Carey McWilliams keeps a lot of guns in his Fargo home, from shotguns and rifles for hunting, to handguns, which he names after his old seeing eye dogs.
"This is Davis, a .45, and this one is loaded, too," McWilliams said as he pulled the handgun from a nightstand next to his bed in a darkened room.
Williams didn't need a light to find the gun. He's been totally blind since he was a child. But he's held a North Dakota concealed-carry permit for 17 years and believes he is the country's first such permit holder.
He likes to keep the .45 in his pants pocket. "Just kind of always on me is like putting the belt or keys or anything, it's just the way it goes."
This summer, the 44-year-old is publishing a how-to book to encourage other blind people to exercise what he calls their right to self-defense.
McWilliams recalls the trepidation when he bought his first gun in 1997 after taking a criminal justice class in college.
"The first gun was a 9-millimeter Ruger automatic. I had it in my dresser drawer and I kept imagining the gun going off even though it didn't have any bullets in it, because I didn't even dare load it because I was so worried about going off," McWilliams said.
But he soon got over the fear and in 2001 was confident enough to apply for a North Dakota concealed weapon permit — and pass the shooting test.
Pat Healey was the sheriff's deputy who tested McWilliams back in 2001 and is now retired. The test was fairly simple.
"A full silhouette human target, 10 rounds at a distance of 21 feet. And you had five minutes to do that. You literally could go out and get coffee between rounds," Healey recalled in a recent interview.
"And he did fine. His rounds were on the target where they belonged. I mean he was very competent, he could reload the weapon sometimes better than some of the civilians I've seen in the past," said Healey, who adds he had no worries about McWilliams having a permit.
"They had this long standing joke — the test is so easy even a blind person could pass it," McWilliams laughed.
The blind guy with a gun permit became a minor celebrity who made national and international news in 2001, evening getting a segment on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" that showed him firing an assault rifle into the ground in front of a target.
"At first it was like, it was either a comedy thing or a villain thing," recalled McWilliams, who insists he shrugs off detractors or jokes because he feels an obligation to educate other blind people about gun rights and gun safety.
In 2007, McWilliams self-published an autobiography about his hunting exploits and his efforts get a gun permit.
Healey is still comfortable with McWilliams or any other blind person having a concealed-carry permit if they are capable. North Dakota last year passed a law that lets citizens carry concealed handguns without needing a permit.
"If the state has clearly, carefully set up the standards where it's fair for everyone, then if the guy can overcome a disability, I'm not against it," said Healey.
McWilliams now has five conceal carry permits in five states — North Dakota, Florida, Arizona, Virginia and Utah.
He was denied a gun permit, however, in Minnesota. Clay County officials across the Red River from Fargo, rejected his application in 2006 on the grounds he could be a danger to himself or others.
McWilliams challenged that decision in court because he passed the test. A district court judge wrote that he didn't doubt McWilliams was sincere and would be extremely conscientious, but refused to overturn the decision, writing that the Americans with Disabilities Act did not apply to a gun permit.
Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist declined to be interviewed about the case.
McWilliams, whose wife is from Moorhead, Minn., said he plans to try again to get a permit in Minnesota and mount a legal challenge in federal court if he's denied.
While McWilliams has not used a concealed weapon in self-defense in the 17 years he's had a permit to carry, he has successfully hunted ducks, firing at the whirring sound of wings as the birds flew past, and he's taken big game like deer and bear, using a spotter to help aim the rifle.
"They don't touch you, but they whisper in your ear left, right, and they're looking through your scope and they'll tell you when to fire," said McWilliams who explains his favorite part of the hunt is sitting around the campfire telling stories.
Like many hunters, he might embellish just a bit. But when it comes to carrying a concealed weapon, he's deadly serious.
There's a basic rule for the blind. You only shoot what you can touch. He would only use his weapon if he was being physically assaulted.
"I heard this one guy in Iowa and he said, 'Oh, I can shoot at sound,' and I'm like no, no, no, you can't do that because the deal is you shoot at sound you can make a mistake."
"When you're totally blind, you have to keep it at contact range to be totally sure. And if anybody's got a problem with that, they're obviously not thinking of the welfare of the blind person at all," said McWilliams, adding he regularly gets calls or emails from blind people asking for help in applying for a gun permit.
That's why he decided to self-publish a how-to book that will be released this summer in written and audio formats.
McWilliams says his quest for a permit to carry a gun started because he wanted to prove he could do it despite being blind. But he says it's now a mission to educate and encourage blind people who want to carry a weapon.
"You have a right to self-defense, regardless of your disability," he said. "In fact, being blind you are actually more vulnerable than the sighted in the fact that you can't safely extract yourself from a situation, nor can you run from one or avoid it."
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