Notes from a gun nut
A day at the Chico Gun Show, two months after Sandy Hook
I am a gun nut. I like the feel of a pistol in my hand or a rifle stock against my cheek. I like the smell of gun oil and cordite. I like the shiny bluing on a barrel, and the look of a case-hardened frame. I like the sound when I cock the hammer of my .45 single-action, those crisp little clicks when I advance the cylinder. I like seeing a beer can flip into the air when I’ve made a snap shot that is true. The memory of a well-placed shot I made decades ago can still replay itself in my mind, bringing with it thoughts of good friends and good times now gone.
When I was a boy, I yearned for a BB gun until I got one at age 8 or 9, then went on to dream of my first rifle, which I got when I was 12, a single-shot .22.
Over my lifetime I’ve owned or shot everything from muzzle-loading black-powder guns, long and short, to more modern weapons in calibers from .22 to .54, and shotguns from .410 to 8 gauge. I currently own four handguns. That puts me two guns below the average gun owner in this country, where six guns per owner is the “norm.” In California, there are an estimated 40 million guns, slightly more than one gun for every single resident of the state, including babies and old people on respirators.
My brand of gun nuttiness still finds expression in fantasies I picked up as a kid, daydreams in which I stood with the valiant defenders of the Alamo. I’ve always resonated to that image of a heroic last stand, which may be why I, and lots of guys who share my affliction, identify with the last scenes in The Wild Bunch, when Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Ernest Borgnine, and William Holden march toward their doom in a fight against overwhelming numbers. Unless you’re a little nuts your own self, there’s probably no way to explain the weirdness that made so many guys think that the way Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid went out guns a-blazing was about the coolest imaginable way to leave this planet.
So, for a gun nut like me, the prospect of attending the 37th Annual Chico Gun Show on a mid-February weekend was enticing. There are far worse ways to spend time than looking over neat old guns laid out on folding tables for sale or trade. I’ve attended gun shows before, in Sacramento, Las Vegas, Reno and up in Washington State, but I’d never been to the Chico Gun Show before. In the current post-Sandy Hook environment, however, where gun owners are being whipped into hysteria with fears of gun confiscations, I worried that driving my pickup truck with its Obama bumper stickers to a gun-nut gathering might not be the most convivial way to spend part of a weekend.
Calls for strengthening regulations on gun shows have prompted wariness on the part of gun-show participants everywhere. And, though California law makes gun shows here much more tightly controlled than in other states, apprehension and antagonism are in the air, the polarization that infuses lots of issues currently dividing people. On no issue, however, is the polarization greater than on the subject of gun control.
Two days before President Obama’s second inaugural, avid supporters of the Second Amendment proclaimed a Gun Appreciation Day. On that day, five people were shot at gun shows across the nation. None of those accidental shootings happened in California, and no one died. Still, I was not keen on sustaining a flesh wound while prowling through the Chico Gun Show, fondling weaponry and chatting up a few big-bellied men selling various kinds of death-dealing appliances.
My apprehensions were eased when I contacted Rhonda Burns, a congenial woman who has been promoting the Chico Gun Show for 13 years. She assured me they have rigorous rules to prevent accidental discharge of any of the hundreds of guns on display and for sale each year.
“Our show is well secured,” she said, in advance of the show. “The Department of Justice requires all firearms be checked and tagged with the owner ID at the door. California has strict seller restrictions and regulations. All of the dealers who have firearms at their tables have their actions tied open so the actions can’t be engaged. We abide by all California and federal laws. We have security on the premises, and we’ve never had a problem.”
My anxieties thus calmed, I headed out to the gun show, where 70 vendors had assembled to sell their wares to the anticipated 3,000 attendees.
There was lots of interesting stuff for sale at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds on that recent Sunday morning, everything from powder horns for black powder to camouflage-themed earrings for that special someone. There were more than a few camouflage outfits worn by potential buyers who didn’t look like they were heading out to a field anytime soon, making the camouflage pants and jackets distinctively ineffective for blending in with the gun show décor, but pretty good for blending in with other clientele.
One vendor was selling wall plaques reading, “Due to the high price of ammo, I will not be able to provide the courtesy of a warning shot. Thank you for understanding.”
At another table, a guy was selling stun guns of various shapes and powers, some touted as protection against pit bull attack.
I stopped and talked to a dealer who had a nice Colt single-action “Peacemaker” under a sign that read: “Very Rare Colt, Never Owned By a Sheriff or Outlaw.” I liked the drollery of that note, and I liked the guy behind the table. For those not in on this kind of joke, he was lampooning the tall tales that attach themselves to old guns. Spend some time around gun shows, and you’ll soon find out that there’s hardly a post Civil War-era firearm being traded that didn’t once belong to John Wesley Hardin or Billy the Kid.
