Guns in the City

The sound of the well-made gun is precise. If you pull the slide back smoothly, the sound of the hammer locking back echoes with a sharp “clock” through the hollow grip. Slap a magazine into the grip, pull the slide back a little more and let it go. The sharp “smack” tells you a bullet has seated in the chamber. The tiny pin sticks out in front of the hammer to confirm the bullet is in place. If you pull the trigger, the next sound you hear will be considerably louder. While the boom reverberates on the range, you will hear the next clock-smack. The gun will fire again.

It’s not just a fine machine. It’s actually quite elegant in its function. The plastic grip is perfectly shaped to the hand. A tail protrudes from above the grip to protect the webbing of your thumb from being hit by the slide. The safety lever and slide catch are within easy reach of your thumb. The trigger, when the gun is cocked, takes a very light pull with the pad of your index finger. The barrel tapers smoothly out of the heavy slide down to its front sight, which is the shape of a shark’s dorsal fin. It is slightly beveled forward, though, so it won’t catch at all as you draw it from the leather holster.

The holster is also thoughtfully designed. It is heavy leather, with a flap that covers the gun to keep out the muck of war. But the strap that holds the flap down is simply impaled on a round steel knob and comes up easily. A second rear flap on the holster breaks away to allow the grip to come back, instead of just up, and permits the muzzle to bear on the target immediately.

The magazine holds eight 9 mm Parabellum rounds. The name comes from the old Roman adage, si vis pacem, para bellum. If you want peace, prepare for war.

The gun has the usual markings and serial number. But nowhere is the name of its designer—Walther. There is clearly stamped on the left side of the slide “P.38,” the model, and “byf44,” which indicates it was built in 1944 at the Mauser factory in Oberndorf. On both sides of the slide, on the frame, and on the barrel are marks made after test firing the gun at the factory: “WaA135.” Between the two inspector’s marks on the right side is a tiny eagle perched on a swastika.

The Germans manufactured a fine gun sixty-two years ago. It still fires a very tight group. I shot 232 out of 250 with it three months ago on my proficiency exam to get my state permit to carry a pistol. Of course I wasn’t under the same pressure as the German officer who gave it up to my father six decades ago. Dad was able to take it, he once told me, because the officer “didn’t need it any more.”

I decided to take the one-day course that is required before getting a carry permit. When we arrived at the classroom at Bill’s Gun Range on a cold Sunday in January, the instructor, Teresa Reiter, warmed us up immediately by offering Krispy Kreme doughnuts and homemade cookies. The course, Teresa assured us, was “strictly defense. There’s no offense in this class.”

Reiter, except for her uniform, looked like someone’s favorite aunt: medium height, medium hair, winning smile. She wasn’t carrying a gun, although there were a few sitting on the table in front of her, next to the doughnuts. She explained that she wasn’t carrying because she wanted to keep the tenor of the class more “low-key.”

There was a young African-American man next to me, who had just moved to Minneapolis from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He said he wasn’t going back. The young man next to him, also African-American, had more than a passing interest in the course. He’d been shot last year by someone who was living with him, and, it turned out, was also robbing him. He showed us the scars on his belly and leg, where they had taken skin for a graft. Another guy and his brother were lawyers. The last guy was one I might have then described as a “gun nut.” He told us in some detail about all the guns he owned.

The curriculum assumed a basic familiarity with handguns, and so we spent no time on those basics. The class covered the law—what constitutes a legal use of deadly force—but what stuck in the mind was the emphasis on staying out of situations when use of a gun might be necessary. “When you are carrying a gun, you have to back down from any confrontation,” Reiter said. The best way to do this was to have a heightened awareness of one’s surroundings. “I always am playing the ‘What If?’ game when I’m out in public,” she explained. “What will I do if this guy moves toward me? What will I do if this or that happens?”

“I carry a gun all the time,” she said, “because it raises my alert level sky high. That’s why I carry—for the alert level, not for self-defense.” Reiter gave us some elementary pointers on non-lethal self-defense, such as using pepper spray, or a blinding “tactical” flashlight, but also emphasized that you should never “give in” to someone holding a gun on you. “If you say, ‘Don’t kill me’ to the bad guy, it gives him the control. Your mindset has to be, ‘I will survive this.’”

