When I’m first forced to draw my handgun in self defense, it’s the middle of the night. At least I imagine it is.
I spring forward in bed, shaken awake by an alarming sound: someone breaking into the front door of my apartment. I grab my cell phone from the bedside table and, with a trembling finger, dial 911. Just as the dispatcher gets on the line, I hear the door frame give way. I leap over to the closet, open a case and grab the gun, a black Beretta 9mm. I shakily insert the magazine with a clammy palm and load the first round into the chamber.
“I have a gun!” I announce. “If you come in, I’ll shoot!” Neither the verbal warning nor the distinct click-click gun cock deters the intruder from ramming through the flimsy plywood of my locked bedroom door. For a split second, I see him brandish a knife, then I squeeze the trigger. Six deafening shots from the semiautomatic—Pop! Pop-pop! Pop! Pop-pop!—light up the dark in terrible, strobelike flashes. The assailant collapses.
My body is vibrating from the surge of adrenaline. Just then, a calming hand on my shoulder pulls me out of the waking nightmare. I set down the spent Beretta. It’s a sunny Tuesday afternoon at the end of March. I’m 20 miles from my apartment at a gun range in Des Plaines, Maxon Shooters Supplies, finishing the mandatory hour of loaded-pistol-in-hand training necessary to attain a Chicago Firearms Permit. The weaponized workshop is one of the earliest steps of my protracted bureaucratic journey toward exercising what in June of last year became one of Chicagoans’ newest and most controversial rights: handgun ownership.
“I told you I’d make a shooter out of you!” says a beaming Jose Rodriguez, the certified course instructor, patting me on the back. In this class, playacting a terrifying home-invasion scenario that ends in students pumping a pretend attacker full of lead is just part of the curriculum. Though the housebreaker is an invention, the bullets are very real. As are the nerves; my hands are shaky and damp with sweat. Several other range-goers, including a couple of teen boys with Justin Bieber hairdos and a father with his two young daughters, fire off pistols. The air is thick with the salty scent of gunpowder. Spent shell casings litter the cement floor. It’s a loud, unnerving environment, and every shot makes me jump. But the act of shooting a gun, especially for a first-timer like me, is a wild thrill: Each squeeze of the trigger is a heart-racing, body-shaking explosion.
Rodriguez presses a button on the side of our dingy, three-foot-wide booth, reeling in the police silhouette target. Wearing an olive drab tactical jacket and matching cargo pants, the compact fortysomething tilts his head and inspects the holes in the paper. I’m no marksman, but I’m a decent shot for a newbie: a couple of bull’s-eyes in the silhouette’s chest, the rest landing in a bottle-shaped kill zone between the neck and abdomen.
“If this guy was breaking into your apartment, d’ya think he’d be neutralized?” Rodriguez asks. (Neutralize, I come to find out, is the shockingly casual term Rodriguez and the National Rifle Association prefer over shoot and kill with a gun.) I nod uneasily, my head weighed down with padded, headphone-style ear protection. “That’s right,” the former Chicago auxiliary policeman asserts with a smile. “Don’t think he’d be feelin’ too good.”
Having neutralized a make-believe psychopath, it’s official: My gun cherry is as good as popped.
Not to alarm you, but as I type this sentence, there’s an unloaded handgun on the desk of my Wicker Park apartment, mere inches from my keyboard. A no-frills, jet-black Glock 17 9mm—the same model carried by many Chicago police officers. This one, however, is legally registered to moi. And it sure wasn’t easy to get: a five-hour class, written test, fingerprinting, three background checks, two visits to a Chicago Police Department records office on the Southwest Side, three trips to suburban gun shops, a dizzying stack of paperwork—not to mention weeks of waiting for the city to process and mail documents. All told, it took $265 (not including the $524 for the gun itself) and three months to go from gun virgin to gun owner.
