hen I was a young reporter in London in the late 1980s, my dream was to live in Paris and write a great novel. I aspired to spend days feverishly scribbling in a lonely garret and nights walking by the Seine and sipping Pernod and water at a table outside a bar. While I ended up a reporter in Salt Lake City, my literary love for Paris never faltered, culminating in a summer 2013 visit to the city of lights, where I strolled its tree-shrouded neighborhoods with my family, basking in its street-café lifestyle.
On Nov. 13, 2015, the Paris of my dreams was no more.
As CNN's coverage blared of Islamic extremists firing upon diners and concertgoers in Parisian suburbs, I watched as the assaults ultimately claimed 130 lives in the French capital. Along with the mounting death toll, the defenselessness of the victims on that unseasonably warm late autumn evening also became clear.
Something in me shifted that night. As a British national who moved to Utah in 2005, I have spent more than a decade in this Western state. Yet, in that time, I have remained unfamiliar with firearms. Weapons are anathema to most journalists, unless you're a gun-toting gonzo writer like Hunter S. Thompson. Guns are about quelling violence, while reporting is about uncovering the root causes of violence so that it will end.
Tragically, over this past decade, my initial horror at what I had come to view as a national malaise—mass shootings—gradually segued into muted disbelief and finally passive despair at the endless repetition of images of people running scared from buildings, sobbing survivors, blood-stained sheets over victims and the inscrutable features of a killer, typically dead by his own hand or law enforcement.
In a country awash with 300 million-plus guns and 30,000 gun-related deaths each year, I might have been forgiven for dismissing my concerns as little more than paranoia fed by the 24-news cycle. But Paris was different. I felt harmed. I thought of laughing with my daughters, then 11 and 13, while they devoured crepes bought from street-side kiosks. Some of the innocence surrounding those pleasures had gone.
Almost seven hours after the Bataclan concert venue massacre began, at 8:37 p.m., I texted a close friend with an extensive history in military and law enforcement.
"Fuck. I need to learn how to shoot. And then teach my girls."
He came back immediately: "Anytime bro, anytime."
For a while, I left that impulse where I'd immortalized it, in just a few characters of text. But, a few weeks after the Paris carnage, on Dec. 2, 2015, another unthinkable event occurred: Fourteen people were gunned down in San Bernardino, Calif., by a heavily armed and armored couple at a holiday party for employees of a center for the developmentally delayed. I went back to my gut-impulse to arm myself and to train with a firearm.
"We've been here [in Utah] far too long," my incredulous wife said, shaking her head in disbelief.
After 10 years of living in a state where the dominance of gun culture seemed so utterly foreign to me, I'd blocked it out as white noise emanating from right-wing gun nuts. I now wondered what it meant to be a gun owner. How difficult would it be to acquire a firearm in Utah, given I had heard estimates that more than two-thirds of Utah residents owned a firearm? What did it involve? And did I have a responsibility to myself, my family and to my community to arm myself? Somewhere between the unyielding rhetoric of the left and the right, perhaps there was a middle-ground to address the insecurities I felt in the wake of Paris.
Law-enforcement officials across the country seemed to concur. One sheriff from upstate New York, urged citizens "to responsibly take advantage of your legal right to carry a firearm." A Washington, D.C., police chief told 60 Minutes, "If you're in a position to try and take the gunman out, it's the best option for saving lives before police get there."
So, I decided it was time to consider arming myself, determining I had something of a moral obligation to defend my loved ones in these perilous times.
My journey into the world of gun ownership led me to talk with law enforcement and former cops and train briefly with both. That training included experiencing a shooting simulation drawn from the real-life 2014 shooting of Siale Angilau that took place in the Salt Lake City federal courthouse while he was on trial.
I ventured into gun stores packed with men and women determined to thwart any gun-control measures President Obama might mandate before the end of his term in office. As I strolled through the stores, I half-expected someone to point at me and scream "Liberal!" at the top of their lungs. I went from one bemused gun salesman to another, my cluelessness about firearms stamped clearly on my forehead. Without ever having fired a gun, I discovered how disturbingly easy it was for me, a foreign national, not only to acquire a gun but to carry it concealed on my person.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill carries a concealed handgun and has done so for several years. It was a very personal decision he says he made based on his concerns about the visibility of his position as well as the issues and cases he was working on two years ago.
