An Armed Society of Scholars
Guilford, Connecticut - 22 miles from Yale University
The speed of a bullet exiting the muzzle of an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle is 3200 feet per second.
The gun is not as heavy as it looks. The civilian version of an M-16, the AR-15 has a long, black body that you press the soft side of your cheek to. Squint into the glowing red sight, and a laser points the way to a bulls-eye.
On this bright, cold November morning, Dan Gelernter is getting his turn at cradling the rifle against his body, holding it tight to his shoulder, and pulling the trigger. There’s a wind that rustles through the ruby-browned leaves; it makes the targets pitch to and fro. This particular target is a thin outline of a man’s torso, circular splotch centered on his vital organs. Wind blows, he shakes.
“Don’t move,” Gelernter says, as he lifts the AR-15 against his body, aims it carefully, and shoots.
The bullet blasts a hole through the paper. The man sways again. Good shot.
Gelernter surveys the damage to the target, reorients his sight, and pulls the trigger again. The AR-15 is just one of the many guns we have handled today, although it is his favorite.
Gelertner is here because I invited him to accompany me on the drive from Yale—where we are both students—to the New Haven Sportsman’s Club. On both our minds is another Yale student, named David Light. Light was a member of this very club, where he came regularly to shoot. He would have been a junior this year, also like us.
But one night last summer, Light allegedly threatened a visiting student and fired two blanks at the ceiling of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house. When police with a warrant for his arrest searched his room in the same house, they found, among other things, an AK-47, a 0.50 caliber sniper rifle, a Russian M-91 infantry rifle, and between 4000 and 5000 rounds of ammunition. He has since been suspended from Yale, and as of this writing, is awaiting a December trial.
Many Yale students were shocked that a peer had guns at school. Light’s friends were distressed too—at what they saw as an unfortunate cascade of events. “It’s just a shame,” said David Zagha, a fraternity brother and close friend of Light. Light was “always smiling,” he said, always in a good mood.
“He was in my Hebrew class last year” Gelernter told me, “and he seemed like a really nice guy.”
How did such a “nice guy” end up awaiting trial, while Gelernter and I are enjoying our junior years? Gelernter thinks that Light was unfairly skewered by the media and by the university.
He believes that he—and other Yale students—should be allowed to keep, conceal, and carry weapons on campus. He has comrades in arms across the country, and in the past months, a movement has mobilized. Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC) claims to have gathered over 8500 students in its ranks since it was founded in April.
There is no SCCC chapter at Yale—yet. But Gelernter, who lives off campus, still awaits his 21st birthday anxiously. When he turns 21, he can obtain a pistol permit in the state of Connecticut. Then, he can have his own gun.
New Haven, Connecticut - Yale University
After we put away the guns and drive back to Yale, Gelernter and I meet again for coffee.
The first time he pulled a trigger, he tells me, he was 13. Gelernter is home grown, born just a short drive away in Woodbridge, CT. Many years have passed since then, but he still has a boyish face, punctuated with an impish smile.
“It’s almost like a Bar Mitzvah age type thing,” he said to me. “You become thirteen and your dad or your grandfather comes out and teaches you how to shoot.” He has loved guns ever since.
“I suppose when I was a little kid there must have been a macho component,” he said. His eyes light up when he talks about the way a gun works. “I mean, in a semiautomatic gun, the function is beautiful. Everything happens in a 24th of a second.”
Beauty aside, Gelernter is deeply concerned with what he sees as his right to secure his own safety on campus.
“You should be allowed to defend yourself. I don’t see why students are an exception to this,” he said.
The campus police are not enough for him. “The police don’t actually have a responsibility to protect people,” he worried. “They’re supposed to enforce the law, to catch people after crimes have been perpetrated. If you’re actually being robbed, you can’t call the police,” he said. “I would certainly carry a handgun if I had the option of doing it.”
It is not an option, at least at Yale. Almost all states, save for Utah—which guarantees students the right to carry guns at public universities—leave colleges to decide their own gun regulations. Some states explicitly prohibit guns on campus.
Gelernter wants that to change. He is used to being the dissident; during high school, he was known almost exclusively as “Republican Dan.” But he wishes more of his peers understood.
“Did you enjoy shooting?” he asked me, curious and excited.
“I think once you actually shoot,” Gelernter said carefully, “your perspective has to be a little bit different.”
The first time I thought about pulling a trigger was two months ago.
I cautiously e-mailed John Battista, the treasurer of the New Haven Sportsman’s Club, asking permission to visit the club’s headquarters in Guilford. I mentioned my interest in a collegiate gun culture. I did not mention David Light. His name erupted to the surface immediately.
“If there are legal proceedings in process with any of our members, we will wait for a court outcome before (if) any comment is to be made,” Battista wrote, in his reply. “After all, one is innocent unless proven otherwise for any offence in this country.”
