Disclaimer: I am NOT a lawyer or a firearms trainer, nor do I play one on TV. This is opinion, based upon experience and collection of information. Do not rely upon this as legal or moral advice.
Since the election, I have received more than one request from liberal friends concerning the acquisition and carrying of firearms. Part of the resulting discussion is always "you're asking the wrong question". In order to facilitate later conversations, I'm putting some basics down here "on paper" so that everyone can come to me with certain basic understandings. This will be a bit of a ramble, but you need to know everything in here if you're considering buying your first firearm or carrying a firearm.
Owning or carrying a firearm is not a decision to be made lightly. To steal from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, owning or carrying a firearm, like marriage:
is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, ... like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God
Owning (much less carrying) a firearm is a responsibility. It gives you power -- like unto the ability to throw thunderbolts. Like any great power, it requires great responsibility to manage it. The basic responsibilities of a firearm owner are: to make sure that your firearms are stored safely and securely; that they are in good mechanical condition or made impossible to use; and that everyone who has access to them knows how to use them safely and effectively and both when and when not to use them.
To me, that means several things. I will not keep a poorly functioning gun: it's either good to use or it is nonfunctional (guns can be made nonfunctional by pulling their firing pins, welding their actions, or other extraordinary measures). Guns that don't work to spec go to the gunsmith or get sold or decommissioned. Guns are always kept under lock and key (in a safe, or with a trigger lock, or in a lockbox, etc.) unless they are in an authorized user's direct control (that means in hand, on the body in a properly fitting and effective holster, or in a proper carrying bag either holstered or cased).
The four rules of firearm safety (see above) ALWAYS APPLY. Yes, ALWAYS. Yes, in whatever exceptional case you're thinking of, they STILL APPLY. If you keep those four rules sacredly, you will not have a negligent gunshot. If you ignore one, you may have a negligent gunshot but no one will be hurt. You must break at least two of these rules simultaneously to hurt someone unintentionally with a gun. Do not ignore them. We will discuss them more later.
The Four Basic Rules of Firearm Safety
There are many variants of these rules. So far as I know, Col. Jeff Cooper originated the concept, but it's become almost universal. Different language abounds, but the essentials are the same. I break them all the way down to four 1-word reminders.
#1: LOADED -- treat all firearms as if they are Loaded. Check a firearm even if you've just seen someone check it. Never assume a firearm is not loaded.
#2: MUZZLE -- never point the Muzzle (that's the end the bullet comes out of) at anything you're not willing to destroy. Substitute "eat" for destroy if you're a hunter.
#3: TRIGGER -- keep your Finger OFF the Trigger until your sights are on target and you have made the decision to shoot. Your trigger finger is the ultimate digital safety. A modern gun in good condition will not fire unless the trigger is pulled (there are some minor exceptions in extraordinary circumstances).
#4: TARGET -- before making the decision to shoot, be sure of your target and what is around it and behind it. You are responsible for every round that exits your firearm.
If you keep these rules religiously, you will never have a negligent discharge (most "accidental" discharges are in fact negligent due to ignoring one or more of these rules, most commonly rule #1). If you DO have a negligent discharge, if you have only ignored rule #1, you and anyone near you will get scared but you won't hurt anything significant, because you were still paying attention to rule #2 and the gun will be pointed at something you're OK with destroying.
Firearm Basics and Getting Your First Gun
There are many different kinds of firearms, but we'll keep it simple: handguns (which includes revolvers and semi-automatic pistols) and long guns (which includes rifles and shotguns). If you are thinking about carrying a defensive firearm, you're almost certainly thinking about a handgun. For simplicity I will assume that means a semi-automatic magazine fed pistol, hereafter referred to as a pistol. If you know what a Glock or a Colt 1911 (the canonical GI handgun until post-Vietnam) looks like, that's what I'm talking about. Semi-automatic means that (when operating correctly) it fires one round every time you press the trigger. Magazine fed means that the cartridges (which include a case usually made of brass, primer in the base of the case, powder, and a bullet) are inserted into a small metal or plastic magazine (essentially a box) which is then inserted partially or completely into the firearm. Pistol magazines typically hold from 6 to 17 rounds, more if they extend outside the firearm. Pistols come in calibers (bullet sizes) from less than one-quarter inch to half an inch or more. Typical calibers used in defensive pistols include 9mm, .40, .45 and a host of others. You can spend as little as a couple of hundred dollars or as much as several thousand (or more) on a defensive handgun.
Springfield Armory 1911 Range Officer in .45 ACP
Selecting a firearm is conceptually simple and logistically complex. If you want to carry a gun, you want to select the most capable gun that you 1) will carry; and 2) can shoot safely and effectively. What does "most capable" mean? Mostly, bigger calibers are more capable, and more cartridges between reloads is more capable, and a longer barrel (and sight radius -- the distance between the front and rear sights) is more capable. What complicates this is that not everyone will carry a .50 Desert Eagle with a 40 round extended magazine (if that exists). And not everyone can shoot a big heavy gun with lots of recoil safely and effectively. Even more complex is the question of preference and shootability. Some shooters mysteriously shoot better with gun A than gun B. Some shooters find caliber X offensive while others prefer it. Odds are that the first gun you shoot will not be the best gun for you to carry.
You may find yourself in a Catch-22: I need to buy a gun to find out what I like to shoot, but I don't want to buy a gun I don't want to shoot. Many shooting facilities will rent guns for testing purposes. Instructors will have their own preferences and collections. Other students will almost certainly let you try out their guns. Renting or using instructors guns will get you somewhere, or you can buy a safe simple choice and work with that for a while. Guns generally have decent resale value. When Sara and I returned to the US from Canada (sans kids) we bought 9mm Glocks (me a 17, her a 19) as first handguns. Neither of us prefer those guns today.
Buying a gun is roughly as complicated as buying and financing a car, but different. If you buy from a gun store or at most gun shows you will have to fill out paperwork and pass a background check. Generally it takes 10-30 minutes for the entire transaction, but many jurisdictions have waiting periods built in for gun purchases. In Washington state, for example, there is a five-day waiting period for a handgun, but none for a long gun. Non-residents may have to wait up to 60 days. However, if you have a Washington state concealed carry permit, the waiting period is waived. Depending upon where you live, YMMV. There are many online resources on gun laws, waiting periods, etc.
If you are going to carry, you must also invest in a good quality holster (which may cost between $50 and $200 or more), defensive ammunition, magazines and a magazine carrier, and training. Just the ammunition for sufficient training and practice for a year may well cost more than the firearm.
If you are a prohibited person (legally not allowed to own a firearm), do NOT attempt to subvert the system! You'll just fuck it up for the rest of us legal owners!
Laws vary by jurisdiction. In Washington state, open carry is legal (but why would you?), and getting a concealed carry permit is very simple: it requires $50, fingerprinting, and not having a felony record. In New York or California, open carry is illegal and getting a permit is damn near impossible. There is a cottage industry in permit training. Many states issue permits, some of them to non-residents. My trainer of choice in this area is JB Herren at Old School Gun School (aka Northwest Safety First and Friday Harbor Gun Runners). I take classes from JB probably more than once a year. The image of the 4 Basic Rules above is the card he hands out at the beginning of every class. I have a bunch of them. Not only is JB extremely knowledgable about carry permits and the law of self defense, he's a great classroom instructor AND a great range instructor (and let me tell you, those don't always come together). I can't recommend him highly enough. If you are in the Seattle area, he's easy to get to (classes range from Marysville down to Chehalis, and he's almost always got representation at the WAC gun shows which are held twice most months in Monroe and Puyallup). JB is not the cheapest instructor out there, but he's worth what he charges.
I cannot and would not recommend carrying illegally. Just don't.
Given that you wish to carry legally and are willing to do the work and you don't live somewhere you can't get a permit, you'll need a few days of classroom work and possibly have to shoot a qualification target on the range. Training to be able to pass the qualification is on you. In some jurisdictions, you must qualify with your carry firearm and the carry firearm is the ONLY gun legal to carry there. Part of your classroom work will be learning where you may carry and where you may not (federal property, for example, although there is case law that you may legally leave a firearm locked in your car when you park at the post office). You are responsible for knowing the law.
Some jurisdictions respect the carry permits issued by other jurisdictions (the legal term is "reciprocity"). There is no federal carry permit nor is there any permit which is recognized everywhere. This is not like your drivers license (which your state has reciprocity with all other states for). You are responsible for knowing where your permit is recognized and where it is not (and this can change on a daily basis). You are responsible for knowing the laws of the jurisdiction in which you are carrying, not just the one you live in that issued your permit. You may acquire non-resident permits from some jurisdictions to increase the number of states you are legal to carry in. The Idaho enhanced permit, for instance, is recognized in 30+ states, and is currently probably the permit with the most stringent requirements: two days of class and a 108-round qualification shoot (which you must score at least 75% to pass, IIRC).
Carrying concealed means just that -- concealed. If someone sees your firearm, you have screwed up. Depending upon your actions and the jurisdiction, displaying your firearm may get you nothing, a warning, or a felony arrest. Displaying the firearm with intent to intimidate is a crime.
