The card itself is pretty unimpressive considering the privilege it conveys.

They don’t even laminate it for you.

Last month, in a terse letter, Richmond’s circuit court clerk notified me that my Virginia concealed weapon permit was enclosed. There was no “Spider Man”-style admonishment about great power and great responsibility.

“Please sign on the line that indicates ‘permittee,'” it says, instructing me to call the clerk’s office or go to the Virginia State Police website for more information.

In the wake of Virginia’s brief, fruitless special session on gun control, I applied to learn about how the concealed-carry permit process works and see how hard it is to come by one.

The short answer: Not hard at all. I am now, in fact, among more than 644,000 active concealed-carry permit holders in Virginia, according to a presentation to the State Crime Commission last month.

While I did have to fill out some forms, submit to a background check and pay a $50 fee to the Richmond Circuit Court, at no point did the Commonwealth of Virginia verify that I actually can use a handgun.

Sure, I did have to complete an online training course ($28) and test that I might have been able to pass, if not in my sleep, then certainly while nodding off (our AC in the office was on the fritz that day, and I did get a bit drowsy).

To be fair, the multiple choice test, one of nine ways to “demonstrate handgun competency,” did gauge some basic firearms knowledge. But you could also re-take sections if you got answers wrong, so it’s not likely to weed out the dangerously ignorant as long as they are sufficiently determined.

A screenshot of the online certification test that’s a prerequisite for obtaining a Virginia concealed weapons permit. (Robert Zullo/ Virginia Mercury)

I paid extra and got the “Virginia Concealed Carry Field Guide,” which began with the declaration that our gun laws here in the United States are “easily the best in the world” and congratulated me for taking on the burden of my own defense.

“When a citizen makes the choice to carry a gun they are doing something more than just exercising a right,” it reads. “They are taking personal responsibility for their safety. The act of carrying a firearm is an act of self-reliance.”

 

A screenshot of an online certification test that is one of the potential options for obtaining a Virginia concealed weapons permit. (Robert Zullo/ Virginia Mercury)

I should note, however, that there’s no pushing to make you Dirty Harry:

“When carrying a gun it’s best to be humble, and even meek to a degree. You want to keep a cool head and be prepared to swallow your pride. You want to avoid engaging in aggressive behavior, including name calling, road rage and rude hand gestures,” it reads.

“Also, carrying a firearm does not make you a police officer. You do not have any authority because you carry a gun. If a situation arises where you are a third party and it’s not clear exactly what’s happening it would be much better to pull your cell phone and call the police than to pull your gun.”

The field guide also contains information on where I can and can’t carry, a rundown of Virginia’s deadly force laws and the revelation that I can carry into establishments that serve alcohol — the examples given are “Friday’s, Chili’s or Red Lobster” —  as long as I don’t drink.

It also includes a handy map of all the states (the majority of them!) that will honor my resident Virginia concealed handgun permit.

States that will and won’t honor a Virginia concealed weapon permit. (Virginia Concealed Carry Field Guide)

But above all, it tells me to “avoid stupid places, avoid stupid people, avoid stupid situations,” which, you have to admit, is good, but not necessarily practical, advice.

Missing from this entire process is the part where I prove that I can actually fire a gun and hit what I’m aiming at. (I did have to do this when I worked as an armored car guard years ago and had to get a Virginia armed security license). Indeed, there are lots of more rigorous hands-on courses concealed-carry permit seekers can take here that involve the range.

They’re just not required.

Longtime Virginia gun-control advocate Andy Goddard pointed this out earlier this year in remarks on a failed bill that would have allowed concealed carry without a permit: “We’ve already made the qualifications so ludicrously simple that you can answer a few questions on a computer, and you can get a permit without even having touched a gun before,” he said.

If the rationale from the gun-rights crowd is that good guys with guns make us all safer, shouldn’t we make sure they know what they’re doing before we allow them to carry concealed across the commonwealth?

This isn’t a hypothetical exercise. A man with a concealed handgun permit shot two armed robbers, killing one of them, at a Virginia Beach 7-11 in July.

“He’d never shot anyone before,” The Virginian-Pilot wrote. “He is, however, experienced with guns and has had a concealed handgun permit since he was 21. He enjoys going to a shooting range a couple of times a week and believes all gun owners should be properly trained.”

And, of course, not everyone who gets a concealed carry permit becomes that “good guy with a gun.”

Some of them, either because of negligence or malice, become the very worst people with guns, according to the nonprofit Violence Policy Center’s Concealed Carry Killers project, which compiles lists of killings “not ruled self-defense by private individuals with permits to carry concealed handguns.”

Given the hundreds of thousands of permits out there, the Virginia list, while tragic and gruesome, is blessedly short.  And some of the people on it may have killed regardless of whether they had the permit.

Still, it’s the height of absurdity that a driving test is required to be able to operate a car on the commonwealth’s roads but a concealed handgun permit can be issued based on an online course providers boast can be finished in an hour.

One Virginia Beach lawmaker filed legislation to change that in the wake of the mass killing at a city building and his fellow Republicans should support the effort.

“I do not believe that restricting access to guns and accessories to law abiding citizens is the answer to preventing future tragedies and accidents,” Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, said in a statement.

“However, I do believe it is the obligation of the gun owning community to work to ensure its members practice the proper and safe use of guns, highlight opportunities to prevent guns from being used for self-harm or violent acts against others and create a balance of comfort between the gun owning and non-gun owning communities.”

Davis’ bill would remove the option for concealed handgun permit applicants “to demonstrate competence with a handgun by completing an electronic, video, or online course,” a summary of the legislation reads. It was predictably tabled on a party-line vote in the GOP-controlled House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee, where many a reasonable gun bill has met its demise, during the special session.

In Virginia, where the open carrying of firearms is widely permitted, private sales of guns are barely regulated and urban communities bear a disproportionate burden of gun violence, tightening up the concealed-carry permit process is admittedly a pretty modest measure.

But in a state where nothing on guns comes easy, it’s a good start.

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Robert Zullo
Robert has been winning and losing awards as a reporter and editor for 13 years at weekly and daily newspapers, beginning at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., where he was a staff writer and managing editor. He spent five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary.