In my 20s, I used to spend autumn Sundays with my future wife at a gun club near our home in Philadelphia. She was a good shot whose father had been an inveterate hunter, and though she and I were animals lovers, we enjoyed the recreational aspect: Trap shooting and ripping paper targets apart with the pistol.
My Colt Match Target was a gift from my parents. Looking back, it’s hard to believe they gave it to me. Guns were never part of our family’s activities. My mother's grandfather was shot dead on the stoop of his south Philadelphia house by a deranged man. But I’d requested the pistol for my 18th birthday, and though the idea gave them pause, I gently insisted. I think they wanted to give me something to reflect my new interests and newfound manhood, something substantive and lasting. After all, guns are handed down from generation to generation, much like a fine watch, and though our family had no such legacy, I was making a segue to my own family, with my future wife, a move we all considered propitious.
My father-in-law had grown up poor on a farm, and along with other male family members, he provided food for the table by hunting. It was a necessity. But those times vanished long ago. Now, people hunted for the “sport.” The sport? I always found the phrase “the sport of hunting” to be an assault on intelligence, on civilization. Killing animals because we enjoyed it — as if it were a game of darts or shooting pool? And hanging its stuffed head in the den? Not for me.
Over the next decades, I began to wonder if the pistol was for me, either. The influence of NRA was becoming implacable, spilling over into issues with which they had never before had interest, and I began to look at this kind of “recreation” with a new and arctic eye.
Guns may carry the romance of storied gunfighters and war heroes, but they are intrinsically hostile. A punch or even a stab has the possibility of a second act. A chance to say, “I’m sorry.” A gun is quick and unforgiving. The mea culpa more often a goodbye than a chance to seek forgiveness. I still had fond memories of easy Sunday afternoons at the gun club, but I had to temper that nostalgia with the realization that I spent those days among strangers with deadly weapons. None of us had a sense of how stable the others might be.
Feeling this way while still owning a gun made little sense now. It felt dishonest. The pistol had to go.
But before I let go of my gun forever, I wanted to hold it again and fire it. I wanted to experience the repugnance that a device created solely for the purpose of killing human beings should evoke. Worse, what if I wasn't repulsed? I needed to know.
My first visit, to an indoor pistol range in South Philadelphia, shocked me. It was filthy, nothing like the all-American halls I remember from my youth. The seedy personnel wore sidearms, not small caliber “personal” pieces, like the infamous Beretta .25, but big and powerful cannons, nuzzled into expensive breakaway holsters set high on the hip.
“I've noticed that all the staff here are carrying sidearms,” I said to the guy at the counter. “Why?”
He eyed me cooly and said, “For protection.”
“From what?” I said.
He said, “Whatever.”
I wanted to leave. This place had a bad vibe. Exiting through the long corridor to the street, I saw a few posters on the cracked plaster walls. “Is Obama a Muslim”? one asked. The other, emblazoned with the NRA logo, listed that organization's enemies, all of whom were pro-gun control politicians and celebrities. Funny, I don't remember any political overtones from my days as a neophyte marksman.
Sure, back then, there were NRA posters, but these were only entreaties to join. Spokesmen were family-values Hollywood stars Ronald Reagan and Robert Stack, who was a national skeet champion. Surely my reminiscences from a bygone day of enjoyable family outings could not have evaporated so completely. I felt like I had searched out a great restaurant and found a greasy spoon instead. Had the zeitgeist really shifted that dramatically?
While visiting my son in a state south of Pennsylvania, I stopped at an indoor range and purveyor of new and used guns. It was some operation — expansive, spotless and bright, with perhaps $5M in visible inventory on display. This was the rich cousin to the shabby place in Philly.
It was all there: From sub-machine guns like the one brandished by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in a famous photo to $10,000 skeet guns to modern 1000-round-per-minute machine guns displayed from countless racks and shelves, and camouflaged sniper rifles set on tripods on the counter so one could see up-close a weapon that can put five bullets into someone's eye from 1500 yards away.
Are there any civilian snipers, I wondered?
This was surely madness. As I surveyed this veritable black hole of potential human destruction, I thought that something must be amiss. This was massive overkill for even the most aggressive “sportsman” gun enthusiast. Guns and shooting were starting to feel less like a harmless pastime and becoming something unmistakably sinister to me. The staff here was also wearing sidearms, and when I asked what they were protecting themselves from, I got the same response: “From whatever.” So it was a script.
