Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Normality of Gun Ownership

Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes

Americans love guns. There are an estimated 270 million firearms in American private ownership, nearly as many firearms as human beings.   One day quite soon the guns will outnumber the people. That scares me, but I am English. Now that I live in America I am starting to understand why I should be scared. Or, as it happens, not.

From my cold dead hands!

America is a radical country. Liberty is one of its founding principles. The freedom to keep and bear arms is a constitutional right in the Second Amendment. Yet it is the normality of civilian gun ownership that is scary these days even to some Americans. A heavily armed civilian population is something that now seems, unnecessary, dangerous, difficult to comprehend. 


Charlton Heston killing zombies led by a liberal news anchor in The Omega Man.


Guns have one function: to kill. They claim more than 31,000 lives every year in the USA. More Americans under 40 die from gunfire than from any specific disease. The firearms homicide rate is twenty times higher than that of other economically advanced nations.  61% of firearms deaths in the USA are suicides. 1% of U.S. gun dealers sold more than half of the guns used in crimes. And twice as many U.S. kids die from gun injuries as from cancer. The list of deadly stats goes on and on.


Columbine high school killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold

Guns define America. They are part of its history, are still a regular theme in every breaking story on the news. Mass shootings and home invasions, in the ghetto or in suburbia, make reoccurring headlines. And the names of gunman and recent infamous massacres, Columbine, Tucson, Aurora, Sandy Hook, feature so often in reports they are etched on mass memory.


If you were to believe the news, or all the violent plots of TV cop shows, Law and Order, Criminal Minds, CSI, you would view the USA as one big crime scene under the permanent shadow of the gun. You can’t shy away from it in America. It is the ultimate expression of power over another human being.


Piers Morgan alienating his American audience

Non-Americans think that they can see what America does not see, that it is its own worst enemy, a nation of gun junkies, a barmy colony where firearms and the constitutional right to bear them now threatens those other enshrined rights – life and the pursuit of happiness. 


Chuck loved guns

We forget how rural the USA is. Guns are a necessity if you live in the countryside. Hunting, for game and deer, is still a major part of the American way of life. These guns are apolitical. Their owners are ordinary, law-abiding Americans, the next-door neighbor with whom you had an argument over the height of your hedge, or the Libertarian bloke who lives upstairs, the one who shows you his armory over a cup of ice tea.


Member of a darker constituency?

Yet beyond the bloke upstairs and the Buckhead Betty who carries a pistol in her Gucci handbag there is a newer, darker gun-carrying constituency. America now has a stew of marginalized citizens, “Second Revolutionaries,” heavily armed rural militia groups, crypto-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan offshoots. They see themselves in revolt against the Leviathan authority of big government and its elected leader, the President of the United States of America.


At a local gun show in Gwinnett, Georgia, in the lines and aisles of heavily armed men and women, I met some of these self-proclaimed activists against tyranny.


NRA redneck actor bloke


“People here are getting ready for revolution,” said one fireball, fear set deep in the red, white and blues of his eyes. He was, he said, a “patriotic Christian” who lived in a tent in his parents’ backyard but owned several guns. 


“We’re all afraid of Obama. He’s looking for the first excuse to put us on the no-rights list and take away our guns.”


Guns but no 9mm ammo at the show


Moving through displays of handguns, rifles, scopes and magazines, set out as normally as stalls at a Christmas charity bazaar, here were the tools of past massacres and assassinations. A Tec-9 handgun (Columbine), a 6.5mm Carcano rifle (the presidential assassination weapon used by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963), an M1 carbine (Charles Whitman, The Texas Tower Sniper in 1966), an old Rohm RG-14 (as used by John Hinckley, Jr. on Ronald Reagan in 1981) or America’s best selling and most popular assault rifle of choice, made infamous after the Aurora and Sandy Hook shootings, the AR-15, yours for only $999.



You can have any gun that you want. There is, however, a snag.  There’s not enough ammunition. 9mm, America’s most popular round, is in short supply. A recent bulk purchase by the Department of Homeland Security fuelled panic buying and conspiracy theories by gun-owners across the USA.


“No cheap 9mm to be had round here,” said one grizzled would-be customer, “there ain’t enough tits for us hogs.”


Supply and demand. Market forces. 9mm is now more expensive to buy than it ever was.  Some gun-owners are buying recycled caps -and not in an effort to go green- but because of shortages. I met one now importing his 9mm from Brazil.

“It only takes about 10 days to clear through customs, I might try Canada or Russia next time.”


You find things out about America on this side of life. These Americans believe in life, limb, liberty and firearms. They fear a militarized, centralized state imposed upon them by those they see as liberal tyrants in Washington and the East Coast.  Revolution is their dream and it makes a disturbing narrative.


One vendor, selling “I am a racist” and “American Infidel” t-shirts, Swastika Zippo lighters, Obama paper targets and bumper stickers with Margaret Thatcher quotes (“The trouble with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money”), openly expressed his fears about the Black Man in the White House. 



“Obama’s a Muslim coz he says Holy Koran. I don’t care what nobody says, he ain’t one of us. He’s a Muslim and a socialist, and somebody needs to do something about it. Everybody’s talking revolution and stocking up for the worst. USA stands for the United States of America not the Unconditional Surrender of Arms.”


This is not so much a fair. It is a meeting of the wide-eyed, the rank and file of the National Rifle Association’s Sturmabteilung. Locked, loaded, galvanized by fear and anger, they are ready to emulate their ancestors and play the martyr.  


“The beauty of the Second Amendment,” said one old timer in a John Deere baseball cap, “that’s the right to keep and bear arms, is that it ain’t gonna be needed until Obama and Biden try to take it away from us.”


“That’s the reason this gun show is so packed,” said a ragged trousered survivalist wearing a Bushmaster AR-15 on a sling. “It’s all because of liberals, in Washington and the Media, bitching about my so-called assault rifle…I’ve never assaulted anybody with my weapon in my life!”


“All we’re talking about is the right to a gun,” said an Aryan in an Atlanta Braves baseball cap and woodland battle fatigues, “that’s supposed to be the law round here. That’s what you folks in England don’t understand coz you been brainwashed the other way.”



There is some consolation for the members of the Assault Rifle Party. Obama tackled the problem head on but failed. There was no renewed ban on assault rifles; no limits to the number of rounds in a magazine; no universal background checks for purchases; no scrutiny of mental-health histories and no sharing of records to curb gun trafficking between U.S. states.  The pro-gun lobby won and the American love affair with firearms goes on until the next political challenge. Or Sandy Hook. 



Meanwhile, there is no way to disarm America. There are too many weapons in circulation and private ownership. The U.S. could not ban semi automatic rifles and shotguns, nor buy up all the existing guns in private ownership (like they did in Australia after a mass shooting in 1996) because of the paranoia of the average gun-owner and the potential for domestic subversion from the Second Revolutionaries.


I exited the gun show without a revolver, semi automatic pistol or an AR-15 assault rifle with high capacity magazines. But I am still thinking about becoming a gun-owner. Yes, normal or abnormal, I would become part of the problem. But in a nation of gunaholics I’d rather be my own problem than a statistic in some violent stranger’s Final Solution.