So, you're thinking of buying a gun. With all the unease in the country since 9-11, that isn't surprising. Many people are buying guns; as this news story reports, they're doing so to be able to protect themselves and loved ones. It's not a bad idea, but before you make that move, you should learn as much as you can about guns so you can make an informed choice.
Guns are among the most misunderstood items around. If you listen to some gun control advocates, guns are the embodiment of evil. If you listen to some gun owners, every person in the country ought to carry a firearm, all the time. In reality, the truth is somewhere between these positions.
A gun is a tool. It is morally neutral. A gun can be an instrument of evil, when a rapist uses a gun to force compliance with his vile act. A gun can be an instrument of good, when the sight of one stops some thugs from attacking an elderly lady. What happens with a gun depends on the intent of the person using the tool. Just as with any other tool, if a person isn't prepared to use it, mistakes and accidents can happen--but with a firearm, they can have deadly consequences. To use these tools of self-protection well, you must choose carefully, and train yourself in their proper use.
There are several different kinds of guns. When you visit a gun shop, you'll see "long guns"--shotguns and rifles--and handguns that range from tiny to huge. How do you know what gun will work best for you?
The only honest answer to that question is, "It depends." It depends on what you want to use the gun for, and where. It depends on your strength. It also depends upon the law where you live. One way to learn the gun laws in your state is to use the National Rifle Association's search utility for state firearm laws. Your town may have firearms laws, too; check before buying.
The first question you need to consider is whether any gun is a good choice for you. Look down deep into your soul: do you know, to the marrow of your bones, that if some bad guy came after you or your family, you'd be able to shoot him or her? Repeatedly, if necessary? If you can answer "Yes", then a firearm is probably a good choice for you. If you know you can't, don't buy a gun! Criminals can sense fear and uncertainty; if you hesitate at The Moment of Truth, your gun may be taken away from you and used to prey on other innocent people. Don't buy a gun if you can't or won't use it.
Firearms can be organized into three types: handguns, shotguns, and rifles. Handguns are small, but can shoot powerful rounds (enough to stop bears). Their overall size has little to do with the size of ammunition they can shoot. They shoot one projectile--the bullet (which is part of the "cartridge", or "round" of ammunition)--per squeeze of the trigger. Handguns can be single shot--where only one round can be fired, then it must be reloaded--or can have up to 10 rounds loaded for more rapid fire. Revolvers are one type of handgun; they have a cylinder, and chambers that revolve to place a fresh round under the hammer, ready to be shot. Semi-automatic handguns (also called pistols) have a magazine that slides into the gun. A spring in the magazine keeps pressure on the rounds, so that when one is fired, the next one in the magazine is pushed up into the chamber, after the empty cartridge is ejected out of the gun. (Semi-automatic means that you have to squeeze the trigger once for each round to be fired, and the next round is automatically loaded into the firing chamber each time you fire.) Revolvers are generally easier to operate, and are much less likely to jam than pistols--but they don't have the high capacity that semi-autos can have.
A shotgun is a long gun that is often associated with hunting and sports shooting. Shotgun ammunition is referred to as a "shell" or cartridge; it holds projectiles that are propelled out of the shell when it's fired. The number can range from hundreds of small lead pellets--good for hunting birds, which is why it's often called birdshot--to one big lead slug. Shotguns fall into three types of action: single or double barreled guns that must be manually loaded for each shot; pump or lever action shotguns that hold multiple shells and must be manually operated between each shot; and semi-automatic shotguns which function like pistols. Shotguns are more powerful, generally speaking, than handguns, and are generally easier to operate. However, it's a heavier gun, and has more recoil (that's the force that pushes against your body after you shoot a round) than handguns. You must be able to hold the gun steady long enough to shoot to stop the threat, and to take the recoil.
Rifles are useful in hunting, and for certain situations (such as defending a building from people outside, when accurate long-distance shooting is important). They can shoot small caliber ammunition the same size as some handguns, or cartridges so powerful they can bring down an elephant. These guns are very popular in military action, because of their power and accuracy. Rifles generally aren't recommended as personal defense weapons; they're too powerful for the distance that most attacks happen within. The bullet could pass through the bad guy with minimal damage, and continue for long distances, possibly injuring innocent people. Unless you live out in the country, a rifle is probably too much gun for your personal defense needs. However, given that the President has stated that we're at war, having a rifle as part of an overall tactical defense strategy can be a good idea. And, should things come to more extreme circumstances, such as the infrastructure of the country falling apart, you'll have a weapon for bagging squirrels or bigger game for meat.