"If you didn't have that handgun and now you have it, are you going to feel more compelled to use it?" Gill asks me, rhetorically. "Is it going to change your behavior in any way?"
He cautions me that buying a gun in response to the Paris attacks is part of a larger conversation about whether the United States is becoming a more "fearful nation." He says not to confuse being vigilant and prepared "with being reactionary and fearful, of being suspicious of every Muslim who walks down the street. If we treat our fellow American citizens of diverse backgrounds differently, then [terrorists] have won. They have found their way into our souls in the most insidious and destructive way," he says.
Two summers ago, I visited Tampa, Fla., with my family. Standing in a store's doorway in a mall and talking to my 90-year-old mother-in-law, a man began haranguing another man who sat down in front of him. Directly behind the violently gesticulating man—perhaps 8 feet away—sat my youngest daughter, staring at the argument with huge eyes. I couldn't move. I knew I should, yet I didn't. I felt paralyzed with uncertainty. Do I grab her, only to risk drawing his attention?
That's called "condition black," one cop told me. "You just don't know what to do, you lock up. That gets people killed. That gets people hurt. You can't afford to over- or under-react, but you can't afford to do nothing."
Is arming myself an answer to such situations? Is it better than doing nothing? Or does it only make matters worse? A friend, a former cop from Eastern Europe, looks at me as if I'm stupid. "You have one or two situations in your life you know that you or someone close to you are in danger. Would that warrant you start carrying a gun all your life?" he asks me.
Although many were clear on the benefits I stood to gain with having a gun, the downside proved more elusive. The friend I first texted for help says all I stand to lose is, "a little bit of your innocence." But Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, paints it differently. What may I lose if I join Utah's ever-swelling gun owning ranks? "Your soul," she says.
TO PACK OR NOT TO PACK
I grew up in an English town in a southern-eastern county called Kent, surrounded by the verdant glories of the countryside. In England, most firearms are outlawed, except for farmers protecting livestock and landowners out hunting. The local constabulary were unarmed, except for truncheons—thin wooden clubs—since replaced in the 1990s by extendable batons.
I moved to Argentina in the mid-1990s, where police were armed and paid for their own ammunition and body armor. In my experience, few citizens there carried firearms. After the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2002, my family and I emigrated to the United States, to the country of my wife's birth, three years later.
When I decided to explore the idea of gun ownership in December 2015, I asked my Eastern European friend, the former cop and now a businessman in Utah, what he thought.
"The majority of people in civilian life pull a gun to show off or scare someone," my friend, who asked not to be named, says. "They don't understand they are escalating rather than de-escalating. If I pull that gun, I have only one objective, and I do anything not to pull it. Soon as you pull it, you need to use it." He argues that cops don't want to use their guns. "As soon as you use it, you can't retract it. It's not like a video game."
In mid-December, I called Spanish Fork-based Dave Acosta, formerly with a North Las Vegas SWAT team, who is now a firearms trainer and international security consultant. Previously the subject of a 2005 City Weekly profile on cops and deadly force, Acosta runs a company called YouTactical and frequently travels to Brazil and Mexico to train federal police facing heavily armed gangs. He's also traveled to Afghanistan on government-security contracts.
He says that I'm far from alone in pondering "packing heat." Since late 2011, he has seen the number of men and women looking for firearms training skyrocket, be it learning how to shoot, how to train for combat or how to clear their home of intruders. He's also worked with teachers seeking to protect their students, training an astonishing 2,400 teachers in Utah.
PROTECTING THE INNOCENTS
While public schools are provided with school-resource officers, typically policemen, charter schools don't have that same benefit. Tim Evancich is chief operations officer at the American Preparatory Academy (APA), which has seven schools in Utah and Nevada. Part of his responsibility is school security. With the increasing advent of "active shooters" on school campuses, Evancich talked to law-enforcement agencies about security. What's become clear, he says, is "that the gap of time between when the first shot is fired and law enforcement arrives and is able to remove the threat," is when nearly all children and adults die.
