by David Burnett
Average Right-to-Carry permit holders will load or unload their handgun thousands of times over their lifespan. The guns tucked discretely inside waistbands, behind car seats and inside purses will rarely see action outside of the practice range, and the owners carefully observe the laws regarding their use and possession.
Yet tucked away in the corner of each armed citizen’s mind is the possibility of a day when that seldom-used firearm becomes the only lifeline to survival.
For Michelle Cornelsen of Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, that day came on a snowy morning during the wee hours of December 30, 2009. For John Lee of Miami, Fla., it came after Memorial Day 2010.
We asked each of them about their experiences, what they learned and what we can learn from them. Here are their stories:
In Miami, John Lee had been celebrating Memorial Day. After attending a cookout at the home of a friend, he dropped by to visit his daughter before heading to his apartment.
This was a regular routine for Lee, just another typical evening. Upon arriving home, however, things changed quickly.
“I got out of my car to go inside my apartment and three guys just jumped out,” Lee said. “They had a gun right in my face. They said, ‘Let me get that,’ and I’m looking right at his face, and it’s like something from the movies. I had a chain and bracelet and watch, and I guess I was taking too long and he fired the shot. It hit me in my left hand, broke it up.”
Lee knew he was dead if he didn’t do something quickly to stop the attack. So he reached for his own concealed handgun.
“By the time he could fire another shot, I reached for my gun,” Lee said. “He fired again and it hit me in my hand. By this time it’s like World War III out there. I’m firing shots at them around the car, they’re shooting at me. Then they ran off.
“I wasn’t able to hit them, but firing the shots scared them off. One of them was so scared he dropped the ski mask he was holding.”
The gunfight was like nothing Lee could have ever imagined. Being shot multiple times was such a surprise, survival was all that entered his mind.
“When you’re hit, your adrenaline’s going,” he said. “After the gun smoke cleared, I had blood rushing out like crazy.
“When I got out there to call the police, I was worried I wouldn’t survive. I was worried I wouldn’t see my kids again, or my mom. I wanted to hang up on the 9-1-1 operator and call my mom because I wasn’t sure if this would be it for me. But she didn’t let me. When you find out you’re going to be okay—you’re going to make it, you’re still there—it’s a big relief.”
Emergency workers stabilized Lee and got him to the hospital. In the end, he had two gunshot wounds to the abdomen and a severely broken hand.
Yet he was still alive—something he believes would have been different had he not chosen to acquire a Right-to-Carry permit and arm himself for protection.
“If I hadn’t had a gun, I wouldn’t be talking to you now,” Lee said matter-of-factly. “I know I wouldn’t. They didn’t have masks, anything. I wouldn’t be talking to you.
“Today’s society, you just never know. You see things happening on the news, you see things happening around the neighborhood. It definitely came in handy that night.”
Lee said that although he kept the fact that he carries a firearm mostly a secret, some who knew thought he was crazy for doing so.
“I try not to let too many people know that I carry a gun,” he said. “I kind of keep it a secret.
“The only one uncomfortable with it at first was my grandma. When she was growing up, it was different. She always asked me why I have it. And I’m like, ‘I’m legal, I have the right, and you just never know.’ She was always skeptical. But now she won’t let me leave the house without it, even to take out the garbage.”
Since the attack and the subsequent revelation of his choice to carry a firearm, however, many have congratulated Lee for saving his own life in an extremely tough situation.
“People recognize me to this day,” Lee said. “When I got back to work, people bought me cake. People came to the job just to make sure I was okay. They were glad I fought back. A lot of people showed me love, just being able to fight back so they [the attackers] couldn’t get anything.
“It was like I was a hero. I can’t even explain the feeling.”
The “hero” label, however, is one that Lee won’t accept. To him, he simply did what he had to do and had a right to do.
“I tell them I’m not a hero,” he said. “I went through what any man or woman would do when fighting for your life. I tell them all the time, ‘You’d probably do the same thing.’
“I work hard for everything I get. For someone just to come and take it? I can’t have that. I was in the ER and the doctor was like, ‘You need to play the lottery, man!’ They made me feel better while they cleaned me up. A lot of people don’t get a chance to shoot back or fight back, so they’re glad I had the chance to.”
Despite the fact that Lee would almost certainly be in a grave right now had he not been carrying a gun, there are still many who would deny him that right. And there are many who will still argue straight to his face that guns are bad—guns only make bad situations worse.
Of course, Lee isn’t buying it.
“I had a nice little talk with one guy who was, like, ‘Guns aren’t good for anyone!’ So I asked how he’d feel if someone was in his house robbing him.
“Guns are not the problem. It’s the people that have the guns. The bad guys are going to have the guns. How would you feel if a guy’s got a gun on you and you can’t do anything about it? If something’s happening to your family, your friends, and you can’t fight back? That’s not right. If they take away guns—trust me, man, that’s crazy.”
Lee had a good response to the man’s argument.
“I told him, ‘Sir, trust me. If you were in my situation, you’d wish you had your gun on you.’ It’s kind of funny. He was like, ‘Damn, you didn’t hit one of them?’ It was like a double standard.”
Before the incident, Lee was sold on the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. Now, after the healing is complete but the attack is still fresh in his mind, he realizes even more the importance of that right.
“I don’t live in a shell,” he said. “I’m going to take care of my family, I’m going to pay my bills, and I will protect myself.
“Being able to protect myself legally is a good thing. Why wouldn’t you?”
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