Jerry Donahue, a computer-software engineer who lives Uptown, hasn't decided if he'll actually carry a gun regularly, but he has come to the class to give himself the option.
"What's been going on in the city over the last several months is pretty troublesome," says Donahue. "There is too much randomness. I'm going to look at this and look at the legal ramifications and decide whether I'm going to do it or not, but I probably will."
Donahue, like many people who are considering a concealed-carry permit these days, is relatively new to guns. "I somewhat regret taking this. I'm not particularly violent. I see it as a ..." he searches for right words. "There is a potential that I could be in a neighborhood where I may not want to be at the wrong time, where carrying a weapon is probably a good idea," he says. "It's either I lock myself in pieces of Uptown or live a relatively normal life."
When he is reminded that Uptown is not always a safe place, he asserts, "It's fairly safe." Then he pauses for a moment. "Well, there's been a shooting and a woman chased at gunpoint within the past two weeks." Both incidents were two blocks from his house. "That's pretty close to home," he admits.
Fear of crime in New Orleans runs high nowadays -- so high that more and more people, like Donahue, are turning to guns for protection. According to Louisiana State Police spokesman Sgt. Markus Smith, concealed-carry permits are up nearly 40 percent statewide since Hurricane Katrina, with most of them coming from the New Orleans area. Gun storeowners and the operators at local gun shows confirm what Smith says.
"Attendance for our New Orleans shows has been way up," says Ernie Bean, host of the Great Southern Gun and Knife Show. "About 30 to 40 percent." As more New Orleanians buy and carry guns, they can't help affecting what has always been a delicate balance between people's need to protect themselves and the proliferation of guns in an increasingly violent city.
The past 18 months have thrust the city into the center of a national gun debate. Ironically, while more and more New Orleans residents are buying and qualifying to carry guns on the street, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) have taken the city, Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Chief Warren Riley to court over NOPD's decision to confiscate guns in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. That court battle is ongoing.
Meanwhile, what has traditionally been a Second Amendment debate over citizens' responses to extraordinary situations is now an everyday conversation in post-Katrina New Orleans. Many people live or work in sparsely populated areas, where the protection of law enforcement -- or even their neighbors -- is not readily apparent.
Even inside the city's livable footprint, memories of the thin line that separates civil order from chaos still lingers in the collective psyche of citizens who witnessed the collapse of order during Katrina and the struggle to regain and maintain it ever since. Most recently, continued public pressure on public officials to curb the growing crime problem has underscored people's outrage -- and fears that the local criminal justice system cannot protect them.
Against that backdrop, many New Orleanians see the decision to carry a gun as more of an inescapable reality than an abstract debate with two possible outcomes. And once the decision is made to carry a gun, the next dilemma is even more fearsome: not a potentially dangerous encounter with a criminal, but rather coming to grips with the possibility of taking another person's life.
Many who are weighing the decision to carry a gun say they're resigned to the inevitability that crime can -- and will -- actually happen to them. That's why Mike Manning, a 39-year-old industrial salesman living in Broadmoor, has come to the class at The Shooters' Club on David Drive.
"The whole Helen Hill thing scared me a lot. I have a family. I can't imagine what that man is going through," says Manning, referring to Paul Gailiunas, who became a widower after his wife, filmmaker Helen Hill, was shot to death by an intruder who forced his way into their home in January. "A 2-year-old boy is never going to know his mom, and I'm just thinking if something were to happen, I would rather sacrifice my life. If I had to go to jail to make sure my daughter knew her mom, I would do it," Manning says of his wife and 16-month-old daughter, Gretchen.
Between the videos, lectures and tests, members of the class debate certain situations in which they think they would need or use a gun. Uptown resident Donahue sometimes finds himself at odds with other members of the class. "I really don't like the Wild West thing here," he confides. "I'm in a difficult ethical situation because I'm not necessarily a card-carrying NRA type. I would probably prefer that there were no weapons on the street at all. But I know that there are hundreds of millions of them out there, so ..."
One point on which the class members agree is the notion that sometimes using a gun to protect oneself is justified. "I don't know if it's a good or bad thing," Manning says of his decision to get a concealed-carry permit. "I don't know if I'm doing the right thing. It's just a personal decision that I had to make," he pauses and focuses his eyes "to protect my family."
The moral and political wrangling over guns has long been a part of life in New Orleans. Being an urban center with a long history of gun violence -- in a gun-friendly state nicknamed the "Sportsman's Paradise" -- has not been an easy fit for New Orleans. In 1998, New Orleans was the first of several cities to sue gun manufactures in an attempt to hold them liable for many of the city's violent deaths. The suit made headlines and staked out then-Mayor Marc Morial's stance on the proliferation of guns, but the suit ultimately failed in the face of legislative opposition and a fierce PR campaign against the suit by the NRA.
