Austin Harrington attempts to understand America’s love of guns by entering the world of the gun enthusiast.
I held the AR-15 in my hands. The gun was still cold, no shots had been fired. I watched as Niles loaded round after round into the magazine before tossing it to me. He still had the cool, calm appearance I had always expected from him, but his years in the Marine Corps had given him a rougher edge that created an interesting dichotomy in his personality. I slid the magazine into place and slammed my palm against the bottom of the clip to drive it home. Keeping the weapon aimed down range I walked to a line we had drawn in the dirt marking forty yards from the target. After chambering a round, I raised the rifle and took aim on a beer can we had found on a nearby gravel road. With my thumb, I flicked the safety switch to fire.
I had never fired a gun before that day and as a liberal who often argued in favor of stricter gun laws, I never thought I would be holding an assault rifle. But there I was, standing at the shooting range with a marine shooting instructor getting ready to unleash a full 30 rounds on an unsuspecting inanimate object. Had my stance on gun control changed? At any moment I expected Nancy Pelosi to emerge from the trees with disappointment in her eyes to confiscate my voter registration card. But don’t fret, Nancy. My stance remained strong. I was there in an attempt to understand the gun culture in my country. I needed to put myself in their shoes if there was ever to be hope in finding common ground.
With mass shootings becoming daily news and our major cities being torn apart by gun violence, gun control seemed to be the obvious answer to me. But at the scene of every school shooting someone would always be there to make sure the acts of the vicious didn’t produce laws that infringe on the rights of casual gun owners. What is it that drives people to look at a horrible death and grasp their gun a little tighter? Had our nation become too involved with its gun culture to turn back now? Were we now at the mercy of our own addiction to violence? These were the questions I had hoped to answer when I decided to immerse myself in the American gun culture, and what better place to do that than a gun show in America’s heartland.
When I arrived at the fairgrounds I realized that there were several shows taking place that day, including a craft fair and a rodeo. It was difficult to discern one group from the other because both crowds seemed to fancy rhinestone-covered shirts. The gun show crowd was the only group whose destination was obvious. They wore camouflage and openly carried firearms. Several people slung rifles over their shoulder as if they were marching off to war and I was sure that in their own minds they were. They considered themselves the last militia standing in the defense of the second amendment. Their personal mottos had been taken from Charlton Hesston movies and they lived everyday waiting for some daring “thug” to attack their family or property so they could fight the good fight in defense of what was given to them by their God. I realized then that my goal to remove every personal bias had not even made it to the door. It was at this moment that I realized the role of an outside observer was going to be much more realistic than the pretense of full immersion.
The gun show was held in the 4-H building. I had only been there a few times before, and it was for the semi-annual Planned Parenthood Book Sale. I tried to imagine how important it was to ensure no scheduling mix up took place. If those two shows were accidentally scheduled for the same weekend all hell would break loose in the city of Des Moines. After all, the republican Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, would be attending the gun show and it would be political suicide for him to be caught within a hundred yards of a book being sold to protect women’s rights, or possibly a book of any kind.
As I walked through the door I noticed the calm in the room. Despite being armed to the teeth the crowd seemed to be lacking any hostility. It was filled with families out enjoying their Sunday afternoon. Several men walked around with their young daughters explaining the technical aspects of the semi-automatic pistols that lay on almost every table. If you didn’t look at their hands or hear their words it would almost appear as if they were handing their children just another harmless toy. From a distance it seemed sweet.
But get a little closer and the horrifying reality of the situation began to set in. I was in a room full of children handling firearms. The whole scene reminded me of a documentary I had watched on the child soldiers of Africa and I could feel the same practices of indoctrination taking place. Even if they were unloaded, and several signs in the room promised they were, it was still a distressing sight. Watching a parent hand their pre-teen child an instrument that’s only purpose is to kill leaves a terrible feeling lingering in your mind. I knew I was watching the youth who will likely grow into the next batch of gun-toting, right-wing lunatics. I wished I could stop it. How many of these children would die in accidental shootings? It happens to one kid every day in America and another twenty-one are wounded. Was my judgment too harsh?
