American Impressions, Chapter 28: Georgia
Letter to a Gun Dealer
I should first thank you for letting me into your gun-and-Y2K show at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds during Memorial Day weekend. Georgia is one of those states that can be considered a living museum of America’s gun culture, with gun shows playing the role of star exhibits. The 44 shows a year you organize under Georgia Mountain Productions’ banner must rank you as one of the Peach State’s top curators.
But for some of us, gun shows are more creepy underworld than living museum, and media types anywhere within a scope’s range of a gun show are usually treated like varmint. I even described to you my dislike for guns, or, more accurately, my aversion to the love of guns, to the way they are collected and admired and traded and shown off with the same passion as quilts or baseball cards. You knew that you wouldn’t convert me. Yet you welcomed us all in — my notepad, my camera and my liberal disposition.
I’d like to think that it wasn’t just because we both have Polk County in common (even though you sold your 3,500-acre ranch on the Polk-Osceola county line in 1990 so you could settle in the relative isolation of the north Georgia hills), but because we agreed that too much of the gun debate has evolved into a useless us-versus-them sort of endgame where no one wins for being deafened by polemics. I went to your show to face my prejudice head on, to experience that “underworld’’ from the inside instead of scorning it from a distance. I did learn more about the passions surrounding the gun wars from that conversation with you under the hot Georgia sun, and from browsing the trenches of your gun show, than I had from years of reading Op-Eds and cover stories.
If anything, however, my prejudice has been strengthened. After watching fathers and sons (young sons) bonding over high-power Brownings and fondling Mac 11s and snickering over measly .22s like veteran mercenaries preparing for a sniping vacation to Bosnia, I left the fairgrounds more educated but also more disheartened by one of the strangest warpings of reality I have seen in this country. It isn’t all relative: admiring the stitching on a quilt versus weighing the firepower of a Ruger aren’t just two hobbies for different tastes anymore than wagering on cockfights versus betting on horses is just a different way to spend a Saturday night. That we sometimes put it all on the same plane shows how small the distance has become between the violence of our fantasies and the carnage of their consequences.
But to tell you the truth, I can’t deny that I felt a twinge of something — nostalgia, some kind of forgotten sympathy? — for the way those fathers and sons fawned over your 50 merchants’ arsenals. I once loved guns more than anything. I was only half joking when I told you that I wanted to spend the afternoon soaking up the clicks and glints of your gun show out of some childhood yearning. I grew up in Beirut during the early years of Lebanon’s civil war, when a generation of adolescents exchanged their toys for M-16s and AK-47s to join their neighborhood militias.
I was too young to pick up guns yet, but I liked nothing better than when militiamen on their way to their daily roadblock shifts stopped by the house for sandwiches or coffee (our citizens’ contribution to the war effort) and laid their rifles against the dining room walls. They were my toy soldiers come to life, their boots making imprints on the rugs like Aldrin’s on the moon, their camouflaged bodies bulging with metal and clicking with restlessness. They, too, loved to fondle their weapons, show them off like talismans, glue pictures of the Virgin Mary on their rifle butts as a sign of their ultimate mission (and protection). Almost overnight a country of boys and men had turned into an armed camp, and for a while it was beautiful.
It was only when the war proved to be anything but a fantasy — when the sound of an AK-47 was more a deaththreat from the sniper next door than a fun bit of action on TV — that I began realizing, embarrassingly slowly, that guns in whatever context ultimately have a single aim, and posing as hobbies ain’t it. So you see, this is a personal issue for both of us. That’s why I’m writing you directly now: I want to keep it — and my brief pilgrimage through Georgia’s gun country — personal.
It was good of you to lend me your son , Rett, as an escort because as soon as I passed by that Heritage Bible splayed on a metal chair at the entrance of the gun show, next to a pair of worn Army boots and with the familiar verse of Psalm 23 highlighted in blue (“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me’’), I knew I was on alien ground. Despite Rett, whom everyone knew, I got more than a few evil looks the moment I pointed my camera or opened my notebook. But just as many dealers were willing to banter, to make me sign petitions, to make me promise that I’ll write my congressman and ward off any possible gun-control legislation. Every dealer trebled up as politician, preacher and teacher.
I got a lesson in concealing weapons from Jim Stein, who described himself as a disgruntled, unemployed schoolteacher from Orlando — disgruntled because he didn’t think he should have lost his job. But he seemed in his element, selling $150 “concealment vests’’ and showing anyone who asked how to make his full-size, semi-automatic Colt .45 disappear. “Better than a FAG bag,” he said, proudly modeling his vest like it was part of the summer’s Perry Ellis line and smirking at the intentionally offensive pun. FAG stands for “fast-action gun-bag” (or something to that effect), the concealment pouch some gun-packers wear around their waist.
