PJ Media actually hit me with a pretty tall order with what appeared to be a simple suggestion for an article: a step-by-step process for those who know absolutely nada about guns yet want to arm themselves.
My immediate response — “Sure, I’ll get right on it” — was tempered roughly .00093 nanoseconds later by the realization of the task ahead of me.
Getting a gun — especially the first one — is a pretty big deal.
For those of us who grow up in “gun cultures” where firearms are merely another tool and fact of life, getting your first gun may consist of getting a pint-sized .22-caliber single shot rifle almost as long as you are tall when you are a child. It is a simple and expected rite of passage that is a mark of growing expectations, trust, and new-found maturity.
We’re generally accompanied by an experienced and patient relative — a father, grandfather, aunt, or older sibling — and the time we spend with those first firearms fills us with nostalgia in later years. The adventures spent afield plinking at cans and paper targets or hunting is remembered as much or more for the bonding and the fellowship as it is for the experience of shooting a gun itself.
Over time, if we have good and patient instructors, we learn and apply the rules of gun safety religiously, develop an appreciation for the joy of marksmanship, and find a reverence and respect for nature that those who choose to remove themselves from the circle of life will never know. It is the sort of upbringing I experienced with my father. It is similar to the stories captured by fellow North Carolinian Robert Ruark in The Old Man and the Boy, his much-loved classic.
For those of us who come into knowing firearms this way, guns are pleasant touchstones connecting the past, present, and future. Many others have found similar if more transient first impressions about guns at summer camps or with scouting or similar youth groups, and they either chose to pursue their passion later in life or to hold the experiences as a fond memory.
Unfortunately, as our culture urbanizes and suburbanizes, and woodlands and fields fall prey to mall sprawl and McMansions, the first impressions many of us get of firearms don’t come with gentle guidance. All too often, it comes through the crime reports on the evening news, the bloodied visages of victims of a tyrant’s military oppression, or the heart-rending stories of suicides, murders, and accidents. This is compounded by ever-more-bloody Hollywood entertainment and video games that promote the most shocking and puerile use of weapons imaginable. We’ve become acculturated to view guns as malevolent occupying entities that have the power to thrust bloodlust upon us simply by picking them up, or as booby traps that will go off unexpectedly at the slightest touch. As a result of this cultural brainwashing, it is sometimes more difficult to get adults to act rationally around guns than children.
Despite these manufactured fears, gun ownership in the U.S. is now at its highest level in history. Obviously, even the saturated biases of media aren’t all influencing.
So you’re interested in getting your first gun. Where should you start? First, you need to know what you plan to do with it.
Unfortunately, many first-time shooters feel pressured into buying their first firearm by the circumstance of fear. When I worked behind the gun counter as a salesman at a sporting goods chain, many of my first-time customers were young couples that had recently experienced a burglary or a similar “wake-up call” when a crime shattered the illusion of safety they had in their neighborhood.
This is not the best time to to buy a weapon. When you’re emotional, you tend to latch on to the first thing that might possibly provide something that approximates a good answer to your problem. That leads to buyer’s remorse. Nevertheless, if you have reason to fear an immediate crime from a specific source, just about any firearm is better than none.
In this specific unfortunate circumstance, I would try to guide the customer to a reasonably priced weapon that provides a balance of defensive firepower, practical accuracy, and user safety. At the time and in my long-gun-only chain, that choice was often either a .410 or a 20-gauge “youth and ladies” shotgun. The specific caliber, action, and configuration depended upon the specific characteristics of the users.
I tended to steer physically infirm or petite shooters towards the .410 because of the reduced recoil and lighter weight frame. I have a friend who is 6 feet tall and 240 pounds man and has severe carpal tunnel syndrome. He can’t hang on to a gun with any noticeable recoil. The .410 would be the better option for him or for many people with similar maladies. I typically recommended the 20-gauge for other users, as it would provide an adequate mix of stopping power, inherent accuracy, and safety. I’d then try to tailor the ammunition to their specific living arrangements. If they lived in apartment buildings or densely packed urban housing, I’d generally suggest larger “game load” shot sizes used for hunting rabbits. If they lived in the suburbs, where there is a little more of a space buffer between homes, I’d recommend lower velocity duck hunting or turkey hunting loads. Unless a couple lived alone (no kids or pets) in a rural area, I almost never recommended the “conventional wisdom” defensive loading of buckshot, as the stout recoil, deafening indoor blast, and risk of overpenetration was too great of a risk.
Fortunately, most people won’t find themselves in such a stressful position when contemplating their first gun purchases. Instead, they will be able to go find out what is best for their needs in a more relaxed and contemplative manner.
It returns to that first essential question: What do you you want to be able to do with your gun?
Are you going to buy it and a box of ammo and stick it in the back of the closet for “just in case”? Or are you going to buy a gun because shooting looks like a lot of fun? Do you intend to shoot socially, maybe even in some sort of shooting sport or competition? Are you looking at weapons because of an uncertain economic future? Are you a fledgling collector looking for a historical piece? Are you fascinated by marksmanship?
Congratulations! Any or all of these reasons (and hundreds more) are great reasons for starting down the path to gun ownership, which we’ll begin tackling in more detail in the next installment.