I wanted to learn how to shoot, I explained to him, because I wanted to understand the appeal. I wanted to understand how guns work. I also wanted to understand why at least 8500 students nationwide think that, pending proper registration, I should be able to carry a gun at Yale—to the library, to class, to birthday parties. I needed to hold a gun to do that. Mike DeAngelo, the new member chair of the club, called me later that week. Come visit, he said, in a cheerful New York accent. Have breakfast. We’ll talk.
The following Sunday, I shuffled into the New Haven Sportsman’s Club at 9 AM, bleary. DeAngelo, within five seconds, strode quickly over to me, rejected my handshake—“We do things right around here!”—and kissed me on the cheek. ”Eat!” he told me, grinning.
DeAngelo is 70. Most of the men who sat around me quietly eating their breakfast were upwards of 50. I met Mike. I met Garth. I met Joel and Gary.
They couldn’t wait to teach me. I could see the excitement in Garth’s eyes as he explained that women are so much easier to teach than men. “They listen,” he said. It’s that simple. “Men just want to do whatever they saw in the movies.”
“It’s the women and the children,” DeAngelo explained, who are the future of guns in America. He offered to give me a reading list: one that he said would explain how more guns means less crime. “There’s no question that if everyone had a gun,” Garth said to me later, “we’d be safe.”
My eggs finished and my coffee depleted, I went downstairs with Garth. In the cold white air of the indoor range, I got my first lesson. They gave me heavy metal headphones that could sense the sound of a shot, leaving ambient noise un-muffled. They gave me big plastic glasses that slid down my nose. They lent me $1500 guns and endless ammunition for free. Garth drew a careful diagram of the gun’s sight for me. He wouldn’t let me touch the gun until I understood how every part of it worked. He was painstakingly careful.
We started with a revolver. Load five bullets. Grip the gun: one hand to the right of the handle, one hand cupped firmly below.
“Now, actor-yahoos who have never shot a gun—they put their finger straight on the trigger,” Garth said. “You can tell when you watch a movie who’s shot a gun and who hasn’t.”
You do not put your finger on the trigger, if you know what you’re doing, until right before you pull it. And don’t yank it. Squeeze it so slowly, so gently, that you surprise yourself when the bullet erupts from the chamber.
I surprised myself. I surprised Garth. Bulls-eye.
Blacksburg, Virginia - Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
“There’s nothing else to do in Blacksburg,” Wayne Chiang told me, over the phone.
Chiang started shooting late, too. “It never occurred to me to even play in guns,” he said. “My roommate took me to the range my junior year.”
“It was a completely brand new culture to me,” he said. Now he’s engrossed. “I’m getting into military surplus, collecting a lot of rifles from World War II,” he said. “You get to see a lot of history.”
Chiang is an Information Technology consultant. He graduated in 2006 from Virginia Tech.
A few years ago, a gun enthusiast at Virginia Tech wouldn’t have raised eyebrows. But on April 16, 2007, a deranged student gunman wreaked hell on Blacksburg, killing 32 professors and students and wounding many more before taking his own life. Trust evaporated.
“It was an interesting day…I haven’t talked about it in a while,” Chiang said, of the shooting. In the chaotic hours that followed, the Internet pointed a finger—straight at him. “I was working at home,” he remembered. “Throughout the day, I started getting IMs from people, ‘Dude did you hear about the shooting? It sounds a lot like you.’”
Chiang was, as he says it, “five for five.” Like the perpetrator, Seung-Hui Cho, Chiang is Asian. He had attended Virginia Tech. He used to live in the dormitory where the first shootings occurred. He collected guns, and he prominently displayed pictures of himself with semi-automatic rifles draped over his shoulder on his Livejournal weblog and his Facebook profile. He had recently broken up with his girlfriend. (Cho was known to be depressed.) Bloggers struggled to connect the dots and soon, the normal “four or five hits a day” on Chiang’s Livejournal turned into “tens of thousands,” he said. Visitors poured onto his site, eager to enter the mind of a man they assumed to be a mass murderer. Eventually, he appeared on CNN to clear his name.
The afternoon I spoke with Chiang, he had just been perusing the website of Protest Easy Guns, a group formed in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre to rally for tighter gun control. “Actually it’s a strange thing that you called me today,” he said. “They’re planning a protest here, right where I live…I looked at the mission statement of this group and I think it’s completely ridiculous.” Chiang described a “really big controversial debate” at Virginia Tech, since the shooting, about whether students should be allowed to conceal and carry on campus. To him, the answer is obvious.
“None of these laws would have stopped Virginia Tech,” Chiang said, his voice hardening. “If simply one student was armed, the confrontation would have ended right there.”
Chiang’s ideas are spreading.
