Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg

One day last April, at 3 in the morning, intruders kicked in the door of a south Charlotte residence, waking the family. They confronted the robbers, who threatened them at gunpoint. The parents quickly retreated into their bedroom and locked the door. Their daughter did the same, and for fifteen minutes, as the assailants robbed the house, she talked with the 911 dispatcher. The daughter heard loud bangs in another part of the house and thought it was her parents being shot, but luckily it was just the intruders ransacking the house. This was the second time in a week this residence had been robbed, as had ten other houses in the Providence Commons area.

In February, as twelve-year-old Joshua Jackson was leaving a sweet sixteen birthday party in west Charlotte, there was an altercation in the parking lot. Shots were fired. Everybody ran, except Jackson, who lay on the asphalt, shot in the head, bleeding to death.

In July, two men knocked on the door of eighty-one-year-old Paul Jarrell's home in east Charlotte. When Jarrell answered the door, the men rushed him at gunpoint, knocking him to the ground. The assailants then locked Jarrell's wife, also eighty-one, in the bathroom. While they robbed the house, she suffered a heart attack. She died two weeks later.

In March, Natasha Early woke up in the middle of the night because she heard a noise downstairs in her north Charlotte home. She went to investigate and was shot in the head. Her son called 911. Early died in the hospital.

In February, employees of Floyd's III restaurant on North Graham Street were locking up when Madilyn Baxter, thirty-four, approached them with a gun and demanded money. One of the employees pulled out a handgun and shot Baxter, who died in the parking lot. No charges were filed.

Last December, Eric Sprouse, the owner of Dilworth Billiards, was closing up when Cedric Gaston and Tony Williams robbed him at gunpoint. Sprouse cooperated, but Williams shot him in the leg anyway. Sprouse then pulled out his own handgun and shot back, striking Williams. The assailants fled. Sprouse crawled upstairs to his office and called 911. He was rushed to the emergency room at Carolinas Medical Center, where he was treated alongside Williams, who was eventually paralyzed from his injuries. Gaston and Williams had a long list of prior convictions.

All of these crimes — which read like the opening montage to a Charles Bronson revenge movie — involved handguns, most likely illegal handguns.

Guns kill people. They rip and tear flesh, tendons, ligaments, arteries, and internal organs. They shatter and crush bones. Guns killed Abraham Lincoln, Huey Long, JFK, MLK Jr., RFK, and Harvey Milk. A gun paralyzed George Wallace and wounded Ronald Reagan and James Brady. Guns are an American way of life and death.

There are an estimated 200 million to 250 million guns in America. Give or take 50 million. Nobody knows the real number for sure, because each state has a different gun law and, like Bibles and jewelry, guns are handed down through the generations and are often "lost" from the count. It is estimated that close to 50 percent of American households have guns.

An illegal handgun begins as a legal handgun, and because guns last for generations, they tend to have lives of their own. North Carolina is part of the "iron pipeline," a group of Southern states that have liberal gun laws. Many of the guns that are used to commit crimes in the Northeast come from down here. Authorities start at crime scenes and follow the guns back to their origins. North Carolina ranks seventh in the country for producing guns that are later used to commit crimes in other states. In 2007, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), 11,744 trace guns—guns which are in the authority's possession for one reason or another—originated in North Carolina. Of those, 7,856 were handguns, and 2,428 originated in Charlotte.

Those are the ones that leave. In the last three years, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department has taken more than 7,500 illegal guns off our streets — 2,700 last year. It's easy to buy a gun in Charlotte. You simply fill out a form from the Sheriff's Department and pay $15. The department does a background check to make sure you're twenty-one or older, not a felon, nor deemed mentally defective (antidepressants don't count), nor were you dishonorably discharged from the military. Then you take the permit to a gun shop and you can buy one pistol. If you take a training course and receive your North Carolina Concealed Handgun Permit, which is valid in thirty-eight other states, then you can walk into any gun shop and buy as many handguns as you like.

People who can't pass the background check have to buy a gun illegally. I talked to a couple of felons who told me they could get a gun within the hour. Just walk into certain neighborhoods and ask around and you can pick up a handgun for $100 or less. It would be an illegal gun, probably stolen. If a gun is stolen and the theft has been reported to the police by the original owner, then the gun's serial number is in the system as stolen, so whoever is in possession of the weapon is subject to arrest. Ray, fifty, told me, "In my past I've owned many guns, all illegal, but they're all in lakes and rivers now. If I committed a crime with them, I got rid of them."