I signed up for some time on the pistol range, increasingly certain with each step that this would be the last time I ever held a gun. I felt uneasy, but I wanted to do this one final time. I began filling the clip to its capacity, ten rounds of .22 caliber long rifle. A mild sense of deja vu crept over me as I slipped the clip into the base of the pistol's grip, locked it in place and pulled back the slide to place the first bullet into the chamber. I pushed the button on the left side of the stall to send the target swiftly 50 yards down range into the backdrop of tons of mounded sand, no more hand-pulled clothes lines to place the target. Everything progresses. I raised the pistol, took perfunctory aim and fired at the two foot square paper target.
The report was an authoritative ka-pow, much as I remember, the gun reaching skyward in a credible kick for a .22, three inches of ignited escape gas illuminating the tip of the muzzle in a brilliant blue-white flash. I remember loving the sound, look and feel of that experience. Now, I felt empty and out of place. There was no thrill left in firing a gun. The whole experience felt somehow unwholesome.
Back inside, I arranged to speak to someone about selling my guns. I had my Colt target pistol, two skeet guns, and a pristine Smith & Wesson Police .38 Special. Eventually, I was introduced to the owner Zack, a fiftyish man with a paunch and a pure white handlebar mustache, wearing the jeans and shirt of a hands-on boss. I followed him into a spacious back room with several large tables and seven-foot flagpoles in the corner of the room. One held the American flag, the other an NRA banner.
I took the shotguns out of their canvas cases and gingerly laid them on the table after breaking each open to reveal empty chambers. Zack asked for a brief history of each. He had an ease about him as he sat opposite me, fielding questions from staff who would happen in. I think I put him at ease when he realized I had more than cursory knowledge of guns. I was not a lapsed dilettante suddenly tired of his latest fleeting interest.
He began to speak freely to me as, if not to an old friend. He allowed that his family had been in this country from the 17th century with an original stake of over a thousand acres nearby and that he owned several highly regarded shopping centers in high-end neighborhoods, owning another albeit smaller, gun shop in one of those centers. He clearly came from means, despite what his clothes suggested. He was not flaunting any wealth he might have.
Feeling some connection, I asked him why, unlike his staff, he wasn’t wearing sidearms.
“Don't have to,” he said. “I always carry two knives.”
I wasn't sure I’d heard him correctly. He sounded much too nonchalant.
“They're much lighter,” he continued, “and besides, I can slit your throat faster than you can get your piece out of your holster.”
I had just heard the words “slit your throat,” and this wasn't a Luc Besson film.
In the space of a minute the reasonable-looking businessman opposite me had undergone a startling transformation into someone who made the hair on my arms bristle.
He went on. “Look, this country is falling apart.” So much for foreplay, I thought. “We have a president who is an admitted militant Muslim whose objective is to destroy America. Just read his books. China owns us, lawlessness is rampant, the cops are useless and just look at unemployment.”
When I suggested the latest unemployment number was six percent, the retort was instant.
“Lies,” he spat. “Look, they talk about slavery and the historic condition of blacks in this country. What they don't say is that the middle men for the slave trade were the black brokers in Africa and elsewhere who sold their countrymen to the white traders. Can't blame the whites for wanting to make money, too, now can you?”
He continued. “My family was indentured for the first three generations that we were in this country, but by initiative and hard work we got out and prospered.”
He delivered his “enlightened” history to me with the confidence of a tenured sociology professor. I was appalled, but captivated. Such erudition on so suspect a topic.
This guy was not speaking in mindless bumper sticker aphorisms. He wanted to tie it together, to build an elegant theory, to move out of brainless wing-nut territory and offer some robust alternate history. And he was articulate, too. This, I thought, was a dangerous man.
I turned the subject back to firearms. “You know Zack, that piece” — I tossed in the noun preferred by the cognoscenti — “that piece that Tom Hanks carried in ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ I hear that’s worth a pretty penny.”
“Yeah, the Thompson, wanna see one?”
He took me to a locked room at the back of the store with one wall lined with huge six feet tall and sturdy safes. He pulled out Thompson in perfect condition. “Here” he said, “shoulder it.”
