One man’s journey through getting a handgun permit
Before I could line up the sights of a .22 caliber revolver on the orange, human-shaped target at Shooter’s Depot; before I could sit through lectures in handgun safety and the use of deadly force; before I could watch the Highway Patrol video on how to handle traffic stops while armed, and pass the written and shooting test, and walk away with a certificate that would allow me to apply for a Tennessee handgun permit, I had to find ammunition.
And that’s where this story begins—not with the drive to Shooter’s Depot on a rainy Sunday to investigate the Tennessee Handgun permit class and the folks who go armed among us, but with the ammunition shortage that has swept the country since the Sandy Hook shooting and the re-election of President Obama.
At the Walmart on Signal Mountain Boulevard, the ammunition shelves were stripped bare, and an elderly customer in an Army veteran cap complained that the Department of Homeland Security was buying up all the ammo so citizens couldn’t have any. The tall shelves at Sportsman’s Warehouse, which once held box after box of handgun and rifle cartridges, were empty. When I finally found a few boxes of .22 shells online, they cost four times what they sold for a year ago.
The ammunition shortage is part of a larger trend, which includes rising gun sales and a spike in the number of handgun permits issued in Tennessee. What is behind this rise in carry permits? Who are the people who carry guns among us? Is the South about to rise again, and will it shoot itself in the foot in the process?
In early July, I drove to Shooter’s Depot in Brainerd to take the handgun permit class with Sergeant Mark Haskins of the Chattanooga Police Department. The eight-hour class sets Tennessee apart from neighboring Georgia and Alabama, where all that is required to go armed legally is an application, a background check, and a processing fee. In addition to these requirements, Tennessee residents have to pass a written test and qualify on the shooting range.
Sixteen adults sat at folding tables under fluorescent lights in the back room of the gun store: a senior citizen with a thick drawl in a camouflage T-shirt and hunting cap, a couple sporting bass fishing T-shirts, a National Guard recruiter with an M-16 rifle printed on his shirt. Fourteen of the students were white. Five women attended, each with a husband or male friend. (One woman would be scolded later by Haskins for playing with her smart phone while he gave safety instructions before we walked onto the range and loaded our guns.)
One man said four attackers had broken his arm with a crowbar, and he wanted to learn how to defend himself. A 22-year old man explained why he had waited a year after he turned 21, the minimum age get a carry permit, before taking the class.
“You can’t drink and carry a gun,” he deadpanned, saying that he wanted to give himself a year of partying before he settled down.
Haskins lectured us on the parts of a handgun, safety and storage, and the legal use of deadly force. You should not consider this summary a legal opinion by this writer or The Pulse, but here are some highlights. Open carry—wearing a handgun where others can see it, instead of holstered under a shirt or in a pocket—is legal but discouraged. Carrying in a state or national park is OK, but going armed in a Chattanooga or Hamilton County park could earn you jail time or a stiff fine. You can’t shoot someone who is running away from you, or finish off an injured attacker who surrenders; the only legally justified use of deadly force is when you or another person are in imminent fear of death or serious bodily injury.
A required video by the Tennessee Highway Patrol included stilted recordings about the finer points of blood alcohol content and the types of criminal homicide we could be charged with if we shot someone without just cause. As Haskins broke us up into three groups for the shooting test, the dull echoes of shots thumped against the reinforced wall.
Haskins, who has taught the course since 1996, said he has never had any injuries during the permit classes. Indeed, all 16 of us passed the qualification, keeping the guns pointed downrange while slowly peppering the targets at distances of three, five, and seven yards. The certificates Haskins signed at the end of the class meant that each of us could apply for a permit, pay the $115 fee, get fingerprinted, and wait for the state to check our backgrounds for domestic abuse and other forms of violent crime. Our chances were good; between January 1 and June 30, only 32 applicants were denied.
Haskins credited the rise in gun permits to procrastination, saying that gun owners who had long considered getting a permit were spurred to action after the Sandy Hook shooting and the re-election of President Obama. Fearing increased gun control, he said, these shooters wanted to get their permits while they still could. Haskins blamed the ammunition shortage on the same panicked reaction, as gun owners stocked up on ammunition instead of buying a few boxes at a time.
The rush to obtain ammo and permits may be slowing down. Haskins, one of several instructors at Shooter’s Depot, taught about 12 permit classes per month during the late winter and spring; this summer he teaches about six.
Part of his job is to set students people straight when it comes to “old wives’ tales” about deadly force, like shooting someone to prevent property theft, which is illegal, or shooting a burglar on the porch instead of when the intruder is inside.
“People get mad at me for telling them you can’t do this stuff,” he said. “Some of them don’t realize what a horrible ordeal it is if you have to shoot somebody.”
But not all the students in our class were in the dark about the ethics of self-defense. “Aaron” is a 35-year-old project manager at TVA who declined to use his real name.
(Write a story about carrying guns, and you’ll find many gun owners are skittish about going on record. Some worry it will affect their reputations; others fear their comments may be used against them in court if ever they are involved in a self-defense shooting.)
A self-proclaimed liberal from North Shore, Aaron compared the handgun permit to his former martial arts training, saying that permit holders should hold themselves to a higher standard of conduct than the average citizen.
“You’re not allowed to get into fights anymore,” he said. “You don’t get to have stupid arguments, and posture with guns.”
Aaron, who moved to Chattanooga eight months ago, is no stranger to violence.
“When I was young and stupid, I spent a few weeks repo-ing cars,” he said, describing the day a car owner came out of his house and pointed a handgun at him.
The situation ended only when Aaron’s coworker drew his own gun on the would-be attacker and the man went back inside.
“It taught me the value of going armed,” Aaron said.
While his paperwork isn’t through the system yet, Aaron has bought a travel safe for the compact 9mm pistol he will carry; a slim lockable case attaches via a cable to the car’s interior.
“It’s more important to have a gun nearby than on me,” Aaron said. “I try not to get myself into situations where I feel like I might need a gun.”
In the first six months of 2013, the Tennessee Department of Homeland Security issued 5,157 handgun carry permits in Hamilton County. That is more than the entire year of 2013, when only 5,048 permits were issued. Prior years were equally slim by comparison, with only 4,324 permits issued in 2011 and 4,603 in 2010.
Factor in that a permit is valid for four years, and by early July, the TN DHS listed 19,619 citizens in Hamilton County who could legally carry a handgun.