried to imagine the various settings these people might end up in while they're carrying a gun, and when they might have an opportunity to use it — the teacher, if a shooter is on the loose in his school; the Child Protective Services investigator, if a check-in at a home turns violent; the older white men, if someone who they don't recognize walks up to their front door. I thought about myself carrying a gun and I remembered what White said earlier, that we needed to change our way of thinking, that we needed to think about shooting to kill.
That is the weight we carry with this license. It is a license that enables us to decide when it might be appropriate to end another person's life. I could not picture myself or anyone else in the class aiming the gun at someone and pulling the trigger and knowing, with complete certainty, that what I was doing was safe, that what I was doing was right. I'm not sure any amount of training could truly prepare me for that.
Still, as White read off the scores, most people had done pretty well by the state's standards. The average score was around 240, out of a possible 250 points; one person scored 250, and I scored a 245. The Child Protective Services investigator got the lowest score, with 223, well above the minimum required mark of 175. According to the state, after five hours of training on a Saturday morning, we were more than capable gun owners. Everybody passed.