My First Gun

by J. Tobias Beard

Looking for safe ground in the middle of the gun debate

Published in C-VILLE 7/16/13


The decision to buy a gun came suddenly. I was gulping down coffee before work and reading about the latest shooting, when my right to bear arms overwhelmed me. I ran out into the Virginia sunshine, jumped in my Prius, and headed to Walmart.

Ever since the Aurora movie theater shooting, I’ve been consumed by the gun debate, righteously posting articles on Facebook and arguing out loud with my shadow. As a child, I’d loved guns as much as the next American boy, but politics, and the fear that another madman was lurking right around the corner, had turned me into a raving, anti-gun nut.

If I bought a gun, I thought, maybe it would come with some new understanding.

Because a question had been nagging at me for a long time. Did they, the rabid gun owners and Second Amendment defenders, at the very least understand why, after what happened in Newtown, some people might want to ban guns like the AR-15?

More even than a change of mind, I think I was looking for empathy, just one person on the other side of the issue who could admit that in the first few seconds after hearing that 20 children and six adults were shot and killed in an elementary school, he paused for a moment, looked at his gun collection and thought, “What the hell am I doing with these?”

The Walmart sports and leisure department was quiet, display cases only half full, and the ammo shelves practically empty. I asked a passing sales associate if someone could help me with the guns.

“I want to buy the Crickett,” I said. “The pink one.”

It took 25 minutes for me to become a gun owner. At that point I’d been working on this story for about two weeks. There would be many more weeks to come, during which the six month anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School would come and go, and a man would walk through downtown Santa Monica firing a semi-automatic rifle, killing five people before he was shot and killed by the police. Two thousand one hundred and twenty Americans would be killed by guns during the 12 weeks I worked on the story; 50 of them in Virginia, and two in Albemarle County.

The manager had to carry the box through the store. Once we were outside, she handed it over. She asked me who I was buying it for.

“Me,” I said. “It’s my first gun.”

She gave me a look. “They do come in black, you know.”


Small arms for small arms

At 1pm on April 30, three days before I bought my gun, a mother in Burkesville, Kentucky stepped outside onto the porch to empty a mop bucket and in that brief moment her 5-year-old son shot and killed his 2-year-old sister with a Crickett he’d been given for his birthday. The gun, which only holds one bullet, had accidentally been left loaded, leaning in a corner.

“Just one of those crazy accidents,” the coroner told the Lexington Herald-Leader. It was in fact the fourth such crazy accident that month. In New Jersey, a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old friend were playing “pretend shooting” with another .22 caliber rifle, resulting in the 4-year-old being shot. The next day, a woman in Tennessee was shot and killed by her 4-year-old, and then later in the month, in Washington state, a 7-year-old boy grabbed his older brother’s .22 and accidently shot his 9-year-old sister, who thankfully lived. Also in April, a Political Action Committee called the Granite State Patriots Liberty PAC held a rally at the New Hampshire Statehouse. In the crowd was an 11-year-old boy carrying an AR-15 and waving a flag that said “Come and Take It.” The boy told the local paper he was there to stand up for gun rights.

My father doesn’t target shoot and he hates hunting. He was a hippie who dodged the draft and drove a VW bus from Virginia out to Haight-Ashbury in time to catch the Late Summer/Early Fall of Love. Yet he owns guns, likes them even. There were five in the house I grew up in, including a Vietnam era Colt AR-15, the semi-auto, civilian version of the M-16 he would have carried, and perhaps used, if he’d fulfilled his patriotic duty and gone to war.

Maybe that’s the seed of my internal conflict, a house full of guns that no one wants to shoot. A long haired Deadhead in my youth, I nevertheless grew up playing soldier, and even as my politics grew increasingly, and angrily, leftist, I never considered guns a problem.

After some time off, I went back to college in 1997, just in time for a string of school shootings to hit the news. I was pretty cynical about most of them, making macabre, juvenile jokes with a similarly angry friend about starting a Kip Kinkle defense fund, Kinkle being the 15-year-old from Oregon, who, in 1998 shot and killed his parents and then walked to his high school with two knives, two pistols, a rifle, and over a thousand rounds hidden under his trench coat. He killed two students and wounded 25, and my friend and I were young and angry and when Kinkle said, “If there was a God he wouldn’t let me feel the way I do. There is no God, only hate,” we thought it was cool.

It was Columbine that did it. Columbine scared me.

Then came Virginia Tech, which didn’t feel that far away, because if you grew up in Charlottesville, you had lots of friends who went to school there, probably hung out in Blacksburg more than once, and maybe even knew someone who lost someone. I drove to Blacksburg a week after the shooting, uncertain whether I was there as a journalist or a tourist, recording for some sort of posterity the prayer circles, the candles and flowers and tears, and the long lines for merchandise in the school bookstore.

And then Aurora, and Newtown, and I began to feel worn down and worn out, but also angry at the people whose only response to all this horror was to circle the wagons, plant an American flag, and buy more guns.