One picture stands out in my mind more than any other. It is that of a middle-aged, overweight man in an undersize tank top who arrived at the show with a rifle slung over his shoulder, picked up two more as the afternoon wore on, then walked about, displaying them to no one in particular like the spiked feathers of a peacock. He stopped every once in a while to caress a few handguns or run his fingers through little mounds of ammo. It is the same man who walked up to you and proudly displayed his new Mac 11, asking you if you’d gotten yours yet (you had). Then he wandered off and continued to wander endlessly between the aisles the rest of the afternoon, bobbing from left to right under the weight of his guns. I could see him, a walking cause without a venue, thinking along in bursts of sympathy with the bumper-stickers he kept passing by: “Survival Is a Dying Art,’’ “I am the NRA and I vote,’’ “The Confederacy Was Non-Union,’’ “Don’t Leave Without It — Your Gun, That Is.” He hadn’t.
From the looks of the literature on display, the cause didn’t look like it’d be without a venue for very long. The books — “A Professional Guide to Preparing or Preventing Ambushes,’’ “Do-It-Yourself Survival Shelter Instruction Manual,’’ “How to Survive in the Wilderness As You Travel’’ — along with the separatist screeds in favor of home-schooling, against the UN’s “world government’’ and in dread of taxes, all seemed to point to an impending era of anarchy and violence, of individuals against the world. Y2K would only be the inevitable trigger (“Don’t despair! PREPARE!’’). And guns would be the survivor’s best friends. As you said, “In 6,000 years of history, man doesn’t change. You don’t take a human being and totally civilize him.’’
But are we that close to barbarism? You and I talked about how both sides of the gun debate have adopted a self-defeating us-versus-them mentality that has made progress impossible. But the core of the gun enthusiasts’ creed is based on just that kind of mentality. Every message at the gun show pointed toward a form of fanatical individualism, of survival amid enmity, of ideological bunker-building. It was as if people there wished that Y2K’s doomsday scenarios would come true just to be proven right, to split off into the woods and have a chance to show their bravado.
About 100 gun shows are held every weekend around the country. “Besides the economic benefits, they allow people of similar interests to congregate, to socialize,’’ you said. “Like old Bill right there. He just likes to shop. This is his social life. The government would take that away from him for what reason? It’s just not necessary to have more than 20,000 gun-control laws.’’
I’m not sure where the figure of 20,000 gun control laws came from, but from the looks of the show at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds, no one looked unhappy or constricted — even though you run one of the more tightly regulated shows on the circuit. You don’t have unlicensed dealers. No one can go up to a booth and buy a gun without a background check, although there are no waiting periods to buy anything. You even have your own system of law and order. “We’ve arrested quite a few people,’’ you said. “Nobody tells us to, that’s not our responsibility, but if it prevents guns from getting into the wrong hands or loose cannons, then we get rid of them.’’ Still, Georgia Mountain Productions’ shows are the exception.
The federal laws on the books make it illegal to sell a gun to a juvenile, a fugitive from justice, anyone who’s been convicted of domestic violence or of a crime punishable by more than a year in prison. Out of 2.6 million applications for handgun purchases gun dealers processed in 1997, about 69,000 fell through because the buyer fit into one of those federal categories. That’s not a small number.
The attraction of gun shows is that buyers are free to follow federal regulations — or not. If I wanted to buy a gun, I could have gone up to any of the gun dealers, picked out a nice little semi-automatic, presented my driver license, waited for the dealer to make the required phone call, then paid and walked off with my new toy. I could just as well have “shopped the aisles’’: dozens of individuals walked around with their guns sticking out of their belts or with their rifles slung over their shoulders, with price tags dangling from the hardware. I could have walked up to any of them, bartered, offered a fair price, then walked off with my Smith & Wesson or AK-47 look-alike (there were no original ones that I could see), no questions asked.
That’s the aspect of gun shows media reports and potentially new laws have been targeting since the latest school shootings. The loopholes are troublesome enough, even to you and to any gun dealer with a conscience. But loopholes are only half the story. Loopholes aside, what you sense, walking around the aisles of a gun show, rubbing shoulders with characters decked out for the Wild West and overhearing lusty descriptions of various weapons’ lethality, is that contempt is the common currency — not contempt for laws, exactly, but for any sense that there is more to America than the deity of the Second Amendment. Self-defense or hunting are the ostensible justifications of the right to bear arms, but only to the extent that the justifications lend a gloss of respect to a deeper, dumber strain that runs through gun shows.
