It’s noon on a busy Friday in Rittenhouse Square, and I’m seated along the inside window at Rouge, one my favorite lunch spots in my city. Things feel very different today. It’s the first time I’m carrying a gun, and I’m a bit uncomfortable, to say the least. Besides having a bulge in my right front jeans pocket that I’m afraid everyone can see, I find myself scanning the room as I wonder who else could be armed. I also wonder: If the unthinkable happened here, where could I take cover? And how would I react?
That might sound a bit paranoid, given the likelihood of a violent event at a tony Center City bistro that sells $18 burgers. I never thought I’d become a “gun person.” To me, the culture of buying and shooting guns always seemed stupid. I’m a local guy through and through — grew up in the Northeast, graduated from Cheltenham High — and have spent most of my career in public relations and marketing. (You may know my mother, Philadelphia PR legend Tina Breslow.) Today, I’m the married father of a 17-year-old high-school junior. We live in Upper Gwynedd, but I’m in the city frequently to represent my clients, who include chefs, restaurateurs, real estate developers and fashion brands. I travel in some elite circles, but I’m also a guy’s guy — hockey dad, sports fan, craft beer lover, cheesesteak eater, bullshit-caller. While I support the Second Amendment in general, I never imagined exercising my right to own a gun. Or that, like a wallet or cell phone, I’d want to carry it with me at all times.
My perspective changed recently thanks to the collective weight of an awful series of events. The shootings at the West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster and later in Sandy Hook were unshakable tragedies, with images that haunted me for months. My tipping point finally arrived in December, when two terrorists killed 14 people in San Bernardino. Now it seems there’s no safe haven — not our schools, not public places, perhaps not even our homes.
I’d reached a point I’d once considered incomprehensible: If there’s a chance, however remote, that I could end up in someone’s crosshairs, I want the ability to fight back. Now I’m sitting on the Square, trying to look comfortable with a loaded gun on my hip, reflecting on the strange trip that’s brought me here and hoping I don’t shoot my dick off.
AS I FOUND OUT when I began to research the matter two months ago, the San Bernardino assault triggered an avalanche of gun purchases and concealed-carry-permit applications in California and sparked renewed debate over the Second Amendment. Suddenly I was in the middle of a national movement. (Read more here about similar trends in gun ownership in Philadelphia.) I’d also recently become a first-time gun owner for completely different reasons — after decades of ribbing from my hockey buddies, this Jewish guy from the city finally gave hunting a try. I bought a 20-gauge Remington shotgun and spent several hours learning how to load, fire and safely handle the firearm at a local shooting range. Of course, with no suitable targets in sight, I didn’t squeeze the trigger once over several days of deer hunting. But at least I was comfortable with a weapon.
That was in the woods, for sport. What would it feel like to walk the streets of Center City armed? I started asking friends and business acquaintances their thoughts on guns. A menschy buddy of mine told me he’s been carrying a small handgun for a few years. I mentioned to a client that I was considering carrying, and he lifted up his shirt to reveal his 9mm semiautomatic, then went on to tell me that he never leaves home without it. A few days later, I brought up the subject while meeting with one of the most celebrated chefs in the region, and without hesitation he said he always carries his gun. A doctor friend of mine told me a story about how he got into a gunfight with some armed thieves in his native Guatemala a few years ago; as his fight-or-flight instincts kicked in, he started blasting away.
That story scared the shit out of me, as I’m not interested in getting into a shootout. I just want to be able to protect myself and my family if an unfortunate situation demands that I do so. But then I started to wonder if I was in the minority of people by not carrying a gun. A recent article in the journal Injury Prevention notes that one third of all American adults own at least one firearm, and it’s estimated that 12.8 million people in the U.S. possess concealed-carry permits. In Philadelphia, 7,146 carry permits were issued in 2014; add 26,430 more from the four surrounding Pennsylvania counties that same year. I’d bet anything those numbers went up last year and will continue to climb.
I took the plunge in late December and bought a 9mm Smith & Wesson M&P, along with a bunch of ammunition and a new hunting rifle; total time for my background check was a breezy four hours. Slightly more complicated was the carry-permit process. I thought I’d need to purchase my gun and have the serial number registered before I could apply, but that’s not the case. (I’d later learn that to any card-carrying member of the NRA, the notion of federal gun registry is a crime against humanity; only six states and Washington D.C. require some sort of registration, and Pennsylvania is not one of them.) Once the form I filled out online was approved by my township — that took two weeks, and if not for a backlog in applications, it would have been days — I headed to the Norristown courthouse, where I waited in line behind 10 fellow citizens. Fifteen minutes later, I was officially approved to carry a firearm. The sheriff’s deputy who processed my application didn’t ask any questions, but I did get a lecture on how my bad handwriting slowed down inputting my information into the system. In fact, I had way more interaction with the deputies at the front door about a Swiss Army knife on my keychain than about the fact I’d soon be walking around with a gun.