There was a large booth where you could buy a gun safe to store your gun collection, with specials on offer for gun show attendees. At another stall, I bought a raffle ticket that might win me a rifle with a camo stock. Proceeds of the sale of the raffle tickets benefit programs to help keep Oroville kids off drugs.
I saw a little boy carrying what appeared to be a plastic cross-section of a zombie head and torso. A little farther down the aisle of vendors, I discovered where he’d gotten it. A couple of pretty Chico ladies were selling four different targets, cast in plastic to look like zombies. Since zombies are the “undead,” you couldn’t actually call the targets “lifelike,” though they were definitely human forms, albeit uglier than most living humans.
“They’re single-use targets,” one of the young women informed me. Obviously, the targets were being marketed to target shooters who’ve spent time in darkened theaters watching actors like Woody Harrelson turn the cinematic walking dead into hamburger.
I stopped to say hello to Rhonda Burns, pleased to put a face to the voice I’d heard on the phone. “We see this as a family event,” she told me. “We get lots of families. Lots of law enforcement people, in and out of uniform, show up. It’s in conjunction with the Butte County Sheriff’s Posse.”
Burns couldn’t have been friendlier, even though I’d made it clear that the piece I was writing was likely to include some things gun lovers might not like. “Buying and selling firearms the right way is a legal right,” she said, “and we support that.”
I spoke with her at the full bar being operated about midway through the line-up of vendor tables. I was a little surprised to see hard liquor being sold in this context. Even though there was security, and the guns going in and out of the place were all secured, it made me nervous. I’ve long had an aversion to mixing bullets and booze, an aversion I’d just had confirmed in a conversation with a vendor who’d told me of a law enforcement friend of his who’d accidentally put a 9mm round through the palm of his hand while drunk. After five operations, that hand still isn’t entirely functional.
NRA propaganda was being dispensed at the Chico Rod and Gun Club table, and I heard an angry old man fulminating about what a travesty it was that Sen. Dianne Feinstein is reintroducing the assault-weapons ban that was law during the Clinton years, but eliminated during the early years of the Bush administration. Among the NRA broadsides being handed out were sheets bearing an unflattering picture of Feinstein and another with the headline: “Anti-Gun Democrats Again Working to Erode Second Amendment Rights in Sacramento.” That seemed redundant. There are lots of pro-gun Democrats, of course, but there are absolutely zero “anti-gun Republicans,” even though Ronald Reagan, the saint of Republicans everywhere, couldn’t find a reason why any civilian would need the kind of guns Feinstein’s legislation seeks to ban.
The Chico Rod and Gun Club has a 50-year history, and has maintained a shooting range in Upper Bidwell Park for most of that time. Donations to the club are tax-deductible, and the organization has bestowed its blessings on recently retired Congressman Wally Herger with the club’s “Defender of Freedom” award. It’s entirely likely that Herger’s successor, Doug LaMalfa, will also earn that award from Chico gun lovers some day, in recognition of his service to the National Rifle Association’s aims and objectives.
As I’d expected, there was some palpable paranoia at the Chico Gun Show on the second day of its two-day run. Gun dealers live in fear that new gun laws are going to run them out of business, and they tend to see enemies everywhere. It’s a little like the paranoia that attended parties I went to back in the ’60s where the experience of taking a hit on a joint was amped up by the suspicion that anyone not dressed as we were might be a narc. And some of these gun nuts are old hippies, with hair gone white and tied back, wearing the kinds of buckskin drag that Dennis Hopper affected in Easy Rider back in those purple hazy days of yore.
Then, too, my peace symbol belt buckle might have pegged me as an anti-NRA liberal in the minds of some gun sellers. That’s sorta what I am, of course, so the hostility I sensed may have just been the unease I brought in with me. But at least a couple of guys wearing NRA caps engaged in what writer Ishmael Reed once called “reckless eyeballing,” giving me that angry-faced once-over hardly ever seen from people looking to sell me something. I couldn’t help thinking of the lyrics to the old Buffalo Springfield (the name of a rifle, incidentally) song with the lines: “Paranoia strikes deep/ Into your heart if will creep/ There’s a man with a gun over there/ Telling me I’ve got to beware.”
Paranoia is one of the nuggets of nuttiness that afflict some American gun nuts, but there are other pathologies that attach themselves to an avidity for firearms. Some mental-health professionals think it’s clinical. According to a psychiatrist I spoke with about this story, those most inclined to believe the Second Amendment was intended to protect us from our own government are “giving voice to their fears of facing the dangerous father from their childhoods. Guns give them added power to defeat him—also a form of identification with his frightening strength. In some ways, that’s a healthy adaptation, except it doesn’t work. There aren’t enough guns to erase the paranoid anxiety, that subconscious sense that government equals dad. Ironically, getting more guns only increases the paranoia.”