College Station, Texas – Texas A&M University
More than a thousand miles away, Jonathan Babb, a senior at Texas A&M, is a believer.
“An armed society is a polite society,” Babb told me. “When the good people are unarmed, that gives the bad people a chance to wreak mayhem, just like at Virginia Tech,” he said. “You have the nutcases with guns who are going to disobey the laws anyway, and the cops show up, they wait outside, what are you gonna do?” Many proponents of guns on campus will tell you that when security first arrived on site during the Virginia Tech massacre, they were unable to do anything. Cho had chained the doors of the building shut.
Babb is genuinely distressed. He is training to be a police officer. He wants to be one of the “good people.” He wants to be able to stop another Virginia Tech. And he believes that to do that, students must have guns.
Babb started shooting nearly 15 years ago. “I got a BB-gun for my sixth birthday,” he remembered. “I’ve been shooting pistols and rifles and shotguns, and everything you could imagine—even a few machine guns—since I was about 8.”
Guns are a part of life for him. Babb posted several photos on the Facebook group for SCCC of what he calls “Gun Porn.” “Just good-looking guns or guns that people might find of significant beauty or interest,” he explained. One photo—a crisp snapshot of a handgun—is captioned, “If there was a magazine devoted to gun porn, this would be the centerfold.” Another photo of a Beretta Model 21A, cradled in his hand, reads, “Say hello to my little friend!!!”
Shooters who started young will tell you that the more people who are friends with guns, the more people will respect their power.
“When you shoot a 0.357 magnum at a cinder block and it blows it in half,” Babb said, “you get an understanding of what that can do to a human being.”
From Lexington, Kentucky to Storrs, Connecticut
After I talk to Babb, I get even more curious. I call students much like him in Kentucky, in Colorado—in Connecticut. In the span of time it has taken for me to learn how to shoot, SCCC has already grown by nearly 2000 members.
Fear stems from ignorance; they all echo Babb. It’s another adage I hear so much I start to believe it.
“The firearm itself isn’t scary,” Mike Schmidt told me. When a firearm is in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use it, or uses it improperly, that’s what’s scary.”
The week of October 21st, Schmidt, a senior at the University of Kentucky and a member of SCCC, wore his holster to class. The holster was empty. “The symbolic point of the Empty Holster Protest,” explains the SCCC website, “is to represent that students, faculty, and guests on college campuses are left defenseless.”
“The response to it was kind of surprising,” said Schmidt. “Very few people noticed the holsters, which is kind of scary...” The media noticed, though, and stories about the Empty Holster Protest appeared on Foxnews.com and in the Washington Times.
Christopher Kopency, a sophomore who helped organize the Empty Holster Protest as a “Campus Leader” at the University of Connecticut, is also the Northeast Regional Director for SCCC. He advocates for conceal and carry rights in general, he explained, and believes that students should have the same ability to “protect themselves from bodily harm.”
For Kopency, as for many others, Virginia Tech was a catalyst. “I didn’t know nearly as much about the laws in Connecticut until the event,” he said.
Despite this new sense of urgency, he doesn’t believe that guns will be allowed on campus—or as he put it, that “we’re going to get through to them”—during his time in college. Kopency met with the Dean of Students at the University of Connecticut, and was surprised to find that she was “quite against the idea.”
I asked him if SCCC was coming to Yale. “Hopefully,” he said.
Descending the steps of the Club after my first visit, my hands were shaking. I was giddy and nervous, overwhelmed by the new world I had briefly inhabited.
“I liked it a lot more than I thought I would,” I explained later to Gelernter, though I wasn’t any closer to understanding guns on campus. The basement where I learned to shoot was heavy and gray, littered with bullet shells. This was where David Light came?
The men there didn’t talk about him.
Gary followed me out as I left. Gary wears a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and a long black trench coat. He walks with an elegantly carved cane. His large silver belt buckle is a carving of an Indian in full tribal dress, head in profile.
Gary had watched my entire lesson silently, approvingly, after introducing himself. Then, as I walked towards the parking lot--
“Come back, and bring your friends!” he yelled.
“Stay away from David Light. He’s a wacko.”
New Haven, Connecticut – Yale University
I always come back to David Light.
“I hate to say it,” Zagha, Light’s friend, confessed to me. “When people think about him they think, ‘Oh, he’s got guns!’ and they compare him immediately to the Virginia Tech guy.” Zagha insists the two students, Light and Cho, are “apples and oranges.”
Zagha believes that Light would stand behind the SCCC’s mission. “I think he would be in support of it, as long as you were smart about it,” he said.
I asked him what he thought about the movement.
“That’s a loaded question,” Zagha said, and laughed, “no pun intended.” He declined to answer.
