Liberal at a Gun Show

“Beautiful!” a man next to me breathed, but all I saw were the dead children of Newtown.

Gun rights purists can’t believe their luck. One lunatic on a Texas college campus has proven their point: it’s not the guns that kill people. If someone wants to wage deadly mayhem, he’ll find a means to do it. Gun control liberals can finally STFU now.

Except, a lunatic with a knife differs pretty distinctly from a lunatic with a semi-automatic assault rifle. Where Newtown saw thirty children shot multiple times, funerals spanning a month, and a nation in perpetual mourning, in Houston, Texas every single victim  lives. Two are in critical condition, the rest are stable. Our thoughts and prayers are with them, as is any human who has suffered the trauma of a physical attack.

Every attack on multiple people is different. Every one is isolated and born from unique reasons – the failure of the mental health structure here being the basis of some. To lump them together as an anecdotal instance to prove a political point is to compound that failure. No one wins here.

Yet, to dismiss the obvious point that a perpetrator with a knife is severely limited in the damage he can inflict does a disservice to the study of a problem we all want to solve. The real issue is the way we are trying to solve it. Gun rights activists – the purists, the ones who wave away any discussion of common sense restriction and the NRA who supports this kind of thought – attacks this problem with a pre-formed solution: the need for more guns. Then they back track through the circumstances to support that conclusion.

Let’s acknowledge right off the bat that gun control advocates are looking at an endgame as well. Some of us want to rid the country of guns. Period. But most of us don’t. Most of us want semi-automatic weapons out of the hands of non-military citizens. We want limits on the damage someone can inflict in minutes. But maybe we just don’t understand gun culture: the bravado, the righteousness, the patriotism and strength that comes at the hands of a gun. It’s a power I’ve never really considered.

And so I sought out to consider it.

We passed a scrawny kid, about twenty years old, before we even got inside the blue tent to pay our ten dollar admission to the gun show. “I have about a thousand rounds at home,” he told the girl next to him as they exited. I wasn’t sure how to take that – was it a lament? Only a thousand rounds? To do what with? Shoot up a target at a range, or a bison maybe, or enemies? Maybe it was a brag, like I have a thousand rounds of manhood back at my place, baby. The fact that I couldn’t interpret his intention probably says more about me and my lack of understanding of gun culture than anything else. But this is why I went to a gun show. To see for myself what it’s all about.

Still, I felt like an intruder as I made my way past the first booth – an NRA signup table full of literature and bumper stickers. I’ve been conditioned to think of them as the enemy and I wasn’t ready to face them head on, so we moved quickly on to a table full of hot sauce.  I tried a wasabi green tea dip that had a great flavor, sweet, with a kick that came at the end. I made my first gun show purchase. (No background check required.)

And then, fifteen minutes in, I was spotted. A local guy, whose son plays on the same lacrosse team as my son, recognized us as we pored over hard carved switch-blades. “Hey!” he called out, and at first I couldn’t place him. On the field, I know him as the dad with the sweet kid who handed out cupcakes on the field on his birthday. At a gun show, I was seeing a lot of angry ink and camouflage. The lacrosse dad didn’t compute, and it took me a minute to recalibrate the friendly face and soft voice of this man with the wooden barrel of the rifle he caressed like a woman.

We shot the shit (not literally) for a few minutes before he moved on to the Bushmaster display and we to listen to a Paul Revere historian lecture us about the difference between subjects and citizens.  As we turned away, he called over his shoulder, “I’m glad to see we’re on the same team!” My husband interpreted this to be 2nd grade lacrosse related, but I suspected differently. He meant 2nd Amendment related.

It turns out that the difference between a “subject” and a “citizen” is that subjects do what they are told and cannot affect change in their government. They have no say. They are slaves, which, according to this guy, is exactly what the Obama administration wants. He wants to rule over a constituency of slave-like subjects and it’s up to us, a gathering of about five people, to enact that change.