The process, however slow-moving, was made possible by a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling that effectively, and instantly, shot down Chicago’s 28-year-old handgun ban. The opinion, issued by a narrow 5-4 majority, said the Second Amendment protects the right to own a handgun for self-defense, a decision that overrides state and municipal restrictions. Otis McDonald, a South Side septuagenarian and the namesake plaintiff in McDonald v. Chicago, was among several local petitioners in the suit sponsored by the Second Amendment Foundation and the Illinois State Rifle Association. McDonald argued he had the right to protect himself and his family in his Morgan Park neighborhood, which he described as crime ridden.
“The number of Chicago homicide victims during the current year  equaled the number of American soldiers killed during that same period in Afghanistan and Iraq,” justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion. “If safety of…law abiding members of the community would be enhanced by the possession of handguns in the home for self-defense, then the Second Amendment right protects the rights of minorities and other residents of high-crime areas whose needs are not being met by elected public officials.”
Supreme Court ruling or no, the country’s most staunchly antigun mayor wasn’t about to let just any Tom, Dick and Dirty Harry pack heat. Only three days after the high court’s decision, Mayor Richard “Gun Up Your Butt” Daley pushed a set of new restrictions, which the City Council rush-approved the next day. The so-called Responsible Gun Ownership Ordinance that went into effect on July 12 says that aside from the already mandatory Firearm Owners Identification Card ($10), wanna-be gun owners need to get a Chicago Firearms Permit ($100, renewed every three years) and register firearms with the police department ($15 per gun every three years).
“With this law, we’re supporting adults who legitimately want a gun in their home for self-defense,” Daley said. “But at the same time, we’re trying to keep guns out of the hands of gangbangers and drug dealers who only want to terrorize our communities.” The ordinance also mandates gun training, bans all gun sales in the city and describes how a gun must be “broken down” during transportation on, say, CTA buses and trains. At home, however, a gun owner is legally allowed to keep one firearm assembled and operable.
In the wake of the ordinance changes, I called the Chicago police to inquire if the department was offering the required Chicago Firearms Permit class. I took the officer’s inability to stop laughing to indicate the department would never set up the instructional infrastructure. “Check back in a few months,” the cop said. Translation: “Scram, kid! This is Chicago. We’re not gonna help you get a handgun.” But Officer Friendly’s brush-off couldn’t stop me, and it won’t stop other Chicagoans itching to get armed. That means city residents who long took comfort in severe gun-ownership restrictions are in for a rude awakening. That cute guy at the bar? He may have a Beretta in his bedside table. The parents of your kid’s best friend? They may be locked and loaded, too.
Taped to the locked door of the Northwest Side building where I’ll complete the four hours of classroom instruction necessary to get a Chicago Firearms Permit are flyers for karate classes and a Zumba dance program. I recheck my notes: Fidelity Investigative Training, 4224 West Belmont Avenue, 9am class. Eventually, Rodriguez shows up toting a big black duffle bag containing, most notably, a startlingly large assault rifle that he later shows off to me for no apparent educational reason.
The bulk of Fidelity’s business is administering 20-hour security-guard seminars. But while many suburban gun ranges offer CFP classes, Fidelity’s website grabbed me: The home page features a photo of a smiling woman with a holstered gun embracing her two young pigtailed daughters.
Rodriguez tells me he’s personally graduated 189 Chicagoans hoping to become gun owners. (Since July 12, when the Chicago gun ordinance went into effect, 2,554 people have been granted CFPs and 6,669 handguns were registered.) “I had a couple, both attorneys, come in,” he recalls. “The woman said, ‘Oh, Joe, the sight of a firearm just gets me so nervous. I start to perspire.’ By the end of the day, I had her shooting a .357 revolver. She was loving it.”
Today, I’m Rodriguez’s only pupil. He asks to see my Firearm Owners Identification, the plastic card issued by the Illinois State Police to all gun owners. The process of attaining it felt like the adult version of sending away for a mood ring advertised on the back of a Trix cereal box: Fill out a one-page form of basic biographical info, tape on a head shot and a $10 check, and mail it to Springfield. The FOID form was also the first of several times throughout the gun-getting process that I had to respond to inquiries such as “Are you addicted to narcotics?” and “Are you mentally retarded?”—what I’ve come to call “the Taxi Driver questions.”
