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The safety payoff of the big business of gun training

Nicky and Dede Carter, at the Ridge Crossing Shooting Club.

Preston Whittington at the Ridge Crossing Shooting Club.

Preston Whittington (with gun) and Nicky Carter at the Ridge Crossing Shooting Club.

You’d think that, with all the talk in Washington about the IRS, Benghazi, the AP’s phone records, and oh yeah, immigration, that the debate over gun control is over. But a few determined senators still want to bring the issue of expanded background checks up for a vote sometime this summer.

One thing missing from the debate is the issue of firearms training. Every state requires training to drive a car, but very few require any to buy a gun. That’s a growing concern to many gun policy experts, especially as the demographics of gun ownership change.

Preston Whittington lives in Tupelo, Miss. A few months ago, he bought a handgun, a Glock 19. Just in case.

“You know, I have a family, I have a two-year-old son, and one of the things that has been in the forefront of my mind since -- especially since -- he was born is providing for and defending my family,” Whittington says.

He is among a growing number of American gun owners. A recent survey found that half of all gun purchases were for self defense. That’s up from a quarter in 1999.

Whittington’s gun set him back $575. It took him a while to save up for it. But his spending didn’t stop there. He forked over almost $250 for training on how to use it.

“I was not going to buy a firearm unless I signed up for training and safety classes the exact same day,” he says.

Whittington calls a firearm “a tool that has the ability to cause a lot of damage,” and as he puts it, he needed to learn how to behave with one. Whittington didn’t grow up with guns.

“To be honest with you, since I was never exposed to it, I never understood the need for it and it was just never a part of my life,” he says. “So, it wasn’t something that I was passionate about.”

That changed five years ago. Whittington had moved to the U.S.-Mexico border, to work at a factory in Nogales. He remembers the photos in newspapers, of violence related to the drug trade.

“And the more I began to see what was going on in Mexico, the more I started to think about my own safety, and my own ability to defend myself here, in the States,” Whittington says.

He and his wife debated whether or not to become gun owners for three-and-a-half years, and when they finally made the decision, Whittington was struck by something: how easy it is.

In Mississippi, there is no permit needed and no training required to buy a gun.

“You fill out some paperwork, and they do a quick background check,” he says. “If everything checks out, then you’re able to walk away with the firearm the same day.”

That’s how it works in many states.

Phil Cook teaches public policy at Duke University. He says that, even in states with what are considered to be the strictest gun laws, you can buy a firearm without any hands-on training.

“I think that what worries a lot of us is that, with all of the talk about guns and self-defense we now have, novices are walking into gun stores and buying a gun who really know nothing about it.”

After he bought his pistol, Preston Whittington went to the Ridge Crossing Shooting Club.

Most gun owners who have gotten formal training got it in the military. Marine Corps recruits study marksmanship for three weeks. That kind of training would cost a civilian thousands of dollars.

Whittington and his wife took a private lesson from Nicky and Dede Carter on a Sunday afternoon. The Whittingtons paid $75 each.

Nicky Carter always starts in the classroom, with two hours on safety.

“And then, we go mostly into your fundamentals,” he says. “Your sight picture, your grip, your stance, breathing, trigger control...All your basic fundamentals.  And shooting.”

According to Dede Carter, demand for training has been up since President Obama was reelected, and since the shooting in Newtown, Conn.

“We are booked into September at this point,” she says.

Roughly a million and half Americans are expected to take firearms training course this year. The Whittingtons had to wait two months for a lesson. Meanwhile, that Glock sat locked away, in a safe on a shelf.

“I would feel more comfortable if everyone else that owned a gun around me, if I knew that they had taken the same safety training,” he says.

Right now, there’s no way to know what training they’ve had. If any at all.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Preston Whittington at the Ridge Crossing Shooting Club.

Preston Whittington (with gun) and Nicky Carter at the Ridge Crossing Shooting Club.

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