I saw tables of hand-carved handled rifles alongside more knives than I’d ever considered. There were pickaxes and holsters, wooden guns that held rubber bands for children. It was standing room only, slow moving through all that there was to see. Flags accented almost every square inch. There were more Confederate flags than I ever imagined existed this far North.

Live and learn, that’s what I was there for.

Displays were given to each seller, kind of like a craft fair, except the vendors were mostly older men, with exaggerated facial hair that seemed to make a statement of masculinity. I looked around for a clean shaven face and come up with only my own (and the woman selling the hot sauce.) That’s when I realized we were the only women in the place.

(So much for blending in).

The Bushmaster table had the good stuff and there was a three person deep perimeter to get to the assault weapons (which I would later be schooled do not exist.) Black, plastic looking, with more coordinating accessories than in my sister’s closet, AR-15s stood on tripods. They inspired awe among the people who crowded around me. “Beautiful!” a man next to me breathed, but all I saw were the dead children of Newtown. I calculated the mental health of those around me. I tried to judge who was sane and who was a maniac, who might take up arms and start a Paul Revere-like revolution, and who simply enjoyed the craftsmanship. But I couldn’t tell.

Could the vendors?

I perused a table of antiques from World War II, small green plastic soldiers that my son likes to play with. Metal tanks. GI Joe’s in the original packaging. Nazi paraphernalia. Swastika pins. SS badges. I asked the vendor if he sold a lot of the wooden boxes emblazoned with the Confederate flag, knives inside with Robert E. Lee’s picture hand-painted. He nodded. “People try to collect the whole set,” he told me.

A few children ran about, next to dads who looked through scopes with the gaiety of kids in candy shops. My husband held a rifle that reminded him of the one his grandfather had used, setting up soda cans in the backyard for him to shoot pellets at. My husband loves to shoot.

Targets.

It wasn’t really possible to leave without rubbing up against the NRA table. “Why,” I asked the bearded (of course) man at the table, “would I become a member?”

He didn’t miss a beat. “To protect your rights.”

“From what exactly?”

He explained that there were ridiculous laws enacted that turned normal, gun-toting Americans into criminals. Because of Cuomo’s freshly printed laws about the clip limits that legal guns must now have, the guns that this man has in his closet are now illegal. “I haven’t shot anything,” he told me, “but now I’m a criminal.”

He didn’t look like a criminal.

“But surely you don’t think assault rifles should be owned by every day Americans?” I asked him.

He rubbed his hands together like he’d been waiting for this question. He savored his response like a good steak. “No such thing,” he told me.

He went on to explain that the term “assault” is a human construct, an action that can only be attributed to a person, not an inanimate object like a weapon. His parter next to him rolled up a copy of Guns and Ammo and swatted him on his thick arm. “See that?” he asked. “That was a fully loaded magazine used to assault me.”  Never in all of his life, both as a civilian and in the service, had he witnessed a rife getting up and shooting someone all by itself.

This seemed like a long way to say, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” but I got his point. He then explained to me that automatic weapons – like machine guns – are outlawed, and should be. They spray bullets in quick succession and have no place in non-military society.  But semi-automatic rifles? Those are fine, he said, because a person needs to pull the trigger for each separate shot. It requires a commitment to continue shooting. There is a pause between each bullet being released into the world. That pause is what? A second or two? But those seconds constitute what seemingly reasonable people deem the difference between auto- and semi-automatic, between acceptable and not, between having a rightful place in society and not.

Seconds enough to duck? To run? To return fire? To live?

He handed me a pamphlet that had a training session for women stapled on the back. Women are the untapped demographic that the NRA is targeting as purchasers. They’d had to add on a second one because the first had filled up quickly. “After I take you out and show you how to hold a gun and shoot it, you can decide if you’re still scared of it or if it’s the most fun you’ve had in your life,” he said.

