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.
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.