»  National Review Online

September 9, 2000

  Shot Through the Heart

On Friday last I performed an almost purely ideological act: I bought a handgun.

It was not an impulse buy. I live in New York State's Suffolk County, in the cultural penumbra of New York City. This is not a handgun-friendly locality. I had, in fact, had to wait three months for a pistol permit, having applied at county police HQ in April. An officer was assigned to my case, to investigate me. The investigation began with an interview. First question: "Does your wife know you are applying for a pistol permit?" Presumably a lot of guys want a handgun so that they can shoot their wives.

A month or so into this investigation they actually called my wife to check that she was on board with the idea. (Mrs. Derbyshire: "I'm not crazy about it, officer. But my husband is harmless." Thanks a lot, honey.) Eventually my permit arrived. At this point I realised that I didn't know diddly about handguns, never in my life having fired one. So I went to see Miguel.

Miguel is an old colleague of mine who lives in New Jersey. He is a Cuban-American, his family driven from their homes by Castro, and he has a passionate attachment to this country, to its Constitution and its liberties. In particular, Miguel is a gun nut. He is, in fact, an expert, qualified as a police instructor in the use of handguns. At the time I began applying for my permit he had told me that I was welcome to try out his various handguns any time I cared to. So off I went to New Jersey for an afternoon with Miguel at his local range. He showed me how to hold a gun, and the different ways of standing. We took guns apart and put them together again. We fired a revolver, we fired semi-automatics — a .22, a .40, a .45 and two different 9mms. Miguel's advice: "First, decide what you want a gun for. Then, get one that feels right — comfortable, not too light nor too heavy, tolerable recoil."

The second question was easier to answer than the first. I quickly decided that Miguel's mid-range semi-automatic, the SIG Sauer 9mm compact, was the gun I liked best. For me, a novice, the revolver and the .45 were too much gun, the .22 too little. The .40 and the other 9mm, a Glock, did not feel as friendly to my hand as the SIG. As compact semi-automatics go, the SIG was basic — a sort of Model T Ford handgun.

The SIG, then; but what did I want a gun for? The actual original inspiration was, as I have said, ideological. We have the right to own guns, and rights are like muscles: if not exercised, they atrophy. I wanted to exercise my rights. I wanted to add one to the ranks of law-abiding gun-owners. I wanted to express my support for the Second Amendment. I wanted to be on the other side from the Lefties. I wanted to vex Hillary Clinton.

I live in a nice neighborhood, with no real need for home defense. I do not carry (nor even possess) large sums of money. I am not keen to try out as a marksman: I did enough of that in the army cadets when I was a lad, with rifles and light machine guns on outdoor ranges (no handguns were issued in my unit), and learned that after some practice I could become a decent shot with a rifle, but that I had insufficient interest to take me any further.

I puzzled over this for a couple of weeks without coming to any conclusion, except that perhaps actually having a gun might clarify matters. On Friday I drove over to a local gunshop and bought the SIG. (This involved two more trips to county police headquarters: one to obtain a "purchase permit" for the gun, another, after purchase, to have its details recorded on my pistol permit.) I went home and told my wife. "Very nice," she said, "but what are you going to do with it?"

"No idea," I replied.

I spent the weekend making friends with my gun: stripping it down into its component parts and putting it together again. In the army they make you repeat this till you can do it in your sleep. It's not a bad idea: the more intimately you know your weapon, the less likely you are to do something dumb with it. As the result of a vote-winning initiative by the governor of my state, my SIG came with a trigger lock, but this was worse than useless. The lock is in two parts, one to fit on each side of the trigger guard, joined by a post. The post is supposed to sit behind the trigger, but could not be made to. No matter how you fixed the lock, the post was in front of the trigger, and with very little ingenuity the trigger could be reached and pulled. In some configurations, you could pull the trigger using the trigger lock! Well done, Governor. For insights into public policy, there is nothing like actually trying out the things these dimwits legislate for us.

Finally, the day before yesterday, I turned up at my local range, bought fifty rounds of 9mm ammunition at the front shop, hired a pair of ear protectors, took some paper targets, and got myself a firing booth. The bullets looked wonderfully attractive on the little plastic rack where the manufacturer had packed them, bright and regular in their rows and columns — like cigarettes in a newly-opened pack, back in the days when I was a smoker. I put eight into my magazine, slipped it into the handle, and chambered a round. Then I took up the easier of the two firing positions Miguel had taught me, the "isosceles" — knees slightly bent, butt sticking out, shoulders hunched forward for shock absorption, elbows locked straight — and squeezed off eight rounds. (Is it just me, or is "isosceles" one of the prettiest words in the English language?)

Gratified to find that I am still quite a good shot, I loaded and fired eight more. I got another target and winched it further down the range. Still good. Tried the other firing position, the "Weaver": sideways on to the target, lead elbow bent low, other arm locked straight. Not so accurate, but still not bad. Tried firing half a magazine then unloading the gun. No problem. Reload, re-chamber. Double action, single action. Rapid fire. Pretty soon I had fired off all fifty rounds. I bought a cleaning kit on my way out and drove home, feeling relaxed and very pleased with myself.

"Did you figure out what you want your gun for?" asked the wife when I got home.

"Oh, yes. I know what it's good for now. It's good for venting."