Evancich brought in Acosta to train some of APA's teachers so they would have "tools they could use to defend themselves and their kids," something the teachers, despite some initially feeling physically ill even at the thought of talking about children facing harm, ultimately found empowering, he says.
"We know that it's a numbers game for most school shootings," Acosta says, meaning that an armed assailant storming a school seeks to eclipse prior body counts by other shooters. "If you take an aggressive posture in your preparation, that's a huge deterrent."
Evancich has an average of four or more teachers at each campus whom he says, by personal choice, carry a concealed firearm on campus.
Interestingly, a number of former soldiers who now are APA teachers largely elected not to carry at school, because "they were not at a point in their lives where they wanted to continue that level of training and preparedness," Evancich says.
Keith Manring is a former Marine who teaches at an Indiana middle school. In the wake of the Sandy Hook killing of 20 children and six adults, he wrote a blog explaining why he had decided not to arm himself. "I think when we arm people, as we do with cops and soldiers, that weapon becomes the key focus of their professional life," he writes in an email. "When to use [it], how to use it, how to keep track of it/maintain it, and how to maintain those skills. I don't quite get how you layer that focus on top of what a teacher already is supposed to focus on (and who, by definition, chose a career that didn't involve firearms)."
Evancich has mixed feelings about firearms. "I'm a very faithful person, I would have a very hard time taking a life, even in the context of it being me or him." Where he found he could draw a line was if his daughters, wife or schoolchildren were in danger. "It's about protecting the innocents around me."
He's not the only one concerned about children and firearms. State Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, is preparing a bill for the 2016 legislative session that would introduce firearms-safety classes to Utah middle schools.
At Acosta's invitation, I attended a night training for teachers at the APA Draper campus. The point Acosta hammers home is that responsible gun ownership means training with your firearm, "and not just once a year." He told the teachers that if they bought anything smaller than a Glock 19, "I will not train you. The right tool for the job is huge. If I am engaging multiple shooters, I need a gun that's going to get the job done."
He taught the dozen or so, mostly men, how to advance at a half-run up and down the school corridors, as children beamed down from photographs on the wall. Acosta had us enter a classroom, a plastic handgun pulled tightly into our chest, ready to immediately engage a gunman. I struggled to maintain an expression as serious as my co-trainees. Acosta scolded me for grinning at him as I scampered along a corridor and, as instructed, glanced down at him waiting in the shadows for me to yell out how many fingers he was or wasn't holding up.
TALK, DON'T SHOOT
Utah Domestic Violence Coalition's Jenn Oxborrow owned a gun at her father's insistence, when she was living alone in Las Vegas. "I got rid of it. I don't feel I am wired appropriately, I don't feel it is in my base nature. My base nature is to talk."
When an intoxicated man broke into her former downtown Salt Lake City house and confronted her and her children in her bedroom, she talked him out to her garden, where he was tasered by police in front of her kids. "If I had had a gun and shot him, even if I had been skilled enough, my kids would have witnessed that." As it was, they had nightmares about the tasering.
She tells me the chances of finding myself in a mass shooting are "pretty slim," as they account for 2 percent of gun-related homicide deaths. However, she says, "your chance of living next to someone who perpetrates violence on his family with a firearm, your chances of having someone date your daughters who has a firearm is significantly greater."
Guns are tools, she says, and to have access to that tool, "you should have to be able to meet very specific training and access criteria."
The reality, as I discovered from conversations with gun advocates and gun salesmen, is that buying a handgun is surprisingly easy. All I needed in order to buy one was my driver's license and information related to my permanent-resident status. Then, it took about five minutes while they ran a background check. As long as I existed in state and federal records, and did not have a felony on my record, or a misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence, I was good to go.
Gun-rights advocate Nick Moyes co-founded and majority-owns the online gun sales website UtahGunExchange.com. Once I leave a store clutching my "piece," he told me, I can have it loaded in my home or in my car, with a round in the chamber. If I step out of the car or leave the house with the gun, I have to remove the round and keep the unloaded weapon zipped up in a case.
I can apply for a concealed-carry permit, which requires me to attend a lecture on gun safety, storage and the laws surrounding what I can and can't do in terms of delivering deadly force. But I'm not required to undertake any firearms training other than attending that four-hour course.