The class concluded with several recommendations to increase safety in the house, which, of course, included good locks and an alarm system, also the obvious one of keeping escape routes in mind and escape ladders handy if you sleep on an upper floor. Also, she recommended you charge your cell phone on your bedside table, so it’s handy if your phone lines are somehow cut.

I first fired a gun when I was about four years old. My dad hunted some, but was more of a “plinker,” which means he was more interested in shooting tin cans in the country than stalking pheasants or deer. When I was very young, we lived in an old house that had a dirt-walled basement. Dad and I would go down there and stick a dime into the wall. He would kneel and rest the long stock of his Browning semi-automatic .22 rifle on his shoulder. I would stand behind him, aim at the dime, and shoot.

As we grew up, Dad would take me and my brothers shooting at fast-flowing Mosquito Creek. We’d plink some tin cans and then the real contest would begin. Dad had saved our burned out light bulbs for a year. He’d toss them, one at a time, into the creek. My youngest brother would take a shot. If he missed the bobbing receding target, the rifle was passed to the middle brother. If he missed, I got a shot. By this time the bulb was getting pretty small. If I missed, Dad would break it every time—but only after waiting a few more seconds to let the target float away to a respectable distance. Anything under fifty yards was too easy.

I continued to plink through high school. It was a cheap date to take a girl down to the creek and shoot fifty rounds—and it made me seem more interesting than the guys who took her to a movie. I often hunted rabbits and squirrels with a high-school friend who actually cleaned and ate them. But since high school, I hadn’t done much shooting of any kind.

About ten years ago, a few co-workers and I started going to Bill’s after work. We’d rent a pistol and shoot targets for an hour or so, then get to the real reason we’d taken off early from work—going to the Robbinsdale Muni for beers. We called ourselves the Drunks with Guns Club, although we were smart enough to do the shooting first and the drinking after. It was an infrequent club, and died off when I changed jobs. Then, last year, Dad gave me the P.38 for Christmas. As I racked the slide a couple of times in his living room and listened to those sounds once again, I could feel the old compulsions starting to build.

Bill’s Gun Shop and Range in Robbinsdale is subtly military in its demeanor. All of the salespeople on the floor are dressed in black shirts with the Bill’s logo above the pocket. Their trousers are khaki, but not like what you’d get from the Gap. The back pocket openings are slashes, and there is a canvas strap over the right one. The leg pocket layout is slightly different from that of typical cargo pants. There is a small pocket high on the left leg, about the size of a pistol magazine, and the knees are double layered. These are “tactical” pants. Every employee carries a large-caliber sidearm in a clearly visible holster. Every one of them is unfailingly polite and extremely knowledgeable about the merchandise.

The showroom holds five tall, locked glass showcases. They are filled with about two hundred pistols, both new and used. If you ask to see a pistol, the clerk unlocks the case, removes the pistol you wish to examine, racks the slide open (or drops the cylinder, if it’s a revolver) to check that it is unloaded, shows the open chamber to you so you can confirm it is unloaded, and only then inserts an empty magazine, closes the slide, and hands you the pistol, butt first. That’s how it should be done. That’s how it’s always done at Bill’s.

On the north wall of the display floor hang assault rifles and shotguns. These are not locked away, but can only be handled with the assistance of a clerk. If you take one down, and you haven’t asked first, a clerk is with you right away to make sure you are getting the proper instruction and information about what you are looking at.

John Monson owns Bill’s. He bought it from the original owner in 2003, and purchased another shop in Circle Pines last year. Monson looks like he’s in his early twenties, but is thirty-seven, and is dressed just like his employees. He’s tall and slim and his light hair is cut military short. He carries a small automatic on his left hip. Except for the many weapons certification diplomas on the wall behind him and a large safe which opens to reveal a machine gun and several other fully automatic weapons, his office is like any other executive’s: photographs of his wife and children on the top of a file cabinet, a computer screen displaying an Excel spreadsheet on the corner of the desk.