It was heavy. About 12 and a half pounds. “How much would someone have to pay you for this?” I asked.
“That there is $20,000.”
“Who would spend that kind of money?”
“Collectors, and I'll get it.”
He then pulled out a small suitcase. “You're gonna love this one.”
I knew I wouldn't be pleased with that assumption.
He opened the neat leather case and nestled into its form-fitting interior was a short and nasty-looking machine gun with a 30 and 50 round clip. I asked him to take it out of the case.
“It doesn't come out,” he said. “You shoot it from the case so nobody will know. It has a sound suppressant. That little round hole is where the bullet comes out. Pretty neat, huh? Not many of these babies around. Thirty-eight grand.”
Worse probably than an assault weapon, I thought, this is an assassin's gun. Designed for surreptitious murder. And for sale on the open market. And here was Zack, so very proud of it.
When we went back to the table to set a price for the guns, my host began chatting again. I decided to turn the conversation to something a bit more fraught. What was he going to do, shoot me?
“While I was waiting for you I overheard a conversation, something about the Second Amendment,” I began.
“What do you think about the Second Amendment? he challenged.
“I really don't think about it much,” I said.
“You don’t?” He sounded incredulous. “Well, maybe you should.”
At this point, any notion that we shared values and outlook was probably gone, but I think he was on a mission to make a convert.
“This government is huge and getting bigger by the minute,” he said “If it isn't taken to task, they will take away our guns”.
The indeterminate “they.” Never a good sign.
I forged new ground. “Something has always puzzled me. I can’t make sense of it,” I said. “Why is there such heated opposition to outlawing bullets that can pierce bullet proof vests? I mean, they can only kill cops, right? Seems like a no-brainer to me.”
Now he knew I was One of Them, but he never lost that courtly Southern bearing, that antebellum charm allowing your adversary the gentility of daily social intercourse.
“Sure, but outlaw them, and what's next?” he asked. “Then it will be machine guns and then large caliber guns, it will only stop when they have taken all of our guns away. That's the plan, just let the slippery slope do its work.”
I soldiered on.
“You know, Justice Byron White spoke about the concept of the slippery slope and said (paraphrasing) that there really is no such thing, that it is a convenient device for the intellectually timid to try to win weak arguments. He said, all you need do is assess each issue on its merits or shortcomings and make the ethical decision. It is not axiomatic, he said, that if one event transpires that another will follow simply because of similarity to the previous.”
“Total bullshit. What the fuck does he know?”
“Well, he was a highly regarded legal scholar and Justice of the Supreme Court.”
“And I repeat, what the fuck does he know?” He paused for a moment. “See, you got me started.”
But I didn't want him to stop. I wanted to know what he was really thinking. Still, prudence took hold and I steered the conversation back to the guns I needed to sell.
I knew he appreciated them. They were well-kept and clean and he loved the look and heft of my gun.
“Will a collector buy it?” I asked.
“Maybe, but this is a shooter, it would be a waste to lock this away,” he said. “This is for the range.”
“Would a hit man carry this?” I asked. “I hear they use .22’s.”
“Nah, too heavy,” he said.
I felt relieved. Just paper targets. That's good, I thought.
“Where do criminals get their guns?” he suddenly blurted.
“They steal them?” I said.
He went no further, accepting my silence as tacit agreement for his wisdom in arming his staff.
He then offers that machine guns have become the third most collectible item in the country, rising from obscurity just a few years ago. He seemed quite pleased with this fact, as though it were a nugget reported in the Wall Street Journal or Barrons, and why wouldn’t he be? He was sitting on an impressive stockpile. A cold chill slithered down my spine.
Here before me in earnest conversation for the last two hours was the personification of gun culture: The attitude of white supremacy, the Obama hatred and all the attendant side issues. I felt strangely privileged to have seen this man in the flesh, as if I were a cub reporter who had scooped the old timers.
But I was also aghast. This guy doesn't even have centuries of oppression to blame for his radical, oppressive views. What the hell went wrong?
I walked out of his store with an important education and a check for $1,000. I would have taken much less, as I was anxious to rid myself of any association I had come to think of as insidious in the extreme.
So now, I am gunless.
But I don’t feel threatened, or at risk. I feel more like Marlon Brando's character Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront.” When he’s confronted with the mobster against whom he has testified, he says, “I'm glad at what I done.”