“So, Jake,” Rodriguez says, strolling into the classroom. He unzips the black duffel, takes out a pistol and slides it into a holster on his waist. “What’s your experience with guns?”
Very little. I grew up in a small town about 100 miles west of Chicago where everyone had six guns, except my family. The single mom who raised me is as unwaveringly against firearms as Chicago’s outgoing mayor. Around age eight or nine, my friends and I would act out the cult 1987 vampire film The Lost Boys. But instead of using wooden stakes to hunt for Kiefer Sutherland and his bloodsucking New Romantic gang, we’d carry toy guns. One day, my mom came into the garage where we were playing, opened up a garbage bag and said, “Put the guns in here.”
As a preteen, I had a couple of friends whose fathers were gun owners. In the summer, my buddy Justin and I would sneak into his parents’ room while they were at work and take turns gripping his dad’s trigger-locked .357 Magnum by its black handle. Now, when I finally come clean to Mom that I, a 26-year-old man, am going through the process of acquiring a handgun, I can’t say I’m surprised by her reaction.
“I feel like someone punched me in the stomach,” she tells me over the phone. “I don’t associate guns with anything except for death… . Last night, I was watching Oprah and she had on this woman who had her whole face blown off by her violent husband. He blew out one of her eyes, blew out her whole jaw—everything. There’s so much aggressive behavior in the world. Why perpetuate it?”
“What if I’m using the gun for self-defense?” I counter.
“That’s bullshit! You barely have time to reach for the phone to call 911. You think you’re gonna have time to get a gun and shoot somebody?” she snaps back. “Thanks for ruining my day with this news!” She hangs up.
Having spent most of my adult life in one of the most tightly gun-regulated cities in the U.S., I find Rodriguez’s rabidly pro-gun worldview tough to swallow. The Chicago native got his first gun at age 16 and admits he feels naked without a firearm. “Like walking around in your underwear,” he says. “We live in a world where there are sheep, sheepdogs, then, of course, there’s the wolf: the one that wants to devour, take advantage of you. Are you going to be a sheep or a sheepdog?” That kill-or-be-killed outlook, to me, never seemed necessary; I live in a relatively safe neighborhood, I’ve never been attacked. But maybe that’s just the sheep in me talking.
Rodriguez teaches me the basics: Treat every gun as if it were loaded, keep my finger off the trigger and, he says, “only aim at what you intend to destroy.” He has me exercise the proper hold on a plastic model gun, then on his Glock, which he customized with a skull decal of comic-book vigilante the Punisher. I feed plastic-tipped inert ammo into the magazine, cock the gun and skittishly fix the sights on human-shaped targets. After all, Rodriguez says, I’m not hunting quail in Chicago.
“This guy’s comin’ with the machete!” Rodriguez says of the knife-wielding maniac on the target. “He wants to hurt ya! Point the weapon like you really mean it!” I slowly, weakly hoist the surprisingly hefty gun. Teach isn’t happy.
“He just busted your door down, okay? Big, 6'2", 300 pounds—and he doesn’t like you, wants to neutralize you. You neutralize him before he neutralizes you. So, punch out the weapon like you really mean it.”
The majority of the class time is eaten up by a 2001 video produced by the National Rifle Association called “Basics of Personal Protection in the Home.” It stars middle-American everyman archetypes reacting to home-invasion scenarios. The Treat Williams doppelgänger host, Mark, spouts an endless supply of brainwashy life-defense advice: “Use your gun and think with minimal emotional reasoning,” he says, to counter “that forgiveness state of mind.” When confronted by an attacker, Mark commands, “Shoot you must! Not just one shot, but two or three or more. You keep shooting until the threat stops.” When lunchtime comes around, I’m not hungry.
