A text message from a neighbor: “Did you see your mail today?” I hadn’t. Intrigued I headed for the mailbox and saw what appeared to be junk mail. I turned it over, a large postcard type item, and saw that it was an announcement for a free one hour class to be held at a local coffee shop. The class topic was how to get a conceal carry permit, and it said the first ten people to show up would get a free encyclopedia of armaments: great full color pictures of pistols, revolvers and sub-machine guns. I was surprised that this particular coffee shop would have this class there. The place is routinely full of artist types, bicycles chained up on one side in the street, nice chats held out front. A regular gathering place for locals, its denizens would probably be labelled at first glance as having a bohemian liberal bias. Definitely not the kind of place I think of when I think of guns. At first I was just surprised and I tossed it into the trash. A few minutes later I was curious and retrieved it. I decided that I wanted to see which of my neighbors would attend, would want this kind of information, would think this was a good idea.

The night for the class came and I headed over. I passed some young people, one with a guitar, another with what looked like a portable chess set, as I made my way through the vegetation that constricts the sidewalk around the entrance. As I entered I was greeted by the barrista but it looked empty, so I walked into the next room. There was a fairly large table, a public pay by the minute computer or two, a couple loose chairs scattered around the walls. One young man with a blonde not quite mohawk and tattoos was completely focused on one of the computers. No time for distraction at these prices. At the head of the table and standing slightly to the side was a large man with a friendly smile and a former football player build. Wearing a casual shirt and camo cargo shorts, he looked to be in his late 40’s or early 50’s. He asked if I was there for the class. I said yes and he gave me the book and a CD of his local band, which he explained, he’d been told he couldn’t sell on eBay because of an injunction filed by the Who Dat trademark owners. We talked about how silly that was and a black man, probably in his sixties who was already seated at the table with his book and CD, agreed. The large man straightened his glasses and said we’d give it a few minutes to see if more people would show up. His graying hair was well cut, his manners perfect, his personality outgoing. He was not the gung ho upcountry redneck I had expected and I was ashamed of myself for that assumption.

Just then a young woman walked in. I had already taken a seat at the foot of the large table and put a stenopad in front of me. I had also put my phone prominently on the table next to the pad. The young woman took a seat in a chair by the window behind me and said nothing. The young man at the computer finished what he was doing, looked at us and left. As we waited we chatted easily: he was a New Orleans native, grew up Uptown, went to Brother Martin. I asked how he made his living, he said he was a musician, a sometime real estate salesman (we bemoaned the economy), does some standby work for a local radio station if there’s an emergency like a storm, and he said, he made his living doing this: Instructing and training people about guns, the laws involved in their ownership, and safety. I asked how he chose this neighborhood and he told me that he planned on doing this in other neighborhoods in weeks to come, and that this was just the first because the date worked.

As we chit chatted, others filtered in. First a 30-40 year old white man, dressed impeccably with a long white silk scarf, a Rolex, and beneath that, a collection of small beaded bracelets. He sat at the head of the table next to the Instructor. He was waiting for his partner he said. Next a woman in her 50’s, fit, comfortably dressed, long neat gray hair, very interested and a bit nervous sat down to my right. These two were followed by a 50-ish professional man of mixed race, who said he was a professor at UNO; a 50-ish white guy with a graying well trimmed beard who sat in the back near the windows unobtrusively and looked like he was probably middle to upper middle class; a 60-ish white guy, probably blue collar with a Dogs and Generals tshirt; a late 30’s white guy, upper middle class with what looked like a $200 haircut and pricy casual clothes who headed to a chair near the wall by the computer. Finally the owner of a local business and the owner of the coffee shop joined the group and we were a group of eleven excluding the Instructor.

Most of the people had come in looking around the room. They all looked vaguely uncomfortable, almost as though they wanted to be sure, extra sure, that no one thought they were gun nuts or militia types. It was interesting to watch them all size each other up, trying to divine the others’ motives for being there. The Instructor retained his charming, chatty, smiling demeanor, welcoming each one as they came in and finally he introduced himself and explained what we were there to learn.

At that moment, the young woman who had come in early and had sat by the windows, unfurled a Day Glo orange posterboard. She looked solidly at all of us, held it up over her head to be sure we saw it. It read: “If you’re afraid of your black neighbors, don’t buy a gun. Move to Metairie.” The Instructor said he respected her point of view. A few respectful words were exchanged, with her explaining that she definitely saw all of this as a racial issue (she was white) and then she left. The Instructor didn’t miss a beat, although some of the other attendees looked uncomfortable, the close-to-elderly black man was unfazed.

As he started the class I reached over to my phone, making sure that he saw me hit the audio record button. He had seen me scribbling on the stenopad, so it didn’t seem to bother him. He started by asking if we already owned a gun. All but the last three to come in and myself said yes. The woman said her husband had a .45 but it was too big for her and she wanted advice on what gun to buy.

Over the next hour he explained various kinds of guns, recommending a .380 to the woman and quickly condemning the idea of a shotgun for home protection as being misguided. He explained that a revolver would pretty much never jam, bringing a self satisfied smile to the face of the man who said he owned a .38. He talked about gun safety, stressing training. He cited statistics of gun incidents in which a citizen had pulled a gun and no harm had come to either the “perpetrator or the carrier.” He talked a lot about defense of one’s own life, quietly and expertly ramping up the level of fear without ever saying the hordes were at the gate. It was subtle and understated and smart. Someone asked where a gun could be kept without a conceal carry permit, where in a car can a gun be carried, what about open carry? The Instructor laughed his infectious hail-fellow-well-met laugh and said open carry was legal but you’d have to decide how often you wanted to be stopped by the police after someone called them saying they saw you walking down the street with a gun.