So, in essence, once I have my concealed-carry permit, I can go most places with a loaded firearm on my hip and a chambered round, without my ever having fired a shot in a shooting range.
Places where I can't venture armed include federal buildings, "secure" facilities (i.e. with metal detectors, such as airports and court houses), mental health facilities and LDS ward houses (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints annually renews a public notice that guns are banned, as allowed by Utah statute).
"I think our carry-concealed weapon requirements are a joke," Acosta says. "There's an online class and a shooting test to kill a deer, but if you want to kill a human being, you have to be in a class for [four] hours. You don't have to shoot or even touch a gun, yet you can walk out with a license."
Carrying a gun, or having a concealed-carry permit, is not a license to use a gun, says state Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield. He is a tireless gun-rights advocate who teaches carry-concealed classes. "No one has the right to kill anyone," he says. "The goal is to stop the threat," of imminent potential injury or death.
"Proficiency should never be a prerequisite to the right of self-defense," he says. And taking permit applicants post-class to a firing range to show them how to use a gun would not work, he adds. "People aren't going to remember that (training)."
Oda is supportive of my struggle to reach a decision about whether or not I arm myself. "It's not just about terrorists," he says. "We've got neighborhood terrorists—they're called gangs and criminals."
TAKING A LIFE
Ian Adams is a serving police officer and spokesperson for the Fraternal Order of Police. He agrees to meet for a coffee and give me his perspective on my conundrum.
Americans have a weird relationship with violence, he says. They love it on TV, at the movies or in video games, "but actual violence they abhor." He argues that everyone has a responsibility to understand how quickly violence occurs. "It happens in quarter-, half- and second increments."
He says he hates the quote, "when seconds count, the police are only minutes away." Nevertheless, in a world where "unimaginable, random violence is being visited upon you, I think that's a natural instinct," to want to arm yourself. While deciding to kill someone is dehumanizing, in a lethal encounter, that same person has made a decision to kill you. "Taking a life in protection of a life seems like an even trade," he says.
He looks around the coffee bar. "How long would it take you to kill every person in this building right now? A quarter-second trigger pull, that's four bullets every second," he says. "As a society, as an individual, we have to start grappling with the question of how long are we willing to let an [active shooter] go undistracted and unconfronted?" He cites the 2007 Trolley Square mass shooting, where the shooter, after claiming five lives, was pinned down by fire from an off-duty cop, the youth subsequently killed by arriving law enforcement.
WILLING TO CHANGE?
Several weeks later, I went to the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office shooting range in Parleys Canyon and spoke with range master Nick Roberts. He asked me intently about my desire to bear arms. Most telling was this question: After 52 years of relatively peaceful existence on this planet, was I willing to change?
If I wasn't willing to change, the consequences for myself and those around me could be dire. "You bring the gun up and can't pull the trigger, you are now a target, you will be the first to die."
He took me up to the first floor where a large platform awaited, buttressed by three 8-foot-tall screens. Roberts gave me a handgun that recoiled each time I pulled the trigger. I went through three multi-panel interactive video simulations, the first involving a woman at night at an outdoor ATM, 10 feet or so in front of me. A man jumped out of a car to my left, told me to back off and pulled a knife on the woman, forcing her back, the point of the weapon at her chest. I thought he was about to strike, and I shot him. He crumpled to the ground and I stared at his body, hypnotized by what I had done, only for another man in the would-be mugger's car to open fire on me.
For the second simulation, I entered a suburban house to screams and curses. "You are going to see the worst part of humanity you will ever see in your life," Roberts warns. A blindfolded woman was tied to a chair, her male partner had a gun to her head, a baby crying just under his left arm. I started moving to the right and the man turned and screamed at me. "Don't move, don't you take another fucking step or I'll kill her, you hear me?"
I froze in indecision. He fired and the woman's head jerked back, blood and matter splattering on the table behind her. I fired and he went down, groaning in pain.
"You shot him after he shot her," Roberts says. "The news is going to say you let her die." Roberts tells me cops have to read people, that they learn how to verbally "de-escalate" situations.
