Editor's note: Applications for gun licenses have increased nationally and in Maine, with a growing interest by women contributing to the surge. Lewiston-based writer Jaime McLeod was among those who recently took a pistol safety class to learn more.
Rain clung to my glasses in thick droplets and ran from my scalp down the back of my neck as I aimed the revolver. After taking a second to steady my hands, which were shaking a little, I squeezed the trigger and fired.
“Did you see where that went?” asked the man to my left, Michael Jones, a certified instructor with the National Rifle Association.
Glancing downrange, I could see from the pristine white surface of my intended target – a 9-inch paper plate – that I had missed.
“No,” I answered, the obvious question in my voice.
“Too high. Line up your sights. Make sure they’re even,” said Jones, who has seven years of teaching experience under his gun belt.
I tried again, pulling back the hammer on the dual-action revolver, cowboy-style, like Jones had showed me. Taking a deep breath, I lowered the barrel of the pistol just a hair and fired again, once again filling the air with the acrid smell of gunpowder.
This time, my bullet pierced the outer edge of the plate, making a gray half-moon shape at the very top.
“Good! A little lower,” said Jones.
As the rain continued to fall, I shot again, this time without cocking the hammer, so I could feel the difference between shooting it with and without the weapon cocked. It took more strength to pull the trigger, and I tried to concentrate on pulling it in a steady, smooth motion, as I’d been instructed.
This time, my shot landed well within the eating area of the plate.
“Good. Keep going.”
I emptied the revolver’s cylinder into the non-threatening piece of disposable dinnerware 15 yards away, gradually getting used to the strange feeling of having an instrument of death (or at least paper plate destruction) in my hands.
Any way you look at it, standing around firing handguns with 50 other people in a stranger’s backyard in Arundel is definitely an unusual way for a peace-loving vegetarian to spend a cold, extremely rainy Saturday afternoon.
For one thing, I’ve never really liked guns. I’m not necessarily afraid of them, unless one happened to be pointed right at me, that is. I’ve just gone most of my 35 years without feeling any real desire to own, or even fire, one.
Recently, though, a friend and I have been talking about how we should rent or borrow a gun sometime and go range shooting, just to be able to say we had.
In the midst of that, I stumbled across a Living Social deal for a half-price NRA basic pistol safety course.
The course description promised a combination of classroom instruction and practical experience on a range, more than fulfilling Maine’s training requirement to obtain a concealed carry permit.
I was intrigued, and some safety training sounded like a good idea, so I signed up on the spot. Clearly, others thought it sounded interesting, too; by the time I entered my credit card information, nearly 500 other people had also taken advantage of the offer.
Such an overwhelming response makes sense in light of state and national trends. Nationwide, firearm sales and applications for gun licenses are on the rise, according to a recent story by the Associated Press.
Here in Maine, applications have increased 167 percent over last year, and the Maine State Police, who process concealed weapons permit applications for anyone whose town doesn’t have its own chief of police, can’t keep up with the demand.
Despite a Maine policy stating that “a permit shall be issued within 30 days for a resident of 5 or more years,” the state's website warns of wait times up to 90 days. In reality, said NRA instructor Jones, applicants are experiencing wait times of up to 180 days.
“And if you call them, they’re going to get aggravated, so just be patient,” he added.
In Lewiston and Auburn, where the local police departments handle applications, the wait is a little shorter – anywhere from six to 12 weeks.
Anecdotal evidence from gun shop owners suggests that much of the increased demand for guns and permits is being driven by women. In fact, the NRA, taking notice of this trend, is actively courting women to take a larger role in the organization, with special programs, publications and an instructor certification course just for women.
On the day of our class, my companion, Melissa Farrington, of Lewiston, and I walked into the showroom at Maine Tactical, the gun shop in Scarborough that was hosting the class, shortly before 8 a.m.
After filling out the required paperwork (“No, I don’t have any live ammunition on me . . .”), we walked past a diverse display of guns – from hunting rifles crafted to be works of art in their own right to complicated tactical carbines that would have looked more at home in a war zone than in someone’s living room – and upstairs to the classroom.
The room itself was plastered in human silhouette targets, posters promoting one brand of gun or another, as well as a collection of tough-talking pro-gun bumper stickers, such as “I don’t call 911” and “This is my peace symbol” (next to an image of a cross-hairs sight).
We had no idea how many other people would be in the class with us, and clearly the instructor didn’t either. Jones said he was used to teaching groups of about 15, and kept shaking his head in disbelief as our numbers swelled to 30, 40 and 50. By the time everyone had filed in, it was standing room only.
