In The Press
The Learn To Carry Course

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Carrying a gun means shouldering responsibilities

Terry Ganey
Jefferson City Bureau Chief

COLUMBIA, Mo. — My uncle, Woodrow Vogt, used to carry a chrome-plated revolver in his belt while managing his corner confectionery at 8th & Ohio in East St. Louis.

He carried it for protection, a deterrent against armed robberies.

The memory of Uncle Woodrow with his pistol came to mind last weekend as I took an eight-hour concealed weapons training course, one of the prerequisites to getting a permit to carry a gun under Missouri's new law.

When Tim Oliver, the course instructor, stuck a plastic model of a gun into his belt, it reminded me of Uncle Woodrow's carrying style. Oliver called it "the Mexican holster," and said it was not the way to carry a gun.

"Unless you're a real expert gun-handler, don't do that," he advised. "Use a holster. Part of safe carry is keeping it concealed. If it's not concealed, someone else can get it from you."

Thirty-two people — 22 men and 10 women — listened attentively. They were among the first group of Missourians who began the process of applying to county sheriffs around the state for permits to carry concealed handguns. Passage of the course is one of the requirements to get a concealed carry license, but implementation of the law has been suspended for now by a court.

Oliver, 50 and built like a fireplug, is from Woodson Terrace. A former Columbia police officer, he now gives weapons training classes and runs a private detective and security service. He is a man who often checks over his shoulder. He worked hard to help get the concealed weapons bill through the Legislature.

His class, one of the first to be held since the Legislature overrode Gov. Bob Holden's veto, attracted people from all over the state, including Rep. Larry Crawford, R-California, the measure's sponsor.

"I want to get a permit to carry in case I need it," said Crawford, 51, a shooting enthusiast and hunter. As the former owner and operator of a service station and towing business, Crawford acknowledged that he had carried a weapon concealed illegally in his truck in the past, especially when he made runs into St. Louis.

Many people from the country, where the hidden guns issue was embraced during a 1999 concealed-carry referendum, fear the prospect of driving into urban areas like St. Louis. They believe their guns will make them safer. People in urban areas overwhelmingly rejected concealed weapons in 1999, believing more guns make the world more dangerous.

The referendum's defeat notwithstanding, everyone who legally owns a handgun may carry it concealed in his or her vehicle without a permit, once the law goes into effect. That's one of the components of the new law. Crawford said he believed many more people will do that than the number of those who go through the trouble of getting a permit.

"I think having it in the glove box will satisfy most of the people," Crawford said.

"You are not the police"

Oliver's "Learn to Carry" class cost $125 and was held at the Cedar Creek Rod and Gun Club, 11 miles east of Columbia. Three-quarters of the training took place in a clubhouse with walls decorated with mounted trophies of turkeys, pronghorn antelope and wild boar. During the last two hours of the class, students went to a nearby firing range to demonstrate proficiency with a firearm.

Successful completion of the course, passing a background check and paying a $100 fee are the key requirements for getting the three-year permit. The law requires that a qualified instructor give the course. It must include handgun safety, safe storage of weapons, familiarization with the concealed weapons law and perhaps most important, an explanation of the law on the justifiable use of force.

While the new law allows people to carry concealed weapons, it does nothing to existing criminal and civil statutes regarding the justifiable use of deadly force. And perhaps the most sobering information in the course, aside from the deadly nature of the weapons and the safety required for handling them, was the awesome responsibility an armed person has during a violent confrontation.

Gary Stamper, a Columbia lawyer who has defended 13 homicide cases, drove the point home. He said that pulling a gun on someone, even if it seems justified at an adrenaline-charged moment, can lead to deadly consequences, criminal penalties that can take away a person's freedom, and civil lawsuits that can take away a person's property.

"You are not the police," Stamper said.

He said that, as a general rule, a deadly weapon may never lawfully be used to protect property. A person may not shoot someone for car theft, for example. If a person's car is being hijacked and the person's life is in danger, that's a different set of circumstances.

But even while a person can use deadly force to protect a person's life or that of a family member, Stamper said there are various legal considerations applied in each case. They include whether the defender is in immediate jeopardy, what weapon the attacker has and the proximity of the attacker.

A number of caveats would have to be weighed within a moment's notice. Gun carriers must consider that they may be required to make split-second, life and death decisions in which people's lives, future and freedom hang in the balance, including their own.