I took the pamphlet, but I won’t be calling. His idea of fun and mine are probably different.  The pamphlet, handed out by the S.A.F.E. organization (Sportsman’s Association for Firearms Education), was full of information to help convince me that the NRA was looking out for my best interests. It warned me that police chiefs who came out in support of gun control were pawns of big city officials who coerced them into positions they don’t really support. The towed the line for fear of losing their salaries and pensions. “This is why you see chiefs and their officers in the background when privileged officials posture against citizen firearm ownership and the Constitution by definition.” It went on to say that they have “decided to try to get in tune with the 20th century” by creating SAFE Twitter and Facebook accounts.

I might suggest that they try to get with the 21st century by acknowledging the very real dangers of gun violence. I might suggest that instead of selling the public on the idea that semi-automatic rifles are not assault weapons in a Laurel and Hardy rehearsed routine, they take stock of who the enemies really are. They are not those in power who are answering the voices who shout for the bloodshed to end. They are not those who ask questions that go deeper than a badly written propaganda piece stapled to shooting lessons. The enemies are those who seek to quiet the questions, to quiet the voices who disagree, and to urge us all to suspend critical thinking in lieu of easy answers.

I’ll acknowledge this, though. Something about the presence of big men standing protection made me feel safer, thinking that if I ever needed protection, I might have guys like this “on my team.”

Protection from whom? Well, that seems to be the question.

Author: Jaime Franchi

Jaime Franchi is a freelance writer living on Long Island. Her work can be found on Salon.com, Milieu Magazine, Punchnel's and the New York Times. www.JaimeFranchi.com

19 thoughts on “Liberal at a Gun Show”

  1. Thoughtful and provocative, as usual. I’m wondering though, if there can’t seem to be some sort of middle ground. I’ve been grappling with my own feelings about “gun control” since that fateful day in December.

    I believe ALL purchases should have a thorough background check, similar to what NYS requires of pistol owners. I believe magazines should have a capacity limit. No one needs to have 30+ bullets at their immediate disposal. And, I believe that semi-automatic weapons, if regulated in this way, aren’t a problem.

    I fall in the middle. I’m not an NRA member, but I don’t believe in a gun ban either. It’s a tough spot to be in, but I’m comfortable here.

  2. Thank you for having the courage to go to one of these shows and not having your head explode from rage. 🙂

    Seriously, though, this was very illuminating. And it just angers me so. Your sentiments echo my own. But my blood turned particularly chilly when I saw mention of the Nazi paraphernalia.

  3. Jaime, you may remember me from a previous comment about the Associated Press Stylebook and courtesy titles to refer to elected officials. An article by you on that subject got posted to a professional journalism website I read on LinkedIn, and I commented in response some time back.

    I’m glad to see you went to a gun show to see firsthand what (part of) the “gun culture” is like. It’s important to give credit to people like you on the “other side” of the issue who take time to become informed on the issues. A tremendous amount of misunderstanding exists between people who advocate “gun rights” and people who advocate “gun control,” and some of that is honest and sincere misunderstanding which can be fixed by honest efforts to reach out to each other and understand points of view other than our own.

    A couple of observations:

    1. Keep researching what it means for something to be called a “semi-automatic” weapon. Much of what is available today in modern weaponry for civilian use meets that definition. That wasn’t always the case, but it should not surprise us that technology improves in the firearms market. When people today talk about banning or restricting semi-automatic weapons, they need to understand that they’re talking about banning or restricting a huge portion of what is on the market today, not a small subset of the market. It’s not quite like banning or restricting cars with air conditioning or automatic transmissions — some people do want to buy firearms that use traditional designs or that are not semi-automatic for a variety of reasons — but semi-automatic is now the norm, not the exception, for a large portion of modern weaponry outside of certain special purposes.

    2. Some NRA members, myself included, really, really, really detest the neo-Confederate movement. One of my ancestors was a Union soldier imprisoned in the notorious Andersonville prison camp, and I have close to zero patience with a flag of self-proclaimed rebels. It is quite possible to be a gun-rights supporter whose ancestors were Northerners who fought to preserve the Union, not to secede from it.

    3. That goes ten times over for Nazi memorabilia. That stuff offered for sale today (if it’s authentic and not fake replicas) was typically captured by our soldiers fighting to destroy the Nazis. I have no problem with World War II veterans or their descendants proudly displaying trophies of the enemy they defeated, but any other use is despicable.

    4. The bottom line, as I see it, is that we have a Constitution and original intent counts. I see no way to abridge the rights under the Second Amendment without adopting principles of constitutional interpretation that will restrict the First Amendment rights to freedom of the press, of speech, and of religion. I know that some honest and reasonable people will disagree on what it meant to have a militia in the late 1700s, but I don’t think it’s possible to read Revolutionary War history and the history of the Second Amendment without knowing that the clear intent was to have a large body of citizens familiar with firearms and capable of using them for purposes of national defense.

    Bottom line — I’m glad you visited the gun show. I’m sorry you saw some really obnoxious stuff there; I think we both agree on neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis being either stupid idiots or flat-out evil. But despite those things, please do continue to take time to learn about those of us on the “other side” of the issue. We don’t eat kittens for breakfast, and some of us, as you found out, may well be nice parents you know from your children’s sports teams who bring cupcakes to events.

    A final point, addressed to you as a self-described liberal — I personally believe feminists should be among the biggest supporters of the Second Amendment.

    Violence by men is a real problem in America, and it’s a whole lot easier for women, who on average tend to be physically smaller and less strong than men, to defend themselves against male violence if they have a gun. A loaded pistol, shotgun, or rifle is the “great equalizer” between men and women of different size and strength, and I think that’s a good thing.

  4. Oh, a final thought — lots of gun owners don’t have beards!

    I found your observation about beards to be quite interesting. Maybe it’s because I live outside a major Army installation where servicemembers on active duty aren’t allowed to have beards, but I actually don’t know very many firearms owners who have any facial hair other than a mustache, and most people I know who own guns don’t even have that.

    I guess for me, when I think of long hair and beards, I think of relics of the 1960s, not the “gun culture.”

    But to each his (or her) own. If someone wants to wear a beard, that’s their choice, just like it’s their choice whether or not to own a gun.

  5. jaime, i was all set to write a calm, logical comment about having been to a gun show myself once, long ago, and coming away with all the same impressions that you did. it’s stark that the weaponry, rhetoric, paraphernalia and sensual (almost sexual) language that i saw and heard 30 years ago hasn’t changed at all.

    and then i read the comment of mr. maurina, which i thought sounded sort of reasonable and intellectual and rational until i got to the part about women needing guns to defend themselves against male violence. instead of raising boys to become men who don’t threaten or abuse women *or* helping women escape from family or romantic situations where they are in danger, we’re just supposed to arm them? great. next time my husband loses his temper and raises his voice (because that’s all he would ever raise), i’ll just pull out my loaded 9mm semi-automatic pistol and tell him to knock it off or else. how someone could think this is a good idea and will result in less violence (instead of more dead guys and probably dead women too) is beyond me.

    good essay, my friend.

  6. Greetings, Candace… just to avoid any misunderstandings, I am on the same page with you about “raising boys to become men who don’t threaten or abuse women *or* helping women escape from family or romantic situations where they are in danger.”

    I have no use for men who beat wives or girlfriends. Men like that are pond scum. I don’t care what the wife or girlfriend did — there’s no excuse for beating her up. Period. End of story.

    As I’ve said to a few “good old boys,” the sort of “macho man” who hits a woman is usually proving that he’s nothing but a bully who won’t pick on people his own size and prefers to prey on victims who can’t fight back. That’s not a man by any “old fashioned” standard.

    When making my comments about armed self-defense for women, I wasn’t thinking primarily of domestic violence but rather of situations such as store clerks being assaulted by robbers, women walking alone at night, or home break-ins.

    There are many ways a woman in those situations can defend herself, and I think having a gun ought to be among those choices. It’s not for everybody and that’s fine with me, but I do believe it is a valid choice for those who want to make it.

