I WENT TO AN NRA GUN TRAINING CLASS & SURVIVED
AMBER LOVE 22-FEB-2015 Friday was my father’s birthday and, being in my current state of “loser grownup kid,” I was not able to get him a present. Instead, when he asked me to go to a pistol training class with him, I thought, sure – why not? Spend the day with my father who barely speaks to me (he’s lost almost all hearing so conversations are limited to morning outbursts about Obama) and maybe I’d learning something.
My own stress has been off the charts, as you probably know from my Twitter feed. Freelancing has been difficult and the whole entire health insurance process has been a nightmare for months. I have left the house maybe once in the last three months and my father seems to be quite annoyed at my 24/7 presence. I think this gun class was more about getting me out of the house than anything else. He was paying, so I really didn’t have any reason to say no. I figured, if nothing else, I’d pick up some things to work into crime fiction some day.
Going back to my state of mind and physical health – I survived a rather extreme panic attack on Thursday that included hours of crying. It was so bad, that even by Saturday morning, I didn’t feel like I had recovered from it. I only got two hours of sleep Friday night. I also had moderate menstrual pains all through my lower back, abdomen, blurry vision and headaches (usually I’m completely taken down by them so this was a relief). But, I wasn’t feeling great and I wasn’t looking forward to sitting in a class while in pain.
The roads were clear when we left Saturday morning. Everyone’s yards and all the farms were blanketed in shiny untouched snow crystallized with a fresh layer of ice. One house had a pathetic, leaning homemade Santa figure on their front porch looking like he’d been drinking all night and just needed to be in that chair to rest for a while. We arrived at Cobra One Tactical in Great Meadows, New Jersey where a local police SUV was running in the parking lot and off in the corner was a huge military truck that seemed like it hadn’t been moved in a while. One of the owners of COT is a National Guard veteran. The business is family owned and they live in a big country house next door. This was important, because there was no heating and plumbing inside the building awaiting a repairman. The women of the family were kind enough to invite me into the house to use their bathroom whenever I needed it; the men used a port-a-john in the freezing cold. Luckily, there were a couple space heaters in the classroom that made it warm.
Every time I entered the COT building, the mannequin immediately to the left of the door would startle me. It was a male figure in dark clothes and holding a large intimidating airsoft gun, the premier part of their business. I didn’t look around much. It’s basically a gas-mart size version of Cabela’s in a saloon-shaped building. Up the wooden stairs to the right was where we found the classroom. They had donuts, coffee, juices and water out for us. At first, I thought all the people there were part of the class, but they were all family members of the business, including the instructor Larry Aiello. We waited and chatted a few minutes before a third student showed up, a man in his 40s.
The instructor Larry was incredibly nice, easy to talk to, and seemed to really enjoy his job. Boring instructors can put me to sleep and since I was running on only two hours and a bunch of nightmares, I needed an engaged instructor. Larry’s background is that he was on an urban NJ police department for seven years before deciding that he didn’t like his job and left in pursuit of private and military security, the kind of job training that serves as a foundation for many a fictional character. Needless to say, we would drift off-topic a lot to discussing the protocols of law enforcement which is interesting, but part of why our five hours in the classroom turned into ten. We took short breaks never stopping for a real lunch even though he offered. Because we were running so long, all of us wanted to push through and keep going. This was just the classroom portion. No live ammo anywhere. We used fake ones called snap caps that allow the triggers to be pulled without wearing out the firing pins. All of us decided to wait until March or April to actually finish the class for the range portion.
I asked Larry if there were classes or accommodations for people with different physical abilities or handicaps and he said he does what he can to make adjustments. The COT facility is not wheelchair accessible as far as reaching the classroom goes. I guess when it comes to the outdoor range, that would depend on what someone’s needs are. Plus, because of the heating and plumbing problems, there certainly wasn’t an accessible bathroom.
My own relationship with the NRA ended years ago when I let my membership lapse and they still persistently call several times a week on the house phone. I’ll credit their materials for including average-looking (white) women who were wearing the plainest of casual clothes off the Kohl’s or Old Navy racks and not remotely sexualized. However, the NRA became far too radical for my beliefs. Even though I disagreed with Larry (and all the other men) a lot, he was saying some reasonable things. For example, I don’t think school teachers go into teaching in order to also be armed security enforcers; Larry believes that they should have options of being properly trained to do it. He panned the lack of training provided to law enforcement and even said Eric Garner should never have died. So there were times when I was surprised that his ideas for solutions weren’t to willy-nilly arm everyone. He, of course, supports open carry laws but again, firmly believes in being trained, tested, and re-certified.