Our classmates included experienced gun owners who were there to qualify for their concealed carry permits, as well as other newbies like us. Among their numbers were college students, at least one college professor, senior citizens, couples, a mother and her 20-something son, and plenty of solo women.
Jones covered a variety of topics during the lecture portion of the class, but started off by railing against gun control advocates.
“A few years ago, there was a news story about some young men who used two-by-fours to beat another young man to death. I thought there was going to be an uproar of people wanting to close down lumber yards, but that never happened,” he said at one point in the message.
We then moved on to the practical portion of the course, starting with safe handling of a firearm. The NRA promotes three basic safety rules: 1. Always point the gun in a safe direction; 2. Always keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot; and, 3. Always keep the gun unloaded until you’re ready to use it.
Jones clarified that a gun being carried for the purpose of personal protection is “ready to use,” unlike, for instance, a gun sitting in someone’s medicine cabinet, where a neighbor or curious child could easily access it.
We also learned about the different types of pistols and ammunition, as well as the mechanics of a gun and how it works, a section this wannabe science geek thoroughly enjoyed.
Throughout his lecture, Jones passed around a selection of different types of handguns – all unloaded – for students to handle and get used to “dry firing.” We looked at two different kinds of revolvers – single-action, which must be cocked before firing, and dual-action, which cocks the hammer for you when you pull the trigger – as well as semi-automatic pistols in a variety of designs and sizes.
In addition to going over proper shooting technique, Jones also spent some time explaining how to choose the right gun.
“If you can’t access the trigger or squeeze it with the strength you have, it’s no good to you. You have a very high-priced hammer,” he quipped.
During the concealed carry portion of the class, Jones elicited gasps of surprise from some students when he reached under his baggy T-shirt to pull a Glock from the waistband of his jeans.
“Students in these classes always say ‘I had no idea that was under there.' That’s the point. It’s concealed,” said Jones.
While talking about holsters, Jones demonstrated the trigger-lock mechanism he uses on his concealed weapon. “So I don’t shoot my leg off,” he said.
After several hours of classroom instruction and a written test, we were ready to load into our vehicles and head to the range to put our new knowledge into practice.
Before we left, Jones offered a few safety warnings: “You will shoot only at authorized targets. None of your fellow students are authorized targets, just to make that clear. It’s important to stay back from the line if you’re not shooting. If we all do that, no one should get shot.”
Melissa grabbed my notes and hastily scribbled a single word: “Should?!”
I spent the first half-hour or so huddled under a tent with a few dozen other people, trying to stay dry, before my turn came.
After getting my feet wet – literally – zeroing in on the paper plate with the revolver, we moved on to a semi-automatic.
“Ready to load?” Jones called to the other instructors on the line.
“Ready to load!” came the replies.
Jones handed me an empty magazine, held out a handful of .22 rounds and showed me how to load them by slipping each round into the spring-loaded clip.
“Just like a PEZ dispenser," I observed, as my wet fingers fumbled with the ammunition.
“Everyone always says that. I’ve never had PEZ, so I don’t know,” he said.
Once my clip was loaded up, Jones once again called down the line: “Ready to fire?”
“Ready to fire!”
Jones placed an unloaded Smith & Wesson semi-automatic pistol in my hand. Compared to the revolver, which had been strange to hold, the semi-automatic felt much more natural. I have small hands, but the revolver’s narrow grip felt almost dainty enveloped in my palm. In contrast, the contours of the semi-automatic’s chunky polymer grip fit my hand perfectly as I grew accustomed to the gun’s well-balanced heft.
Standing with my feet at shoulder width, as I’d been instructed, I popped the magazine into the bottom of the pistol’s grip, wrapped my left hand around the right for extra support, and lined up my sights.
I pulled back the trigger, finding it much easier to engage than the revolver’s had been. Though I’d come to the range expecting to feel some recoil when I fired, the small caliber we were using meant the dreaded kickback never materialized. Firing a .22 pistol, I found, doesn’t feel very different from shooting off a cap gun. The sooty holes in my paper plate target were the only evidence to the contrary.
At Jones’ prompt, I continued firing into the paper plate until the satisfying BLAM BLAM BLAM of the live rounds was replaced by the hollow click that meant I’d emptied the magazine. The part I’d been waiting for all day was over almost as soon as it had started.
Jones congratulated me as I made my way back to the tent to pick up my signed NRA Basic Pistol Certificate. I waited for Melissa to take her turn, then gathered up my certificate and damp, slightly damaged paper plate for the soggy drive home.
While I’m not ready to run out and buy a handgun any time soon, I am glad I had the opportunity to learn how to use one safely and to feel the rush of firing one for myself. Who knows, maybe I’ll even make a trip to the range sometime to try out a 9 mm.
Go ahead, paper plates, make my day.