Another way to get an illegal gun is to have somebody else buy it for you. These are called "straw purchases." The buyer has to lie on the first line of Federal Form 4473: "I am the buyer of this firearm." It's a felony, but this is how a lot of gangs arm themselves, and the iron pipeline thrives on straw purchasers and guns stolen from cars and houses. Guns are like the gold of the street economy. "I can't tell you how many times we stop a sale because we think it's a straw purchaser," says Larry Hyatt, who owns Hyatt Gun Shop on Wilkinson Boulevard, one of the largest gun shops in the Southeast. "At least three times a week."

Gun shows and flea markets are another way illegal guns make their way onto the streets. A loophole in the gun law means that unlicensed dealers, or "occasional sellers," don't have to run spot background checks on buyers at shows. A store owner who loses his license can sell off his inventory at these shows as part of a private collection.

Noncriminals mostly buy guns for self-defense. If somebody tried to break down my door and harm my loved ones, I would shoot them. The only problem is that I don't own a gun and wouldn't know what to do with one if I did. I keep an aluminum baseball bat near my bedroom door, which I can swing like Roy Hobbs in The Natural, but that would not do much good against an armed intruder.

I grew up in a house where guns weren't allowed. Like most red-blooded American males, I have fired guns; but they've always made me nervous, because I don't know how they work from the inside out. I had the same fear of circular saws until I became familiar with them through home-improvement projects. Also, I hate guns. So I decided to learn how to shoot one.

If you walk into your kitchen at 3 a.m. and there's a stranger standing at the cutting board, you can't just shoot him. It is against the law. He could be your neighbor with dementia, or some skeeze your daughter snuck in while you were sleeping, or a drunk who just walked into the wrong house. If he turns and starts ranting at you about black helicopters and the liberal media you still can't shoot him. If he holds up his palms and says, "Whoa, man, let's talk this through. How does it make you feel to have a total stranger drinking your milk and eating your all-natural chunky peanut butter?" you still can't shoot him. But, if you think he wants to harm you, then you can shoot him. The most effective way to stop someone is to shoot him in the heart, because the heart controls the blood flow and without blood the brain can't function and without the brain all motor responses collapse.

That urban myth you heard from a friend who was told by a police officer that if you shoot somebody outside your home then you should just drag him inside and then call the police? Don't do it. You will go to jail. It is illegal to shoot somebody outside your home, unless you live in Texas, which has the most liberal guns laws in the country. North Carolina's gun laws honor the castle doctrine, which allows people to use deadly force only if somebody forcibly enters or is trying to forcibly enter their residence with intent to harm or commit a felony.

I learned all this when I took Dan Starks's concealed carry course and gun-safety class in a small, wood-paneled room at the Hyatt Gun Shop. Store owner Larry Hyatt says that a year ago classes were bimonthly and averaged about sixteen people. Today, attendance is way up — more than forty students per session and three classes per month.

Starks is an expert on guns, self defense, and gun laws. You may have seen his Don't Be a Victim series on WCNC-TV. He's the big guy dressed all in black, with a shaved head and walrus mustache. The first thing he does is give out his cell phone number. "You can call me anytime. This is not a class about shooting people. I hope to God you never shoot anybody, but if you do, call the police first, then call me. I will talk to you." He's a charismatic guy who loves the dramatic pause. He knows everything about guns and the laws that regulate them. He doesn't hide the fact that he's fed up with media misconceptions, gun-nut stereotypes, and anti-gun groups who he thinks distort the facts. Starks is also one of the top recruiters for the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the country. He passes out membership forms and tells students, "If you are a gun owner and not a member of the NRA then you are a hypocrite."

Class members are a diverse cross section of Charlotte society. Plumbers, lawyers, sales reps, network technicians, housewives, and truck drivers. From a slender, evenly tanned Ballantyne woman wearing a huge diamond ring to a skinny office-bound financial adviser to a muscular, tattooed, young man with gold caps over his front teeth and braided dreads. They are all here to learn the laws and how to properly handle a handgun. If they pass the class—including a written test and target shoot—they receive a certificate that will enable them to acquire a $90 permit to carry a concealed weapon. The class costs $150, starts at 8 in the morning, and ends at a firing range in west Charlotte at 5 p.m.

