The walls of Maccabee Arms Ltd. are lined with guns of every model and manufacturer. Above the door hangs a series of classic rifles, some from the Civil War, with a sign reading, “not for sale.” Among the long guns hanging above the register is a Soviet Dragunov sniper rifle. (“I got shot by one of those,” owner Sharon—pronounced “Shah-rone”—Oren told me.) And on one of the display racks in the back sits the most popular—and most controversial—rifle in America: an AR-15, bearing custom engravings honoring “Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States.”
I’m a 26-year-old native of Reno’s deep-blue university neighborhood, with practically no experience handling a gun. I was slightly intimidated upon arriving at the shop for the first time a few weeks ago—but that was the point. I came to Maccabee Arms to inquire about getting something decidedly out of my own comfort zone, but which almost 120,000 Nevadans held last year: a Concealed Carry Weapons permit (CCW).
Nevada’s open-carry law states that anyone who owns a legal firearm can carry it in public without a permit, so long as the gun is unobstructed from view. CCWs allow citizens to carry guns inside of backpacks, waistbands or handbags, for example, and are granted by the county Sheriff’s department. CCW applicants are required to take a course from certified instructors on basic firearms safety, legal knowledge and marksmanship.
Several such instructors work at Maccabee Arms, where most of the employees are combat veterans with multiple years experience using firearms. Watching them, they seemed to regard the weapons adorning the walls as nonchalantly as they might hardware supplies. I kept my hands to myself, however, as I waited to speak with Oren, the owner, who has spent most of his life around large quantities of guns.
“My father was a military officer—he was a colonel,” Oren said. “I went to the—kind of like your West Point—it was the military high school. That was my ‘official’ introduction to guns, but I used to go steal my father’s gun and go shoot it. Probably shouldn’t say that.”
Born in Tel Aviv, Oren is a veteran of the Israel Defense Force and the Israeli Security Services. After his military service, he worked as a defense contractor for governments around the world, living on four continents and learning six languages.
After meeting his wife in Los Angeles in 2003, they moved to Reno not long afterward while she attended medical school at the University of Nevada, Reno. He met another Jewish veteran selling firearms under his own small Federal Firearm License from home, and the two made plans to go into business together.
“I ended up opening a store, and he ended up retiring,” Oren said.
I told Oren that I was ignorant about gun ownership, and that I was hoping to gain some firsthand knowledge by sitting in on his next CCW class. Not only was I interested in the process of earning a permit, but I also wanted to learn from the others in class their motivations for getting CCWs.
After I sensed some initial skepticism on his part, he told me to come back in a few days for the class, but that I wouldn’t be taking part in the live-fire part of the test, as I didn’t have my own gun or safety equipment. I felt that was fair enough, so I thanked Oren and left.
In the endless deluge of statistics, political jockeying and blame that accompanies news of a shooting, the civilized consensus usually returns to this—people with opposing ideologies need to actively listen to each other. I admit, while in college a few years ago I would have never even considered patronizing a gun store—my political sensibilities and family culture meant it was a matter of principle for me.
But after several frustrating years of failing to find common ground with pro-gun ideologues, I realized that if I actually had a progressive mindset, I wouldn’t just listen to opposing arguments, I would supplement my understanding with cultural knowledge—in this case, gun culture.
On the day of the class, eight applicants arrived for the classroom portion before traveling to the county shooting range later in the day. The group was relatively varied in terms of age, race and gender, which Oren told me was fairly typical of his classes.
Joseph Anson and Shawn Welches were two of the youngest attendees that day, both 25 years old. Anson works in automotive repair and moved to Reno from California recently, while Welches has lived in Northern Nevada his entire life. They came from fairly different family backgrounds and were looking to acquire their CCWs for mostly different reasons.
“Family’s always had them for as long as I can remember—as long as history goes back, we’ve always had guns,” Anson said. “They’ve just always been a part of life. It’s always been fun.”
Anson estimates that his family’s collection of guns holds 18 to 25 firearms, saying he wouldn’t call it a “huge” collection. After leaving what he felt were draconian laws and skyrocketing home prices in California, he said he’s happy to take advantage of the freedoms offered in Nevada.
