Secret Weapons

On a windy, bitterly cold Saturday afternoon, the kind of midwinter day when just leaving home seems absurd, 18 people — 11 men and seven women — are deep inside a Gander Mountain store in Utica, packed into a stuffy, makeshift classroom that could double for a military bunker. The walls are lined with 500-pound gun safes. A few stand 6-feet high and tip the scales near a half-ton. Commanding the room, as part drill sergeant, part performance artist, is Mary Polkowski, a slim, 50-something singer and keyboardist, who joined the National Rifle Association in 1991 and gave up her bar and wedding gigs to teach self-defense.

“This class is about saving lives,” she says, pacing before her pupils. “It’s about defending yourself and saving lives.” Silence.

Polkowski holds up a long silver revolver. It’s a super-sized training version of Smith & Wesson’s .38 Special. “This,” she says, “is a last resort.”

Heads nod. Everyone is here to learn about carrying a concealed handgun. In the front row, Angela Woodley-Williams, a 56-year-old nurse practitioner who lives in Detroit’s Boston-Edison district, admits she’s anxious about this whole exercise. “I told my sister; she was like, ‘Wow. Really? You?’ I’m pretty quiet, laid-back,” she says with an easy smile, admitting the true root of her unease. “I’ve never fired a gun in my life.”

Then there’s this: Woodley-Williams works at the Detroit Medical Center and treats shooting victims in the city’s busiest emergency rooms. “I see the impact of guns, yeah,” she says somberly.

That gave her pause in making this leap, she says, but it didn’t outweigh the fact that she works “really crazy” hours, and is haunted by the 2008 mugging of a neighbor in broad daylight. “The guy cut her really bad,” she says. “I’ve been thinking about [getting a gun] ever since.”

Because Woodley-Williams wants to be armed for daily life — rather than simply stashing a gun in her nightstand — she’s enrolled in a safety class taught by Polkowski and her husband, Allen. The gung-ho couple run the Clinton Township-based Ultimate Protection Academy, one of at least 35 outfits that teach similar courses in metro Detroit. If they certify Woodley-Williams in the next few hours, she’ll be cleared to apply for a concealed-pistol license (commonly called a CCW — carrying a concealed weapon — permit), the approval of which is virtually guaranteed under Michigan law. “I want to carry it in a holster or in my pocket,” she says. “I think it will make me feel safer.”

A Record Wave

While Woodley-Williams may not seem the typical citizen-gunslinger, she’s hardly unique. According to Michigan State Police and county records, the “quiet” nurse is among a growing wave of metro Detroiters from all walks of life who are arming themselves at a blistering pace. The numbers are so high, in fact, that area county staffers who track CCW permits laugh when asked if the term “record-setting” would apply. No joke. They’ve never seen anything like it.

In 2009 alone, applications in Oakland County soared 64 percent as 11,139 residents — roughly the head count of the Michigan National Guard — requested permission to carry a pistol for the first time or renew their existing license. In Macomb County, the jump was 36 percent with CCW paperwork filed for 7,168 people. And in Wayne County, 14,322 residents sought permission to pack, an increase of 42 percent. “It is alarming,” says Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, who’s now offering free gun locks due to what his department calls “skyrocketing requests for gun licenses.” It’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing. Based on permit applications in January, Napoleon says he figures the county will process 20,000 requests this year. “If you go back just five years, it’s over a 150-percent increase,” he says. “So you’re looking at staggering numbers here.”

The local numbers mirror a statewide trend. Michigan State Police report CCW applications doubled in 2008-09, and according to the latest tally, 222,926 citizens are approved to carry a pistol in a holster, pocket, or purse. About 93,700 of them — more than the number of U.S. troops currently serving in Afghanistan — live in metro Detroit.

Names & Faces

“Elderly ladies, lawyers, CEOs, bank presidents, news reporters — it’s all across the board,” says Ray Jihad, owner of the popular Target Sports Gun Shop and Shooting Range in Royal Oak and a second location he recently opened in Orchard Lake. The serious but affable 40-year-old says the surge has propelled record sales into the “millions” and spurred unprecedented demand for CCW training courses — including private sessions for local celebrities and top executives. “Like yesterday, we had a former CEO of a very big corporation, very well known,” Jihad says. “The guy probably used to make, like, $15 million year.” (It’s clear he’s not exaggerating about his blue-chip clientele when, coincidentally, a progress report is overheard regarding the CCW training that day of a high-profile Detroit radio personality.) “A lot of basketball and football players,” Jihad says of his other famous trainees, declining to give any details other than implying that they wear Pistons and Lions jerseys. When pressed for more A-list info, he flips open his cell phone and grins. A member of the Detroit Tigers’ starting lineup is on speed dial. “[Members of the] Tigers, they come in and shoot, but I haven’t given them a [CCW] class yet because they all have residencies out of state.”