The Concealed Handgun Permit allows you to carry a concealed weapon, except in certain situations such as in municipal buildings, schools, or shopping malls, or at gatherings like funerals or weddings. Without the permit, it is illegal to conceal the weapon. Otherwise the weapon must be in full view, either in a side holster or out in the open if you're driving a car. If a police officer pulls you over and you have a gun, then you must alert the officer.

During the coffee break I browse in the store. The counters are lined with shoppers. Hyatt says he's had record sales the last year and a half, including a big increase in sales to women and the elderly. "In fact," he says, "our gunsmith has to work on a lot of triggers, because seniors don't have the strength to pull some of the them."

A young woman has her eye on a black .22-caliber automatic with gold highlights. She's buying it for protection. "I just want to be proactive." Another couple debate on whether the .44 Magnum is too much gun for the woman to handle. She likes the feel of it; her boyfriend thinks she should go with the 9 mm.

Everybody has their reasons for taking the class. Travis Stephens, thirty-one, retired from the Navy after ten years. He's a block captain in his neighborhood watch and he's buying a gun for family protection. "I finally talked my wife into letting me keep a gun in the house." Mary Katherine, thirty-three, says her husband has guns, and she's taking the class in case she ever has to use one. She also uses the word "proactive." Nobody can name a specific incident that brought them to this gun class. It is an accumulation of stories passed from person to person and a perception that crime is out of control in Charlotte and that the police cannot respond quickly enough to protect them. Their source of these crime tales is mostly the local evening news.

The truth is, violent crime in Charlotte is up just 1.4 percent compared to last year, although home burglaries are up 10.2 percent. So why are we living in a culture of fear? Captain Steve Willis of CMPD's Intelligence and Organized Crime Division blames the local media. "People's perception of crime comes from what people see on TV and hear on the radio. The media tends to sensationalize incidents."

Also, criminals have evolved, which is why home burglaries and theft from auto are a constant problem. "Criminals have gotten smarter," Willis says. They have figured out that it is more lucrative and less dangerous to sell stolen items than to sell drugs. Both are felonies, but standing on a corner all night selling crack for $20 a rock is dangerous work. You never know who will roll up on you.

Cars parked on dark streets and in dark parking lots are prime targets. GPS devices left on dashboards go for $200 on the street, laptops $200 to $300. Guns can bring in even more. Record legal gun sales mean more illegal guns on the street. "Guns are a double-edged sword," Willis says. "Every citizen has a lawful right to have a gun, but they should take a gun safety class, and don't buy one for protection unless you are going to properly secure it." He recommends a gun safe at home and in the trunk of a car.

Back in the classroom, Dan tells a story about a US Airways pilot who was out admiring his Christmas lights one night last December. A beat-up van with the headlights off drove up. A man leaned out and asked for directions. The pilot approached and the guy in the van jumped out and pointed a gun at him and told him to get in. The pilot grabbed the gun. The gun went off, grazing the pilot's head. The two fell to the ground and struggled for the gun. It went off again, striking the pilot in the leg. He thought the assailant would kill him for sure, but instead another man jumped out of the van and grabbed his accomplice and the van sped off. "When confronted with the evil, ugly, feral man," Starks says, "you have only three to five seconds as your window of opportunity. You can either get out of Dodge or create a mind-set for survival. This man survived." Then he adds, "I'm tired of dealing with victims. We live in a violent time, and a gun makes you equal to or greater than the criminal."

We take a true-or-false, multiple-choice test. The questions are discussed and the answers are revealed, and then we all mark our sheets. A revolver and an automatic are handed around the room so people can get a feel for them, and then we all caravan to a shooting range in west Charlotte. I drive through the entrance to the gun club and around a small lake on a gravel road. Driving from the opposite direction is another student. He's grinning, giving the thumbs up. He's already done shooting and has his certificate. When I step out of the car, the smell of gunpowder is in the air. Loud bangs vibrate the vital organs under my rib cage and pound and stretch my inner ear.

Students are lined up two deep at a long counter. Each group has an expert marksman as an instructor. The guns' pops, bangs, and thuds are followed by the clatter of hot brass ejected from the automatics. Teenage girls come by every once and a while with brooms and dustpans to sweep up the casings. We are given the choice of different caliber weapons. I choose a .22-caliber target pistol. To qualify for the permit you have to hit the paper target fifty times. The target is twenty feet away and has a fluorescent orange center. I load my magazine with ten bullets and step up to the line. My instructor tells me to point my toes at the target and bend my knees. I line up the sights on the fluorescent circle and gently squeeze the trigger. The gun pops, but doesn't jump. It's real smooth.

