Sunday, March 2, 2014

Gun Shopping

The recent article by Sara Ahrens about her expectations when gun shopping, has gotten me to thinking about my own experiences in gun shopping, how things have changed over the past 5 years, and how some things still haven't.

I've already discussed briefly Here  my experience in shopping for my first firearm. It was an eye-opening experience. How I was treated varied widely by shop. I ended up buying where I was treated the best. But that was only the beginning of my gun-shopping experience.

After that, there was my experience shopping for my first AR-15 style rifle (or MSR - Modern Sporting Rifle, as we're now calling them). Remember where I talked about my Paratrooper friends offering gun advice? Well, this is when having friends like this really came in handy. Who better to offer semi-auto rifle advice than guys who have used and continue to use them regularly? I had advice from spec-ops guys, and military guys who were now SWAT guys, and military guys who were then cops, who are now instructors or gunsmiths. I had more advice to sift through than I knew what to do with - it was great! (But it is important to do that - sift through advice people give you and decide, out of that, what works best for "you".) They also recommended a good book as well (Green Eyes & Black Rifles). So when I went shopping, it was as if I had a whole cadre of brothers and uncles following me around as back-up. I chose as my first "shopping" expedition, the National NRA Convention which happened to be coming within a couple hours of me that year. I figured, even if I couldn't actually "buy" that day, that there would be all of the companies and their rifles that I wanted to see all in one place.

Because I had studied-up pre-shopping, I was "well-armed", as it were, with a notebook and pen, lists of what features I wanted, companies I wanted to see, and I even wore my Babes With Bullets T-shirt. Because I had done my homework, I knew the difference between a 1 in 9 barrel twist and a 1 in 7 twist, I knew what a floating hand guard was, etc. I thought I was ready. What I wasn't ready for ... was being ignored.

Yup, you read that right. Ignored. In all but two rifle booths, my lack of a Y-chromosome rendered me invisible. Maybe it wasn't really that, and I was just being over-sensitive, but I tend to attribute it to the "chick factor". Despite at least two trips to each booth, leafing through catalogs in full-view, circling information in those catalogs,  obviously taking notes in a pocket notebook, handling the display rifles, checking chambers and shouldering the rifles, and pretty much doing everything but standing right in front of a rep and jumping up and down, I was not offered help, advice or attention in any way. We're not talking isolated incident - we're talking at least five major manufacturers, at two visits each. I won't name them, because this was three years ago, and I know for a fact that times are changing. But I will name the two manufacturers of the seven who went out of their way to  offer information, advice, non-condescending assistance, and generally demonstrated that they wanted my business. Those companies were Stag Arms and Smith & Wesson. I try to reward companies who treat me well by giving them my business, and sending my friends there as well. I learned a lot from that experience.

Even though I'm still far from an expert, I didn't realize how much I'd learned about gun-shopping, and how far I'd come in general, until I was at SHOT this year. I was at the displays of one particular manufacturer, who is well known, but with whose products I have little experience. I was looking at .380 caliber pistols, and at the same display was a young woman who looked to be in her early 20's, who was asking questions of the company rep who was helping her. As I reached for yet another model to handle, the young woman turned to me and asked, "What do you shoot?". She was clearly shopping for her first gun. I explained what firearms I had already, and what I was looking for, and why. Then she asked, "What would be a good gun for me?" - the dreaded beginner question that doesn't have an answer.

I took a deep breath and replied that there really isn't necessarily any single gun, or caliber that is always good for every woman or every beginner. I asked if she'd ever fired a handgun before, if she'd had any training, and what her experience was. The answer was, her boyfriend's gun, once, and she didn't know what caliber. So then I launched into how caliber, and frame size, and recoil, and personal hand size all play into the decision. Things were coming out of my mouth that I never even realized I knew. It was as if all of my wonderful instructors and mentors had a party in my head and were feeding things out of my mouth to this young woman. It was kind of a revelation. All of this while the poor company rep was still standing there. To his everlasting credit, when I turned to him apologetically and begged pardon for stepping on his customer interaction, he was grinning and even looked a little relieved. I wished the young woman good luck, and took my leave, but I had a huge case of the warm fuzzies when I walked away. I felt like I had just paid it forward for all the help and advice I myself have received.

Upon my return from SHOT, I stopped in to my local shop to pick up my shotgun that had been shipped for modifications. It's a very small shop, so it's standard procedure to strike up conversations with other customers while waiting one's turn, and also to listen in (and sometimes contribute to) the shopping conversations of others. While I was doing this, I was privy to a gray-bearded father shopping for a handgun for his daughter. Meanwhile, the mother and daughter (who looked college-age) stood back and to the side very passively and let the father run everything. The father was telling the shop-owner that he was looking for a .22 cal revolver "nothing too big", and while the shop owner and the father talked and handled guns, the daughter who was actually supposed to be using the firearm to protect herself, was not involved at all. Well, I couldn't stand it, so finally I stepped over to the daughter, and asked if this gun was supposed to be for her. She allowed that it was, so I used my best motherly tone to tell her that if that was the case, then she needed to be over there, listening, learning, and being part of the conversation. Which she then did. I worried a little bit that I might have overstepped and been too much of a busybody, but when the family left the shop, the daughter put her hand on my shoulder as she was passing and offered a hearty thank-you. Whew!

It's now a constant struggle for me to keep my mouth shut when there is such a woman gun shopping near me. I don't have any actual expertise, I've just been through it. So it bothers me when the boyfriend has the conversation with the sales staff while the girlfriend stands there as if she doesn't exist. It grates on me when the staff and the father talk about caliber and size when no one even looks at the girl or her hand size or grip. 

It makes me recall a story from a female instructor I respect greatly, who also works at a gun shop. She related how a fellow once came up to her at the counter and announced that he was shopping for a handgun for his wife. Her reply to the man was, "Well, where IS she?!"  :-D

The three big things I've learned about gun shopping in the last 5 years are: 1) It pays to cultivate a relationship with a local shop, 2) It pays to expect (and even demand) respect in dealing with sales people, and most importantly, 3) It pays to educate yourself ahead of time, so that you can be knowledgeable and confident when you go.

Yesterday at the local gun show, I realized how far I've really come. The owner of my local shop recognized me out of the crowd passing by, waved me over, greeted me and asked how things were going. I told him that I was just window shopping before the storm hits, but I was really waiting for particular gun X to become more available. He raised his eyebrows, looked over his shoulder and told me that he did have just one such a gun in stock back at the shop, but he had been waiting until he got more in before advertising their presence. "Come over next week", he said, "and I'll get it to you."

Wow. I've come a long way in five years.

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