I had a feeling I’d be able to tolerate Larry just fine. I can’t say that for the other student who took a couple of opportunities to derail and talk down to me about things like religion and history and how Christians haven’t killed anyone in 700 years. Sure, pal, tell that every person who’s been killed by an American force when all of our U.S. Presidents, the Chiefs of the Armed Services, have been Christians. Larry had to calm everyone down from the two-on-one I was receiving. And Larry kind of started it during one his completely inaccurate descriptions of the Muslim world when he said something referring to Persia as a radical branch of Islam when it’s a place (which doesn’t exist anymore) and not a religion. I’m not saying I know more than the vets in the room, but I’m able to know when they’re completely wrong about a couple things. If any of those men have problems with how extremists in the Middle East and Africa treat women and girls, their behavior in trying to belittle my own intelligence was showing them to be more in line with the zealots who don’t think women should speak. Although, Larry said he did love my questions and I had plenty of them. If anyone expected me to be the quiet girl in the room, they were sorely mistaken about that too.
Needless to say, the content pertaining to training me on weapons was absolutely solid, but I wasn’t feeling great being there. Larry tried to occasionally be feminist. He would talk up female students from his defense classes. He mentioned that the AK-47 was credited to being designed by a man when it was really his wife’s accomplishment. He failed to mention that Kevlar was also invented by a woman, but hopefully everyone knew that. Larry lost his feminist edge a bit when he said the FBI had to change their choice of sidearm to .9mm because the female agents’ hands were too small for the guns they wanted. Might be true. I don’t know. It sounds more like the marketing for the “Bic for Her” pens. His final words about women were that they tend to be much better shots because they are calmer and not competitive. Maybe that’s true. I know women do compete, but I suppose he was talking about the women in his classes. I certainly wasn’t looking at this class in a opportunity to discuss physical bodies not identifying gender. I don’t know if the the FBI or any agency would ever hire a transwoman, so hand size or anything like that, I wasn’t about to get into except for discussing my own small hands and what grips I prefer.
I was thoroughly educated on the guns Larry brough with him, plus all of us brought our own, and we had plastic fake ones too. I do love the reaction my Colt Python gets (pictured above, unloaded from a photoshoot). A .357 Magnum is not a dainty girlie gun. The grips aren’t pink (though they do make them for the Smith & Wessons). When it was time to cover the reasons someone would want to own a firearm, I had a hard time not being a smart ass and saying, the walnut stock goes great with my boots, even though it does. I don’t care how great a shot I can be with a Beretta .45 or a Sig Sauer anything; this Colt was the first I ever shot. I have an affection for it. Plus, revolvers are just way cooler. Bottom line. No arguments. Because of Larry’s profession and personal fondness for the semi-automatics, he only had one revolver for us to work with.
At the end, we took the written test of 50 questions. I only got one wrong, but technically, I knew the answer. I just circled the wrong answer in my haste to get out of there. I was tired and wanted to be home. We weren’t allowed to have our phones out, so I could only check mine on breaks and I knew my mother had car problems and had lost all patience by our four-hour delay.
Among the political commentary, Ferguson was mentioned a lot. Larry never once defended Darren Wilson. He left it at explaining how smaller caliber weapons are less likely to stop someone, that there’s not enough non-lethal tools and training, and that no officer is going to use a firearm to only try and stop someone because they are aiming for center mass all the time.
Larry even talked about an instructor who was negligent and accidentally shot himself in the leg, but continued to teach for a while without even addressing what he’d done. In the end, Larry gets a lot of credit for not being the apologist of law enforcement I expected him to be, nor did he push the NRA. He had to use their slides and administer their test, but he never tried to sell memberships or espouse quotes from their leaders.
He did talk a lot about how ridiculously backwards some laws are, especially in NJ. The headlines are filled with Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, but in NJ, you are actually required to retreat if someone enters your property or home. That’s pretty damn unbelievable – but that’s NJ. Besides his mistakes about religion, Larry lost points for blaming everything on “the liberal media” instead of politicians or the actual criminals. When I brought up Sandy Hook’s massacre and pointed out the gun involved was purchased legally, in the opinions of people like Larry and the NRA, it was not an “authorized” use since the guns belonged to Adam Lanza’s mother which made them “not his” for use. Whatever. Lanza was 20-years-old and murdered a bunch of first graders and their educators. That is not the media’s fault. It’s their fault when they wrongly identify weapons, sure, I’ll agree with that; but I won’t blame the media for something like this. The news services didn’t create the monster that Lanza was. Their sensationalized approach to interviewing crying children can be criticized without considering media responsible for the actual actions of a madman.
Midway through the day, I looked out the windows to the beautiful historic stone senior center, a former church flanked by two small patches of old cemeteries. It had started snowing and looked quiet, but the fog and overcast sky made it feel depressing too. My father’s big ass truck is not four-wheel drive so he took a long way home thinking it would be easier. It wasn’t. We did make it up all the hills and safely down them, but then couldn’t get up the driveway and had to park elsewhere. I carried all my stuff, sloshing through the few inches of wet snow. My feet were so cold. All I wanted was to get into bed and curl up with the cat. One of my mother’s texts mentioned that Caico was with her all day because she was crying alone on “our” desk. I got her back upstairs and took an entire veggie soy cheese pizza with me. I got into warm comfortable clothes as quickly as possible. I had been shaking with tremors since around 2:00 – probably the hunger and fatigue. I tweeted incoherently for a little while and was asleep before nine.