Open-carry laws in Massachusetts allow Kirk Whatley to strap a gun holster to his hip, secure his favorite pistol there, and keep it visible on his walks around town. But he wouldn’t recommend it.
For one thing, he says, there’s no good reason to let everyone know it’s there. “Owning a pistol doesn’t make you Rambo,” he tells me. “It does not make you invincible. In fact, carrying a pistol may make you a target.”
For another thing, it freaks people out. If he and his pistol go to Walmart, and someone calls the police to report a man with a gun at the mall, his next trip down the aisle may put him face to face with a SWAT team. So Whatley prefers to carry his gun concealed. He says he has only one friend in Amherst who open carries, and that guy “gets the cops called on him all the time.” Especially in Amherst, “being such a politically correct town,” he says, “you really can’t do it.”
Many Americans hold concealed-carry permits — more than 12 million, by most estimates — and many of them are kind, decent, and responsible people. But politics and firearms are tightly interwoven, and pulled tighter every day by outrage over the slain in this country. The horrific mass shooting in Orlando on June 12 — which was carried out using firearms legally obtained through a background check — is only the most recent headline to fuel arguments about how to better keep ourselves safe.
But guns, of course, are a legislative nightmare in America, and arguments for and against improved gun control laws rely all too often on cherry-picked polls, biased data, and conflicting reports. In the meantime, at least 30 Americans die in gun homicides each day, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Gun Violence Archive project.
Tracking these complex social responses will be the mission of the Copeland Colloquium at Amherst College, which has chosen “The Social Life of Guns” as the theme for its Fellows work beginning in the fall.
Meanwhile, a few miles down the road at the Norwottuck Fish and Game gun range in Hadley, Whatley Training LLC offers semi-monthly, NRA-certified firearms training. Whatley, 54, who served as Hadley’s town moderator for nine years, started the part-time company because of his lifelong passion for guns. “There’s so much misinformation out there about firearms,” he says. “I feel this is a good way to get hands-on experience and knowledge that you could never get from politicians or the media.”
Whatley is a steadfast and vocal proponent of the Second Amendment, as commonly interpreted by the NRA and mainline conservative America: guns are our right, period, so pry them away at your peril. But that’s not the point of the class. With his students, Whatley is aiming to make a simpler point, grounded in the real rather than rhetorical: how can you understand guns if they scare you, and you don’t know how to safely use them?
I, for one, would not have showed up to Whatley’s class if he hadn’t reached out and invited me. Like many people, I’ve never wanted to own a gun, although I have always wanted to fire one. Why? It’s hard to say. I feel both captivated by them and deeply intimidated, and I have never known how to reconcile that uneasy interest.
But we fear what we don’t understand, right? Back when I learned to drive a car, I remember taking hold of a strange, sleek machine that could do harm to me, and to others, and I held onto it until it no longer felt impossible to control. I thought: deep down, how is a pistol any different?
So I took the class.
It’s a Saturday morning in mid-May, and I’m a few minutes late to arrive. Whatley watches me pull up to the main meetinghouse with a smile on his face. His big, bearish frame takes up the whole entryway. He gives me a hearty handshake. Inside, I sit down for a three-hour lesson with a small handful of classmates.
Whatley explains the agenda, which includes a couple of hours of “live fire” shooting practice outside in the afternoon. When he asks us why we signed up, Rebecca Stupski, of Hardwick, explains that it’s her right. “Stuff is getting bad, and I want to protect myself,” she says, adding that the storefront of her father’s farming business has been robbed on several occasions.
Meghann McMillan, of Haydenville, says that her brother, who is a correctional officer, and her father have both been encouraging her to become as self-sufficient with guns as they are. Sergio Caldieri, of Northampton, explains this during his years of teaching martial arts, he has trained police officers and members of the military, and some of those friends have convinced him that firearms knowledge is a natural extension of his self-defense skills. “Guns terrify me,” he says. “I intend to get more comfortable.”
Over the next few hours, that’s what Whatley does. Through diagrams, conversation, and a series of hands-on tutorials with unloaded pistols, he proves himself a careful and encouraging teacher. We discuss the key tenets of handling guns — loading and unloading them, storing them, safely and lawfully carrying them and traveling with them, plus some protocols and etiquette specific to firing at unsupervised gun ranges like this one. The lesson is followed by an exam that, when passed, allows Whatley to give us Basic Firearms Safety certificates for use in applying for a license to carry.
Whatley is physically imposing, and as he stands over me, I have good time to study the large tattoo on his forearm — a Don’t Tread on Me snake on an American flag. If I had first run into him down a dark alley, I might have felt a chill down my spine. But here, he is all wide grins and avuncular energy, with a peculiar flair for avoiding curse words — especially in his occasional anecdotes about the times he has met “chowderheads” who don’t give a “rat’s patootie” about proper gun safety.
The morning passes quickly. After lunch, we put that exam to use. Down on the gun range, we grab safety glasses and eye protection, and Whatley takes us slowly and methodically through firing our first shots. During the first minute or so of working with each gun — an M&P Shield 9-millimeter, an Airweight .38 caliber, a Glock 21 .45 caliber, a Smith & Wesson long rifle revolver, and a Colt Peacemaker that looks like it came out of an old Clint Eastwood movie — I feel nervous. But once I’ve fired, felt the recoil, heard the bang, and listened to Whatley’s calm words of encouragement and advice, I feel relief. Not just for working with a weapon without getting hurt. I also realize, first-hand, that something this dangerous can be controlled.
Whatley says his class, unlike many, doesn’t limit the number of rounds students can fire. “Some classes fire three or five rounds out of one magazine and call it a day,” he tells me during a phone call the following week. “But that doesn’t give someone the impression of all the different calibers that are out there. If you want to go buy a 9-millimeter, but you’ve only shot a .22 caliber, you can’t make an informed decision.”
In Connecticut, Kirk grew up around guns, hunting and target shooting before his teenage years. From what I have seen, he brings admirable caution and circumspection to his handling of guns. So it feels almost a shame to talk politics with him, because when we do, we both reach for points about gun control that are well-intentioned but broadly problematic. Even reasonable points are all too easy to brush aside for how familiar they sound.
More interesting to me are our conversations about the inconsistencies of firearm and self defense laws from state to state. Kirk says that a lack of national reciprocity — which prevents his license to carry from applying in all 50 states like his driver’s license does — is “appalling.” I’m not sure I agree, but I do see that the laws are strangely subjective, incomplete, and difficult to understand.
And perceptions of the gun differ greatly between urban and rural areas, Whatley points out. “In the city, you’re on public transportation, and the only time you see a gun in action is when a bad person is using it. Those are places where the police respond quickly. There’s no need to have a gun. Out in rural areas, the average response time for cops to show up is 10 minutes, if they even do. A lot can happen in 10 minutes.”
Still, Whatley keeps stressing one point: the best fight is the one that you avoid. “It’s advice you give anybody,” he says. “You don’t have to be paranoid to be aware of your surroundings.
“Firearms owners are not looking for trouble, to look macho,” he adds. “Quite the opposite. We can easily end up in jail for defending ourselves. So, for the new gun owner, my advice is: use common sense. And get comfortable with your firearm. Shoot it a lot. Train, train, train. And then train some more.”
Contact Hunter Styles at firstname.lastname@example.org.