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Preface: I replied to the Inverse Pitch for this story thinking I was interested in seeing if it was actually difficult to buy a gun in California. TL;DR: It is, sort of. The editors got back to me on the day of the Oregon shooting. I got assigned my editor for this story about 12 hours after police shot and killed a sniper shooting at the hospital up the street from me. The day I went to fill out the paperwork, several men armed with guns went on a crime spree in Sheridan, Colorado. On the day the ten-day waiting period was up, police released the name of the man who shot and killed three people and injured 9 others outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. The day after I picked up my gun, two people with assault rifles massacred 14 people at a center for the disabled in San Bernardino, which was such a boggling event that media basically ignored another mass murder in Savannah, Georgia, where four people were killed. I expect there will be another shooting story the day I turn this story in, and the day I get the edits back, and the day it gets published. There usually is.
I bought a gun. I bought a gun in California, where a Google search for “California gun laws” turns up the question “Can you own a gun in California?” I bought a gun, and I live in San Francisco, where in 2005, the voters passed Proposition H, 58-42, making it illegal to manufacture, buy, transfer, or possess a gun in City limits. (The measure was overturned in court.)
I didn’t actually purchase the gun—my gun—in San Francisco, because Highbridge Arms, the last gun store in town, closed on Halloween, after the store manager claimed that legislation proposed by the Board of Supervisors that would require gun shops to videotape gun sales and log the sales of ammunition cut down his business so much it wouldn't be worth staying open if it got approved, which it did.
California has more gun laws than any other state. Nevertheless, I’m a gun owner now. This statement is weird to think, to say, to type, to have published for the world to know, even though I grew up in a house with guns, with a father in law enforcement. I’ve rented or borrowed revolvers, semiautomatic pistols, rifles and shotguns to demolish targets on the range, and I never seriously expected to own one.
I’m one of those responsible gun owners now, in whatever sense of “responsible” you want to use.
Everyone should be able to handle a firearm, check if it’s loaded, and unload it. The chance you’ll be handed a gun and told “cover me” like in the movies is next to nil, but the chance you’ll run across a gun as a houseguest or an employee is not.
I own a Glock 19 9mm semiautomatic pistol, and no ammunition.
I’m over 21, I’m a legal resident of the U.S., I live in California, and I’m not a felon. I’ve never been arrested for a violent crime or institutionalized in a mental facility against my will. I’m not currently addicted to any drugs. I bought a gun.
You can, too, if you want. Here’s how.
You pretty much have to buy a gun at a gun store in California. It doesn't matter if you’re buying it from your friend or your uncle or online or at a gun show or off the Internet—when you buy the gun, you have to wait ten days and then pick it up in a gun shop from a licensed firearms dealer. California is one of the only eight states that closed the gun show loophole so that private sales of guns are also registered. And if you order a gun online, you must have it delivered to a gun shop, where they can charge you as much as they want to broker the transfer. The going rate is a hundred bucks. You might as well buy your gun in the store where they can answer all your questions.
I went to Jackson Arms, where the counters are papered with the kinds of bumper stickers you might think are banned in Northern California: pro-killing, if read in an extreme liberal voice, or pro-self defense if read literally. They were happy to help me buy a gun; they did not voice any complaints about the waiting period or the background checks even though I said a few times that Gee, it sure was hard to buy a gun.
Business owners, not limited to gun shops, are allowed to keep loaded firearms on the premises, and I have no doubt that the staff of Jackson Arms has the maximum firepower allowed by law at fingertip’s reach at all times—and that’s not to mention their loyal customers who come in to shoot their own or rented weapons on the range, and who have a vested interest in the store staying open. I told my friend that I imagined if you wanted to wear a suit made of hundred-dollar bills or sell someone a diamond-encrusted Apple watch, the inside of Jackson Arms would be about the safest place in the world to do so.
I asked the store manager, Javier, “You guys are armed, right? Are you wearing the weapons? Are they under the counter, or where?”
“All over,” he said.
You’re going to be buying an expensive piece of equipment, so you probably want to do some research. Your research should include calling the gun store about the firearms you’re interested in, because when I called Jackson Arms I discovered that they didn’t carry two of the handguns I was considering.
You can always go into the store and talk to the staff about the gun, and you can handle a demo model in the store, but you can’t test-fire a weapon until the 10-day waiting period is up. You can rent one at the range, but you’re going to spend some money doing that, and until you have your own handgun, most ranges will make you bring a buddy to the range with you.
Think about what you want: I picked out the Glock 19 because it has the fewest moving parts of any semiautomatic pistol and so is less likely to jam or misfire than many other guns. It’s a popular cop gun, which means it’s easy to load, fire, and clean. I know these things in part because it’s a popular gun for main characters in detective novels.