When I was a young father, we moved to a place on the outskirts of Quincy. Our next-door neighbor was a bullet-headed old man who’d moved from Southern California and gone into full survivalist mode. His house was littered with guns, and he was fond of discharging them at all hours of the day. He routinely blew crows out of the trees just for the hell of it. He was reckless with his guns, and it was scary living near him.
County code made it illegal to discharge firearms within a hundred yards of a roadway or a neighbor’s house. But laws are often not enforced, and when I filed a complaint, the sheriff’s office would not respond. My neighbor turned out to have been the district attorney’s friend and campaign manager when that public servant had run for office. It will surprise no one to learn that both my neighbor and the D.A. were big NRA supporters. Though I was not able to get a response to my complaints from local law enforcement, the gunfire slacked off after my neighbor’s wife was injured when she knocked a loaded handgun off a bureau. The gun discharged, disfiguring her face.
At around that same time, I met Clarence, a saloonkeeper who kept three loaded big-caliber handguns strategically placed under his long bar. There’s a quote I picked up somewhere that goes, “With his will, or against his will, a man reveals himself with every word,” and with every word I heard Clarence speak, he revealed how much he was aching to shoot someone. Clarence had a lot of free-floating anger in him. That’s hardly a rare quality among gun owners, or any other random group of Americans.
Helen and Clifton Murphy, of Paradise, couldn’t make it to the Chico Gun Show. They were in the Butte County jail, charged with stockpiling explosive devices for a yet-to-be revealed purpose. Agents from Homeland Security, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and other national, state and local agencies converged on the Murphy’s Melody Lane home on Feb. 14, two days before the gun show, arresting the couple and confiscating a small arsenal of weapons that included assault rifles. What that couple was up to has yet to be revealed.
As I was leaving the gun show, I saw a couple of gun buyers wearing crucifixes prominently outside their shirts, and a seriously overweight guy with proclamations of faith tattooed on his forearms. As I backed out of my parking space in the Silver Dollar parking lot, I noted a truck with one of those “freedom isn’t free” bumper stickers. And that’s certainly true. The freedom to have so many guns and such a confusing morass of federal and state gun laws costs us some 30,000 lives a year, far more than all the men and women lost in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 11 years.
When Vice President Joe Biden presented the recommendations his hastily assembled committee had come up with in response to the Sandy Hook massacre, the gun lobby exploded, firing off volley after volley of outrage at the “tyranny” of “King” Obama and his minions of freedom-denying anti-gun pansies. But the actual recommendations are far less draconian than NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre and other voices in the gun-nut corridor would have their followers believe. What is being proposed is universal background checks on the buyers of guns, a law we already have here in California. There’s also a proposal for uniform gun registration in order to keep track of the guns that are out there, but Dudley Brown, a spokesman for the National Association for Gun Rights (a group just a smidgen to the right of the NRA), tells his followers that “gun registration is the first step toward confiscation.”
After the Sandy Hook massacre, Mike Huckabee, once a candidate for president, proclaimed: “It isn’t a lack of gun regulation that caused the Sandy Hook massacre. It is the fact that we’ve removed God from our schools.” Last year alone, however, there were 115 shootings in churches where God, presumably, had not been cast out.
Vying for the title of Bull Goose Loon of Gun Nuts, LaPierre, the guy who’s paid a million bucks a year to be the face of the NRA, thinks that “it’s not paranoia to buy a gun. It’s survival.”
In all my years of shooting, I’ve never fired a round in anger, never hurt anyone intentionally or accidentally, and I am grateful beyond words that no fellow human being’s blood is on my hands or on my conscience. I am grateful, too, that it has never been necessary to protect my home and family with a firearm. I’ve dispatched countless bottles and cans to that big waste dump in the sky. I spent lots of ammo and lots of time with Jim, my much-missed best friend who was with me during most of those days we shared, shooting and acting out scenes from our favorite westerns, playing cowboy even as we grew older and he, alas, was admitted to heaven after several brave years spent knockin’ at heaven’s door.
Most of the gun nuts I’ve known were as law abiding and harmless as Jim and I. Like us, they were grown men playing with dangerous toys. The arrested development found in all too many gun nuts finds expression in the childishly oversimplified idea that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”
But good guys can change in an instant, becoming bad guys when drunk, when angered, when deranged. American children die every year because too many grownups simply won’t submit to sensible restrictions on the toys we can have. But I am one gun nut who would happily surrender his guns if doing so would allow a few more kids to grow up, find mates, have children of their own, and grow old watching the thousands of sunrises and sunsets denied to those 20 bullet-riddled children who died last December at an elementary school back in Connecticut just a few days before Christmas.