    By the way, I’m not trying to say some women aren’t physically strong and quite capable of defending themselves without weapons. There’s a female Marine living across the street from me who is in that category, and I can think of many others like her. My point is that a gun is an equalizer when somebody stronger tries to attack somebody weaker, and for that reason, guns can be of great help to women when they find themselves in dangerous situations.

    Every movement has its bad examples. Speaking as someone who used to live in New York City years ago, I know enough not to blame every politically liberal person for some of the things that go on in Greenwich Village. I would simply ask that gun owners not be stereotyped when we are actually a rather diverse group.

    That group ranges from bearded hillbillies to professors. It includes retired military personnel with multiple combat deployments and bookish reporters like me who hate hunting and running around in the mud. It even includes sorority women like my mother who, back in her journalism school days in the 1950s, liked to show off her proficiency with both pistols and long guns by outshooting and shocking men. That was back in the days that elite “society girls” simply did not do things like hunt and shoot, so lots of men couldn’t believe it when a woman proved herself to be one of the best on the range.

    I’m not especially interested in making a case for feminism, but my mother sure did like embarrassing guys who thought they were “hot stuff,” and I think it’s a really good thing when women can choose to use a tool to defend themselves.

  7. Good analysis and timely article. I have been to gun shows and we do own guns in our family. I personally have a FOID card. None of them are automatic, they are generally antique, historical pieces. My sons do go to the gun range to shoot. They are highly educated, well mannered men and they are focused on the sport of it not the idea that they need to be armed. Raised to be gentleman, one does not even drink. They have been held to high standards all their life of behavior and integrity. My issues with the gun shows is that is generally not the kind of person who is there. There is a whole segment of population in this country that wants and uses guns very differently than my family does.

  8. Good on you for checking out what is happening “in the field”.

    I’d re-iterate, though I’m sure there will once again be an attempt to incorrectly refute it, that the Second Amendment is not an unlimited right as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, if “gun rights” people would just stop and think for a moment, you are already limited in what “arms” you are entitled to keep and bear under 2A. You may not own machine guns, bazookas, mortars, cannons that are capable of firing, and many other armaments (many of which, I might add, are military-grade weapons).

    Banning guns is not the answer – banning SPECIFIC weapons that have been known to be mis-used with tragic results is only PART of a solution, but it is an integral part. If the AR-15 and 30 round clips had not been accessible to that guy in Connecticut,
    the outcome would have certainly been different.

    I’ve grown up around guns, my father was a police officer with numerous rifles, shotguns, and handguns. He owned ONE rifle that was clip-fed, not sure of the make. So I don’t have an issue with gun ownership per se. But I don’t understand the frenzied opposition to universal background checks or minimizing legal clip limits.

    We need dialogue, meaningful dialogue – and that only happens when people on both sides of a matter agree that the other view has merit. I would strongly oppose any politician that sought to ban all guns. But I applaud those with the stones to say we’ve had enough kids die to take guns like the AR-15 out of circulation. It won’t stop all kids from getting killed but it will certainly reduce the number of multi-victim scenarios like Newtown.

    And I fail to see why “women” need guns as an equalizer. A smart woman, schooled in self-defense, is more than equal for a man; and she won’t need a gun to do it, either. The answer to gun violence is not “more guns”. It didn’t work in the old West and it won’t work now.

  9. @Darrel – This post obviously struck a nerve and I appreciate your long and thoughtful response. Please understand that this was a singular experience and in no way do I feel that it represents every gun shows/owner. The ten or so vendors had facial hair – I don’t know if that was a statement or a coincidence and probably doesn’t add up to a whole lot in the midst of other important factors in the gun debate, but as a writer (and a woman who likes facial hair on men) I take notice of what I see, and that I saw. Mustaches, goatees, and beards – not long ZZ Top beards, but close shaved ones. Make of it what you will.