Next, consider where you'll be using the gun. If you want a gun for home security, many experts suggest either a shotgun or handgun. Handguns are easier for small children to manipulate, an important consideration if you have children. If your primary concern is protecting your person, and you want to carry the gun with you, a handgun is really the only choice of firearm you have. It can be easily concealed, so your gun doesn't alarm others. If you want a firearm to keep in your car, either a shotgun or handgun may do, depending on the type of threat you think you're likely to face. Either will do damage to bad guys, but a shotgun with lead slugs is more likely to be effective if the bad guy's using a car for cover, or as a weapon. If you own a business and want to keep a firearm on the premises, for most situations a handgun is preferred; they're easier to conceal and to bring to action quickly and unobtrusively, which can be crucial in a holdup. Having a shotgun in a safe, strategic place is a good idea, if that's possible.
Once you've decided what kind of firearm you want, go to gun stores and look at guns. Ask questions. No question is too dumb; if the salesperson acts bored or starts giving you sarcastic answers, go elsewhere. If you're a woman and get steered to handguns that shoot small calibers (such as .22, .25., or .32) on the assumption you can't handle anything more powerful, go elsewhere. Women shoot competitively with large calibers and win regularly. If you have friends who are gun owners, ask for their help. Have them take you shooting, to get a feel for different weapons, how they work, and the calibers of ammunition. Some gun stores with ranges rent guns, so you can test a variety of firearms.
The wide range of choices available can seem overwhelming. You'll find that many people have strong opinions about guns, and they'll happily share them. It can be tempting to rely on someone else's experience, but resist that as much as possible. Remember, you may need this gun to defend your life one day; it needs to fit your circumstances. For example, it's true that the .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol, a handgun caliber of ammunition) round is more powerful than the 9 mm round, but if you can't handle its recoil that extra power isn't going to do you any good. In fact, it could work against you. A handgun your friend loves may be too big for your hands. What you choose needs to work for you.
Try to shoot as many different calibers of ammunition as you can, in the type of gun you plan to buy (comparing across revolvers and pistols is worse than comparing apples and oranges). Spend time at gun stores, handling different size guns in the caliber and type you want to buy. You most likely won't be able to shoot all the different guns available, but listen to what other gun owners say about their guns, and ask them how theirs compare to guns you've fired. Read gun magazines, and gun-oriented web sites, to learn the terminology and find what's been proven to work.
There's no need to buy a brand new gun. Most gun stores stock quality used guns, and the price can be considerably less than a similar new gun. If you want a new gun, that's fine. But if you can't afford a new gun, or you aren't sure of what you want, buying used is a solid choice. You may also be able to get more gun for your money buying used. And if it turns out you made a poor choice, generally you'll have less depreciation with a used gun. Have a reputable gunsmith check the gun, just as you would get a used car checked. Not only can a malfunctioning gun not work properly, it can injure or kill you if it misfires. Check the store's return policy before buying any gun.
There's no formula for determining what gun will work best for you. Many will try to tell you otherwise, though, with statements like, "Women can't handle .45 or larger calibers; it'll kick too much." I know plenty of women who can handle .45s just fine; I also know men who hate that much recoil. (Part of this depends on the type and weight of the gun it's fired from; that's one reason why trying different guns is important.) Similarly, some people don't like the feel of pump shotguns; others don't like semi-automatics.
For a gun to work well for you, it needs to fit with your body well. It can't be too heavy for you to hold steadily and take a shot. If it's a long gun, the butt of the gun should nestle snugly and comfortably in the crease of your shoulder. For any type of handgun, it must fit your hand; various problems can result if it doesn't. You also need to be able to handle the gun's recoil. With shotguns, this means your upper body must be able to absorb the shock. For handguns, your wrists need to be strong enough to control the recoil so that you can aim at the target again fairly quickly. Shooting different guns will tell you what you can handle.
Although no one wants to be shot with any caliber weapon, some are better "stoppers" than others. When you ask about good calibers for personal defense, be prepared for a wide variety of opinions; it's one of the ongoing debates among firearms enthusiasts. The minimum recommended by many experts is .38 Special. These have sufficient firepower to stop even a drug-crazed attacker (although it may take more than one shot). Many experts recommend .45 ACP or 10 mm. Any shotgun gauge except .410 is considered acceptable, although 12 gauge is recommended for those who can handle the recoil. Try various calibers--shoot at least 25 rounds of each that you're considering, in the type of gun you're considering. Choose the most powerful caliber you can safely and consistently handle.
Please don't make the mistake of thinking that just because you're buying a firearm, you'll magically be safe against any threat. A gun is one part of a personal defense plan. Think about other things you can do to become safer. The best book I've read on the topic is The Truth About Self Protection, by former policeman and self-defense expert Massad Ayoob. I encourage anyone interested in the topic to read this book; you'll learn things that you just won't find anywhere else. Personal safety is an important consideration; if you're just now thinking about it, you've got some catching up to do but it can be done.
Good gun information links: (This is only a partial list; there are many more good gun sites, and many more gun manufacturers. A Google web search will turn up more.)
general gun safety
handgun primer for novices
Sig Arms site
My followup piece to this one is So You've Bought Yourself a Gun; if you haven't read it I recommend doing so.
To the Guns section index
To the home page