Similar tales come from James Watson, a veteran Detroit police officer and former bodyguard for Mayor Dennis Archer who teaches CCW courses at Target Sports when he’s off duty. “I’ve done a couple of billionaires [12 reside in Michigan, according to Forbes magazine]. … They said they were worried about themselves and their family,” Watson says, admitting he was “amazed” they wanted to carry a gun despite having personal security. “I had one where I went to their office and gave the class, and then we came to the range when it was closed and shot. … [The other] had a chef cook for me. I had lamb chops for lunch.” Watson, who taught handgun safety to Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh and City Council member James Tate, also ranks a local plastic surgeon among his memorable students. Why did the doctor want a pistol? “He said he had a patient threaten him because of their expectations, you know. They were 60 years old and they wanted to look 21.” Watson smiles. “He said, ‘I  only made them look 35 and they’re mad at me.’ ”

Lowering the Bar

Certainly, the rich and famous are among the minority of metro Detroit’s newly armed. But Mark Cortis, who bears a passing resemblance to singer-actor Kris Kristofferson, describes a lower-key crowd at his flamboyantly named Wild West Academy in Royal Oak. “Lots of doctors, dentists, pastors, teachers,” he says, adding that the majority of new CCW applicants are “middle-to-upper class, generally suburban, generally people who have limited, if any, firearms experience.” Cortis would know. Since 2001, he’s served as an appointee of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners on the Oakland County Gun Board, which oversees CCW permits. It’s a select post — the board includes only two other people, representatives from the Michigan State Police and Oakland County Sheriff’s Department — but with limited power. “If you come before the gun board in Oakland County, it’s not good news,” Cortis says. Under state law, county gun boards handle administrative issues such as permit revocations and suspensions. The question of who gets a permit is, with a few exceptions, beyond their control.

“We’re a shall-issue state, which means the state shall issue you a permit unless there’s a legal reason not to,” Cortis says. It’s been that way since 2001, when Gov. John Engler signed a then-controversial law that greatly loosened restrictions on concealed weapons. No longer were citizens required to explain why they needed a gun. Now, they essentially just need to be 21 years old, prove they passed an eight-hour safety course, and have no record of felonies, major misdemeanors, or a history of mental illness.

Michigan was hardly in the vanguard of liberal CCW policies. (Washington State passed the country’s first shall-issue law in 1961, and 38 other states have followed since.) But many in the law-enforcement community were dismayed. “The feeling was the law just sort of made [county gun boards] a rubber stamp, and there was no need to be there,” says Edward Cibor, a former assistant Oakland County prosecutor and member of the gun board until his office quit participating in 2001. Now an attorney in Rochester, Cibor doesn’t condemn the new law, but he does think the old system worked just fine. “I think we found those individuals who came before the board and expressed a need [often business- or personal-security related], those permits were granted.” Once the bar was lowered, Cibor knew “there would certainly be an increase.” But he never predicted just how big it would be.

The Arms Race

“They came out in droves,” says Cortis, who filled Cibor’s vacant seat on the gun board. “We did, I think, 5,000 apps the first month.” Oakland County residents, in fact, led the charge statewide with 7,809 applications in the first year. Wayne and Macomb County rounded out the top three. When the smoke cleared, 62,902 Michigan residents had requested a CCW permit, a rush Cortis attributes to pent-up, Second Amendment-related demand. “It was a wave of people who were gun people,” Cortis says. The statistics seem to bear that out as applications plunged more than 50 percent in 2002-03 and stayed relatively low, with the chart over the next few years resembling a mild rollercoaster.

Legal secretary Christineann Silva was among those who got on board, deciding in 2005, at age 38, that she needed more than her self-defense training to feel safe. “I’m a petite woman … and most attackers are stronger, larger,” says Silva, a Downriver resident who works in downtown Detroit. As she makes plans to renew her CCW permit this month, Silva says having a pistol in her purse or pocket gives her peace of mind. “I feel comfortable being able to go grocery shopping and go to the video store and walk my dogs at night.”

A year after Silva obtained her permit, Jason Brys turned 21 and rushed to get his as a means to boost his bank account. “I’m in private security … and I make more money because I have it,” the Warren resident says while buying a pistol (his third) at Target Sports. An equally telling sign of the times is where Brys says he’s paid to carry a pistol on his hip. He works at a movie theater in Walled Lake. Sensing incredulity, he explains a “high volume of cash” is what keeps him — and many others – employed. “It’s actually pretty common, at least on weekends,” he says. “I know [a popular theater chain that] has plainclothes armed guards so you don’t even see them.”