Monson was poring over the figures from his three-day “Spring Shooters Show” which concluded April 2. More than four thousand people came through the two stores on those three days, and more than two thousand people shot firearms. Upwards of a hundred thousand rounds of ammunition were expended. “No one was hurt and there was no conflict,” he noted proudly. He wouldn’t say how many guns were sold over the weekend, but the showroom display cases were packed on Friday morning and sparsely filled by Sunday evening. The new Springfield XD 45 pistol, which was the cover girl of April’s Guns and Ammo and Combat Handgun magazines, sold out by Saturday noon. More had to be rushed over from the distributor to satisfy the demand on Sunday.

The crowd at the show was an eclectic bunch. There were young kids and couples in their seventies. There were certainly more men than women, but there were enough women there to belie the macho image of the cliché gun enthusiast. As Monson said, “There isn’t a specific class of people who purchase guns. We have elementary school teachers, orthopedic surgeons, reverends, and even deaf and blind customers.” Blind? “Yes, they need some help to shoot; but they can do it.”

Bill’s has a lot of “blue collar” customers he added, but just as many “white collar.” He guessed that “the Republican demographic is heavier than the Democrat,” but, “in reality, our next customer is a guy whose neighbor or some acquaintance has had a crime in his life. Or his garage was broken into. And that reminds him that the criminal element is not that far away.”

Has there been an upsurge in purchases since the recent shootings in Uptown and Downtown? “We haven’t really noticed that,” he said, but opined it may be too early to tell yet. But, he added, sales jumped right after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. “People saw we were two days from anarchy. People saw the government couldn’t always protect you, and that sometimes you will have to protect yourself.”

Some people believe that stores like Bill’s are putting more guns on the streets, some of which invariably end up in the hands of criminals. Monson wouldn’t say precisely how many guns he’s sold in the past year, other than the number is in “the thousands.”

“There is a permit-to-purchase system in place. The state says it’s OK to purchase a handgun. The NCIC [the FBI-maintained National Crime Information Center] says OK. What more can we do?” But then he answered his own question: “Our sales guys have the authority to decline a sale at any time. We won’t sell a gun if we smell alcohol or chemical abuse, if we know there are gang ties, if we don’t like their behavior, or if we know it’s a ‘straw’ sale.” That happens when the purchaser—typically a woman who has a permit—comes in to get a gun, yet doesn’t know anything about guns or doesn’t particularly care what type of gun she buys. Often, she has to go out to the parking lot to ask the real purchaser the answer to a question asked by the salesperson. “Some get pissed when we refuse to sell them a gun,” said Monson. “But that’s too bad. We watch for straw purchases and will assist in prosecuting them.”

The store has good relations, Monson said, with the local police forces and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Many metro police departments train regularly at Bill’s. Indeed, when Monson and I were talking, a local SWAT officer was firing a fully automatic weapon in the adjacent rifle area of the range. Officers from the St. Paul office of ATF train at Monson’s Circle Pines range.

Nevertheless, legally obtained guns do fall into the hands of people who use them in crimes. A study done in January 2004 by the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation, noted that, in the years between 1996 and 2000, three years before Monson bought the business, 373 guns linked to crimes had been sold at Bill’s. No data has been compiled since then.

The city of Minneapolis has no shops that actually sell guns. The “last” gun shop in Minneapolis, near Lake Street and Chicago Avenue, is owned by Mark Koscielski and his partner Barbara Bergstrom. They don’t sell guns in the store because Minneapolis zoning regulations don’t permit guns to be sold at Koscielski’s location. In fact, Minneapolis zoning regulations don’t permit a gun shop to operate anywhere in Minneapolis, according to Koscielski. He only sells the guns displayed in the store at gun shows.

Koscielski’s store is the antipode to the military precision of Monson’s operation. The inside of the store is dark and jumbled. Targets, holsters, and other gun paraphernalia are scattered about the space. Koscielski is the originator of the “Murderapolis” T-shirt. One was displayed on a manikin on top of a shelf. Hand-made signs were here and there. There were a few guns in a case, but there were no price tags. There was no ammunition on the shelves. On the counter next to the cash register was a rack of business cards for various instructors, shooting ranges, and one for the Pink Pistols, with the legend “Armed Gays Don’t Get Bashed!”

