America's gun madness: How guns went from tools to ideology to identity

I was taught to handle and shoot guns as a boy. But the insane, murderous gun culture of today is something new

By Lucian K. Truscott IV
March 27, 2021 12:00PM (UTC)
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An employee puts a weapon on display at the National Armory gun store on April 11, 2013 in Pompano Beach, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The target range was in the basement of one of the old buildings on the main post at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. It had a low ceiling, and I remember posts every 10 feet or so holding up the floor above. Our father, who was then a major in the Army, sent my brother Frank and me there every Saturday morning for NRA target shooting with .22 caliber rifles. I guess you could say it was part of our introduction into manhood. I was 13 and in the 7th grade at the time. Frank was 11 and in the 6th grade. 

They took guns very seriously at that Army post. We spent the first couple of Saturdays disassembling and assembling and cleaning the target rifles and learning what they called "range discipline" and safety at the firing range. I think three weeks had passed by the time we were first given a few .22 long rifle rounds to shoot at small bullseye targets hung about 25 feet away. 

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"Ready on the left! Ready on the right! Ready on the firing line!" I can still hear the sergeant's voice booming from his position just behind where we lay prone ready to fire. "Commence firing!" he would bellow, and we were then allowed to pick up one of the five .22 rounds we had been given and load it into the bolt-action receiver of our target rifles and fire it downrange. We would repeat the process four more times, and then we would hear the sergeant call out, "Cease fire on the firing line!" Then we'd get up and turn our firing position over to the next boy.

We spent the next couple of Saturdays learning to shoot in the kneeling and standing positions. Same process: Five rounds, ready on the left, ready on the right, commence firing. Then we learned how to safely handle the rifles when we moved from the prone to the kneeling to the standing position, always holding our weapons unloaded with the barrels aimed downrange. 

Finally, after a month of practice, they held the first competition. It was timed. We had, I think, two or three minutes to fire five rounds in each shooting position. After firing in all three positions, the sergeant would call out "cease fire," and we would all go downrange and retrieve our targets and take them back to the officers supervising the competition, and they would calculate who had won, who was second and third and so forth. This went on for the whole year, every Saturday. By the end of the year, Frank and I were competent shooters, at least with a .22 caliber target rifle. 

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We were all boys, because shooting guns was a male thing. That was part of what we were being conditioned to believe. I don't know what girls our age were doing every Saturday morning, but boys were over on the old post shooting target rifles in an NRA-sponsored competition. 

That's what the NRA did back then. It sponsored courses in gun safety, range safety and shooting competitions and promoted hunting with rifles — hence its name, the National "Rifle" Association. I don't remember my father being a member, or Frank or I having an NRA membership. On an Army post, the NRA just did that stuff:, They ran the gun safety course and shooting competition because that was their purpose, their reason for being.

I don't remember a lot of guns being around. We both had friends and when we visited their houses, there weren't any guns displayed on wall racks or lying around in closets. My father had a Remington pump-action 12 gauge shotgun he used for hunting. After a couple years of target shooting with the 22s, one Christmas morning we awoke to discover 16 gauge single-shot shotguns under the tree for each of us. 

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Dad started taking us hunting once a month or so, all three of us with our shotguns. I remember the experience as being like a combat patrol, especially after we had loaded our shotguns and had them on safety. He would line us up in a field or in the woods, 10 or 15 feet apart, no one ahead of anyone else, and we would proceed, walking carefully, hunting for rabbits, but mainly being careful to follow his rules so nobody would accidentally shoot one another. Frank shot a couple of rabbits, and so did Dad, but I don't remember coming across one at my end of the line of the three of us. But for our father, whether we shot a rabbit or not wasn't the point. Learning about guns was the point. "You have to respect firearms, boys," I remember him telling us again and again. "A gun can kill. That's what it's for. That's why you must respect them. You should always be at least a little afraid of a gun, boys. Any gun, because any gun can kill."

The next time I touched a gun was in high school ROTC. It was a mandatory course for sophomores in Kansas back then. We were issued M-1 rifles and learned to assemble and disassemble and clean them. We carried them during drill and for weekly inspections. I was on the drill team, so I was issued an '03 Springfield and learned all about that weapon, too. One of the main things I learned about those rifles was what a pain in the ass they were. We had to clean them constantly, and we never even fired them. All they were for was practicing marching and drill: Left shoulder arms! Right shoulder arms! Present arms! Inspection arms! Order arms! Column right, march! Column left, march! Squad, halt!

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The next time I touched a gun was at West Point. We were issued M-14s, which we used at parades and learned to shoot on a firing range. I remember that we spent weeks learning everything about safely using those weapons before we ever saw a bullet. And then we fired them, one bullet at a time, for most of a day before we were issued a clip to load with bullets and shoot. We qualified on the M-14, and then the M-16 came along and we qualified on it, too. More cleaning, more taking them apart and putting them together, more inspections with demerits if a tactical officer found a single grain of dust in a barrel, or a smear of oil on a trigger assembly or stock. A pain in the ass, that's what those rifles were. A big pain in the ass.