The next step in my journey was to enroll in gun safety classes, which was of utmost importance to me before I’d consider walking into La Colombe with a pistol in my pocket. (I had to take a hunting safety course to get my Pennsylvania hunting license, but for the carry license, I wasn’t required to do anything except locate, fill out and turn in the proper forms, along with a $20 fee.) My pistol orientation class at Clayton’s Hunting & Fishing in Horsham was taught by former Philadelphia police sergeant Ed Timcho Jr., who wore a locked and cocked .45 caliber Les Baer Thunder Ranch semi-automatic on his hip and had a friendly but no-nonsense attitude. I’ll admit, he’s an intimidating guy. Ed spent two hours explaining to my group of middle-aged suburbanites — three other men and four women — everything we needed to know about ammunition and guns. Then we moved to the range for instruction on proper shooting techniques, which began with learning how to stand while firing, breathing control and hand positioning. Timcho also presented us with alarming facts about actual firefights, like that one would rarely ever use the sights on our weapons in a real exchange of bullets, and that most shootouts take place between individuals who are standing only two to six feet apart.
I can’t say enough about what I learned from Ed Timcho. I have way more confidence that I have made the right decision. At each step, from the gun store to the Norristown courthouse, I had butterflies and almost chickened out — sort of like the anxious might-throw-up feeling I’d get before running onto the field for football games in high school. Now, though, I’ve shaken off the nerves without losing sight of my responsibility. After Ed’s lessons, I took an online course that dealt with managing the fight-or-flight reflex and stressed the importance of practicing at the range, and I plan to take several more. I also purchased a safe with ½ inch-thick steel walls in which to store my handgun and hunting rifles.
None of these precautions have made my family feel better about having guns at home, or the notion of me walking around with one. My wife and I discussed the subject throughout the process, and she was supportive at first. But my son continues to refer to this as a “midlife crisis.” I’m actually thrilled that he has no interest in handling or even seeing my firearms, since one of the biggest issues stressed in gun safety is the owner’s responsibility for preventing access to anyone else. As time has gone by, my wife has been less supportive. My routine has changed as a result of this new regimen. A few nights ago, I was placing my 9mm into the safe after returning home from a meeting. My son heard me come in and asked “Where’s dad?” to which my wife replied, “He’s with his gun.” I could sense serious tension in her tone.
I fully appreciate why my family is apprehensive and at times freaked-out. Some parts of the process left me more than a little concerned, too. Neither the sheriff’s department, which signed off on my application and issued my concealed-carry permit, nor the FBI, which conducted my background checks, ever contacted me to warn about potential dangers or remind me of safety tips. The only psychological evaluation I passed was the word of two friends I wrote down as references. Sure, I’m not a felon, but I know plenty of people who probably shouldn’t be roaming the streets with a loaded weapon.
While law enforcement was mostly silent, the NRA was omnipresent throughout my concealed-carry journey. From my first gun purchase to my experience at the shooting ranges to my safety classes, NRA literature is inescapable, and the call to join is loud. (I asked Ed Timcho if membership includes a discount on ammo. I think he thought I was joking.) I still get recruitment email and snail mail. Maybe that’s the one thing still separating me from being a true “gun person.” I’ve spent about $3,000 for everything from hunting gear to ammo, the safe and the training. But I’m not ready to sign up for a lobbying group that wants fewer restrictions and ignores what seem like common-sense steps to make gun ownership safer for us all.
As I look out the window at Rouge, I realize the decision to carry a firearm has been a sobering lifestyle adjustment. Every aspect of my daily routine now feels different than it did during most of my life. I shopped at Barneys, Boyds and Neiman Marcus recently while wearing a gun, and had to carefully manage it while trying on new clothes. And I knew better than to leave the gun in the dressing room to seek the opinion of my buddy on a dress shirt or pair of slacks, as that would have been a violation of my safety training.
I also know that I’m more likely to encounter a criminal trying to rob me than end up in a terrorist situation like San Bernardino, and even that scenario is remote. I’m no suburban cowboy, and my training dismissed any Hollywood fantasies of a long-range shootout in which my quick trigger and pinpoint accuracy turn me into a hero. But I can tell you that if something like what happened in Paris last November plays out here, I will do what’s necessary to protect myself and those around me — even if that means drawing my 9mm, getting low and firing back.