Koscielski himself sat, unshaven, on a stool in the middle of the room. He’s in his fifties and is a Vietnam vet. He was dressed in one of his varied collection of T-shirts, baggy jeans, and an open plaid shirt. He does have a pistol on his hip. He spoke deliberately. “Minneapolis has the idea that, if they zone gun shops out of existence, there will be no more guns.” Koscielski clearly doesn’t agree with that theory.

In fact, Koscielski said he’s helped take illegal guns off the street. Despite the fact that he receives no official cooperation from the Minneapolis Police Department, he said he’s helped various agencies solve gun thefts. “People bring hot guns in here for sale all the time,” he said. When that happens, he tells a friendly member of another law enforcement agency. According to Koscielski, warrants have been issued based on information he has provided, guns have been recovered, and thieves have been arrested.

Koscielski’s friend Mike (not his real name) backed up those claims. Mike is a plain clothes detective with the Minnesota Department of Corrections who is attached to a federal task force whose job it is to apprehend fugitives and sex offenders. “Mark has called me numerous times when he’s been suspicious,” Mike said. “His information has led to recovery of stolen guns, arrests of gang members, and arrests of people providing ammunition to felons. Mark’s been very helpful several times.”

So what’s the effect of closing Koscielski’s store? “As far as I’m concerned, it’s cut off a good source of intel for the police,” the detective said. Koscielski hasn’t sold a gun in Minneapolis since July 1, 2005. “Has that stopped the violence in Minneapolis? Of course not,” said Mike. “But society has to blame somebody for the violence. I understand the aggravation, but it’s really some politicians saying, ‘We closed the store so we’re getting guns off the street.’ When you insert politics, common sense goes out the window.”

“City people are the victims of crimes. Since the city has put me out of business, all they have done is make the prices higher at other shops. That just makes it harder for city people who need protection to afford guns,” said Koscielski.

Koscielski has a point. In the first three months of this year, Minneapolis police have issued 304 permits to purchase a handgun. Since 2003, when the carry permit legislation passed, Minneapolis has issued more than 4,000 permits to purchase a handgun. The Hennepin County Sheriff granted 300 permits to carry a pistol to Minneapolis residents during 2005. Since 2003, Hennepin County has issued more than 4,000 carry permits. In the first three months of this year alone, the county has received 444 applications for a carry permit. Either the city- or county-issued permit entitles a person to purchase a pistol legally. Many of those people have gone to Bill’s Robbinsdale store, only eight blocks outside of the Minneapolis city limits.

Mike Nielsen lives in Linden Hills. He is tall, blond, and Scandinavian handsome. He’s fit and looks like he can handle himself. Indeed, he practices both yoga and martial arts. He is a mortgage broker with a winning smile. He guffawed as he described himself. “I’m a self-admitted right-wing gun-toting wacko.”

He got his first permit to carry a pistol when he was a college student in South Dakota in 1993. “I wanted to buy a gun, but there was the waiting period,” he explained. “But the clerk told me that, if I had a carry permit, I didn’t have to wait. So I went to the county sheriff in Brookings and he gave me one on the spot. I think it cost twenty-five dollars. But, I was totally unequipped to be carrying a gun at that time.”

Nielsen began to shoot when he could spare the time and money. “I started shooting fifty or a hundred rounds at a time,” he said, “because that was what I could afford. As I got more income, I could afford to shoot more.” As his interest and income grew, so did his collection of handguns and assault-type rifles. “At one time, I had a couple of dozen firearms—pistols, memorabilia items, AKs and AR-15s. I started doing competitions, and won some. But I’ve sold quite a few of those guns now. I took a course that emphasized tactics and training and I realized, instead of buying every gun under the sun, now I want to know how to use them.” Now, he said, “I’m investing in training and mindset.”