If you are going to carry, you need to know when you are permitted to draw the firearm and when you are permitted to use it. Part of your classroom time will be spent on this. The basics are that you may use deadly force in your own defense if you are innocent and threatened with imminent use of deadly force against you. You may also use force to defend other innocents. You need to know the legal meaning of words like "deadly force", "imminent", and so on. The attacker(s) must have the ability to use deadly force against you, the opportunity to do so, and must reasonably be considered a threat. An angry man with a baseball bat within arms reach has ability to deliver deadly force (the baseball bat), opportunity to do so (within arms reach), but isn't a threat unless he has expressed (verbally or not) an intent to apply the force. Screaming "I'm going to kill you, motherfucker!" would qualify as a threat :-). Lots of grey area here, and you need to be able to understand what's going on fast enough to keep bad things from happening to you.
Simply being "in fear for your life" is not enough. A "reasonable person" would have to conclude that you were under imminent threat of deadly force being used against you.
If you are going to own a firearm, you owe it to yourself and to others to know how to use it safely. If you are going to carry a firearm, you must get adequate training not only for basic use, but for defensive use. My rule is that I need at least one 3-5 day class annually. Preferably two or more. That's on top of shooting at least monthly. You ever wonder why gun owners always have so much ammo around? Why the headlines say "arsenal found with four guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition"? Because if I'm keeping up my practice, I am shooting 100-250 rounds a month in practice and once or twice a year I'm shooting 1000-1500 rounds in a week of training. That is 1200-3000 rounds annually for practice and 2000-3000 for training for a total of 3-6 thousand rounds per year. Because if I'm going to carry Jove's thunderbolts around with me, I'm going to train to a high standard. That much training costs FAR more than your typical firearm.
Expect to spend at least $1000 to $2000 for that week of training, BTW.
I have done a bunch of training, but the two places I have trained repeatedly are with JB and at Gunsite. I talked JB up before. Gunsite is near Prescott, AZ. It was founded by Col. Jeff Cooper, who's generally considered the originator of the modern art of the pistol. The basic pistol class is 250 Pistol, which is a week long. I wrote a little bit about my experience there in two blog posts, but here is the money quote:
But I will say that I have a new appreciation for pistolcraft as a martial art, having visited Gunsite Academy in Paulden, AZ for a one week Pistol 250 class in January. I would say it took 3-5 years of regular training (2+ hours a night 3-4 nights a week) to feel comfortable in my ability to handle a situation with Kenpo. One week of excellent training on top of years of casual shooting might have done it using a pistol.
I'm sure there are plenty of other good places to train, but these are the two I come back to. Be warned: in either location you will be exposed to conservatives. If you engage in political discussion, you will hear opinions you're probably not used to hearing in person. However, you will also be able to forge connections over a shared topic (guns and shooting and self-defense) and present yourself as an exemplar of progressivism. They don't see many of us, just like we don't see many of them. And we agree about more than we disagree about.
I steal the term "spiritual fitness" from one of my martial arts trainers, one Skip Hancock. Skip uses "spiritual fitness" to describe your understanding of the rightness of your actions. When you carry a firearm, you carry life and death. You must decide, for yourself, under what circumstances you are willing to act. The law can inform your decision making, but it cannot compel you either to act or refrain from action. Your religious beliefs may inform your decision making. You may make the well thought out decision that you cannot take a life. That's fine, for you. You may decide that you could take a life in defense of your spouse or child, but not yourself. Your decision is your own. I can't make it for you. A court can judge you after the fact for your decision, but only you can make the decision. Best you think about it before you have to make it under the most stressful conditions of your life.
An anecdote was told at a recent class I was attending by a local sheriff's deputy about a firefighter friend of his who arrived home (in semi-rural Washington) one day to find his front door open and someone carrying a load of his stuff (firearms, I think) out the door. He exited his pickup with the shotgun from the gun rack (he'd been planning on hunting birds) and fired one round. It was fatal. The burgler did not survive to make the hospital. The deputy responding had no police need to be there -- by the time he arrived there were detectives and investigators and EMS all over the scene. He needed to be there because his firefighter friend was (and remains) devastated by his actions. He was not spiritually prepared to take a life and had not fully examined the consequences of his actions. As a firefighter, he had spent his life saving others, and in a moment of great stress, confronting an individual violating his home, he reacted. The burgler paid a great price and died. The firefighter pulled the trigger, lived, and still pays a great price.
if you own and/or carry a gun, that could be you.
If you are unsure of your spiritual fitness or unsure how to evaluate your spiritual fitness, I suggest you check out Lt. Col. Dave Grossmans site killology.com, where he discusses the nature of killing and how armies train soldiers to do it without emotionally destroying them. Skip Hancock has two books: Aware; and Mastering Kenpo which both touch on the subject. On top of that, talk to people you trust about the nature of boundaries, integrity, self defense, and defense of others. Your priest, rabbi, imam, or other spiritual counselor would be a good choice, as would any wise old souls you know. Ultimately, your decisions here form a foundation that informs your decision to own or carry a firearm and when you would consider using it.
Build on concrete, not on sand.