A background check is required to buy a gun here in Virginia, but there’s no requirement that you know how to handle that firearm; training is not mandatory. But gun rights advocates, even the National Rifle Association, say it is not enough to put a gun next to your bed for personal protection.
Firing at an intruder is something most hope they’re never confronted with. Still, you purchased a gun to defend yourself if you had to. But have you ever handled your weapon?
Ed Coleman, the general manager at Colonial Shooting Academy in Richmond has noticed in the surge of those seeking personal protection, a number of people are now packing heat without training.
“We found since we opened here, hundreds of people that own firearms, that had never shot ‘em,” he said.
Coleman believes anyone who owns a gun should, at the very least, take a basic pistol shooting class. Colonial Shooting Academy offers several NRA-certified courses.
“It gives them the tools they need to be able to learn to shoot correctly and safely,” Coleman said.
In Virginia, gun sales are booming. Last year, a record number of firearms—480,000, to be exact—were purchased here in the Commonwealth. Coleman says mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. seemed to trigger the spike in gun sales.
“There was a big surge last year after Connecticut,” he said.
Curious and never having fired a gun in her life, ABC 8News Anchor/Investigative Reporter Kerri O’Brien signed up for an 8-hour basic shooting class that happens to be for women only.
“I just felt more comfortable with the all-women’s than the men’s [class],” said student Donna Shelton.
“The fastest-growing population today for gun owners is females,” Coleman said.”
The pistol course focuses on everything from identifying the parts of the firearm to how to properly store, load, shoot and even clean it.
“I really feel like it’s a huge responsibility and if I am going to own a handgun I need to know everything I need to know about it,” said student Susan Franz.
After practicing with blanks in the classroom, O’Brien and her classmates put their skills to the test, taking aim at the firing range. To her surprise, most of her rounds hit the target her first time shooting. The other women in the class hit their marks, too.
“I have really learned a lot,” Shelton said. “I think the class is great.”
“If I am confronted with a threat, I don’t want to just lay down and take it,” Franz said. “I want to be able to defend myself and my family.”
But of course, shooting on the range under no stress is very different from the panic of pointing a gun at an intruder breaking into your home. O’Brien was told that just like you have a plan for if a tornado or hurricane hits, you should have a personal protection plan for a home invasion. You should practice that plan, and there are now classes that can teach that.
You heard something; you think someone’s breaking into your home. But before you pull the trigger, knowing what to do, what to say and what not to do could be the difference between life, death or jail time.
“It is just as important to know what not to do as it is to know what to do,” Coleman said.
Your personal protection plan should include designating a safe room. Your safe room should have a phone so you can call police, a flashlight and extra keys, as well as your weapon and ammunition. Also, there should be one point of entry, making it easier to defend yourself. Your safe room should have windows, so you can talk to police or possibly escape.
“It is important to work out that plan and practice it at home, so it becomes second nature to you,” Coleman said.
But just as important to your plan: knowing the law before you pull the trigger.
State Senator and former Louisa County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Garrett Jr. breaks down Virginia law for the class.
“Anything you can do as a responsible gun owner to not produce your weapon, much less discharge, is advisable,” he said. “You have a right to use force where a reasonable person could perceive imminent threat of death or serious injury to themselves or another.”
In other words, did you fear for your life?
“You can never use force in defense of property,” Garrett said.
Defense of property or self-defense? It’s a question a Richmond jury will soon have to decide. Just last month, Richmond man Dominique Clark was charged with voluntary manslaughter for shooting and killing a teen. Police sources also told ABC 8News the teen was breaking into cars and threatened to kill Clark when he confronted 16-year-old Robert Lee. But the teen’s relatives say the teen did not have a weapon.
“Your life will never be the same because you shot someone today,” Garrett said. “At the very least, you will probably be tried in front of a grand jury. You could go to prison for the rest of your life.”
Still, if you are going to own a gun for personal protection, Coleman says it’s not enough to store the weapon next to your bed; you need to practice shooting it.
“You can be reasonably proficient if you shoot once a month,” he said.
In her class, O’Brien practiced as if an attacker were approaching. She and her classmates also practiced taking cover, firing, hitting the ground, and scanning the area for other dangers or bystanders before they fired.
And then the ultimate test: armed with a laser gun, O’Brien headed to the shoot house. She was in her “bedroom” and had just heard a strange noise. She had only seconds to decide if it was an intruder or just the pizza man.
“Stop! Get out! Police are on the way. I have a gun and I will shoot!” O’Brien yelled.
They didn’t leave, and it was time to put her plan into action.
O’Brien called 911, and with no time to retreat to her safe room, she took cover by the bed. But she left the phone on, so police can listen in. The intruder then barged in, forcing her to fire.
While it’s a situation she hopes she’ll never face, Coleman said O’Brien followed every step of the plan as practiced.
If you do shoot an intruder, call the police immediately, then your lawyer.
Shooting and personal protection classes range from about $150 to $180 each. You don’t have to own a firearm to take one.
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