In former law enforcement and conservation officer Fred Peterson's living room on Saturday, a handful of people from across the region became certified to carry a handgun in Minnesota. The six-hour class included hours of instruction from Peterson on how to safely use a firearm, a written test, and an outdoor shooting test. Following the class and tests, a person must request a permit to carry from the county sheriff, who must then issue the permit within 30 days or provide a reason to deny the permit.
Peterson told students that he didn't expect them to walk out of the class as experts, but the training session should help them become competent gun owners.
Throughout the training session, Peterson stressed the importance of adhering to safety rules and procedures for handling firearms. He held up a handgun or pistol dozens of times during the class as an example, each time reminding students that the gun was unloaded, then double-checking himself, because that is one of three golden rules for firearm safety: make sure the gun is unloaded until you are ready to use it.
The three golden
rules to firearm safety
One of the three rules of firearm safety—keep your gun unloaded until you are ready to use it—hit home early on for Peterson. As a young deputy in Illinois, Peterson recalled a night when he went home after his shift and began polishing his Smith & Wesson revolver. While he cleaned, he admired his police issued gun, then noticed it was almost time to head back to work. He looked down to admire the pistol one last time. "All of a sudden, the room was filled with smoke and my ears were ringing," he said. He'd forgotten the gun was loaded.
"It was a really good experience," he said of the accidental discharge that earned him three days off work. "It taught me right off the bat how easy it can be [to accidentally discharge a firearm], and how careful you have to be."
That shot cut a hole through the drywall and not through Peterson himself, because he was following the first rule of gun safety: keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. A person should always treat a gun as if it were loaded and never point it at another person or in an unsafe direction, Peterson told the class.
The third rule is to keep your finger off the trigger and the safety on until the gun is pointed at a target and you are ready to fire, Peterson said. Even in a confrontation, Peterson said it is important to follow the rules. There is plenty of time for a person to get his finger on the trigger and turn off the safety as he moves to aim the weapon, he added.
Permit to carry
Unlike owning firearms for hunting or competitive shooting, having a permit to carry a handgun is for self-protection or the protection of others. That means some of the rules are a little different, such as the idea of keeping the gun unloaded until a person is ready to use it. When a person fires a gun for self-protection, it often cannot be anticipated, so many who carry firearms will have them loaded most of the time.
Another rule for firearms meant for self-protection is to store them in a safe spot. Peterson told the class that if a person is using a gun for self-protection, it might be needed unexpectedly and should be stored in a convenient location when at home. That need, he said, has to be balanced with ensuring children and others don't have access to it.
Peterson said guns are used for self-protection or to deter crime two million times per year, often without a bullet fired.
When using a gun unexpectedly for self-protection, one measure cannot be stressed enough, Peterson said. A person must be certain of the target when firing, and also aware of what might be behind the target. Peterson recommended that people using a gun for self-protection use higher-powered ammunition to ensure that it is effective; however, high-powered bullets can penetrate a wall. Is there a sleeping child on the other side of that wall, or a neighbor's residence, Peterson asked. These, he said, are the questions a person must ask before firing at an intruder or other target. Additionally, when a person prepares to use a firearm against an intruder, it is also important to attempt to ensure the person is an intruder, and not a teenaged neighbor who has had a few beers and wandered into the wrong house.
"The bad guys don't care, so we have to," Peterson reminded the group.
When a person fires a gun for self-protection, the point is to stop the aggressor, said Peterson. He recommended aiming for the core portion of the body.
"The seriousness of the responsibility of owning a firearm for self-defense cannot be overly emphasized," said Peterson. If a person must use a firearm to protect himself or others, he is in a dire situation. "Carrying a gun gives us an option, but it does not give us a choice between good and bad," he said. "It gives us a choice between bad and worse. Remember that that firearm is a tool of last resort."
Often, simply showing an attacker your firearm or telling him you are prepared to shoot is enough to deter a criminal, said Peterson. "The bad guys are scared to death of a soccer mom with a gun," he said. "It becomes a fair fight, and they don't want a fair fight."