It was enough to make Wesley Sherman, 68, of Columbia, think twice. Sherman, one of Oliver's students, is a University of Missouri engineering professor and accident consultant. He said he could think of some situations in his past when he would have felt safer carrying a gun.

"I don't know if I would carry now," Sherman said. "I don't know if it will make me safer. It might increase my own risk by carrying. If I do something stupid with it, it might make me less safe. The situation has to call for it."

Certainly Uncle Woodrow thought his situation called for it. The neighborhood around his store had begun to deteriorate, and members of his family were telling him to sell his store. While my mother and some of my uncle's other relatives were afraid of nearby crime, Uncle Woodrow clung to his business. He had survived a Nazi-inflicted wound during World War II and was confident in his ability to defend himself.

Sponsor's explanation

Crawford, the bill's sponsor, had concerns, too, when he owned a small business. When he operated his service station in California, 22 miles west of Jefferson City, he kept a loaded handgun underneath the cash register. When he went out on towing calls, especially at night, he kept a gun in the cab of his truck.

He later sold the business, and after serving as Moniteau County circuit clerk, Crawford was elected to the House in 1996. He had sponsored one version of the concealed weapons bill for years. He got prime sponsorship of the bill this year.

Last year, Crawford had wanted to run for the state Senate, but the GOP leadership talked him out of it to clear the way for Republican Carl Vogel of Jefferson City. Crawford believes his name was on the concealed weapons bill that became law as a consolation prize for stepping aside for Vogel.

Sponsoring the bill has earned Crawford the thanks of gun rights supporters throughout the state while making him a lightning rod for criticism. When Crawford returned home from a fishing trip the day before Oliver's course, he had 246 e-mails waiting for him. Many of them had to do with concealed weapons, and most of those opposed came from the St. Louis area.

"There are some in my district who are nervous, too," Crawford added.

But Crawford believes that based on the experience with similar measures in other states, the new law will be implemented in Missouri with no serious problems.

"Permit holders don't commit crimes," Crawford said. "Someone who will spend a Saturday taking this course, getting fingerprinted, paying the fee, why would someone who is going to commit a crime go to all that trouble?

"The people who have instabilities, I don't think they will go through this process," Crawford added.

He said he was willing to give the law time to work and if there were problems, he would consider making changes. For example, he said he was willing to consider opening up the records of those who had gotten the permits. He said they were closed under the current law to keep people from using the records to identify gun owners and then using the information to burglarize their homes to get the guns.

Crawford predicted that after initial interest, many people who got permits will find out how uncomfortable and inconvenient it is to carry a weapon and will eventually discontinue the practice. He said after three years, the number of renewals of permits will drop.

"Businesspeople will do it, as they do now," Crawford said. "There are grave circumstances to be considered. It's not something to be taken lightly."

Center of mass

After the classroom instruction that included a written test, Oliver's 32 students went out to the firing range. There they demonstrated how to load and unload handguns, both revolvers and automatics, practice with 50 rounds of ammunition and then put 15 out of 20 rounds in a target seven yards away. That distance or less, according to Oliver, is the average space within which 95 percent of personal defense shootings occur.

Everyone passed the course.

Dorothy Miriani, 66, of St. Joseph, Mo., had no trouble firing her pistol at the "center of mass," where the instructors said to aim on the target. She had been shooting at firing ranges since she was 28. Miriani, who grew up in Kirkwood, said her father was a U.S. postal inspector who had competed in shooting contests.

During a debriefing at the end of the course, Miriani suggested to Oliver that the next time he should include advice about what to do in real-life scenarios. What do you do if you come home late at night and there's a stranger in your house? Miriani asked.

A real life scenario Oliver could consider is what happened to Uncle Woodrow on March 4, 1967, when a robber held up the cleaners located right behind his store.

The owner of the cleaners exchanged gunfire with the robber, who then fled. Uncle Woodrow came out of his store and was en route to the cleaners to help. He was not armed. The robber shot him in the head, killing him.

The Post-Dispatch account of the incident quoted the wife of the cleaners' owner as saying Uncle Woodrow was the sort of person who would come to the aid of a friend in trouble.

Greg Jeffrey instructing Donna Crawford
(David Carson/P-D)

Donna Crawford shoots as firearms instructor Greg Jeffery looks on at Cedar Creek Rod and Gun Club near Columbia, Mo., earlier this month.

Copyright © 2003 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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