"You're low and to the left!" my instructor shouts. I calm my shaking hands and aim again and get closer to the fluorescent circle. "Faster! Faster! Shoot faster!" he shouts. I squeeze off a succession of rounds, zeroing in on the center, then the gun jams. My instructor clears it. I fire more, then reload my clip. As I raise the gun to shoot he tells me to hurry up, not to think. I squeeze off ten rounds instinctively and the fluorescent center is peppered with holes. I reload and once again pop, pop, pop, not thinking, just hand-to-eye coordination, and I create a straight line across the center of the target line. "Excellent! You got 100 percent."

My instructor pats me on the back and hands me my Firearms Safety Training Course Certificate of Completion, which, along with $90, I can present to the Sheriff for a Concealed Handgun Permit.

I watch the other students shoot. The woman from Ballantyne with the big diamond ring fires a chrome .357 revolver. It jumps in her hand and she misses the entire target each time. Starks convinces her to try a .22. She improves. A lot of the students who brought their own guns are finding out they might not have the right weapon for them. The young woman who was admiring the gold-plated .22 in the store stands at the line firing the same gun. She wears a brown track suit. Embroidered across her bottom is "Miskeen." Her hair is piled about a foot and a half above her head. She crouches and fires: pop, pop. Her bullets pepper the lower left-hand side of the target. Her instructor yells for her to go right. She still hits low left, but slowly creeps right. Starks yells encouragement as he walks by. "Good! Now hit the bull's eye." Pop. Pop. Pop. And hot brass ringing on the concrete. The smell of gunpowder is like fresh ground pepper. 

My friend John loves guns and has an extensive collection. I ask if he'd be interested in showing a variety of guns and shooting them with me. Hell yes. We meet up in the remote Blue Ridge Mountains on private land.

On a screened porch is a table. The table is covered with handguns. Lots and lots of guns. Chrome guns, black guns, short guns, long guns. We gather them up and walk out into the woods, where we set up paper targets on a wooden frame about twenty yards away.

Watching movies and listening to people rattle off the names and numbers of guns has always washed right over me, but like most things, it's simple once you figure it out. There are different caliber handguns. The caliber is the size of the bullet. We start with the smallest, a .22 handgun. An automatic feeds the bullets into the chamber from a spring-loaded clip. Each time a bullet is fired the gun ejects an empty cartridge and loads another into the chamber. A .22's clip holds ten rounds (a handgun's clip can hold anywhere from seven to twelve rounds). A revolver keeps the spent cartridges and only holds six bullets, which you have to feed into the cylinder manually.

We shoot a .22 derringer, which holds just two bullets. A .38 detective's special, which because of the short barrel and kick can be inaccurate for inexperienced shooters. It's good only at close range. A 9 mm German HK, a 9 mm American Ruger, a .380 Italian Beretta (like James Bond's gun, with a dark wood handle). A sleek .40 Austrian Glock with a polymer casing. And then the big daddy, a Colt Anaconda Double Action .44 Magnum revolver. Just like Dirty Harry's gun. A Magnum bullet is longer and holds more powder, which means the bullet leaves the gun with more force — more killing power.

Each gun is different. A different weight, a different feel, with quirks and imperfections. The two guns that feel the most comfortable to me, like a power tool that just seems to fit your hand, are the .40 Glock, with its economic design and power, and the Colt .44 Magnum, with a long barrel for accuracy and a hefty weight. It's a powerful gun that would rip the flesh and organs and shatter the bones of any attacking criminal. Click. Bang.

I know how to fire a gun now. I understand how they work and feel comfortable around them. I think every citizen should know how to safely fire a weapon. But I still hate guns. It should be more difficult to buy guns, and background checks should be even more rigid. Loopholes like the gun show clause should be closed. The assault weapons ban should be reinstated, and military-style weapons like the AK-47, M-16, and Mac-10 should not be sold to private citizens. One gun law should apply across the board and be the same in all fifty states. Each and every weapon should be licensed and registered as are motor vehicles. It should be mandatory that anybody who purchases a weapon should pass a gun safety course. Of course nobody wants to hear this, but some bold, clear-thinking leader needs to make it happen, because we are being killed by our own guns.

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