Meet the gun safety instructor holding ‘office hours’ on Zoom
Gun rights advocates are promoting safety training in response to record-breaking numbers of arms sales amid Covid-19
On a recent afternoon in San Jose, California, Chuck Rossi held up his AR-15 in front of his computer camera, talking through how to hold the weapon safely, and how to load it with ammunition.
“AR-15s are modular. They’re like Legos for men,” Rossi said. The man on the other side of the Zoom call chuckled.
Rossi is an activist turned safety instructor, one of the many gun owners across the country who are using Zoom or social media to teach new gun owners how to use their weapons.
The coronavirus pandemic has driven record-breaking numbers of gun sales in the United States, as gun sellers have succeeded in being categorized as “essential businesses”. At least anecdotally, many of the millions of guns sold during the pandemic have gone to first-time gun buyers, sparking concerns about potential increases in domestic violence, gun accidents and child gun deaths. Gun control advocates say the panic-buying during a time of anxiety, uncertainty and economic distress has also made gun suicide a particular concern.
In response, gun rights advocates have focused on safety training, with some offering free sessions to make sure new gun owners understand how to operate their weapons – and feel welcomed to the gun community.
Rossi was an early Facebook employee who left the company in 2018, and still lives in San Jose. He co-founded Open Source Defense, a Silicon Valley gun rights group. The group’s founders live across the country, but many of them are current or former tech workers. Between 20% and 30% of Americans say they personally own a gun, a number that has fallen for decades, and the group aims to grow the base of American gun owners by being friendly, digitally savvy and “zero percent” focused on culture wars. Zoom “office hours” for new owners is one of their initiatives.
When he signed up for a Zoom gun safety session, one new gun owner, a 40-year-old tech company worker from San Jose, said he expected he would be chatting with “some hillbilly NRA guy”.
“Is he even going to be nice to me?” the tech worker, who is black, wondered. Instead he got Rossi, who works in the same industry and lives in the same town. Just a few years ago, the new gun owner, who asked that his name not be used, said he was someone who had believed that AR-15s should be banned.
In early March, as concerns about coronavirus grew, his company told employees not to worry, that “the government has it under control, there’s going to be a vaccine.” Then he went to grocery store, “and there was nothing” so he had to go to his parent’s house to get toilet paper.
He starting thinking about stories of civil unrest during the Los Angeles riots or Hurricane Katrina and said he worried about desperate people, hungry people, who might see homes in his nice San Jose neighborhood as soft targets.
“People take from those who have,” he said. How likely was it that he would ever be a target? “One in a million,” he said. “I consider it an extreme impossibility. But why not be prepared?” In mid-March he went to buy self-defense weapons: a handgun and, because shotguns were sold out, an AR-15, which retails for about $1,000.
The new gun owner’s parents were appalled, and worried about the safety of his young children, ages three and one. His mother tried to get his brother to intervene. Instead, his brother bought himself three guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
The new gun buyer said the Zoom session was part of his attempt to be responsible. Rossi, hefting his own high-end AR-15, recapped the principles of gun safety: always keep the weapon’s muzzle pointed in a safe direction. Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire. Be aware of what might be behind the target you’re shooting at. Treat every gun as if it’s loaded.
They did some troubleshooting: what should he do if an ammunition round got jammed inside his gun? How long would his military-surplus ammo be usable? Ammo didn’t go bad, Rossi said. He was still “shooting rounds” from the second world war and “surplus from the Korean war”.
While “white Americans tend to be more vocal about their gun ownership”, the new owner said, being a black gun owner didn’t feel special. But it came with different concerns. He was more afraid a police officer might shoot him than that someone else might attack him on the street; he would “never” carry a gun in public.
If he ever had to call the police to his home, he said, he would emphasize: “The black guy with the gun is the homeowner.” Owning guns had already shifted some of his political opinions. He said he still supported limits on larger-capacity ammunition magazines. But when he bought his guns, he said, he had to wait 10 days to get them. “That was an eternity to me,” he said. “Are these really common sense gun laws?”
Rossi was encouraged to hear this, and said he’d try to persuade the new gun owner about why he actually needed larger-capacity magazines next. The two men made a plan to go shooting in person as soon as possible.