“Living in California, it’s always been almost impossible to get something like that,” Anson said. “Out here, I finally have some money to get a gun, or to get my own gun, and I’m finally able to get one with out going through a bunch of hoops.”
Welches, a native of Sparks, mostly enjoyed paintball and a Daisy BB gun from his father as his childhood exposure to guns. Neither of his parents owns a gun, he said.
“My mom is actually from China, Qianghai—she’s not into that stuff,” Welches said. “She’s not against guns—she’s just not for guns. Like, she wouldn’t own one, but she has no issue with me owning them.”
Welches believes he also has a duty to protect his fiancée and two children in a town and community he sees as growing increasingly dangerous.
“I know people who grew up in Reno, and I’ll call it the Reno Way,” said Welches. “It’s like, we’re friendly, we love our neighbors, we talk to everyone, we help each other—and we’re losing that in this city.”
Incidents like the Las Vegas shooting last October or the robbery of the gun store Sparks Black Rifle in May are pressing examples of his fears, Welches said.
Welches and Anson both prefer rifles for recreational purposes and agree that owning a smaller, more easily misplaced handgun comes with greater responsibilities. However, they also feel like open carrying could make them a target in an active shooter situation, necessitating their CCWs.
Oren told me that his is a fairly intensive course, and hinted that some of the other instructors in the area might not be as exhaustive. He said he offers the class because he is “bored”—”this shop is my retirement, not my livelihood,” he told the class at one point—but he feels a sense of accomplishment in helping people to not be victimized, mentioning women whom he said have come to take the class after surviving sexual assault.
The written material took us about five hours to get through. As Oren presented slide after slide, covering the legal and social aspects of using a gun for defense, I felt like I was learning something valuable. He explained proper safety and stance techniques, parts of the gun and cartridge; there was even a chapter on the emotional and societal outcomes to expect from shooting someone, even in self-defense.
I tried to pay particular attention to the terminology, of which there was plenty. Listening to gun advocates parse the definitions of “negligent discharge” versus “accidental discharge,” or that “AR” stands for “Armalite” and not “Assault Rifle”—there is no legal definition of “assault rifle” I was told multiple times—has often infuriated me: How can we be splitting hairs about “clips” and “magazines” when people who don’t even care are getting shot anyway?
In the clinical setting of the classroom, however, I could see that these terms weren’t just jargon. Plenty of subtle mechanical nuances influence the proper nomenclature, and when miscommunication can put lives on the line—it pays to be precise. It still struck me, though, that some of the conservative outrage to botched gun terminology strongly resembles the liberal reaction to a term “not being PC.”
The remainder of Oren’s class was punctuated by real-life examples from his military career, and some disarming drills in which I played his would-be assailant because I “hadn’t signed a waiver,” he joked.
After lunch, the applicants were expected to meet Oren at the county range on Pyramid Highway for the shooting portion of the test. A certain on-target percentage out of 25 to 30 shots is necessary to meet the state requirement. Oren requires everyone to shoot 50.
Marina Monroy, a 27-year-old medical assistant and mother of four, only recently brought guns into her home, but has spent time at the range with her husband as part of an emerging family gun culture.
“It was mainly in the past couple of years where my husband was interested in getting a gun for personal use and self defense,” Monroy said. “It actually became a hobby for him, and in the past couple of years, I’ve been more exposed to the guns through my husband.”
They both committed to learning more about personal defense after two crimes occurred in their neighborhood. Monroy decided she would get her CCW to carry her gun while her husband works out of town and she stays home with kids. She bought her gun three months ago and considers Oren’s class her first formal firearms training.
“I like learning the right way, not hearsay,” Monroy said. “I think [we] got more of the information from the beginning from friends before we even started asking them like, ‘Hey, what was the process like? What do you guys do as far as gun safety or gun training?”