My Glock 19 came with two ten-round magazines. California bans the sale of large-capacity magazines, meaning ten rounds or more (San Francisco bars possession), which is apparently not as straightforward as it sounds and which gun enthusiasts still try to find their way around. Let me tell you something. Should you keep a handgun for protection, and should you keep magazines preloaded in your house, it is trivially easy to replace an empty magazine with a full one. If you practice loading and aiming your weapon for speed and precision, which I imagine most firearms enthusiasts do, you can do it in seconds. Just like in the movies. People will tell you you won’t have time to reload. But what kind of home invader survives ten rounds? And if you can’t “protect yourself” in the first ten shots, would having more in the magazine actually help?
You need a permit to purchase a gun in California; California calls it a Firearm Safety Certificate, and when you get one (by passing a written test), you get a card you can laminate and carry in your wallet if you want to, even though you only need it when you’re buying the gun, not when you’re carrying it.
Only 13 states and the District of Columbia require any sort of permit to purchase or license to own a handgun. Seven of these, including California, stipulate some sort of safety training or exam in order to obtain a handgun.
The exam for the Firearm Safety Certificate is about as hard as the written part of the test for a driver’s license—that is, not at all. There are fewer numbers to remember, and unless you have some strange ideas about how guns work, where to keep them, and who you’re allowed to shoot (basically no one), you’d pass the test if you walked into a gun store and took it.
Me being me, I read the 50-page study guide available from the California Department of Justice Web site.
I had to go to Jackson Arms when the manager, Javier, was there; not everyone on staff at a gun shop is going to be a CA Department of Justice Certified Instructor, and those are the only people who can give you the test.
The exam costs you $25 to take, whether you pass or not. The first $15 you pay directly to the DOJ; cash was acceptable only for the gun store’s portion. In other words, the CA DOJ has record of everyone who applies for a gun permit, whether or not they pass the test or purchase a firearm.
I blinked at only a couple questions. Most of the true-or-false questions are along the lines of “Always point the gun at things you don’t intend to shoot” and “It’s perfectly fine to leave your loaded gun in your child’s crib” (F, F). After I took it, I asked Javier how many you could get wrong (7 total out of 10 true or false and 20 multiple choice). I said sheesh, that would be pretty hard to do. Javier raised his eyebrows. Apparently failing is not impossible.
I missed one question out of 30 (you have to be 21 to buy a handgun, not 18). If I had failed, somehow, I could have taken the test again for free. I could take it a third time if I paid more money. There doesn’t seem to be a ban on taking the test again and again.
You can take the test with a translator if you don’t speak English. If you can’t read, the proctor can read it to you.
I live in California and have for quite awhile. San Francisco is expensive, as you may have heard, and since I lost my last place I’ve been housesitting and subletting until an affordable apartment reveals itself.
The federal background check form needs an ID that has your residence address on it. I keep my PO Box on mine, for privacy reasons, and so I had to go to the DMV to get a piece of paper that has my residence address on it.
The state of California wants you to furnish either a residential lease, a utility bill from the last 3 months, or a property deed that matches the address you write on the forms. The utility bill can’t be a cell phone; you can’t use the lease on a storage locker or an art studio; and your Social Security or IRS or bank statements don’t count.
I’m subletting from friends right now. We formalized the arrangement with a lease. I used the lease to buy the gun.
In California, each handgun is registered on a document called the Dealership Record of Sale (DROS), which logs your personal information and your gun’s serial number. Gun dealers have to transmit these sales records directly to the CA DOJ, which is another form of registration beyond the Firearms Safety Certificate. You purchase the gun, fill out the forms, wait, and come back to pick up the gun if you pass. The DROS accompanies your background check paperwork, the gun dealer keeps a copy, and the CA DOJ holds on to it, forever.
California, like 20 other states, does its own background checks for handguns, using both their own data and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database, and these are generally considered to be more thorough. In states without waiting periods, the gun dealer simply calls the NICS system; the FBI looks up the purchaser’s name and tells the gun dealer whether the person passed or not. The most astounding loophole in the NICS process is the default proceed: If a background check cannot be completed within 3 days, the gun dealer is authorized to complete the transaction anyway. This is how Dylann Roof, who shot up a Black church in Charleston, Sorth Carolina, qualified to buy his gun.
Both California and the feds are interested in four things: legal residency, criminal history, mental health history, and for lack of a better term, moral citizenship. I was born in the U.S., and I’ve never renounced my U.S. citizenship nor been dishonorably discharged from the military, so that takes care of the first and last items.
