Michelle Carlson is warm and sweet – and good with a gun. A Glock 17, to be precise. It fits nicely in her long fingers. It also happens to be the preferred choice of law enforcement officers.
She didn’t grow up with guns, but five years ago – feeling a need to better protect her home – she went out for an afternoon with an officer to learn defensive shooting skills.
“Part of the reason I wanted to learn to do this is because my husband travels a lot,” says Ms. Carlson, who practiced shooting from all sorts of different positions – on her back, on one knee, and with one hand so she could use her other hand to hold back her special-needs child in the long hallway leading from his bedroom to the rest of the house. “If my son is home and my husband isn’t here, I want to know I’m somewhat capable of taking care of us,” she says.
For many gun owners, especially the 40 percent who are women, firearms are first and foremost tools of protection. These individuals seek not to kill, but to defend – though they see deadly force as justified when there’s a genuine threat to life.
So when confronted with the spate of school shootings, they advocate increasing armed defense rather than taking guns away from citizens, which they say would make America less safe. While critics see their unwillingness to part with guns as a callous response to the school-shooting epidemic, gun owners say it’s exactly the opposite.
“It’s because I’m compassionate about our kids that I think we need to protect them,” says Carlson, speaking at Thunderbird Firearms Academy in Wichita, Kan., where she had brought a few girlfriends to celebrate her birthday with target practice.
As a special-education teacher, Carlson strongly supports changing current rules to allow teachers who are so inclined to be able to use guns. Her friend Kristin Gromala advocates hiring unemployed veterans to protect schools, but also points out that in many rural areas even lunch ladies often have excellent shooting skills from growing up on farms. Ms. Gromala argues that ending the days of schools as gun-free zones would serve as a powerful deterrent. Her 12-year-old daughter agrees. “I’d feel safer if my teacher had a gun just in case,” says Alexis, who started learning to shoot at age 10.
Getting rid of the ‘dead rabbit’ reflex
Thunderbird, an $8.5 million facility that opened in 2015, is not your average gun shop.
They do sell guns; they have the most extensive selection of firearms in the state. They are also a firearms distributor for law enforcement agencies not only in Kansas, but Missouri, Nebraska, and Iowa as well. And in 2016, owner Ryan Pennock and his then-director of training, Daniel Shaw, conducted special training for the Marine Presidential Guard at Camp David.
In addition to offering the largest indoor range in Kansas, Thunderbird also houses classrooms – one set up with desks and chairs, another with tape on the floor marking out imaginary doors and windows, with red Xs denoting shooters. Here, students armed with pretend wooden guns learn the strategic thinking needed to clear a building. “We want to develop thinkers before we develop shooters,” says Mr. Pennock.
But it’s what happens behind the next door that sets Thunderbird apart from most facilities in the country.
In this 1,700 sq. ft. space, they can recreate the layout of your home with moveable partitions, and teach you and your spouse how to move through your hallways to your children’s bedrooms, defending yourself at every corner. For more advanced students, there are stairwells and an upper-floor window where a sniper could perch.
Staff play the bad guys while clients practice defending themselves, using real firearms that have been modified to shoot projectiles designed for such simulations. They hurt, but do not kill. There are also systems in place to create light, sound, smoke, fog, and big loud sounds. The idea is to provide experience dealing with highly realistic scenarios in which adrenaline or fear could cloud decisionmaking – and mentally steel clients for the moment when they might be confronted with an actual attacker, potentially killing someone while defending themselves and their families.
“We’re not trying to make G.I. Janes or G.I. Joes,” says Pennock. “We want to give them the proper skills so they can solve problems instead of laying down and going ‘dead rabbit.’ ”
The ‘self-preservation clause’ for the Constitution
The set-up looks like it’s designed for military special forces more than portly gentlemen or silver-haired ladies with lipstick.
But the clients here come in all ages, shapes, and sizes, many motivated by fear of a break-in or by knowledge of a friend or relative who was attacked, says Pennock.
While national murder rates are down, Kansas saw a 10-year high in 2016, the last year for which state data is available. In Wichita, a city of about 390,000 whose per capita murder rate is higher than that of Denver and Los Angeles, the upward trend continued in 2017.
In Thunderbird’s Handgun 1 class on a recent Saturday, instructor Andy Padilla, a retired Marine, tells participants that if and when they meet an attacker, they could be carrying grocery bags or playing with kids on a playground. He drills them over and over on removing the weapon from their holster and firing at an imagined attacker, represented here with faceless paper targets.
“We need to work to an efficiency level that’s pretty [darn] quick,” says Mr. Padilla. The goal: draw and fire – accurately – in less than a second.
For Greg Bettencourt, a grandfather and NRA member who is taking the course for the second time, the principle of protection afforded by the Constitution extends beyond himself and his family.
“For me, the Second Amendment was written for the right to bear arms so that a government … cannot take over and overthrow the current checks and balances,” he says, noting that oppressive regimes from Nazi Germany to Communist China have prevented the populace from possessing guns.
The Second Amendment reads: A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
In Pennock’s eyes, the right to bear arms is crucial to preserving the other rights enshrined in the Constitution. He gives an example: If he were to speak on behalf of conceal and carry laws at the University of California, Berkeley, he would want private security to protect him against protesters. If the Second Amendment were taken away, or emasculated to the point where it was impossible to have effective private security, then he would be at the mercy of whether the government decided to protect his right to speak on a controversial topic. If not, he would be faced with a choice between free speech and his personal safety.
“The Second Amendment is the self-preservation clause for the Constitution,” Pennock says. “Once you start to dismantle that, it’s like Jenga.”
Many supporters of the Second Amendment come from a way of thinking about society and government that places a premium on individual responsibility – from finances to firearms.
While they generally respect law enforcement, they see many agencies as overwhelmed. And even under the best of circumstances, how could officers protect them from the types of threats these individuals worry about, which often are over in as little as two minutes? As one bumper sticker puts it, “9mm: Faster than 9-1-1.”
For Christian gun owners, there’s an added dimension: Where does the Almighty fit in?
Sgt. Charles Lowe, a police officer in neighboring Missouri, has given thought to both issues. When he was ambushed by a shooter in downtown St. Louis several years ago, he credited divine intervention with saving his life.
“For me, I know ultimately God is my protection,” says Sergeant Lowe, who sees that protection as an outgrowth of the work he is doing – and his motives for doing it. “The Beatitudes say, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.’ I think we are doing the work of the Lord in keeping the peace in the community.”