More recently, in the chaotic days after Katrina, the NOPD confiscated all firearms that they saw citizens carrying -- legally or otherwise -- in an attempt to regain order. That action caused the NRA and SAF lawsuit, which charges the city with violating citizens' Second Amendment rights. The gun groups claim, among other things, that a state of emergency is when citizens need their guns the most.
Politicians got into the act as well. Louisiana legislators and Congress enacted laws after the Katrina confiscations to prevent similar occurrences in the future. Congressman Bobby Jindal and U.S. Sen. David Vitter authored the Disaster Recovery Personal Protection Act of 2006, which President George Bush signed into law last October. Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed a similar state law.
While private gun-control groups, such as the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, have consistently criticized Louisiana for its alleged lack of policies to prevent gun violence, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) actually takes on the task of deciding who can and cannot own a gun. Post-Katrina, ATF has battled the growing illegal gun trade and gun violence in the Crescent City.
Currently in New Orleans, the average time it takes for a legally purchased gun to become involved in a crime is only six months. Nationally, it's five years. Before the storm in New Orleans, it was two to three years. In response to the disturbing local trend, ATF created a gun hotline this past summer. That move netted some high-profile arrests, while adding six field agents and an array of technical support to help prop up the beleaguered NOPD.
ATF Special Agent in Charge David Harper would not comment directly on why he thinks New Orleans is experiencing such intense gun problems after the storm, but he did urge caution for those thinking about purchasing a gun. "First and foremost, we encourage safety," he says. "We see way too many tragedies each year." Spokespersons for both NOPD and ATF would not say whether they thought New Orleans would be better or worse off if more people legally bought and carried guns.
In the past, however, law enforcement and gun advocates have often been at odds over personal gun ownership. Cops, particularly many chiefs of police, fear the notion of vigilante justice. A security guard at a Mid-City bar, a couple walking in the Marigny and a man in FEMA trailer in eastern New Orleans are among those in recent months who shot back at criminals. Those incidents highlighted the benefits of having a gun -- and all were classified as justifiable homicides. Yet, NOPD treats these incidents with equal measures of encouragement and caution.
"It would be fair to say that the Police Department would urge every member of the city to take some personal responsibility in their own safety," says New Orleans Police Department spokesman Sgt. Joseph Narcisse. "But after using common sense and everyone taking personal responsibility for their own safety, the Police Department is here and can protect our citizens and our visitors."
Many gun advocates dispute law enforcement's claim of protection. They say cops can't possibly protect everyone, everywhere, at every single moment. "The police are there only to mop up and do the report," says Ernie Bean of the regional gun shows. "They can't defend you. That's what police officers themselves will tell you. There would have to be a police officer for every single person."
Narcisse disputes the department's role as merely a reactionary force. "The Police Department works absolutely tirelessly to make sure that we do our level best to provide protection for every member of the city," says Narcisse. While he acknowledges that no police department can be everywhere at once, he notes several new initiatives brought forth by Chief Riley and Mayor Nagin, including crime cameras, neighborhood policing, and increased patrols -- all proactive measures to prevent and deter crime.
For those who feel they need an added level of protection, Narcisse urges caution. "Before buying a gun, that person needs to evaluate their home and evaluate themselves to make sure that they are doing a responsible thing," says Narcisse. "You are not necessarily much safer because you bought a gun."
While the back-and-forth of the gun debate continues, Mike Mayer, manager of the Jefferson Gun store and an instructor at The Shooters' Club, insists that getting a gun is simply a matter of personal choice. "We never push anyone into getting a firearm," he says. "That's not something you want to be pushed into. You need to be ready on a mental level. When folks have been pushed by something or someone else to that level, that's when we take it over and try to make sure they take that level correctly with the proper training."
Mayer says more and more people are approaching that level; his classes have been full for the past nine months. "People are more aware of crime in the area and, of course, whenever there's crime in the area, there's more people out there buying guns," he says. "Some people won't talk about it, but you know that the fear is there. It's no way to live, but that's what we're living in right now."
As each Saturday night at Mayer's store comes to a close, applicants for concealed-carry permits finish filling out their 50-question multiple choice tests, turn in their target sheets, and get the last piece of their paperwork ready to send off to the state. One by one, they turn in their ear covers, put their guns away and get in their cars as they head back to their lives.
Whether they are ready to use their guns, Mayer says, is less important than whether they know how to use them. "If somebody is attacking you, your body already knows what to do. What you need to learn is how to use a gun so you don't harm yourself in the process."
For folks like Jerry Donahue, it's not an easy decision to make, but by the end of the class he says he's ready. "I expect it will never happen in my lifetime," he says. "But if I have to do it, I will. I'm not going to get chased out of this city."