The Caledonian-Record

May 19, 2012

Target: Safety - Gun sales are on the rise so local law enforcement is working with people in a program to introduce them to firearms. What's behind the gun surge? Should you be armed? Leah Carey took a shot at the story.

By Leah Carey

Melissa Jenkins. pat o'Hagan. Brianna Maitland. Maura Murray. there is no shortage of tragic, cautionary tales. life can change in an instant and local women are responding by arming themselves in ever higher numbers.

According to Rick Gorham of Rick's Gun Shop in east Burke, gun sales have been increasing dramatically, especially to women. "everybody's at a point right now where they want to carry one," he said. "It's mainly just protection, self-protection guns. they're buying small hand guns, something they can carry." the St. Johnsbury police department wants to make sure that the newest gun owners are handling and using those firearms safely, so over the past two weeks they have held two gun safety classes for community members.

"We're here because we believe in the safe handling of guns," said detective Sgt. Jennifer McGarvin. "As law enforcement officers, we believe in teaching people how to safely own and operate guns." "We're not here to advocate that you all go out and buy guns," said police Chief Clem Houde. "We're here simply to give you information to learn how to properly handle a gun." "one of the biggest concerns that we have with people that arm themselves," he continued, "is that they carry a gun, but they're not really going to use it. It's just for show and if you need to use it, it's going to get taken away from you and it's going to get used against you." the class consisted of two hours of lecture on Wednesday evening plus three hours of target practice on Saturday morning. Included in the cost of the class were a year-long membership at the Caledonia Forest and Stream Club, ammunition for target practice and a gun lock. Free gun locks are available to all community members at the St. Johnsbury police department.

topics covered during the lecture included state right-to-carry laws, familiarization with parts of a hand gun, safe storage, and shooting basics like stance, grip, sight alignment and breathing.

the instructors emphasized the importance of always staying vigilant with guns. "Remember that the most comfortable person around guns is also the most dangerous person," said Houde. "Whenever you get comfortable with something, you tend to be a little more relaxed in its handling." despite the tragedies that have received extensive coverage, officer lester Cleary said that he's only had to draw his weapon in the line of duty a few times. "If I never had to point my gun at somebody ever again, I'd be really good with that," he said.

"you watch action movies and tV, they're running around and it really desensitizes people to what you're doing," said Cleary. "When you're standing there and you realize that you're pointing a loaded gun at somebody … it gets really real, really fast." On The Range things got "really real" for the participants in the class on Saturday morning when they headed out to Caledonia Forest and Stream Club to practice handling a gun and shooting.

Jess Hathaway, a high school literacy specialist, traveled all the way from South Burlington to take the class. "the course was good because I've never had any experience. I know basic safety stuff, but hearing the rest was beneficial for me." Although she didn't know any of the women who have been crime victims, she said the incidents "make you more aware and more cautious. It makes you want to be more knowledgeable." Hathaway was there with her mother, Kathleen Walsh. "there's been bad things happening and my husband does have guns in the house. But if he's not there and I'm uncomfortable using a gun and not even knowing if the safety is on or the safety is off…" Walsh trailed off. "It's something that unless you use it pretty frequently, I don't think that in a time of stress you're going to be able to do it." officer Cleary agrees. He said that he tries to go to the shooting range at least once a week during the summer.

"I'd love nothing better than to start running into everybody up there!" Alone In The Car Cher Smith of peacham chose to take the course because she has a gun and wanted to learn more about using it. "I have a job that requires me to be alone in my vehicle out on stretches of road where there's no cell coverage," she said. "Also, I live by myself. So I was just feeling the need for some stepped-up security in my life." Smith knew Melissa Jenkins personally and the murder affected her. "Some of the awful things that have happened have been extremely deliberate. I've had people say to me, 'you know what happened to Melissa wasn't random, so why are you concerned?' And I said, 'Because what happened was horrific and it means it can happen to anyone.'" the St. Johnsbury police received universally high marks from the attendees for the class, especially for their patience in teaching new shooters. "I think the St. Johnsbury police department absolutely rocks to have done this," said Smith. "I think they're responding quite nicely to what the community has gone through and what the community continues to go through." Fellow student Chuck prokocimer said, "What better trainers could you have than police officers? I felt good and safe with them." Looking for Training diane Jejer of peacham started making phone calls recently looking for a place to learn about hand guns. "I called the state police at first and asked if they knew anyone that would show you how to use a hand gun." She was eventually pointed to the St. Johnsbury police department, who were just organizing their class at the time.

"I didn't go because of Melissa, bless her heart. I don't know if she'd known how to use a gun if it would have helped her. … I want to use it more for sport. then if you need to use one, you know how to do it." Jejer believes in training and had a good time learning about hand gun safety. "everything is dangerous unless you're educated how to use it," she said. "this is great because I want to do so something on my own. I can come [to the shooting range] by myself and just practice whenever I want." More Classes After a very positive response to the first set of classes, the St. Johnsbury police are contemplating more classes for the future. "It filled up so quickly," said McGarvin. "We're getting really positive feedback from people about this." Although more classes are not yet scheduled, McGarvin added, "the encouraging words that are pouring in are making [the department] understand what an important connection to the community it is!" Chief Houde also mentioned the possibility of offering classes on other means of self-defense, including pepper spray.

Diane Jejer practices shooting as Officer Kevin Barone looks on. Officer Lester Cleary demonstrates good shooting technique.