City Paper is not for tourists
About halfway through James Wiggins Jr.’s handgun safety class in Rockville, he sends around a 9 mm Glock. His students—four from Virginia and two from D.C.—have already watched a video and handled magazines and bullets of different calibers.
The hollow bullets, they’re told, expand inside the body, causing greater blood loss.
The students grip the gun, which is heavier than expected. Omar Capers of Rosslyn turns it around in his hands and looks down the empty barrel.
“It makes me so nervous pointing a gun at myself,” he says.
Placed throughout the classroom at the Gilbert Indoor Range are binders containing handgun safety rules from California. Wiggins believes these guidelines are sensible and comprehensive and that every jurisdiction should use them. He has one place especially in mind: Washington, D.C.
“The mayor should consider adopting these rules when the handgun ban is overturned,” he says.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in June on District of Columbia v. Heller, deciding if District residents will be able to purchase handguns legally for the first time since 1976. Wiggins, a former D.C. EMT who has been teaching people—mainly security officers—how to use firearms since the late ’70s, is pretty confident he knows which way this will go. For about 15 years, Wiggins has copied, cut out, and collected newspaper articles and documents he thinks debunks the idea that handguns used for personal protection are illegal.
He slides over a packet where he’s written across the top: “Criminal Jury Instructions for the District of Columbia.” The copied document explains citizens’ rights to self-defense, including the use of deadly force. There’s also a clause illuminating the “No Duty to Retreat” concept.
“People don’t even know where to find this,” he says. “But I’ve been in the legal libraries of courthouses.”
Wiggins lived in the District most of his life but moved to Falls Church in 2001. From 1994 to 2001, he worked as an EMT and says he saw firsthand the violence suffered by innocent victims. The handgun ban empowered criminals, he says. It didn’t stop them from obtaining guns.
But you don’t have to load ambulances to understand Wiggins’ thinking: Just fire up The Brave One on the DVD player. In the 2007 movie, Jodie Foster plays a woman who is brutally attacked while walking at night in New York.
“That movie brought so much back to me, of me picking people up, taking them back to the hospital, [hearing] Am I going to die?” he says. “I remember all these conversations I had with my patients.”
The part about Foster’s character later exacting revenge on random criminals and hunting down her attackers doesn’t come up in his spiel to the class. Neither does the possibility that Wiggins may be a touch overconfident about the pending legality of guns in D.C.
If the ban is repealed, it’s unclear when the change will go into effect and what the new regulations will look like.
“It’s imponderable,” says Robert Levy, a lawyer for the pro-gun side. “Even if the handgun ban is overturned, the court could write a narrow opinion, or it could write a very broad opinion.”
The ruling may dictate how long the D.C. Council has to pass handgun legislation. There may be some language permitting certain safety requirements. Maybe the Supreme Court will direct a lower court to issue guidelines for D.C. The point: Speculating about the court’s decision now is just one big maybe on top of another.
And there’s an additional setback, says Levy. Federal law requires people to purchase handguns in their home states and while “the market is an amazing thing,” Levy says, there are currently no handgun stores in the District.
Steve Schneider is the owner of Maryland-based Atlantic Guns, which has locations in Silver Spring and Rockville. It used to have one in D.C., too—on the main page of its Web site, there’s a picture of the original establishment at 3541 14th St. NW. But Schneider recoils at the thought of returning to the city. “It’s just not part of our business plan,” he says.
Still, Schneider could cash in: If District residents are eventually allowed to buy a gun at one of his stores, they can have it transferred through a dealer in the city. Charles W. Sykes Jr. is one person who could help him out.
Since 1994, Skyes has been transferring weapons to the Metropolitan Police Department and security companies operating in D.C. As far as he knows, he’s got no real competition, but he’s recently encountered a snag.
For years, Sykes has run his appointment-only gun business, CS Exchange, from a location on Good Hope Road in Southeast. His building was sold, forcing him to look for new space. When he applied for a permit in late February, a representative for Zoning Administrator Matthew Le Grant notified him his business could not operate in the District and that the agency would send him an official explanation shortly.
He visited Le Grant’s office in April and has contacted Mayor Adrian Fenty’s office and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. So far, he’s received no details in writing about the rejection.
“I think there is a political motivation to this,” he says.
DCRA spokesperson Michael Rupert says that Sykes “represented that he wanted to physically have guns and show guns at his office” not just be a broker. The Office of the Attorney General is reviewing whether zoning regulations will allow his request and should have a response within 60 days.
If the government is stonewalling him to prevent him from expanding his business post-ban, Sykes says it’s a waste of time.
He says he wants no part of the potential robberies and headaches of a gun store and plans to keep his business appointment-only. “For those that want to be low profile, they can give me a call,” he says.
But if Wiggins’ class is any indication, neither Atlantic Guns nor CS Exchange will be greeting a stampede of wannabe handgun-owners from the District if the ban is repealed.
As of the first weekend in May, Wiggins held six classes with roughly five students in each. Each session lasts three to four hours and costs $185. Wiggins—who has advertised in the Washington City Paper—has three more classes scheduled for May. He plans to publicize the classes again in June; he’s just waiting for the Supreme Court “to put the buzz back out there,” he says.
At a session last Saturday, none of the students seemed particularly anxious about the pending decision, although they were excited to fire off a few rounds.
In the class’ final hour, Wiggins leads his students to the gun range, where each claims a stall and tapes up their targets, complete with the classic red center and spirals moving outward. Then, one by one, as the rest of the group crowds around in quiet support, each person picks up a gun, positions his hands in the practiced grip, and waits until his fingers feel the moment is right.
Afterward, people talk in the parking lot about why they had come to the class.
One person mentions the hot girl in the advertisement, but he later admits that guns always made him uncomfortable; he thought a class would help ease the fear.
Brookland resident Scot Knickerbocker says he always felt “jittery” around guns and just wanted to get over the anxiety, nothing more. Then, he started firing and hit the bull’s eye over and over again.
He initially shrugged off his abilities, saying, “I play a lot of video games.” But the next morning, he showed off his target to a friend and ex-girlfriend who came over to visit. The ex-girlfriend was “a little surprised” by his marksmanship, and Knickerbocker had already begun thinking it was “neat” he was such a good shot.
When asked if he would go back to the gun range, Knickerbocker said it would be the perfect “crazy and different thing” to do with his friends.
But, no, he is not planning to run out and buy a Glock come June.