The last simulation drew to some extent on the shooting of Siale Angilau. According to the authorities, he was shot multiple times by a U.S. Marshal in a federal courtroom where Angilau was on trial in 2014, when he attempted to stab a witness with a pen.
Since the video of Angilau's shooting has not been released by the feds to the public, I have no idea how far or close the simulation is to the actual events. What I do know is that I found it deeply troubling. In the simulation, a drug dealer is on trial, and the prosecutor asked a witness, a former member of the defendant's gang, if the defendant was a gang leader. A minute into the examination, the defendant shouted "Motherfucker," jumped up and moved around the table, running at the witness, one hand raised.
As I watched the simulation, I took aim just as he reared up over the witness, about to stab him in the throat with a pen or pencil. I shot; he fell to the floor and did not move.
"You surprised me," Roberts says. "You got the shot off in under one second." And, he continues, "you were in total disgust. You were pissed you just shot him."
Did I have a pre-determined view of the courthouse shooting, he asked, namely, that I didn't think it was justified? I struggled to answer, to articulate why I had felt full of self-loathing—indeed, why it seemed for a few moments as if an inky abyss were seeping across the floor toward me. The black irony that I, a reporter, had shot a man wielding a pen—even as Roberts showed me one he kept for self-defense—did not escape me.
He says, "You made a decision that, yeah, you could (have shot him) but you're going to have a hard time with it. You'll spend the next hour running this through your mind. You just made the decision that every police officer dreads."
On a crisp, late December day between the holidays, I went shopping for a gun. Rep. Oda told me not to be in a hurry over my purchase. "Firearms are like shoes, you have to be comfortable with it. It has to fit your hand, you have to feel confident with it. It's something you want to enjoy shooting recreationally as well as for self-defense," he said.
Finding such a versatile tool proved challenging.
The first downtown gun store I went into, I felt an odd furtiveness that reminded me of going into a London porn store for the first time as a callow teenager. I stared at the handguns in a glass case and felt vaguely nauseated by their squat, brutal lines. I told the less-than-impressed salesman I was a gun novice and wanted one for self-defense. He handed me an unloaded Smith & Wesson SD9. I had no idea what to do with it, where to point it, whether to pull the trigger or not. Weren't you suppose to treat all guns as if they were loaded? (Answer: yes)
At a second downtown store, again my inexperience surfaced. A salesman handed me one handgun, took it back, then gave me another in my price range. I still had no idea what I should be looking for, what questions I should ask.
Just before New Year's Eve, I met Acosta, Moyes and his girlfriend at a range in Springville. Acosta had me work on the shooting stance I'd learned at the teacher-training. I fired various handguns at paper targets 12 feet away but repeatedly jerked at the trigger. "The gun is shooting you," Acosta says. "You're letting the gun put you where it wants."
He pulled in the paper target and pointed to one shot that went high over the silhouette's head. "This is why you need to come here," he says. "That could have been a mom in a mall you just hit."
My 53rd birthday came on Jan. 2. I met a friend also interested in purchasing a handgun at a gun store in the southern end of the Salt Lake Valley. It was a Saturday morning, and the store was bustling with people perusing firearms and waiting to go on the range at the back of the store. To my bemusement, you can walk in and rent firearms to try out on the range with no more than a driver's license. First, you fill out a form that asks you to read the range's instructions and then asks, among other things, if you are suicidal or depressed. If so, check the box marked "Yes."
The man in charge of the range handed us two 9 mm firearms, a Ruger and a Smith & Wesson. We got a 30-second explanation of how to load each of the guns and were told to come back with any questions.
Neither of us left the store unscathed. My friend pinched his thumb in the slide of the first handgun. Blood spotted his shirt. While I had been told at another range that my reading glasses were sufficient protection while shooting, they proved inadequate on this day. An ejected hot shell casing landed between my glasses and my lower left eyelid, scorching my skin with a half-circle burn.
We left without a handgun and none the wiser if we wanted one or not. I also had my own "mark of Cain" to explain to my family when I got home.
A VIRGIN NO MORE
On Jan. 4, as I went through my notes, trying to figure out how I felt about guns, the friend I'd reached out to the night of the Paris massacre, texted. "Gonna shoot by for a min if you're home," he punned.