My criminal history is brief. I bought a novelty switchblade knife at a sidewalk sale and forgot I had it in my backpack. I took my backpack to the airport. Law enforcement ensued. The knife was apparently just 6 inches, long enough to count as a dangerous weapon, and so to avoid misdemeanor charges, I had to hire a lawyer, go to court, plead No Contest to a charge of disturbing the peace, and pay a fine. But when you’re actually getting a background check, you might not be sure what counts against you. It was an infraction, but would they look at the report? Would carrying a knife be counted as a violent act? Or a weapons charge? Because those are the two main categories on the long list of misdemeanors that disqualify you from buying a gun in California, either forever or for 10 years.
If you’re unsure whether waving a gun at a cop or firing it at a mobile home is a good idea, refer to the FSC handbook. You may also not realize that dressing up as a cop and picketing is also a banning offense. But the handbook just shows you a list of penal codes; the Firearms Prohibiting Categories document lays them out for you. (The second page spells out the disqualifying misdemeanors.) Aside from all felonies, they mostly amount to threats, assaults, and miscellaneous fuckery involving guns. Being under a restraining order also disqualifies you, thankfully, as does a misdemeanor stalking charge.
But multiple misdemeanor DWIs do not disqualify you from gun ownership, and neither does the misdemeanor level of car theft, or neglecting a child, or false imprisonment, or voter intimidation, or animal cruelty, or a number of other crimes that to me indicate a disregard for the life and well-being of others.
The federal NICS form asks whether you’ve ever been involuntarily confined to a mental health facility or declared by a legal authority to be a danger to yourself or others. If you’ve ever been declared incompetent to stand trial, or pled not guilty by reason of insanity, you’re also disqualified. That’s it. That’s the mental health check.
California’s is a little more stringent, a little more specific, and prohibits people from buying guns who’ve expressed to their therapist they’d like to shoot someone if the therapist has (as allowed by law) reported them to the police. But state rules only bar possession for 5 years after release from a civil commitment, and spells out that you can’t be a current patient in an inpatient psychiatric facility and buy a gun.
Also, California has provisions (although not the budget) to confiscate the guns of people who become ineligible to possess handguns because they commit disqualifying crimes or their mental health history changes to indicate they might be a danger to themselves or others.
An important thing to note about mental health disqualifications, both state and federal, is that you can contest them. The NRA would like records of involuntary commitments to be erased from the record as soon as the commitment is lifted. You read that correctly: Even though gun-rights advocates want to blame mental health rather than guns for gun crimes, the NRA wants to make it harder for people who put themselves and others in jeopardy because of mental health issues to be disqualified during background checks.
One in five adults in the U.S. experience some form of mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance for Mental Illness, and one in 25 experiences serious mental illness that gets in the way of living life. As far as chronic and serious mental illnesses go, 1.1 percent of adults live with schizophrenia, and 2.6 percent with bipolar disorder. I am one of the latter group. Neither of those conditions predisposes a person to commit violent crimes, and no other disorder leads one inexorably toward crime, either.
I’m one of the 5.7 million adult Americans who live with bipolar disorder, and who manage it like you do other chronic medical conditions like diabetes or asthma. If I lived in New Jersey, I’d have to sign a release letting the state look at my mental health records, and they’d find out that I have been hospitalized for my illness—twice, in fact, but both voluntarily and both over ten years ago.
I’ve given serious thought to this, not just since I started writing this article but in the last few years since news outlets and gun enthusiasts have shouted “MENTAL ILLNESS” every time someone commits a mass shooting, before anything is known about the shooter other than that he shot people. Hatred is not a mental illness, nor is alienation. Shooting strangers is certainly an act of insanity, but the legal definition of insanity—that you can’t function in the world as other people do because your relationship to consensus reality is tenuous, or that you don’t know right from wrong—doesn’t apply to people who carefully organize an attack, plotting logistics, purchasing equipment, making plans, getting access.
It was entirely possible that somehow, some way, my medical records had been disclosed inappropriately to police, without provocation and in violation of my civil rights. Because that’s what we need to factor in when talking about barring mentally ill people from buying guns: People who have mental health histories are less likely to be dangerous than the general population.
Poverty and substance abuse correlate more strongly with gun violence than mental illness does. Drug addiction is another box to check on the NICS form, but it’s totally a self-report unless the gun shop owner actually sees the person in possession of a controlled substance, and alcohol isn’t listed in that question, so someone who knows they become completely unhinged when they’re drunk isn’t required to say a word about it.
Anyway, I have a criminal record and a mental health history, and neither merited mention on the background check. I bought a gun.
Before you can buy a gun, you have to prove you know how to use it: Not how to shoot well, or safely, but how to load and unload it. You are handed a locked weapon, and given dummy bullets with which to load it. For a semiautomatic weapon, you load a round into the chamber, and then unload it by first removing the magazine. The major point they want you to take home is that the chambered round is still in the gun. A gun without a magazine can still be loaded. You unchamber the round and visually and physically examine the compartment. You re-lock the gun with the cable lock. You still assume that it’s loaded. That’s rule number one.