Firearms instructors and retailers say people like Silva and Brys, along with gun-rights advocates, were typical of their clientele — that is, until the economy tanked in 2008. “When you get high unemployment, crime goes up,” says Jihad, echoing a common belief that the FBI says was partly true in 2009 (violent crime, for example, was up in Detroit and Ann Arbor, but down in Sterling Heights and Warren). “Then, you know,” he adds, “they’re doing cutbacks everywhere in police.” Cortis says the mood quickly changed in the suburbs. He explains: “People who before maybe lived in a cul-de-sac in Novi where nothing ever happens, all of sudden now things are happening and they’re starting to get nervous and they’re thinking, ‘Hey you know, my next-door neighbor’s got one of those [CCW permits]; maybe I should get one.’ ” That’s what Jake Westerman was thinking when he signed up for the CCW class at Gander Mountain with his father, mother, and sister. “Given the way things are just getting everywhere … I’d like to have the opportunity to be protected,” the low-key 22-year-old Clinton Township resident says. “I go to Detroit, not regularly, but occasionally. It’s always necessary down there.”

But fear of crime and general economic jitters, it turns out, were just the beginning. The floodgates didn’t truly open, it’s widely agreed, until it was clear who was going to Washington.

Fear of Crackdown

“It was the Democrats taking over the Senate, the House, the attorney general’s office,” says Allen Polkowski, the instructor at Gander Mountain (and a Wayne County Reserve Deputy), explaining the 2008-09 surge of CCW permits. Polkowski, who’s fond of quoting Ted Nugent, seems to channel the Libertarian rocker when he offers this jarring coda as the real reason for the spike: “The election of Barack Hussein Obama.”

Politics aside, the so-called Obama factor did have an immediate and profound impact on the firearms industry and America’s gun culture. “Obama Win Triggers Run on Guns,” the Chicago Tribune headlined shortly after the election, reporting that “some [Americans] are worried that the incoming Obama administration will attempt to re-impose the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004 [while] others fear the loss of their right to own handguns.”

That wasn’t entirely unexpected. Since President Bill Clinton signed the assault-weapons ban and made background checks mandatory for firearms purchasers, gun-rights advocates feared any Democrat in the White House. Those sentiments became more entrenched when candidate Obama supported a new assault-weapons ban and was quoted as saying, “I am not in favor of concealed weapons. I think that creates a potential atmosphere where more innocent people could [get shot during] altercations.” He did try to soothe concerns after the election by announcing, “I believe in common-sense gun safety law, and I believe in the Second Amendment. And so, lawful gun owners have nothing to fear.” But few were listening. At Target Sports in Royal Oak, Jihad says “business tripled in October, November, December of 2008, and it continued on into 2009.”

As gun sales surged in metro Detroit, CCW permits followed. More than a year later, Cortis, who saw the avalanche of applications at the Oakland County Gun Board, says the politics-fueled rush has abated slightly since health care and other issues have edged guns off the White House agenda. The president, in fact, has stepped so far back that the anti-gun Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence graded his first year in office as an “F” for his “continuing concessions to the ‘guns anywhere’ mentality of the gun lobby.” Yet amazingly, Cortis says fears persist. “I got a call today that was strictly Obama-based,” he says. “This is exactly how it went: ‘I want to get my [CCW] permit as soon as possible because, you know, with this new administration, I heard that we’re not going to be able to get them anymore. But if you have it, you might be grandfathered in.’ ”

Paul Kohmescher, a Canton Township retiree, wasn’t on the other end of that call, but he could have been. Seated next to his 25-year-old son Matt at a Target Sports CCW class, the 63-year-old says concerns about the Obama administration are a big reason why he’s here today. “I think we’ve gone so far liberal, that we’re taking the rights away from honest citizens,” he says.

Shoot, Don’t Shoot

While the number of CCW permits in Michigan has already far surpassed the most dire estimates of those who opposed the 2001 legislation, predications that the law would spawn a trigger-happy citizenry have not materialized. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson was among the law’s most outspoken critics, famously telling a reporter (in reference to road-rage concerns), “I can guarantee you that I’ve honked my last horn at an intersection in Michigan. I’m going to take down my Oakland County sign and say ‘Welcome to Dodge City.’ ” Today, Patterson admits his fears haven’t materialized. “I think I was a little more concerned than I should have been. I was expecting more [illegal shootings], and it hasn’t come to pass,” he says, adding, with his trademark wit, “So congratulations to the law-abiding public.”