An undercurrent of separatism, of wishful fears and impending cataclysms, floats beneath every conversation and frames every display. It almost seems as though vendor and customer alike will be disappointed if their Y2K fears don’t come true. It explains the natural coupling between gun and Y2K paraphernalia, guns being the assumed antidote to chaos. And it explains the visual refrains of Confederate colors pining for the days of secession or anticipating their return, so that in the end the whole thing ends up looking like the fringe bazaar of an ultra-modern society with a sticks-and-stone mentality.
After leaving the gun show I made two more stops in Georgia. The first was in Kennesaw, in ritzy Cobb County northwest of Atlanta. Responding to an Illinois town that had passed a gun control measure in 1982, Kennesaw passed an ordinance mandating homeowners own a gun. The town is proud of its ordinance, to which it attributes its low crime rate, although Kennesaw, like much of Cobb County, is really a gated community without gates; it doesn’t need visible ones: After integration, town and county separated themselves as much as possible from Atlanta by refusing to join the regional transportation authority (fearing that mass transit would mean more blacks) and turning 90 percent white in the process. When Cobb got its first black dentist in 1987, the Atlanta Constitution headline read: “Cobb’s First Black Dentist: Move Took Nerve.’’ In sum, Kennesaw (and Cobb) are living examples of separatism at work.
I then stopped at Heritage High School in Conyers, site of the most recent school shooting in the nation (a 15-year-old armed with two guns shot and wounded six students there May 20). Commencement exercises had taken place that very weekend, but the shooting was recent enough that “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS’’ yellow tape mingled with graduation programs and McDonald’s wrappers in the trash bins outside of school. In a 15-minute period, two vehicles broke the elegant campus’ summer slumber. The drivers pulled up to the front of the school, popped out, took a few pictures, then left. The school had turned into a tourist attraction.
Don’t worry, Ron, I don’t mean to make a link between gun shows and school shootings, especially when none exists anymore than does a causal link between Kennesaw’s gun ordinance and its lily-white crime blotter. But seeing those tourists shoot their pictures at Heritage High — seeing myself drive out there to ogle the place and shoot pictures — felt like an appropriate coda to a surreal swing through gun country. If my gun prejudices have only deepened since, it is only because of the uncomfortable realization that the show actually seemed too familiar — not because the sizable crowd looked like any average demographic cross-cut from any average metropolitan region, but because quite a few men in the crowd acted and spoke like those adolescent militiamen of my boyhood, the ones I’d once admired but had outgrown. With their admiring young sons in tow, the men looked older and richer than those militiamen of memory. But middle-age adolescence was, disturbingly, everywhere.
GEORGIA IN BRIEF
Total area: 58,977 sq. miles (rank: 24)
Population (1997): 7,486,242 (rank: 10)
State capital: Atlanta
Economy: Services, manufacturing,
Nicknames & Motto: Peach State;
Empire of the South; Wisdom, justice, and moderation.
Entered union: Fourth of the original
13 states to ratify the Constitution, Jan. 2, 1788.
Notable facts: The stretch of I-75 that runs north of Atlanta through Cobb County is named after Larry McDonald, a former national head of the John Birch Society who represented most of Cobb in Congress until his death in 1983, when he was one of the 268 passengers killed by the downing of Korean Airlines flight 007 by a Soviet fighter jet. During McDonald’s tenure, Cobb County grew from less than 200,000 residents in 1970 to more than 500,000 in 1996. Newt Gingrich then took over congressional representation until his resignation from the House last year. Although staunchly Republican, Cobb was the third-highest beneficiary of federal contracts in the early 1990s among all U.S. counties (behind Arlington County, Va., and Brevard County, site of the Kennedy Space Center), largely on the strength of defense contracts going to Lockheed Martin plants there.
Georgia in quotes:
But, ah! we’ll thwart them here today,
We’ll climb this hill of Mars,
We’ll seem with lightning’s fires to play,
To hurl bolts from the stars:
We’ll scale the cliffs where eagles flew,
We’ll raise the wild huzza,
And plant ’mid clouds of golden hue
The guns on Kennesaw!
(From a collection of Southern war songs; author unknown.)
* Georgia Mountain Productions: www.georgiamountain.com
* Cobb County: http://co.cobb.ga.us/
* Heritage High School: www.rockdale.k12.ga.us/hhs/default.htm
* Georgia tourism: www.georgia.org