Of the 28 people taking the free four hour firearms safety class at the Phoenicia Fish and Game Association on May 12, half were women and half were over 30. The crowd was diverse, including African-Americans and Hispanics. The cars in the parking lot ranged from big Mercedes to Ford coupés. All were clean and well-maintained.
One third of those in attendance were planning to stay on for a second $125 hour and a half class to get a Utah Concealed Firearm Permit, which, with an Ulster County permit, would give one the right to carry a concealed pistol or revolver in 33 states.
If not disqualified, one can get the Utah CFP within 60 days, something the class instructors, Ron Werbeck and Syed Shah of Phoenicia-based Arms Traders of America, recommended, given how many states were eschewing their non-resident permits these days. Once you had one, they said, you’d be grandfathered in no matter what happens and keep it, with minimal payments for renewals every 10 years.
The county permit, which everyone on hand was applying for, may take six to 12 months to be completed due to court backlog. But the paperwork could be mostly completed on hand, with the needed safety course certificate attached. Then all one would need would be fingerprints, notarization, and four character reference forms, which the instructors said could be from family members. Photos would be taken at the pistol permit office during application.
I was asked why I was there if I wasn’t applying for a permit and explained how each time I’ve written about local gun shows, or the SAFE Act, I’ve gotten letters suggesting I take an NRA-sanctioned course. I was curious, and felt in a land where half our homes have firearms in them, and increasing numbers of law-abiding citizens carry firearms on their person, I should know all the safety measures people were being taught.
When told how the Instructors from Arms Traders had turned down other journalists to its monthly classes, I assured them there’d be no photos taken. Furthermore, I’d take the entire course like everyone else, including its regular pop quizzes every forty minutes and a final quiz at the end of the course.
Werbeck, a former law enforcement officer, started the class by noting that he and Shah, a local business, are instructors of Arms Traders of America, based in Phoenicia. They would not offer any “legal advice on defending yourself with a firearm,” recommending instead that attendees seek legal advice from an attorney and become familiar with New York State Penal Code Article 35 and its chapters on Defense of Justification and Use of Force.
Shah later said he’d rather not identify his other work venue, “as it would hurt my business by people with their strong opinions.”
“This is not a shooting course,” Werbeck explained, noting how the state allows actual pistol and revolver shooting courses only after you get a permit as it is illegal to touch or handle a handgun without a permit in New York State. “If you already have a concealed carry permit and are here for a refresher course, keep your gun holstered and do not touch your firearm during this class.”
Slides played of joke engravings on muzzles — “Wrong house,” “2 late for talking” and so on — with a note how all defense shootings go to trial, and such engravings aren’t as funny then. Then the safety drills started, from teaching one’s kids to never touch guns and leave the area they’re found in while finding a responsible adult alert to the fundamentals of firearms safety including the treatment of all guns as if loaded; never letting one’s muzzle cross anything you’re not ready to shoot; keeping one’s finger off the trigger until ready to shoot; and always knowing one’s target, as well as what’s beyond it.
“You are responsible for every bullet that leaves your firearm,” was a repeated reminder, accompanied at several points by explanations of the distances bullets can travel — up to a mile and a half in a handgun’s case — as well as the many ways ricochets can occur.
Videos were shown to demonstrate how easily, and badly, accidents can happen if one doesn’t follow the safety rules. Think in terms of a bloodier, more tragic version of America’s Funniest Videos, with bullets taking hats or toes off, and news stories addressing toddlers finding defense firearms in purses or nightstands. Or thumbs placed in the wrong location while firing a revolver.
Basic gun handling, cleaning and care were explained. It was recommended that ammunition for “personal protection purposes,” designed to stop within a target, should be kept effective by “cleaning out the stuff and replacing it every few months.” Stances and aiming tips were gone over. Everyone, including me, took plenty of notes.
Some things came through clear, like the fact that 86 percent of self defense shootings occur within a distance of 21 feet, and over half American homes have guns in them. Much time was spent on safeguarding one’s guns at home, as well as the creation of family safety plans and drills.
“You don’t want to end up hitting a family member when there’s an intruder,” Werbeck pointed out.
There were demonstrations bent on showing the best and worst ways to conceal a firearm, with an emphasis on safety as well as easy access (inside and outside the waistband holsters getting the nod). There was discussion about how “the best way to survive an attack is to avoid it.” Be aware of one’s surroundings and “don’t go places you’d only visit with a firearm” was another point of advice…which elicited a response from one woman about how “anyplace can be dangerous now.” Suggestions for carrying firearms interstate were brought up, and a video shown about what to do if stopped by the police, for a traffic infraction say, while carrying a concealed firearm.
“Put the vehicle in park; don’t step on the brake lights. Hands must always be visible; place your hands on top of the steering wheel and tell the officer that as a courtesy you want them to know that you have a concealed firearm with a valid permit. Then tell them where the firearm is,” said an off-duty officer in the video. “You don’t want them to find out first that you have a concealed firearm while running your license, or for them to see a firearm before you’ve alerted them to the fact.”
When you complete your Ulster County permit application, Werbeck added, you have a right to not have your information put on the public record. But he added that all prior arrests must be disclosed along with a certificate of disposition. At the time you get your permit, you can then go to a dealer with a voucher, but can’t get the gun until the dealer conducts a formal background check, and must receive a response “proceed” from FBI in order to release the firearm.
Shah, who became president of the Phoenicia Fish and Game two years ago, is proud of having made the safety courses free. Nearly 1400 have come through them in the past year. He says it’s a community service. He wants to ensure the Club becomes a mainstream part of the community, drawing people for breakfasts, dinners as well as free safety courses and Turkey Shoots and such events.
“Unlike other objects that may be used as a weapon, firearms have no other purpose but to cause harm to its target,” reads the intro handed out to everyone May 12. “Once a gun is fired there is no taking it back. Are you the kind of person that can assess a situation quickly and make a decision about another person’s life? Remember, law enforcement officials train for months and sometimes even years to be able to make such decisions.”
I tell Shah about having covered gun shows in the past, eliciting strong responses from distant readers each time. For Valentine’s Day I went to one in Poughkeepsie, noting guns that looked like sawed off shotguns, or similar to assault weapons. A decade earlier I was barred from entering a show in Kingston that didn’t want any publicity. I’ve made a habit of keeping up my reading of the NRA website, which has softened in some ways over the years, but become more obtuse in others. They’ve long suggested keeping track of and answering all references to guns, gun shows and firearm training in local newspapers.
“It was suggested I take a firearms safety course,” I told Shah.
“I’m glad you came,” he answered. “It’s an important subject.”
It’s one with its very own amendment to our Constitution.