    I can see your point about how a woman could use a gun in a situation where she is confronted with a bad guy, but in most cases, a woman with a gun is more likely to be shot with her own gun than protected from it. Like some of the other commenters have mentioned, more guns doesn’t necessarily translate into less violence. This NY Times article cites that women who have a gun in their homes are 27 times more likely to be murdered thn females without a gun in the home. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/opinion/sunday/dangerous-gun-myths.html?_r=0

    I’m curious about your statement that you don’t “blame liberal New Yorkers for what goes on in Greenwich village”?

    @Candace – thank you for a great compliment.

    @Bill – I liked what you originally had to say, but this works too. And things will be more peaceful on my “wall” from now on – I’ve cleaned house.

    1. Thank you for your note, Jaime.

      I do think that people on the liberal and conservative sides of the political spectrum talk past each other or about each other more than they talk with each other. That’s the main reason for my post. I wanted to thank you for taking the time to “check out” a gun show, while cautioning that it’s important to remember that seeing one group of gun owners doesn’t necessarily reflect the whole spectrum of gun owners.

      Several others here such as Bill and Sheila have since pointed out, quite correctly, that there is a wide variety of motives for owning a gun and a wide variety of gun owners.

      With regard to your question about Greenwich Village — I was referring to its reputation for a “bohemian” lifestyle. I have friends who live there, and I also know people who live in San Francisco. I’m certainly not trying to attack those two areas or everyone living there, but they do have a certain reputation in conservative circles, much as certain places in the South have a reputation in liberal circles. If your blog were based in California, I would use the San Francisco example; since you’re based in New York, I used the Greenwich Village example instead.

      What I was trying to say was something with which, based on your most recent post, I’m now pretty sure you would agree, namely, that it would be just as unfair to think all gun owners collect Confederate flags and Nazi paraphernalia as it would be unfair to say that everybody on the liberal side of the political spectrum looks and acts like some of the wilder things that go on in Greenwich Village.

      In America, we’ve become more and more a nation of subcultures which don’t talk to each other except in loud voices and with pointing fingers. Sometimes that is necessary. Often it is not. I’d rather discuss first since I truly believe many differences arise from misunderstandings, and even those which are based on serious differences can be made worse by misunderstandings.

      Hope that helps.

  10. Jaime, can you delete the first version of my most recent post and leave the second? I got a “server error,” thought my post didn’t go through, corrected a few typos, and then found both posts went through.

    My apologies for the duplicate posting.

  11. @Darrel – no sweat. I really appreciate your thoughtful response. I agree that only by honest debate can we come together on the things that divide us. We don’t have to agree on everything – or even most things – but respectful debate is the cornerstone of this country and the only means to real progress.

  12. Jaime Franchi, cub reporter. I love it!

    I understand owning rifles for hunting, handguns for self-protection. When the Journal News posted their infamous list of Westchester’s legal gun owners, my brother was one of the people outed. But many of the weapons sold at these shows have no such uses. The likelihood that a private citizen would legitimately need to fire off that many rounds that quickly is ridiculous.

    And for the record, the states with the most lenient gun laws (mostly the South) have the highest rates of homicide. So much for the ideas that more guns make you safer.

  13. Jaime, well done, on going to a gun show AND writing about it. I’m impressed that you went beyond your biases and checked it out. I am not sure I could have.

    Your curiosity shines through when you mention things like the “subjects” and “citizens” debate and then the Bushmaster.

    I could not havet gone there without getting into an habitual posture of being anti-gun, so I’m really glad you did and have written this calm description of what you saw and felt.

  14. It’s so sad when someone writes an article and gets one of their main points totally wrong. The children in Newtown not shot with a semi-auto rifle. The article wold have made some sense in she had at least had her “facts” correct. Now it just sounds like another liberal idiot too lazy to get the truth.

  15. Bravo Jaime. I really appreciate the thought provoking questions you raise. If you were indeed “lazy” I know you would not have taken the time to go to a gun show, challenge your own beliefs, write this piece and then subject yourself to the comments of others. Thank you for making me look at my own perspective in the gun debate. Thank you for writing about the bigger picture here and in your other works.

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