How I bought my gun in Chicago
Jake Malooley navigates the complex process of getting a handgun in Chicago.
When I’m first forced to draw my handgun in self defense, it’s the middle of the night. At least I imagine it is.
I spring forward in bed, shaken awake by an alarming sound: someone breaking into the front door of my apartment. I grab my cell phone from the bedside table and, with a trembling finger, dial 911. Just as the dispatcher gets on the line, I hear the door frame give way. I leap over to the closet, open a case and grab the gun, a black Beretta 9mm. I shakily insert the magazine with a clammy palm and load the first round into the chamber.
“I have a gun!” I announce. “If you come in, I’ll shoot!” Neither the verbal warning nor the distinct click-click gun cock deters the intruder from ramming through the flimsy plywood of my locked bedroom door. For a split second, I see him brandish a knife, then I squeeze the trigger. Six deafening shots from the semiautomatic—Pop! Pop-pop! Pop! Pop-pop!—light up the dark in terrible, strobelike flashes. The assailant collapses.
My body is vibrating from the surge of adrenaline. Just then, a calming hand on my shoulder pulls me out of the waking nightmare. I set down the spent Beretta. It’s a sunny Tuesday afternoon at the end of March. I’m 20 miles from my apartment at a gun range in Des Plaines, Maxon Shooters Supplies, finishing the mandatory hour of loaded-pistol-in-hand training necessary to attain a Chicago Firearms Permit. The weaponized workshop is one of the earliest steps of my protracted bureaucratic journey toward exercising what in June of last year became one of Chicagoans’ newest and most controversial rights: handgun ownership.
“I told you I’d make a shooter out of you!” says a beaming Jose Rodriguez, the certified course instructor, patting me on the back. In this class, playacting a terrifying home-invasion scenario that ends in students pumping a pretend attacker full of lead is just part of the curriculum. Though the housebreaker is an invention, the bullets are very real. As are the nerves; my hands are shaky and damp with sweat. Several other range-goers, including a couple of teen boys with Justin Bieber hairdos and a father with his two young daughters, fire off pistols. The air is thick with the salty scent of gunpowder. Spent shell casings litter the cement floor. It’s a loud, unnerving environment, and every shot makes me jump. But the act of shooting a gun, especially for a first-timer like me, is a wild thrill: Each squeeze of the trigger is a heart-racing, body-shaking explosion.
Rodriguez presses a button on the side of our dingy, three-foot-wide booth, reeling in the police silhouette target. Wearing an olive drab tactical jacket and matching cargo pants, the compact fortysomething tilts his head and inspects the holes in the paper. I’m no marksman, but I’m a decent shot for a newbie: a couple of bull’s-eyes in the silhouette’s chest, the rest landing in a bottle-shaped kill zone between the neck and abdomen.
“If this guy was breaking into your apartment, d’ya think he’d be neutralized?” Rodriguez asks. (Neutralize, I come to find out, is the shockingly casual term Rodriguez and the National Rifle Association prefer over shoot and kill with a gun.) I nod uneasily, my head weighed down with padded, headphone-style ear protection. “That’s right,” the former Chicago auxiliary policeman asserts with a smile. “Don’t think he’d be feelin’ too good.”
Having neutralized a make-believe psychopath, it’s official: My gun cherry is as good as popped.