After I score a 25 out of 25 on the written multiple-choice exam and successfully pass muster on the range, I get a ride from Rodriguez to the Blue Line. I tell him about how my roommate has threatened to move out if I bring a gun into the apartment, how he doesn’t want to live in a home with a deadly weapon that could be used against us by a home invader.
“The criminals are going to have guns no matter what,” Rodriguez replies. “Now that Chicagoans can have handguns, someone is going to think twice before breaking into your house. I’ve never had to shoot someone, thank God, but if I did, I’d give thanks to my attorneys: Smith & Wesson.”
“But what if I shoot and miss, and the bullet goes through a wall and hits one of my neighbors?” I ask.
Rodriguez relates a deeply unsettling story of a man cleaning his gun at home. “He’s pointing the gun at the ceiling and inadvertently pulls the trigger,” my instructor says. “Bang! The .44 Magnum round flies through the ceiling into the room of his neighbor’s infant baby girl, right through her crib, killing her instantly. Devastating.” With that, he gives me a diploma-like piece of paper and I board the El with my bullet-blasted paper police silhouette in tow.
One train transfer and dozens of dirty looks later, I arrive at a dreary strip mall off the Orange Line. Jammed between a Little Caesars and Dollar Tree at 4770 South Kedzie Avenue is the Chicago Police Department records office—the only place in the city to file gun-related paperwork. I fill out the yellow, one-page Chicago Firearms Permit form, attach two passport-size photos and hand over a $100 check and the affidavit signed by Rodriguez stating I’ve completed the class. A man wearing a lab coat and latex gloves places my hand on a scanner to record my fingerprints. “Busy day,” the technician comments to one of the policemen on staff. “Like, 20 CFP applications.”
A couple of weeks later, the permit arrives in the mail and I head to Midwest Sporting Goods in southwest suburban Lyons. The showroom of the gun-slash-bait boutique is crowded with guys in trucker hats aiming rifles at the walls and making guttural fake-shooting noises: Goosh! The shop happens to be running a sale on Glocks. The salesman, a friendly hulk named Angel, wears a loaded gun on his hip. The barrage of forms asks the by-now-familiar Taxi Driver questions (“Have you ever been a fugitive of justice?”), and Angel makes a phone call for a $5 instant background check.
Seventy-two hours pass—the mandatory waiting period—and it’s back to Midwest Sporting Goods for the pickup. I sign here and initial there to the song “Friends in Low Places.” One of the clerks, Kevin, is discussing the Tucson, Arizona, shooting in January in which 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner allegedly shot 19 people, killing six. U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot at point-blank range with a Glock—a similar model to the one I’m picking up and the one, ironically, Giffords herself owns. A customer points out that police said Loughner used a high-capacity magazine—outlawed in Chicago but not the ’burbs.
“$14.99,” Kevin says, hinting that the store stocks the mag. Perhaps sensing my unease, Kevin says, “A madman is a madman. If [Loughner] had a baseball bat, he still would’ve gone crazy.” Maybe, but you don’t kill six people in a matter of minutes with a Louisville Slugger. I walk out the door with a new gun and, already, more than a bit of buyer’s remorse.
Afterward, I return to the Southwest Side records office to complete the Firearms Registration form and write out a $15 check. It’s the final step to legal gun ownership as far as the city is concerned. But despite all the red tape, the most trying part of becoming a gun owner has been getting existentially comfortable with having an object in the house that’s designed to kill another human being. I’ve moved the Glock to different spots: a closet, an extra bedroom. Anywhere the gun is, I sense its awkward, deadly presence. It’s a piece of furniture that, no matter where I position it, just doesn’t feel right.
On top of that, I’m all too aware of Chekhov’s dictum: If a gun is introduced in the first act, it must go off by the third. I just hope the next time my Glock does go off, I’m at the range, shooting a few rounds at a harmless piece of paper.