This “mindset” probably distinguishes Nielsen from the typical Bill’s customer. If you go to the range during any open shooting time, you’ll see a different type of shooter. There are the ones who buy a few boxes of ammo, rent a large caliber gun with a high capacity magazine, and buy the targets that picture either Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. Often they fire the gun as fast as they can. The target ends up looking like a sieve, with evenly spaced holes all over it from the hundred or so wild shots. Entropy has a way of evening out the pattern of destruction. It’s not really shooting. It’s more like shooting off fireworks. I was shooting one Saturday afternoon when a bachelor party came in—five guys, one fully automatic AK-47, and several cases of ammo. Osama didn’t stand a chance.

Along side are the target shooters. They use traditional circular bull’s-eye targets, take their time, and put most shots in the center. It’s not defensive shooting. It’s target shooting, and it’s a sport. In many ways, it’s not that different from seeing how many free throws in a row you can hit on your driveway basketball hoop.

Tactical firearm shooting is something else. That’s what Nielsen and several instructors at Bill’s do. When Nielsen is not training himself, he teaches. Like most of Bill’s instructors, he does it on a volunteer basis. Most of Bill’s instructors do it because they like it, and like the people with whom they do it.

Nielsen believes in passing on his knowledge. He conducts classes in defensive use of firearms at Bill’s a couple of times a week. His classroom demeanor is jovial, yet completely serious about safety, procedure, and learning how to defend yourself with a handgun. After a one-and-a-half-hour lecture about what we’re going to do, and exactly how we’re going to do it, we hit the range for an hour and a half of shooting.

There are four students in this class, and three instructors other than Mike. I draw Anthony Budniak as my personal shepherd. Budniak is 6’6” with a full flaming-red beard and heavily tattooed forearms. The large 1911 model .45 on his hip looks like a toy squirt gun against his massive frame. When he’s not training novice shooters, he’s a white-shirt, suit-and-tie-wearing bond trader. “I have to wear long sleeves to work,” he admitted.

The procedures followed in the class are, while not quite military, probably as close as you can come without alienating the customer. You are told when you can load and unload your gun. You are told precisely how to load and clear the gun. You are told exactly how to stand in relation to the gun and exactly how to position your hand when racking the slide to load a round into the chamber. (Budniak reminded me not to pass my hand in front of the muzzle.) You fire only when the drill is explained thoroughly, all questions are answered, all guns are holstered, and the starting whistle is blown. After the firing drill is completed, you holster the gun again only on command. And then, only on command, do you pick up any empty magazines you may have ejected onto the floor.

The drills simulate combat situations, and become progressively more difficult—and fun—as the evening progresses. The first target of the evening is a simple paper target that displays five eight-inch bull’s-eyes.

The first drill was a simple draw-and-fire one shot at target number one. You are expected to do this in less than 2.5 seconds. It’s not as easy as it seems. When you are under pressure, and doing this for the first time in your life, you can get the shot off quickly, but the bullet’s destination is problematic. When I take my time, and am under no pressure, I can put round after round in a four-inch area. When there are five other people shooting, the whistle is blowing, and a timer is beeping, I can’t hit a damn thing. Only after I slow down, take a breath, and actually take a fraction of a second to aim, do I start hitting the bull’s-eye. By the tenth shot, I can do it consistently. We move on to every imaginable variation—single shots at multiple bull’s-eyes, shooting with the weak hand, and “double taps”—two quick shots in succession.

Double taps are hard. My first shots are on target, but God knows where the second one is going—but it’s usually high and to the right because that’s where the muzzle goes after the first shot. At this point, Nielsen stops us and demonstrates. Both his shots go right into the center of the bull’s-eye. Damn him.

After fifty rounds, there are holes all over my target; a few have found their way into the bull’s-eyes. Strangely, I am shooting better with my left hand than right, undoubtedly because I am taking more time. The guy next to me, who has been to several of these classes, has only one shot outside of a bull’s-eye. He assures me I’ll get better after another few classes. He’s right.

