The day I bought my first gun, a friend asked a pointed question: “Now that you have that thing, if someone is breaking into your home, do you grab your gun or your cell phone?” I didn’t have an answer. But now, after a nasty confrontation with an edgy stranger outside my apartment a few weeks ago, I finally do.
That night, at 4:30 a.m., I snapped awake to an angry burst of hard knocks — not the familiar rap of knuckles on wood, but the deep thump of a closed fist that rattles walls. Alarmed and annoyed, I spoke loudly through the locked door. “Yeah!?!”
“Sorry, wrong place,” the person on the other side mumbled, seconds later pounding on the door of my neighbor — a twenty-something woman living by herself — screaming her name, kicking the door, and twisting the knob.
I wasn’t alone in my studio, and as this went on for 10 minutes, I felt a protective, adrenaline-infused concern emerge. Had this happened a month ago, before there was a semiautomatic pistol sitting in my closet, my response scenarios would have been as follows: (A) Stay inside and call the cops, (B) Crack the door and announce I was calling the police, (C) Step outside, tell the guy to hit the road, and follow up with authorities if need be. The gun changed everything.
My mind — quietly and almost mechanically — considered the option of loading up, of wielding a tool that would no doubt outmatch whatever threat lurked outside. The thought was a gross overreaction, of course, and the fact that a gun entered the mental equation of what could barely be called a “situation” was a strange and upsetting reality to consider. At the same time, simply knowing the weapon was within reach delivered an inarguable sense of power and comfort.
Choosing Option C, I stepped into the hall and exchanged a few choice words with the sweaty, wild-eyed man. It took some convincing and posturing, but he eventually left. I went back to bed and continued to chew on the heady knowledge that I was a gun owner. It was a new responsibility that would take some getting used to.
My decision to buy a gun was a serendipitous mix of personal desire and professional curiosity. As a reporter, I’d recently gone to the Santa Barbara Historical Arms & Blades Show, fired the Santa Barbra Police Department’s short-barreled AR-15 rifles in their basement range, and attended a forum on gun violence and suicide. For fun, I’d been shooting a friend’s Mosin-Nagant rifle and Remington 870 at the range atop Camino Cielo, and I had also checked out a number of lead slingers at Island View Enterprises’ indoor range in Ventura.
So when my colleagues suggested someone write about the process of buying a gun, I volunteered. Knowing that pistol laws are the most restrictive, I decided to go that route and began reading up on what models and makes were most popular, practical, and affordable. I looked at classic Smith & Wesson revolvers, military-style Berettas, and iconic 1911s and checked out tiny derringer two-shooters, Dirty Harry hand cannons, and every caliber in between.
But it was a midsize design heavy on the minimalism and light on the bells and whistles that caught my interest: the Glock Safe Action Pistol. Manufactured in 1982 by Austrian engineer Gaston Glock, who had zero experience making guns but wound up creating one of the simplest, most reliable firearms in the world, the Glock ushered in the era of polymer-frame pistols that are carried by the majority of U.S. law enforcement officers. To me, it hit the mark when it came to ease of use and upkeep, effectiveness in a self-defense situation, and versatility on the range.
Easy as Pistol Pie
I decided to buy local, but upon walking into the Santa Barbara store that eventually would sell me my gun, I was immediately anxious and out of place. After visiting other gun shops near and far, I found this vibe to be ubiquitous. Seasoned gun owners quickly sniff out rookies, and rather than offer some wisdom or explain the basics, they’d rather dismissively talk shop with their regulars. When I waffled between a Glock 19 and a Glock 21 — chambered for 9mm and .45 caliber bullets, respectively — the shopkeeper peered over his glasses and sighed, “Son, these aren’t toasters.”
Bummed but undeterred, I started asking basic questions and soon had a sense of how easy the purchase would be: I’d have to take a 30-question multiple choice test, pass a basic safety demonstration, submit to state and federal background checks, bring a second form of ID, and wait 10 days. When I asked about hands-on certification training or beginner’s classes, the shopkeeper looked at me like I had sprouted a second head. I left to give the whole prospect more thought, but returned a few days later set on the compact Glock 19 after studying the test-prep handbook I bought for 50 cents.
The California Department of Justice’s written handgun test was easier than the one I took at the DMV to renew my driver’s license. The questions were intuitive in the extreme and few of them concentrated on actual gun law. Most had to do with not pointing a firearm at anyone unless you intend on shooting them. I scored a 30 out of 30. The safety demonstration involved simply loading and unloading the gun with dummy rounds and showing I could figure out the padlock-style security bolt. Surrounded by the rolling eyes of employees and customers, I fumbled the first attempt but managed to pull off the second without dropping anything. The background checks and accompanying paperwork took 15 minutes. After no red flags appeared, I handed over my car registration as proof of ID.
With all that out of the way, the clock started ticking on the 10-day waiting period, or what the store owner called a “cool off time,” meant to prevent people from buying a gun in a moment of anger or despair. When I picked up my gun, I realized I didn’t know where I should legally put it in my car. That wasn’t on the test.
Since then, the Glock has spent most of its life unloaded in a locked case next to my linens. It’s been to the ranges a few times, where I quickly learned how to handle it with confidence, and where I was schooled in safety tips from other shooters and friends who know what they’re doing. But the longer I’ve owned the thing — I spent around $600 on it, not including ammunition — the more doubtful I’ve become that it was a sound or practical investment.
To be sure, unloading a few 10-round magazines at a paper target is fun and satisfying, but ammo is expensive and surprisingly hard to come by. I’ll never be a competitive shooter, I’m not in an especially dangerous line of work, and the home defense system I’ve employed since I was a kid — a Little League–sized Louisville Slugger next to my bed — seems like more than enough to keep safe in a town with little crime and even less gun violence.
Nevertheless, I like having it. It’s tough to articulate exactly why, especially because I never want to do with it what it’s designed to do: shoot human beings. I’m not even sure I could. But the fact that it’s there should the worst occur is a deep-down reassurance that can’t be denied. Maybe that feeling will wear off like initial buyer’s excitement did. Maybe the Glock will gather dust and be relegated to what seemed like a good idea at the time.
Either way, should the situation arise where I fear for my life or the lives of others, I’ll be happier to first let the cops decide whether or not to use their Glocks.