Then he suddenly stopped, took his watch off and seemed to fumble good naturedly with it, saying he was trying to find the stopwatch function. Then, almost as an aside he said, “They tell me that the response time in Orleans Parish to a 911 call is 9 minutes.” He then continued dispensing information and fielding questions. Does he recommend keeping it loaded? How about trigger locks? How about keeping the ammunition separate from the weapon? He confidently answered with only a tinge of machismo scented swagger. Steady and responsible, training training training. Firm confident voice. No Elmer Gantry of guns here. No histrionics, no NRA militantism. He was more like a master poker player, continuing to build the fear by increments, looking at his cards without making a move while the whole table waited to see if he was going to call, fold or go all in, forcing the players in the direction he wanted them to go with the psyche factor alone. It was impressive manipulation.

He talked about carrying a gun from state to state. He said that most states have a conceal carry law and will respect one from another state, but you’d have to check that out on your own. He did get the states that do not have conceal carry on their books wrong. (After looking it up, it would appear that the seven states he cited mostly have conceal carry and reciprocity, although some of the laws in some states are so byzantine that it would be hard to know precisely what is allowed and what isn’t. From what I can tell, pretty much only Illinois doesn’t have it, but that’s a story for later.)

People started asking about the paperwork, how long will it take and what’s needed. He started to explain, then BEEP BEEP BEEP. He picked up his watch and grinned. “That’s nine minutes. A lot can happen in nine minutes, huh?,” he said with a laugh. There were audible gasps as the fear continued to climb. “Bring your divorce papers,” he laughed. “They’ll want to see those along with all your other documents.” Now people were asking questions rapid fire. How much? Mail or go to the place? How long is it good for? Fingerprints?

Now came the pitch: He can help. He can help you choose and purchase a weapon. He’ll come to your house and train you. He’ll take you to the shooting range. One on one will cost $175, two people, for instance you (he looked at the woman) and your husband $150. He can help you with all the paperwork, he has copies of all the forms and affidavits. Of course you’ll need to get them notarized, but how fortuitous, one of his relatives is a notary and will do it cheaply. The fingerprinting and background check will have be done, he can’t do that but he will tell you where to go. He explained the fees and said he offers group classes, but it was clear that most of these folks would probably opt for the private ones. He can also offer home security advice.

Sadly, he saw no irony in the fact that the money for gun permits goes to the Department of Safety and Corrections.

People started asking where to buy a gun. There was some discussion about Brady Laws and gun purchasing, and an explanation once more about where you can keep a gun without a conceal carry permit. I asked about the complete lack of regulation at gun shows (he said, “They’re supposed to do a background check on the spot.” “Yeah, but they don’t for the most part,” I said. He nodded.) and in one to one sales. He conceded that both gun shows and one to one sales are virtually unregulated with little to no oversight and even less enforcement of laws that may be on the books.

The attendees talked to him and each other. Their tone was a little bit bravado, a whole lot fear. Mention was made of the middle school kids who had been shot a couple days before. Everyone measured their words. Careful. Careful. The quiet ones remained quiet. The white silk scarf looked for his partner, then at his Rolex, then at the door again, clearly perturbed. Dogs and Generals guy had that gleam that affirmation of one’s already deeply held beliefs brings to the eyes, lighting up his slightly rough face. The Instructor exhorted, “Training, training training! We learned in Florida recently what a lack of training can do.” He followed that remark with a slight, tight chuckle. The Professor asked me if I was going to do it: get a conceal carry permit, or for that matter, a gun.

Everyone looked at me. “No, sir. Definitely not,” I said. The Instructor looked at me like a priest patiently forgiving a recalcitrant sinner. “I didn’t think so,” he said quietly. I waited a second, steeling my courage, took a deep breath and said, “Many years ago I was raped. A gun at my temple, a pillow over my head. In my own bedroom on the fourth floor of an apartment building. My window was open and the fire escape was right there.” The group stared in disbelief, some squirming, the woman to my right horrified. I continued, “Short of having a gun strapped to my naked hip, I can’t see how a gun would have helped me do anything but get killed. And even then his trigger finger would have been faster than any movement I could have made to retrieve the weapon.”

The whole place went silent and everyone stared uncomfortably. The Instructor, regaining his poise, said “I’m sorry that happened to you.” Then turning his face to the group he said, “But that’s not how things usually happen, and don’t you want to give yourself a chance?”

It was a bravura performance. When he closed out the class, the silent guy by the window applauded. The others looked confused, but a couple of them half heartedly clapped their hands a few times, then each looking at the other, they converged on him to ask a private question or two. The Instructor smiled patiently and took them one by one, a stack of business cards sat on the table in front of the empty space where the free gun encyclopedia copies had been, a couple of CD’s left for the taking.

I headed out the door toward whiskey.

Dead, for a ducat, Dead! Part 2: What did I take from all this?

Sam Jasper is currently waging a largely silent war against gravity and gravitas. It’s a delicate balance. Sam is co-editor of A Howling in the Wires (2010) and a partner in Gallatin and Toulouse Press. She was a contributor to Pelican Press’ Louisiana in Words (2007), and reprised her contributor role in the Chin Music Press’ Where We Know (2010). Sam also erratically maintains a blog called New Orleans Slate (named not after the online mag but the roofing tiles of old buildings and the primary school chalkboard on which the nun’s pointer hung) and has a collection of letters written immediately after Katrina at the Katrina Refrigerator blog. Sam is also a regular contributor at the Back of Town blog.

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