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Understanding American Gun Culture
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Since I was raised in a Left Progressive household, I assumed because I was smart that I was also civilized. I never watched or understood Westerns and didn’t play Cowboys and Indians. So it stood to my narrow reason that nobody civilized needed anything to do with guns, and the idea that they might be fun was just ludicrous. A combination of events and facts changed my mind, not the least of which was 9/11. But the single most poignant moment for me was reading this famous essay by Eric Raymond, Ethics from the Barrel of a Gun.
The first and most important of these lessons is this: it all comes down to you.
No one's finger is on the trigger but your own. All the talk-talk in your head, all the emotions in your heart, all the experiences of your past — these things may inform your choice, but they can't move your finger. All the socialization and rationalization and justification in the world, all the approval or disapproval of your neighbors — none of these things can pull the trigger either. They can change how you feel about the choice, but only you can actually make the choice. Only you. Only here. Only now. Fire, or not?
A second is this: never count on being able to undo your choices.
If you shoot someone through the heart, dead is dead. You can't take it back. There are no do-overs. Real choice is like that; you make it, you live with it — or die with it.
A third lesson is this: the universe doesn't care about motives.
Before I read this, I never really took seriously that anyone shooting a gun was rational. Hollywood’s imagination took over my own. I can picture a woman with a gun in her right hand closing her eyes, turning her head away and squeezing a trembling finger. Dropping the weapon and screaming she can’t believe what she’s done and horrified drops to her knees weeping in grief. I can picture a man dripping with sweat holding a massive machine gun with rage filling his eyes as the reverberations of the weapon rattle his bulging muscles. He roars like a great gorilla as he fires in circles creating a ring of arbitrary destruction. As the smoke clears, he lights a cigarette and quips a corny badass joke. It is highly unlikely that you have ever shot a gun more times in a month than you have seen bullets fired in a month of TV watching. More than anything else I’m pretty certain the majority of Americans get their information about weapons from patently unreliable sources. That was true of me until about 8 years ago.
Unlike a lot of people, I have no dog in the fight or argument in place about which policy is best when it comes to fighting COVID. I find that the microbes are to blame. This for me goes into the ‘Act of God’ bucket. I am continually stupefied by the politicization of climate. So I’m not surprised that the game is afoot to assign responsibility and blame for how one deals with the weather in red and blue colors. So too I am philosophically prepared for the fact that human beings make life and death decisions, whether or not they are any good at it. The Second Amendment is what it is for eternally good reasons. Memento Mori. What impresses me still about ESR’s essay is how it boils down to what you do about it in the moment. Unless and until one is ready to make the life and death decision it is ever the lazy option to hope some institution will make it for you. We punt our morality to screen writers and instead of practice and skill-building we allow our imagination to be outsourced to dramaturgy.
Here then is what I discovered when I decided I was man enough to make life or death decisions and I felt entirely embarrassed that I had never taken myself so morally seriously as the average beat cop.
Understanding American Gun Culture
It has been about a year since I began my romance with firearms. Like most things in my life, it relates to my desire for a more comprehensive understanding of everything and my general fearlessness when it comes to trying something I finally find compelling. It helps to have spare money and spare time, but I make those available in proportion to my interest. I have to tell you, the gun world is weird, but not in the way you might think. It's big and unexpected.
For a long time, I was involved in Scouting and went on several shoots with my son. So my first real experience with weapons came as a rather boring shock at a popular local range called Firestone. This was back in 07, just a couple miles off the freeway that separates some counties on the border of LA County. Not exactly the boonies but relatively so. I was really surprised at how serious the range master was and how casual the kids could be around rifles, but it left a fairly indelible mark on my first encounter with the NRA. They were the good guys who made sure dumb city kids didn't stay so dumb.
But not all city kids are dumb. I can recall the first time I went to Boston around 1990. I hung out in the Copley Square Marriott and found myself at a newsstand where some teenaged boys in bomber jackets were salivating over Guns & Ammo magazine as if it were Car & Driver. I was repulsed and fascinated by their familiarity with the terms. Like most people, I was clever about TV and film representations of guns, but ignorant about using them and understanding them from personal experience. And like most people, I accepted stereotypes about people with guns about the same way we accept stereotypes about people depending on what kind of automobile the drive. Like most people who think they're both smart and moral, I tended to be suspicious about people who actually knew more about gun tech and gun law than I did. Well, they must be nuts, because I am a reasonable man!
It turns out that I really didn't care enough for my reason or unreason to matter and so I carried that low quality deficit of understanding all the way up to the age of 46. But then I started getting a bit more serious in 07 and now I'm a gun owner in the State of California, which carries its own unique dramas. I spent about a year overthinking firearms before I bought one and that meant a whole lot of television, a good bit of talk with shooters and an obscene amount of YouTube.
Now since I'm a gearhead, I rather expected gearhead gun TV to be a lot like gearhead car TV. Nope. Gun TV has that ghetto feel of hard sell advertisers of about 7 or 8 brands which dominate for every show. They're hardware vendors of OEM and aftermarket products, pieces and parts, each with their own stable of arcane celebrities and terms of art. And it's because of this, the whole things feels, to an outsider, claustrophobic, incestuous and weird. It's only when you start disaggregating what essentially comes from one or two channels on TV that the whole begins to make sense. Until you do, everybody with a gun seems to be from an incoherent and dangerous posse.