The room was the size of a football field and there were at least twenty rows of folding tables stretching from one end to the other. Each table held a wide assortment of weaponry. Smith and Wesson, Taurus, Remington and every other major brand were clearly displayed. Some tables had a very professional feel. These were the tables ran by people who actually owned gun stores in the area. Other tables were a bit more relaxed. The guns had no locks guarding the triggers but instead were tied to the tables with yarn, a security system that anyone with a knife or a sharp pair of teeth could bypass. When I asked one of the more professional-looking dealers about the lack of security at some tables he informed me that many of the so-called dealers at the show didn’t have a store, per se, but instead sold guns out of their garages.
I walked from table to table picking up 45’s, 357’s and 9mm’s and feeling them for weight and balance. Each gun felt different from the next. Some felt heavy like the weight of a small bowling ball but others felt as if you were holding nothing at all. Each dealer attempted to interest me in their different weapons but none really struck up a conversation until I reached Chuck.
Chuck was a balding man in his mid-forties. He sat behind a table loaded up with Nazi memorabilia. Swastika-covered bayonets and refurbished WW2 rifles covered the table, and Chuck looked every bit at home where he sat. I must have been obviously shocked by the Nazi insignias because Chuck took it as an opportunity to make a sale.
“Do you see anything you just can’t live without?”
“No, I don’t believe I do. Let me ask though, do you sell a lot of the Nazi stuff?”
“Yea, we get rid of it pretty quick. Mostly kids like buying it. But God help ‘em if they try to take it to school these days. I mean, back in my day we used to leave our shotguns in the trunk of our cars so we could go hunting after class.”
“Yea, you can’t do that anymore.” I tried to sound semi-sympathetic without ever actually agreeing with Chuck. I wanted to see just how far he was willing to go.
“I know. It’s a shame. The whole country is too freaked out about all the shootings. But if you ask me,” he leaned in so only I could hear him…
“…you don’t see a lot of white boys out there shooting each other. It’s the other ones. I say keep feeding ‘em guns and ammo and let ‘em all kill each other. Just makes a better world for the rest of us.”
I leaned back and quickly excused myself from the conversation. I’m not sure why it surprised me that a man sitting at a table full of Nazi merchandise might be racist but it’s not too often you hear ignorance of that caliber displayed so clearly by a complete stranger. It spoke volumes to how relaxed he was in this crowd and how he had assumed that any such statement would fall on like-minded ears.
On an average day in America 289 people will be injured by firearms. This means that in the two hours I was at the gun show 24 people were shot. To men like Chuck this statistic may cause them to buy another gun to aid in their self-defense against such violence but to the supporter of stricter gun laws this statistic is seen as an obvious reason why guns have no place within our borders. Is there any compromise that could possibly appease both sides? Is compromise even a viable option in the 21st century of American politics? I asked myself these questions hours after the gun show and as I prepared to fire an AR-15.
I squeezed the trigger in rapid succession and fired thirty rounds in less than twenty seconds. The first round ripped through the beer can causing it to fall from its perch atop a large stack of cardboard boxes and disappearing into the cloud of dirt that had been kicked up from the hill behind it. I quickly moved all following shots into the boxes. Each round caused the recoil to dig into my shoulder but the kick was light. At the end of the magazine we both agreed that the rifle had a smooth action and could easily be handled by even the most inexperienced of gun owners.
I could understand the entertainment value in owning such a weapon, but to argue that a person would need a high-powered rifle with the capability of firing 30 high-velocity rounds for the purpose of home defense was, in my opinion, nothing more than a shield used to deflect opposing arguments. I still to this day never plan on owning a gun and even if I did it would not be under the guise of self-defense. I understand the fun that can come from spending a day shooting targets at the gun range. The loud bangs that remind a person of their first childhood experience with fireworks and the excitement that comes from putting a round on target. But to actually own a weapon with the intent of killing a person who attempts to steal a car radio or damage personal property is not a thought of which I am capable.
I may not have found all the answers I was looking for but it is clear to me now that there is no end in sight for the violent culture that we have spent nearly 250 years cultivating. We live in the brutal times of our barbaric age and those who attempt to live a somewhat peaceful life are now caught in the crossfire of the two opposing sides. We are now being forced to wake from the American dream, rub our groggy eyes and realize that as we slept the barbarians have moved well passed the gates and are now counted among the most influential in our society. These barbarians offer no quarter to those who stand in the way of what they consider to be the infallible American way of life. And as long as they are allowed to dictate the laws of our land, we will be nothing more than a nation in their crosshairs.
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