He placed on the table between us a .380 automatic and next to it a magazine clip with six rounds. "Guardian" was stamped on the barrel, along with the name of the manufacturer, Provo-based North American Arms. Support your local business, I thought.
A gift, it turns out.
You pull back the slide and let go, he explains. "A full, violent boom," he adds, by way of describing the action to load a round into "the pipe," or chamber. It had belonged to his wife, but she had switched to a Glock.
There were four rules to remember: "All guns are always loaded"; "never let your muzzle cover anything you're not willing to destroy or kill"; "your finger is never on the trigger until your sights are on the target, and you're ready to fire"; and, "beware of your back stop and beyond," meaning know what will stop your rounds and what lies behind that target.
I felt nervous at being responsible for a handgun. My momentary case of butterflies evoked distant memories of being about to lose my virginity. (Sex and death; go figure.)
It was a gun with which to address an imminent threat, he continues. It's like using your finger, "Just point and shoot." But, then, he says something that brought me back to where I started: to Parisians and foreigners cowering behind tables as gunmen calmly shot one defenseless person after another. "It's just a save-your-life gun," he says. "Let them know you're not just going down. You can fight back."
Through the afternoon, I picked up the unloaded weapon, racked it a few times, checking to make sure it hadn't magically loaded itself while I wasn't looking.
I immediately had to deal with some practical questions. Where to hide it from my children? I put the clip in the garage and the handgun in a box under some scarves in a closet. Not much use, I thought that night at 2 a.m. when I woke up after hearing a strange noise in the house. The thought of running down to the garage and asking any would-be burglar encountered en route to wait while I got the magazine brought a weary smile.
MAN WITH A GUN
It is hard to ignore how much owning a gun changes your existence.
While I feel safest when the gun and the clip are squirreled away in two separate locations, slamming the clip into the automatic and putting it in my car leaves me with constant unease that I have a loaded firearm near me about which I know very little. What would I do if a Utah Highway Patrol officer pulled me over, asked for my insurance, and I opened the glove compartment only for the gun to fall out? Would he shout, "Gun!" and reach for his weapon? Would I be stupid enough to fumble around to pick up mine?
When I leave the gun in my car, I am paranoid I have left the car unlocked and someone will steal it, so I constantly check that it's locked.
I find myself looking at men and women's waistlines, particularly when their shirts are untucked, to see if they are carrying. Encountering someone in a concrete stairway, I am tempted to look at him with more suspicion, wondering if he is armed, and what his intentions might be.
How much more, I wondered, would my world view change if I got a concealed-carry permit and wore the weapon on my hip? I have not found an answer to the question that set me off on this tale, namely, how far do I need to go to protect those I love and those around me in an active-shooter situation? All the same, I've found the journey to be endlessly informative about the American psyche.
I seem to be approaching a line where having a gun forces me to assess the world in terms of threat or no-threat and be prepared to respond appropriately. It's a line that, once crossed, will require me to train and prepare for something that—God willing—I hope to never have to address.
Utah Gun Exchange's Moyes says if I can't picture myself with a firearm on my hip or in my pocket, he's fine with that. "Someone comes in here with a gun, I'm going to do my darnedest to save both of us," he says.
His greatest fear, though, is not so much being a victim of someone else with a gun, but of the government taking away his right to bear arms. His voice breaks with emotion as he says, "Please don't vote for anybody that would take my right away from me [to bear arms]. It's really important to me. I don't want to be a victim of a violent crime." Evil will always exist, he says, "and as long as evil carries a gun, so will I."
While I do not believe in good and evil but rather see the world around me as a vast spectrum of grays, my curiosity about guns and their meaning to American life means that this is a journey I will continue on, for now. Next stop, concealed-carry-permit class.
I can't help feeling that each day I own a gun, I am betraying some intrinsic aspect of my identity, that I'm damaging some part of my connection to the universe that I can't, as yet, name.
A comment from my European friend, the former cop, comes back to me as I weigh the gun in one hand, a clip of bullets in the other. "If a wild dog bites you, do you need to bite him back?" he asks.