By my third defensive class, I have had three different instructors and I am getting better. We’re now doing different drills, including shooting man-shaped targets. One drill starts with us right up against the target. The exercise is to shove the target away from you, take one quick step back, draw, and fire two shots from the hip with the gun barely clearing the holster and tilting the muzzle up quickly to put the two shots into the target’s chest. After practicing it about ten times without actually drawing, I’m ready. I punch the cardboard, step back as I’m drawing, and put two shots into the target’s groin. I laugh sheepishly. The instructor assures me that this degree of marksmanship won’t score very high in the class competition, but nevertheless will get the point across to the assailant. We all laugh.

After this drill, we practice another. It’s called “El Presidente.” The idea is that you have to protect the president from multiple attackers. The drill involves three man-sized targets. You have to put two shots in the chest and one in the head of each of the three targets in under ten seconds, including a reload. (We shoot the head in case the attackers are wearing body armor.) By my third time, I can do it in 8.3 seconds, and all my head shots go right between the eyes. My overall score for the night was eighty-two percent of my shots in the “kill zone.” I’m competing tonight against Budniak, who is shooting instead of instructing, and Daniel, who sports two exotic handguns and a T-shirt which impugns the courage of the French. Budniak and Daniel are both quite a bit better than I.

I’ve been shooting at least twice a week for three months, and I’ve tried at least twenty different handguns. I have found two that I like and can shoot with accuracy. They are both quite large and not really suitable for concealed carry. They, too, are beautifully precise weapons, like the P.38. However, the P.38 is too valuable to shoot, and has been retired to virtual museum status.

I like the Heckler and Koch .40 caliber USP Compact. It, too, was made in Germany. It is so well designed it kicks very little, which helps keeping the second shot of a double tap on target. It has a space-age composite frame, and is very light. This model is one of the pistols authorized for use by Homeland Security officers.

The other is the Springfield .45 caliber 1911 basic model. That’s a copy of the original standard U.S. Army sidearm of World War II that my father carried. It was designed by the famous American gun designer, John Browning, and except for some non-essential refinement, has barely changed since its introduction ninety-five years ago. It shoots like a dream, and is very accurate. The 1911 has improved a lot since WWII, when they just wanted to stamp out millions of them as fast as possible and weren’t as particular about tolerances as their German counterparts at Walther.

I haven’t yet reconciled myself to buying a smaller gun to carry all the time, although everyone in the shooting world I’ve talked to does carry and has encouraged me to do it. “Force yourself to do it for a while,” one instructor told me. “Soon you’ll feel naked if you go out without it.” So far, I don’t mind being naked. I don’t feel like me if I’m carrying a gun.

I’m also not sure I feel much like me as I wander Cabela’s store in Rogers. U2’s Desire plays on the store PA while I browse the different kinds of handgun ammunition. The 9 mm target round is sleek, tapered, and oddly beautiful. The same sized “personal protection” round is hollow point—designed to expand on impact to do maximum damage. It even looks angry. Some rounds are “explosive” and designed to shatter on impact. They supposedly won’t go through a wall, so your loved ones in the next room are safe. They will also inflict maximum damage on human flesh. A target round would go right through a body, and probably the wall behind it, and could kill someone in the next room … or the next house. The explosive bullets cost almost two dollars each. A target round is eleven cents. I buy ten boxes of the target rounds and one small package of the explosive ones. Para bellum, I think.

I heard a guy on the radio the other day talking about teaching children to hunt. Aside from the usual exhortations about firearm safety, he said something that I guess I’ve always known. Hunting, he said, teaches you what a firearm does. You learn that a living being can be torn to shreds, will bleed and cry out in pain, and will die. And that you and your firearm were the cause of that. I know what it’s like to kill animals. The first time you hear a wounded rabbit scream is the day you might stop hunting. It was for me, thirty-seven years ago.

Do I feel different since I’ve started blowing holes in targets again? Nielsen is absolutely right about the satisfaction you get when you do something well. And the regimentation of the training fulfills some inner longing for simple answers to tough questions. As someone once described military training to me, the point is not to teach a soldier how to shoot, the point is to teach a soldier to kill.

Could I shoot someone who attacked me or my family? I hope I never find out. How could I shoot someone who attacked me or my family? I’m learning.