In training, we learned to shoot everything from the .45 caliber military-issue pistol to the main gun on an M-60 battle tank. We shot recoilless rifles, bazookas, M-60 machine guns, .50 caliber machine guns, "LAWS" (Light Anti-tank Weapons) and more. Every time we turned around we were handed another weapon to point downrange and shoot.  

More cleaning, more safety protocols, more inspections, more pain in the ass. I was appointed "weapons officer" as a lieutenant in an infantry company in the Army. That meant I had to inspect the weapons room every day to insure that all of our M-16s and M-60 machine guns and pistols and mortars were present, and I had to sign what amounted to an affidavit every day attesting that every single weapon was there and locked away. Lying on that document was punishable by five years in Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks. Negligent homicide was punishable with less time in prison — that's how seriously the Army took the security and safety of its weapons. That was in 1970.

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And then one day in 1985, I went to a gun show in New Orleans, where I was living at the time, and this is what I saw: table after table covered end to end with military-style assault rifles and machine pistols and AK-47s and chrome .44 magnum handguns and more assault rifles and silencers and kits that would transform a civilian AR-15 rifle from semiautomatic operation into a fully automatic weapon of war. Tables covered with Nazi memorabilia, Luger pistols from the Nazi era, Nazi helmets, gray Nazi uniforms, black Nazi uniforms with SS insignia, Nazi medals like the Iron Cross, swastika flags. Whole tables of Confederate flags, Confederate memorabilia like gray "Kepi" caps with crossed-rifle insignia, Kerr M-1855 revolvers used by the Confederate cavalry, Lefaucheux M-1854 revolvers carried by Confederate officers, gray wool Confederate uniforms — some replicas, some original — Confederate officer's swords, Civil War-era bayonets and "short sword" fighting knives carried by Confederate soldiers. More Nazi flags, more Lugers, more Nazi helmets, more assault rifles, more silencers, more of everything in a gigantic convention center hall that took 20 minutes to traverse … and that was a single row of tables.

You could take out your wallet and show your driver's license and hand over some cash and buy anything in that hall. You could buy semiautomatic AR-15 rifles and the kit to make them fully automatic. You could buy switchblade knives. You could buy silencers. You could buy all the Nazi shit and the Confederate shit. You could buy as many deadly weapons as you had the money for.

How did we get from a little NRA indoor firing range with .22 target rifles to an entire convention hall filled with weapons of war and nostalgia for America's enemies from the Civil War and World War II? How did we get from guns as tools to guns as lifestyle? How did we get from guns manufactured specifically for target shooting and hunting to guns manufactured for killing people and styled as "military" and "tactical" and "assault"? How did we get from magazines like Field and Stream, featuring stories about hunting, to Guns and Ammo, featuring stories about the Hecker and Koch HK416A5 with its "slimline telescopic butt stock" and "Non-stop NATO Stanag 4694 top rail" and magazine capability holding up to 100 rounds of military-grade 5.56 X 45mm NATO ammunition?

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Three letters: NRA. Beginning in the 1970s, the National Rifle Association transformed itself from a shooting sports organization into a political lobbying arm of the Republican Party. It formed a PAC, the Political Victory Fund, in time for the 1976 elections and started endorsing and funding conservative, mostly Republican, candidates. The NRA invited Ronald Reagan to address its 1983 convention, in advance of his campaign for reelection in 1984, when they endorsed him for a second time. 

Gun manufacturers supported the NRA with huge contributions and began making hundreds of variations of the M-16 military rifle. They started manufacturing large-capacity magazines for pistols and military-style rifles. They went from manufacturing rifles that were intended to hunt rabbits and deer to rifles intended to hunt human beings. NRA firing ranges did away with bullseye targets and started putting up human silhouette targets. In 1991, the NRA appointed its chief lobbyist, Wayne LaPierre, as executive vice president, and the transformation of the group was complete. It was now the fulcrum between gun manufacturers and the Republican Party.

In 1998, two boys named Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden from Jonesboro, Arkansas, took nine weapons, including a Ruger .44 caliber rifle and a Universal .30 caliber carbine and 2,000 rounds of ammunition from one of the boys' grandfather's home. They went to a hill overlooking their middle school. One of the boys went into the school and pulled the fire alarm, emptying the school. He rejoined the other boy and the two of them shot and killed four students and a teacher and wounded nine more students and one teacher.