Like the written test, the safe handling demonstration has to be conducted by a DOJ-approved instructor, so I did mine at the point I purchased the gun rather than when I picked it up. I picked the gun I wanted and did the safe handling demo on that make and model. (The appendix in the back of the FSC guide walks you through it, and there are also videos on YouTube.) You might want to do yours the same way: Some guns might require more hand strength than you have, or might be more complicated to handle than you have experience with.
In the Simpsons episode “The Cartridge Family,” Homer decides to purchase a gun for protection. When the owner of the gun shop tells Homer there’ll be a 5-day waiting period, Homer famously says, “But I’m mad now!”
Most gun deaths in the U.S. are self-inflicted. I’m not keeping a loaded gun in my home, because I’m more likely as a bipolar person to die from suicide than other people; untreated, it’s a chronic and fatal disease, and this is one reason to try to make mental health part of the equation as to who owns guns. But most gun suicides are impulsive, and are less likely to be treatable in the emergency room if the person has second thoughts after the attempt. Feelings can change a lot over ten days, both suicidal and homicidal.
When I was crazy, I wasn’t planning on killing myself, but wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep myself alive. I checked myself into the hospital, and they treated me, and that’s how I started managing my illness. I’m glad I didn't own a gun then. Things are different now; I have a diagnosis, I have treatment, I have 8.5 years without a drink or a drug. And yet. I won’t be keeping a loaded weapon, or any ammunition, in my home.
When I picked up my gun from Jackson Arms, I rented time on the range, and I bought a box of 50 cartridges, and I put on the eye and ear protection, and I hung a medium-size target, and I ran it out to 10 yards, and I hadn’t fired a gun in ten years. Over 50 rounds, I missed the target zero times and the silhouette 12 times. The shots I missed were all just to the left of the head. I made every shot to the torso that I attempted. At 89 percent accuracy, if I had a ten-round magazine, I would hypothetically empty 9 shots into an intruder (although, realistically, the intruder, unlike a piece of paper, would be both moving and moving toward me, not to mention a human life I’d have a few seconds to contemplate taking).
How many intruders am I expecting? None. I won’t be keeping ammo in my home. The odds of my gun being used against me are greater than my gun being useful in a break-in. And this question is from the test: Is it legal in California to shoot someone for trespassing? No! Only if they’re physically threatening you. Anecdotally, that’s the question people miss the most on the FSC test. Don't go into their houses.
In San Francisco, you have to keep your gun locked up at all times, unless you’re carrying it on your person. People who say they’re keeping a gun for protection scoff at this. They say there’s no way you could unlock a gun in time if you were defending yourself from an intruder in your home—if you have that many enemies, or valuables, perhaps you could invest in an alarm system that’ll give you enough time to open your gun safe. San Francisco wants you to lock up your guns so that children don’t find them and burglars don’t steal them. I want you to lock up your gun so you don’t shoot your spouse, or your toddler doesn’t shoot you.
The gun I have now is triple-locked: A cable lock through the magazine well and chamber so it cannot be loaded or fired; a combination padlock on the handle of the case; the case inside a locked backpack.
You have to lock your gun before you carry it anywhere in public. You can’t carry a gun from the gun shop to your car, or your car to your house, without it being secured. You can’t open carry in California, and concealed weapons permits are difficult to obtain in cities. So you have to lock it up to take it on the bus, which I did. Out of all the public transit systems I contacted in the Bay Area, only Golden Gate Transit, the bus system that serves Marin and Sonoma counties, specifically bans guns. The rest of them said, noncommittally, that people obeying the law on the bus or train are free to obey the law.
I bought a gun, and I took it back to San Francisco, and it’s locked up in a locked room in a secure building a few miles from me, with no ammo on me or near the gun.
I’m going to teach my friends, one after another, as many as want to know, how to load and unload the gun. And I’ll take myself and some of them to the shooting range, so they can feel, objectively, the power the weapon holds and the respect it commands.
A gun is like the Ring of Sauron, I’ve discovered. Owning a gun makes you want to defend your right to own one. The latest mass shooting made me identify with the phrase “responsible gun owner” in a way I never conceived of before. Going through the process of arranging to have a gun, waiting those ten days to make sure I was allowed to have one, gave me some attachment to the gun itself. It’s a utilitarian object, albeit a dangerous one.
Now that I own a gun, I have to consider what it means to be a gun owner. If I’m a good guy with a gun, the best thing I can do is never shoot it. I’m not allowed to do that in San Franciso City limits anyway.
Tarin Towers is the author of a book of poetry and several software how-to books. She has lived in San Francisco’s Mission District since 1995 and is trying to figure out how to keep it that way. Her weekly newsletter is called Displacement Blues. More writing and photos on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram.
[All photos by Tarin Towers]