With their young children in the house, Monroy and her husband are conscious of the dangers posed by unsafe storage practices, and always keep the guns unloaded and locked. As both of her parents came from Mexico, Monroy had minimal exposure to guns growing up—but intends to make education a priority in keeping her kids safe around guns into adulthood as well.
“We actually have taken the kids out, just for them to be familiar with what a gun—how much of an impact it actually has,” Monroy said. “Video games do not provide a real-life scenario of what a gun can actually do.”
Part of the new gun culture she’s establishing for her family, though, entails listening to her children’s responses to what they witness at the range and at home.
“I have had my children say, ‘I’m not comfortable touching a gun,’ so I’m happy that I’m not going to force something on my children,” Monroy said. “I’m happy that they’re able to provide that information to me.”
In fact, most of the gun owners I spoke with seemed to equate firearm safety with some sort of family tradition, including Sheriff Chuck Allen, who was elected as Washoe County Sheriff in 2014 on a pro-gun platform.
“We had some very hard rules; when my father spoke, you listened,” Allen said. “He could leave a loaded gun on a desk, and we knew not to touch it—my sister and I.”
Allen credits his family’s stern approach to gun safety, and his time spent in the Air Force and various law enforcement agencies with his own nearly lifelong comfort around firearms—extending that sentiment to his constituents as well.
“I’m a pro-gun guy, he said. “I believe if you are a firearm enthusiast, whether you want a firearm for sporting, protection, home safety—you should have the ability to do that. From a law enforcement officer’s perspective, we look at all citizens through our officer safety measures as somebody [who] may have a weapon already. So it doesn’t bother me if 50 percent of the Washoe County population had CCWs—and they don’t—because I know that in order to obtain one, you’ve had to be vetted and you have to have a clear criminal history.”
I mentioned to Allen that having a supportive family culture isn’t one of the minimal qualifications for owning a CCW, and in a time where we see violent, disaffected young shooters seemingly lacking familial oversight, I wondered if gun-rights enthusiasts would welcome laws mandating proficiency and knowledge before any gun purchases are made.
“You do want every single gun owner to not only be familiar, but be proficient in whatever firearm he or she is holding in his or her hand,” Allen said. “I don’t know if we as society, as a state, as a county, as a city, want to go into over-regulating or over-policing that. I often wonder, at what point do we over-regulate our citizens? I struggle with that.”
Allen believes that self-education is one of the duties of any prospective gun-owner, and laws that seek to regulate or preemptively alter the purchasing conditions for regular citizens aren’t as effective as holding unsafe gun owners personally responsible for their actions.
Oren grapples with his beliefs from time to time as well. During the course, he explained that, constitutionally, no one should need a permit to protect themselves—but, professionally, he believes you must be trained to be an effective gun owner.
“It’s a hard one, because from the business side, you want to sell everybody anything, and on the other side … I sleep good at night,” Oren said. “At the end of the day, it’s my prerogative, as the shop owner, to decide who I want to sell [to] and who I don’t want to sell [to].”
Oren has declined to sell to certain customers in the past, and at the range that day, I watched him deftly snatch a loaded gun from the hands of a student not following his instructions—the kind of decisive action meant to prevent the worst before it happens.
After spending their shots at their state-mandated human silhouette target, almost everyone on the roster had passed at the end of the day. I left the range with the others feeling empowered. I hadn’t met any crazed gun nuts, only men and women with an earnest interest in protecting their families. I felt like I left better prepared for not only what types of firearms I might see—or not see—in public, but how to better relate to the people them, too.
While I now better understand the process of buying and using a firearm, and I’m proud to have confronted some of my prejudices against guns and their owners, I still don’t think I’ll ever own a gun. More than one person described guns to me as “the great equalizer” during my time with the Maccabee crew. But on the other end of the range that day, I saw a citizen firing his own AR-15. Listening to the fast, incredibly loud “bang” of the long rifle, the chorus of handgun fire from our group sounded like popguns in comparison.
I understood the reasons I had heard for owning and carrying a gun, from family traditions to politics and protection. But I still wasn’t sold personally—not enough, at least, to warrant the added responsibility, and potential liability, of carrying a gun.