Drew Carto

Certified Shooter

Drew Carto investigates how easy it is to be certified to handle a pistol and obtain a concealed carry permit, but weighs heavily on all the reasons not to do it.  


I started this essay before Philando Castile was murdered.

It was meant to be a little funny, lighthearted way of tackling what I experienced when taking an NRA pistol certification class. I wanted especially to poke fun at the instructor’s assertion that during traffic stops she thought police officers felt safer when confronted with a driver who had a concealed carry permit. I looked at that tiny white woman and my only thought was, Must be nice.

It must be nice not to be seen as a scary monster. I’m 5’3” but pretty fat, and if they kill me, I know what the narrative will be. The stories won’t focus on my shot knees, my heart that has been compromised by pulmonary embolisms, the fact that I can’t get out of my own way in a hurry. Instead, they will talk about my size, this woman who weighs as much as a football player. How scared the officer was. The protestations of those who know me will fall on deaf ears. If history is to be believed, no one will be held accountable.

So, I’m not chuckling about this experience any more. I’m tired. I’m tired of my people being killed. I’m tired of hearing, “If he had only …” or “Well, she shouldn’t have ….” We can follow the rules, it doesn’t matter. There will always be one last thing we didn’t do. A reason we are killed.

Still, I took the NRA class. As a Black woman. A feminist. A lesbian. As liberal as can be. But taking the class wasn’t about my politics—I just wanted to learn to shoot. As a kid who grew up on cop shows and had toy guns, the realization that I had never actually fired a gun seemed a shameful waste of adulthood. My local shooting range has a “Ladies Only” eight-hour basic pistol class, so I signed up.

I felt out of place in a room full of women who looked like soccer moms. I had dressed to try to blend in, wearing jeans and a Ralph Lauren turtleneck. The moms arrived in yoga pants and windbreakers. Is that shooting attire? I missed the memo. I felt even more out of place when the instructor went around the room, asking each of us to tell her why we wanted to become pistol certified.

“My husband works late and I have three small children at home. I need to protect them and myself.”

“I’m getting older and I know women are the targets of violent crime, so I decided I need to start carrying for my protection.”

There were about 30 women in the group, all of whom said something similar about protection. Our instructor nodded and smiled and affirmed these statements. She—a small, slender white woman of about 35 with a large pistol on her hip—told her own stories of wanting to defend her home and herself. She talked about stopping power and recommended we return to take defensive classes which would teach us to scan our environment and recognize threats. She even told a story about the one time she accidentally left home without a weapon to go to the mall and how naked she felt. She worried constantly that “today was the day” that something would happen and she’d be caught unarmed when it did.

When it was my turn, I mumbled something about always wanting to learn, and held back my deep love of Miami Vice. Mostly, I just sat there in shock. I guess I knew how my fellow Americans felt about guns, but I had never been immersed in it the way I was that day. My classmates were sincere—they really believed that having a gun in their home or on their person would make them safer, despite all the research to the contrary. I wanted to tell that woman her three kids were far more likely to shoot each other than she was to shoot an intruder. That a gun in her home increased rather than decreased her personal risk of being shot and killed, especially if there is a history of domestic violence. As far as the instructor and her “good guy with a gun” fantasies—well, it just sounds like an exhausting way to live, constantly scanning for threats, always on the lookout for an attack that never comes. Today is never the day. I considered asking exactly when it was that my instructor had ever had occasion to use the pistol she’s always carrying, but thought better of it. I was there to learn to shoot, not get kicked out.

Shooting a pistol is about as much fun as I thought it would be when I was little. To my delight, it turned out I wasn’t a bad shot—I missed the paper target with the first round, made an adjustment, and grouped the other 49 quite nicely. I would totally take up target shooting as a hobby if it weren’t so darn expensive.

Still, I am appalled at how easy all of the processes around getting and keeping guns are. I readily admit I am one of the more clumsy people you’ll ever meet. Ridiculously so. If there is a way to trip over it, drop it, break it, or otherwise screw it up, I’ll find it. While trying to do something as simple as grab my phone, I’ve managed to miss it and violently drive it straight down into the ground more times than I can count. Sometimes I’m not entirely sure I should have a driver’s license. (My road test took three tries!)

Yet, after a single day of classroom instruction that mostly focused on the way guns work, a multiple choice test (we went over the answers in class, everyone got 100%), and about 15 minutes in the range where I shot through a single box of 50 bullets, I am an NRA qualified pistol shooter. I have a sew-on patch! Not only that, if I get my course completion card notarized, I can take it to the county clerk’s office and, just like that, I will be granted a concealed carry permit that allows me to walk around my fair state with a deadly weapon under my clothes. Did you know they make bra holsters for women? Maybe I could get one of those and conceal any pistol I like in my cleavage. I don’t have to stick with a .22, the only gun I’ve ever held in my life. I could, conceivably, buy myself a .45 or a .357. Something with more of that stopping power. Like a Glock, the weapon that is used more frequently in mass shootings than the large rifles our lawmakers are so concerned about (but not concerned enough to actually pass laws).

I could be that good guy with a gun in a nightclub that Donald Trump spoke about after the mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. I could always be on the alert to shoot someone—protecting my fellow citizens, of course—with the hand cannon stuffed down my bosom, whether I know how to use it properly or not.

I won’t do any of this, of course. I don’t need a permit for a gun I don’t intend to buy. I won’t expose myself or my loved ones to the risks associated with gun ownership. My concealed carry permit won’t change the narrative of Black bodies posing a threat whether armed or not. Knowing the text of the Second Amendment will not pull the bullets out of my body when a police officer sees my gun or my permit and my shooting is ruled justifiable. So, no thank you. Shooting is fun, but our attitudes need a major adjustment. Deadly force is too common, and even those who are allegedly trained don’t seem to know what they’re doing.




Drew Carto

Drew Carto is a native New Yorker, a second career educator, and a Bryn Mawr grad. She holds a Master's Degree in Education, and teaches in a juvenile detention center. She is working on a novel, Room Time, based on the reflections of a kid serving time in solitary confinement. Find her on Twitter @thacarto.

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