There are, from my way of reckoning at least six subcultures of shooters. From what I can see, the largest and most established group are the Hunters. This explains, if you're the kind of person that needs explaining to, why there's a southern, redneck vibe in the gun world. That's where the wildlife is and that's where I figure that people grow up shooting, as in getting a rifle for your 10th birthday and dad teaching you how to shoot. Now hunters have all their own subcultures depending upon what's your game of choice. You've got your bird hunters and each bird requires a different set of hunting skills, especially turkeys. You've got your game hunters, obviously deer and elk. But those split off into two major camps. There are bow hunters, who need to get right up close, and there are gun hunters. Then there are big game & wild game hunters. My favorite gun TV show right now is called Meat Eater. Think Bear Grylls who eats wild goats instead of spiders.
The next recognizable gang of shooters are the Tacticals. You can tell that more people want to look and feel like a Tactical than actually are a Tactical. The key word here is 'Special Forces', or the dead giveaway 'Navy SEALs'. But actually, I would bunch them together as your basic military and law enforcement professionals and wannabees, including Sheepdogs like me as well as mall cops. What distinguishes the Tacticals is the target. They train to shoot bad guys. Whereas the Hunters are all garbed up in wooland camo, spraying themselves with deer spunk and getting all excited in their whispers approaching that buck, the Tacticals concern themselves with other things, in deadpan tones. They're all about armed intervention which is, as you might imagine, deadly serious. These are the guys who are always firing into ballistics gel to see how far a bullet will penetrate a human body and how much damage that will do. Moreover, they are all about the reliability of their hardware and the art and science of shooting under all conditions. At night, indoors, from cover, while moving.
Right up there with the Tacticals are the Defenders. You might think of them in the same breath because the Defenders are training to shoot the bad guys too. But mostly the one bad guy who is trying to break into your house, or rape you on the street. The Defenders are all about small pistols and big shotguns. They're also serious about pepper spray and stun guns, but we're talking about shooters here. Obviously women figure large into this culture, and the focus is on tech that's simple to use and effective at countering the threat. I've noticed that the manufacturers who sell laser and light attachment hardware cater largely to this audience. Like the Tacticals, they want to know about the stopping power of bullets and pay attention to the ballistics gel tests but do so as consumers. These are the bang for the buck guys.
The Marksmen are the ridiculous gearheads of the bunch. You will never know much tech goes into these machines until you start talking to they guys who actually make their own custom loads, calculate Coriolis forces, reseat their barrels, polish the components and adjust the trigger pull all to get 'a good group' of bulletholes right on top of each other. Naturally, there are all different sorts of competitions. There are Cowboy shoots, where Old West technology is used. There is Three Gun, in which a competitor uses pistols, shotguns and rifles in combined test. My favorite is Precision Rifle, which is basically sniping. I've spent a lot of time studying this geeky angle of shooting. Most importantly however, being a Marksman is all about technique and manual skills. Beyond the requirements for safety, where is the best place to hold your hand when shooting off-handed? What methods of drawing a pistol are most accurate and/or speedy?
Collectors are the gun nuts. These are the guys who can tell you the provenance of which company manufactured what in which country and how the import-export rules work. They will purchase a weapon in every caliber and talk your ear off about guns and ammo. These are the guys who are most likely, in my opinion, to get into a debate about gun control laws. Why? Because they want to buy whatever they want to buy, now. When you first get the fever about owning a high quality firearm, you can feel the collector in you bubbling to the surface, especially when the price gets over $1000, which is just the outskirts of collectorville. It gets very Ford vs Chevy around this. Most of the guys on YouTube I would call collectors. They will tell you all about their personal experience with this gun or that gun. A guy named Hickok45 is very popular and he seems to have shot everything in creation. He makes it look easy. But he's not the kind of collector that you find in stereotype. That would be more like the guy with a Ferrari and a Porsche. Exactly, he wants to buy what he wants to buy. Fanboys of the gun world.
Finally are the Professionals. These are the people in the industry. Like any other aspect of American life, there are squadrons of critics, pundits, gadflies and blowhards. But there are also people who make a living manufacturing, selling and repairing guns. If you stick the lobbyists into that equation you get the controversial group, but you'll never get the whole story until you speak to they guy who owns a gun store - the guy whose cash register has to talk to the FBI, and who fills out about as much paperwork as the guy who's selling you a car, definitely more than they guy who is leasing your apartment. I've only encountered these folks in the past year, but they always have an earful to say about rules and regs.
I would say that everybody who shoots is some fraction of all of these. When you enter a discussion about guns, it might devolve into a debate about gun control depending upon whom you engage. On the whole debaters mostly want to debate and shooters mostly want to shoot. Navigating what comes across on TV, YouTube and endless debates online takes a lot of time. In some ways, becoming a shooter was like becoming a Republican. All you hear for a long time are stereotypes and it takes a while to situate yourself among people like yourself who are in it for similar reasons.
Here in California, I am learning that people who shoot stay pretty DL about it. The idiot proofers are running things and applying regulations that are annoying at best. I actually have the words "Read instructions before using" stamped in steel on my pistol. Consequently, there are lots of interesting conversations going on inside gun stores, conversations you are not likely to hear anywhere else, including TV. This is all very interesting. Stay Tuned.
I went on to purchase a couple pistols and will probably get a nice rifle this year. Immediately after I stopped being a newb, all talk and no skill, it was a transformative experience. I was stunned at my own ignorance and incompetence, and then thrilled that after about four months and 2000 rounds I could state with confidence that I didn’t suck. What was even more astounding was that in that short period, I had become rather elite in America. I had actually trained more with my pistol than most police officers do in a year. But this is just the beginning of the story that I will periodically update over time. Here is my Stoic advice.
There are many people who use an extraordinary variety of adjectives to describe guns to the exclusion of the most important, ‘my’. Such people are not to be trusted on the subject.