Many years ago, Gelernter said, guns on campus would never have been an issue. For his grandfather, and even his parents, guns were an “everyday part of life,” he said. “Every high school had a gun team. It’s unthinkable today. Yale doesn’t have a rifle team.”
Yale does have a Skeet and Trap team, coached by Tom Migdalski, who is also the author of the The Complete Book of Shotgunning Games. Every Friday, the team heads out to the range to shoot moving clay targets. Migdalski has been shooting since he was 10.
He agrees with Gelernter about the gradual shift in generational attitudes towards guns. “Back in the old days, there wasn't the widespread illegal possession and criminal misuse of handguns to commit armed crimes. There is also the skewed representation of guns used only as killing tools in movies and on TV,” Migdalski wrote in an email. “This, along with lack of exposure to proper and safe firearms use, has created a generation of young people who are understandably afraid and ignorant about guns.”
Should students be allowed to conceal and carry?
“Absolutely, positively, NOT,” Migdalski wrote. “There is no reason for concealed weapons of any type (including knives) on campus, personal rights included. There is too great a risk of a firearm being stolen, misused or accidentally discharged.”
Brian Bills, a freshman at Yale who keeps his NRA qualifications on his dorm room wall, adjacent to his “Jesus was a Liberal” sticker,” also balks at the idea of guns on campus.
“First of all, guns and alcohol don’t mix, and there’s certainly alcohol on campus,” Bills said. “I think that it would cause a number of problems among people who have not been exposed to guns. It would cause, in the Northeast, a sense of mass hysteria.”
If you learn to shoot he believes you lose that sense of “holy terror.”
But Bills has no desire or need to have a gun on campus. Where would he keep it?
David Light’s name surfaces again at the Club during my second visit. This time it is over breakfast, in conversation with the three students I’ve brought to go shooting, including Gelernter.
Light hovers in the background of any conversation about guns at Yale.
“Where do you keep a gun on campus?” Gelernter exclaims indignantly, as he digs into his eggs.
David Shapiro, a senior who shoots occasionally, looks up at Gelernter. “Well…I lived across the hall from David Light,” he says.
“Poor David Light,” Gelernter says, oblivious to the eyebrows that raise.
We go down to the indoor range together.
I’m comfortable with a handgun now. It feels more natural in my hand, though I still shake too much to hit the bulls-eye with regularity. And then suddenly, from a three foot long black case, the AR-15 emerges. An AR-15 was found in Light’s room when the police raided it. This one belongs to Joel.
“Joel’s got the fun guns,” says Garth. The gun is louder than any I’ve heard yet. I stay several stations away with a handgun, methodically discharging bullets. I don’t want to shoot the AR-15. But Joel calls me over.
“You’ve got to shoot this one before you leave!” Oh god, okay. What do I need to know about it? Here’s the safety, press it up against your shoulder, or else the kick will bruise you. No, put your cheek on it. Closer. Even closer.
I drop my cheek to the metal. It’s cold. I squint at that same circular splotch centered on a man’s torso, outlined just 25 feet in front of me. The first trigger-pull is smooth and fast. The second, third, and fourth, are even easier.
New Haven, Connecticut – Yale University
I watch an online video in my dorm room, a few days after I shoot the AR-15, entitled “The truth about semi-automatic firearms.” Officer Leroy Pyle, from his perch in San Jose, tells me that he’s “familiar with a lot of the controversy…the emotions.” Then, he disassembles the big, ominous black weapon I held in my hands, and puts the same “action” back into a simple wooden rifle’s body. The implication is that appearances shouldn’t cloud our judgment. Why be scared of an object?
“It was the whole reason I was taught to shoot in the first place,” said Bryan Jones, a junior at Yale who shoots regularly in United States Practical Shooting Association competitions. “[So] I wasn’t scared of it and I knew the facts.”
I’m not sure if I’m still scared. I shot a rifle that looked just like the “after” in Officer Pyle’s video. I dropped one bullet a time into the chamber and clicked it shut with a big metal handle. It was light. The wood felt smooth in my hands.
DeAngelo kisses me on the cheek again when we leave. The boys get handshakes.
“I wish I brought a pretty girl with me everywhere,” reflects Gelernter, as we walk back to the car that Adam Goodrum, a sophomore, drove us in. The Club never lets me pay the fee for shooting or for breakfast.
We drive back to Yale. The boys are still basking in the afterglow. We look at the pictures that we’ve taken on Goodrum’s camera phone, holding the AR-15 and shooting various handguns.
“So, favorite guns?” asks Gelernter.
“Mine was the Smith and Wesson,” says Shapiro. He seemed pleased by both the mechanics and the aesthetics.
“AR-15,” says Goodrum.
Gelernter agrees. He can’t wait to get his hands on an AR-15 again. He wonders where he can buy one.
I wonder where he will keep it.