Sheriff Napoleon also opposed the revised law nine years ago because, he says, “the proliferation of handguns is not something those of us in law enforcement ever want to see.” But after a recent press conference to launch his free gun locks campaign, it was clear he had softened his stance. As he commented after that appearance: “Legitimate people having firearms is never a question for us.”

Nevertheless, a few shootings in recent years involving CCW holders have alarmed authorities. A recent incident, in December 2009, involved Tigh Croff, a Detroit homeowner accused of chasing and killing an unarmed burglar. The case drew national attention — and uncomfortable smatterings of applause — when it was reported that Croff opened fire because he lived in a crime-ridden neighborhood and was frustrated by repeated break-ins. Prosecutors said the circumstances were meaningless. “We cannot have people taking the law into their own hands,” one said. Croff was charged with second-degree murder.

CCW advocates are quick to side with law enforcement in the case. “We really don’t see that many violations among [CCW] holders. It’s negligible,” Cortis says, citing his view from the Oakland County Gun Board, which revoked six permits in 2008-09 (none related to shootings). The more important stats, he says, are the rarely recorded cases when a gun deters a crime. Jason Brys, the movie-theater guard, tells one such story — with Dirty Harry flair. “It was 3 a.m. I’d just left my friend’s house [near Eastern Michigan University], and a guy decided to pull my [car] door open. So I drew my weapon across my chest and pointed it at him. And he said, ‘What are you going to do, shoot me?’ And I told him, ‘It depends on what you do next.’ ” The man stepped away in surrender, Brys says. “Had I not been able to see both of his hands, I might not have been able to warn him.”

Watson, the Detroit police officer and CCW instructor, recalls a similar situation — one with a very different ending — that unfolded on the night of Sept. 27, 2007, across the street from Detroit Police headquarters. “I heard the shooting. I was there within probably a minute,” Watson says. He describes the scene he found in a public parking lot with one word: “Unbelievable.” A carjacker, backed by three cronies, had pulled a gun on a Troy man who was downtown for dinner. Bad move. It was Ray Jihad, Watson’s weekend boss at Target Sports.

“They thought he would be an easy target and he wasn’t,” Watson says. “He stopped them.” Indeed, it was over in a flash. Jihad killed the carjacker with multiple shots from his Glock 9mm pistol. (The other suspects were apprehended by police.) Speaking for the first time to a reporter about the incident, which was ruled self-defense, Jihad says he’s still saddened by “the loss of a life.” He refuses to say much more out of respect for the man’s family, but he does admit to feeling fortunate. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the victim ends up getting killed,” he says, crediting “luck, muscle memory, and training” for his beating the odds.

Aiming for Training

The fact that Jihad got “lucky” after years of firearms practice and training raises obvious questions about people like Angela Woodley-Williams, who are inexperienced with a handgun, but can legally carry one after having spent five hours in a classroom and three hours shooting targets.

Warren Police Lt. Darcy Leutzinger, a 22-year law-enforcement veteran and a SWAT commander, is adamant that rookies need more time on the range. “Police officers who train regularly hit their target less than 30 percent of the time in a firefight,” he says. “When someone is taken by complete surprise or is not trained, their chances are a lot less.” Leutzinger, who also teaches CCW courses through his company, Shotokan 911 Training, tells students that “to get your [CCW] license, shoot on a range and never fire your weapon again that year, you are definitely putting yourself at a higher risk.”

Citing a different danger, Napoleon thinks Michigan should mandate more training. “I have experienced officers who carry guns every single day who [accidentally fire them],” he says.

If more training were required, the sheriff could benefit in another way. Unlike his counterparts in Oakland and Macomb counties, Napoleon’s department makes a few bucks teaching $150 CCW safety courses to citizens. The number of classes has dropped off since Napoleon took over, but last year, under former Sheriff (and now Detroit Police Chief) Warren Evans, it was a nifty business. One promotional flier (still posted on the department Web site in January) welcomed “beginner shooters” and offered “ladies only” classes. Another advertised advanced firearms instruction for $50.

Back in her historic Detroit home, Angela Woodley-Williams has a class like that on her mind. Two weeks after the CCW course in Utica, she proudly announced she was safety-certified — and had already applied for a CCW permit — but she admits she’s not entirely ready to be armed. “You need a little bit more than just the three hours with 18 people,” she says. For that reason, she’s making plans for one-on-one instruction with Mary Polkowski before strapping on a holster with a “small” Glock or Smith & Wesson pistol. As for that moment when she pulled the trigger for the first time, Woodley-Wilson gushes: “It was amazing. I was like, ‘Oh! Wow! Yeah! This is it!’ ” Then she adds, “My first shot was way out of range. … My second shot was a bull’s-eye.”

Manney is a Royal Oak freelancer.

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