Stand your ground
and duty to retreat
Some states have statutes that allow a gun owner to "stand [his] ground," but Minnesota law includes a "duty to retreat." That means a person can't use deadly force—any force likely to cause death or great bodily harm—if there is a way to get away. Four conditions must be met when a person uses deadly force: she must not be the aggressor, she must reasonably be in immediate fear of death or great bodily harm, she must have no lesser force option, and have no ability to retreat. A person may use deadly force when necessary to resist or prevent an offense that may cause great bodily harm or death, or to prevent the commission of a felony in one's own home, although the duty to retreat is still required if a person has the option to flee his house and get help safely.
Still, civil lawsuits can and often are filed, even when a person has met all the criteria when using deadly force. Peterson told the class an adage one of his training officers had passed on: "It's still better to be tried by twelve than carried by six."
Peterson gave several examples of situations in which deadly force could be used, or not used, while stressing that each situation is different and must be carefully evaluated. If a person invades your home in an attempted burglary, finds you, threatens you with a knife and orders you to the ground, but you have the option of running out the back door and calling the police from your neighbor's home, Peterson said a court might find that you should retreat.
Attendees of the class were told that seven meters (a little over 7 and a half yards) is the distance in which a person can get to you before you could successfully fire your weapon, and when in a confrontation, it is a distance that a person carrying a gun should keep in mind. "If somebody knows that you have a gun and is trying to take it away, you are in a deadly force situation," he said.
Gun laws vary widely from state to state. Illinois is the only state in which citizens may not carry firearms, and it does not recognize permits to carry from other states. Minnesota permits to carry are recognized in Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, Iowa, Wyoming and Nebraska, Peterson told the group.
In Minnesota, a person may carry an unloaded firearm in a vehicle as long as it is in a case or in the trunk, and a person with a permit to carry may carry the gun as long as the property owner or business has not banned firearms from their property. A person must keep his permit to carry and photo identification with him, and the permit is not valid if the person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Types of firearms
Guns come in many shapes and sizes, and are categorized based on several components.
Revolvers are guns that include a trigger, hammer, and rotating cylinder. A person must cock the hammer between shots with a "single action" revolver. A "double action" revolver allows a person to cock the hammer with the trigger in what is called a "long trigger."
Semi-automatic guns are those that perform all the steps needed to prepare the weapon to fire again. When a semi-automatic gun is fired, the action opens, extracts and ejects the empty case, re-cocks the hammer, and then as the action closes, a fresh round is sent to the chamber. The trigger must be pulled each time the gun is fired.
Automatic weapons, or "machine guns," continually fire rounds as long as the trigger is held. Peterson told the class that unlicensed automatic weapons have been banned since 1937. He said even the military has found these kinds of guns to be problematic, and that soldiers in combat given automatic weapons were often found to fill the sky with bullets, not hit the target, and then run out of ammunition.
Rifles are those with a rifled barrel (groves inside the barrel that make the bullet spin), have a minimum barrel length of 16 inches and a minimum total length of 23 inches. These types of firearms usually include a shoulder stock.
Shotguns are guns with barrels that are smooth inside, have a minimum barrel length of 18 inches and a minimum total length of 23 inches, and also usually include a shoulder stock.
"Assault weapons" are defined as firearms that have any of the two following features: flash suppressor (covers muzzle flash so enemy cannot see it), bayonet lug (the fixture a bayonet is attached to, not necessarily a bayonet itself), handle (at the end of the gun), and/or a capacity of more than a 10-round magazine. The definition has been criticized as confusing, and, includes firearms that do not deserve the title of "assault weapon," remarked several people during the training session.
A handgun is a firearm that was manufactured without a shoulder stock and has a rifled barrel. There is no minimum or maximum size barrel length.
Peterson, a lifelong hunter and former deputy and conservation officer, shared some of his own thoughts about gun rights with class attendees. Holding up an unloaded semi-automatic handgun and sliding an empty magazine in, he showed how quickly a person could reload a magazine, hands moving from pocket to the firearm almost without delay between magazines. He said because of that potential magazine loading speed, banning high-capacity magazines likely will not truly deter a criminal from firing many rounds quickly. "It makes no difference if this magazine carries seven [cartridges] or 70," he said.
Peterson, along with several students in the class, expressed some frustration over recent efforts at gun control. "No law is going to stop a bad guy from attaining and misusing a gun," said Peterson. "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."