Personal protection

OSSINEKE – Symphony violinist Eric Lawson has performed all over the world, practicing for decades to master the instrument and classical music by Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart and Haydn. At an Alpena shooting range, the 46-year-old is just as dedicated. At the sound of a buzzer, he recently removed a handgun from a holster under his jacket and shot two rounds into a target in 1.25 seconds.

“That’s a personal best,” said Lawson, who also is allowed by law to carry a concealed handgun.

“Firearms are not something you dabble with. You either become as expert as your time and capabilities allow or you don’t touch them,” he said.

Armed with a doctorate in violin, Lawson doesn’t come across as the type of person with a passion for handguns and self-defense.

But typical isn’t exactly typical in Northeast Michigan.

“People who choose to arm themselves are really very friendly, mild mannered, even tempered, polite very unlike the stereotypes people think of,” said Lawson, who also is an Alpena County commissioner.

In his youth, Lawson shot .22-caliber rifles and muzzle loaders in the county and knew about gun safety. But in 2010, when Lawson left the concert circuit to return to his rural Michigan roots, he became interested in handgun training for self-protection. He said the area is safe and crime is low.

To learn about the concealed carry weapons permit, Lawson studied the law on the Michigan State Police website. Then he found a class in the Alpena area.

“One thing they teach us, and that we take to heart, is that we are not law enforcement officers,” Lawson said. “It’s not our job to catch bad guys or right wrongs. The gun is a tool to get yourself and those you care about out of danger.”

He likens shooting to the martial arts.

“Target shooting is a sport, but it is a sport, like the martial arts, that focuses on self defense,” he said.

When Lawson showed up for the daylong class, he was ready for anything.

“It included classroom lecture about safe gun handling and defensive situations,” he said. “There was also a section on firearms law and defense law, a test and then range work.”

The most crucial information is that permit holders live by four rules of gun safety, he said.

“One is that all guns are always loaded,” Lawson said. “I don’t assume a gun is unloaded unless I’m looking at an empty chamber.”

The second rule is never point the firearm “at anything you are not willing to destroy,” he said. “Third rule is keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire, and the last rule is always be sure what your target is and what lies in the line of fire.”

Lawson said accidents happen and common sense is critical.

“Our training teaches us to attempt to diffuse bad situations by absolutely every other means other than a firearm,” he said.

Once he completed the class, he received a signed certificate from his instructor, filled out an application and submitted it along with a check and identification to the Alpena County clerk. He also had his photograph taken and was fingerprinted.

After a background check, his license was approved by a county gun board, which included a representative from the prosecuting attorney’s office, the sheriff’s department and Michigan State Police Alpena Post.

Committed to staying sharp, Lawson participates in shooting challenges twice a month with others, honing his reflexes and mind as he participates in timed events and “shoot/don’t shoot” scenarios.

“I believe in exercising our rights, and because I have a family I am not interested in taking any chances with their safety in a rural area,” Lawson said. “When seconds count the police are minutes away, as they say.”

The right to carry a concealed weapon appears to have strong support from law enforcement in Alpena County, where many residents are experienced hunters. But community standards can vary state by state, even county by county.

“I’m all for it,” Alpena County Sheriff Steven Kieliszewski said. “It’s a law that has been in existence for a long time and there are a lot of people who carry concealed for self-protection.”

Kieliszewski said he has never had a bad encounter with someone licensed to carry a concealed weapon. The law requires that when such individuals are contacted by a police officer they must state immediately that they are licensed.

“The people who scare me are those who are carrying without a concealed weapon license,” Kieliszewski said. “When you pat those people down and find out they have a gun, it’s a spine-tingling event. Obviously you wonder what is provoking them to carry concealed.”

Another difference is that law enforcement officers know people who have permits have gone through a background check, classes and training, he said.

“We have quality instructors in the Alpena area, who go through the law quite well and make sure the individual who has that fire arm knows how to use that fire arm.”

Like Lawson, Kieliszewski said those who carry haven’t been trained in law enforcement.

“But anyone who is carrying has the potential to prevent a bad situation from getting worse,” he said. “If they are somewhere and someone comes in and starts discharging a fire arm in a building or mall, they have the potential to prevent further harm from happening.”

But, he said, “if that person decides to do something, they have to be extremely careful in how they approach that situation, because obviously law enforcement is going to be coming. If you have two people in civilian clothes with guns who is the good guy and who is the bad guy?”

Kieliszewski offered another caution.

“The aftermath of firing a weapon at a person is traumatic,” he said. “It’s the whole thing of being placed in that position where you have to draw your gun and defend yourself against another individual.”

From the law enforcement perspective, he said a lot of thought goes through an officer’s head before and after a confrontation, he said. It would be a similar experience for a civilian.

“Why did that person put me in that place where I had to draw my gun?” Kieliszewski said. “And then you’ve got all the potential ramifications: Did I do the right thing? Did I do the wrong thing and what is the potential liability?”

Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at blehndorff@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.