The boys were 13 and 11, the same age my brother and I were when we first learned to shoot rifles at the NRA range at Fort Leavenworth. But these boys had had an entirely different experience with firearms. Their fathers had taken them to "practical shooting courses" where they learned to shoot at human silhouette targets. All they knew about firearms was shooting military spec guns at targets shaped like people. Both of them had been taught to shoot pistols and military-style rifles beginning when they were 8 and 10 years old.

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That there were even nine firearms in a single house, along with 2,000 rounds of ammunition — stored, it was reported, atop the grandfather's refrigerator — tells you all you need to know about the American descent into what became known as "gun culture." Guns had gone from firing ranges and rabbit hunts to kitchens.

There is a direct line you can draw between the Jonesboro shooting and the massacres in Atlanta and Boulder. The line runs straight through the NRA. Guns went from tools to politics to identity. A gun went from something you use for a sporting purpose, like target shooting or hunting rabbits, to a thing that makes a statement about you. Hollywood went right along with them, from a .44 magnum revolver in "Dirty Harry" that said I'm a tough guy, to fully automatic AR-15 assault rifles with grenade launchers in "Scarface" that said I'm a killing machine and I'll kill everyone I can see.

A by-no-means-definitive chart in Time magazine showing 37 years of mass shootings in America reveals three mass shootings in 1998, with a total of 13 killed and 36 wounded. Time counts seven incidents in 2019, with 57 killed and 78 wounded. The Gun Violence Archive, on the other hand, shows that in 2019 there were 434 mass shootings, with 517 killed, and 2,160 people wounded. (The Archive defines "mass shooting" as more than four people killed or wounded.) Using the same rules, I'm sure the figure for 1998 would be higher, but who knows, and what does it matter, when one of the deadliest shootings for that year was carried out by 11- and 13-year-old boys?

There is one last connection between mass shootings and the NRA. Many, if not most, mass killers bought the firearms they used right before they carried out their killings. The shooter in Atlanta bought his gun the morning he killed eight people at the two massage parlors. The shooter in Boulder bought the Ruger assault rifle he used to kill 10 people six days before the killings. The shooter who killed three and wounded 16 at a festival in Gilroy, California, in 2019 bought his AR-15 a couple of weeks earlier in Nevada. The man who killed 60 and wounded more than 400 at a music festival in Las Vegas in 2017 bought 14 AR-15 style assault rifles and eight AR-10 style assault rifles and the "bump stocks" to make them fully automatic in the weeks immediately before the massacre. 

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All of the firearms used in every mass killing incident discussed in this article were legally purchased. In this country, even if you're frothing at the mouth, as long as you have a driver's license you can buy as many deadly weapons and as much ammunition as you can carry. The gun stores and sellers at gun shows will be glad to sell them to you because the NRA has spent tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, ensuring that it's legal to do so. The NRA, however, hasn't spent a nickel on mandating that you receive training in gun safety, or that you must have a license to buy a deadly weapon, or even that you must learn how to safely load and unload a gun without killing yourself. All they care about is that you can buy a gun as quickly as possible and with as little trouble as possible. Once you're out the door, they don't give a damn what you do with it. 

I visited the web page for the Ruger AR-556 "pistol" used by the shooter in Boulder, which is actually a short-barrel assault rifle. The thing is frightening to look at. It's got a collapsible stock and a ventilated handguard with something called "Free-float M-LOK attachment slots" and an "SB Tactical SB 3 Pistol Stabilizing Brace." Those features are all trademarked, by the way, apparently because Ruger doesn't want any other gun manufacturer to steal the military jargon used to describe its military-style gun. 

But that isn't what got me about the page for the gun used to kill 10 people in Boulder this week. In the upper right-hand corner of the page, a little box appeared showing a short video of the AR-556 firing its military-spec, NATO-approved ammunition. All you can see in the video is the ventilated barrel and the muzzle flashes — and the heavily muscled forearm of the man holding it. The gun goes off in dramatic slow motion, and every time the muzzle shoots out orange flames, the guy's arm muscles flex. 

The message is unmistakable. It's supposed to be sexy, and it's supposed to sell guns, and for all we know, it's exactly what convinced the shooter in Boulder to buy the Ruger AR-556 and use it to kill 10 of his fellow human beings this week. 

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Everything the shooter did right up until he pulled the trigger, including carrying his gun into the supermarket in front of the people he was going to kill, was completely legal. 

It's madness, but it's a fact that we are manufacturing and selling the instruments of our own destruction, and because we're doing it in America, it's completely legal. 

[Updated March 29, 7:48pm ET: The surname of Andrew Golden, one of the Jonesboro Arkansas shooters, was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. Salon has updated the story and regrets the error.]


Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives on the East End of Long Island and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. He can be followed on Facebook at The Rabbit Hole and on Twitter @LucianKTruscott.

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Atlanta Shootings Boulder Shootings Commentary Gun Control Gun Culture Gun Lobby Guns Nra