In many ways, I’m not that different from the people on the other side of this debate. My heroes, people like William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson, are just as infatuated with guns, and just as prone to confusing self indulgence with freedom. When I lean to the left I lean too far, teetering on the edge of anger, and when the government tells me I can’t do something, it just makes me want to do it four times as bad.

Eventually the bullets hit even closer to home. Last year, a C-VILLE employee named Beth Walton, was shot and killed by Noah Romando, her 19-year-old son, who also killed his 16-year-old sister, his 14-year-old brother, and then himself. He apparently used a .22 hunting rifle, although it seems he’d also bought a handgun, how or where we don’t know. Nor do we know why. Romando left three notes behind, the contents sealed from public scrutiny, and many questions we’ll never be able to answer.

Gun crime is down, gun ownership is down, and gun sales are up. Mass shootings are a major issue and the gun control debate has reached a boiling point. There have to be gun control measures that would curb violence without egregiously limiting personal freedom. There has to be a rational middle ground.

How about this: We shouldn’t market guns to kids. We shouldn’t let kids use guns at all, the way we don’t let them drive a car or operate a skill saw. Isn’t that something we can all agree on? If we can settle that, then maybe we can talk about universal background checks, armor piercing bullets, and guns designed specifically to kill people quickly, right?

The gun that a child in Kentucky used to kill his baby sister, the gun I bought at Walmart, is called the Crickett. It’s a bolt action .22, 30 inches long, with a black metal barrel and a plastic body. The box has a big cartoon cricket on the front (Davey Crickett is his name) and then “My First Rifle” in large green letters. Just below that, in very small letters, it says “NOT A TOY.”

The shooting in Kentucky brought a lot of negative attention to the Crickett, and Keystone Sporting Arms took down the Crickett website (with its “kids corner” featuring a photo gallery of cute kids holding their Cricketts), Facebook page, and Twitter feed and began the by now familiar mantra of “no comment,” appealing to the family’s need for privacy.

Three days later, the National Rifle Association held a Youth Day at its annual meeting. Shirts with “NRA” spelled out in crayons were available for kids and bibs with “NRA” on toy blocks for babies. There were also, of course, lots and lots of kids guns for sale, including the pink Crickett.

“It was her time to go, I guess,” said the grandmother of the dead 2-year-old in Kentucky. “I just know she’s in heaven right now and I know she’s in good hands with the Lord.”

Exactly three weeks after that, 10-year-old Maggie Hollified was shot and killed in Crozet by her 13-year-old brother. The family had recently moved here from Tennessee so Maggie’s father could take over as pastor of the Commonwealth Christian Community. The Hollifield’s four children were homeschooled and their 13-year-old son Nathan liked to hunt. As a reward for completing a hunter safety course, a relative gave Nathan the shotgun that would kill his sister. On the morning of May 21, legal records show that he was trying to fix the gun, and it was pointing at his sister Maggie as she stood behind a loveseat when it fired.

The shooting, like the one in Kentucky and so many others, was called a “tragic accident” and the case was closed. There were many things about the incident that were accidental (the finger on the trigger, the forgotten shotgun shell, the sister hidden behind the loveseat), but not the gun. The gun was there on purpose.


Welcome to the gun show

Molon LabeRow upon row of tables displaying all manner of collectibles: coins, pens, military books, Nazi and Confederate paraphernalia, Girl Scout cookies, and guns, lots and lots of guns. What do you want? Shit, what don’t you want? Black powder muskets, fully automatic machine guns, grenade launchers, silencers, infrared scopes. Uzis and Mac-10s and AK-47s and Glocks; every gangsta rap, every action flick, come to life.

And, of course, a thousand permutations of America’s favorite gun-du-jour, the AR-15. A veritable festival of fatality, your friendly neighborhood arms bazaar. Welcome to MurderMart, may I take your order?

I spent a Saturday in May at the Showmaster’s Gun Show in Richmond, and my hands were very quickly oily from fondling barrels. I couldn’t help it, I had to pick up every gun, aim it at something, ponder its satisfying heft in my hand, how comfortably it nestled against my cheek. I could be a cowboy, a gangster (vintage or modern variety), a soldier, a spy. All my childhood dreams could come true. I could shoot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.

At a table right by the door I saw a Raven MP-25, the original “Saturday Night Special,” a six round (plus one in the chamber) pistol, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. It was chrome, with a fake pearl handle, and at $100 was the cheapest gun there. I was very tempted to buy it.

“I’m tempted to buy this,” I said to my wife.

“No,” she said. “Stop buying guns!”

After she left to go read in a coffee shop, I twice had to stop myself from heading to the ATM. Gun control is strict in our house.

Virginia is a pretty gun-friendly state. In 2007, 35 percent of us owned guns, putting us in the middle of U.S. states, but considering the record 432,387 gun sales in Virginia last year, maybe we’ve moved up since then. Eight days after Newtown, Virginia boasted its highest number of background checks, 5,150, in a single day, and gun sales in Albemarle and Charlottesville have risen by over 50 percent as well. There is one statistic where Virginia is number one: There are more legally-owned machine guns here than in any other state.

Violent gun crime, meanwhile, has been dropping statewide for the last six years.

In the early ’90s, Richmond had one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the country, but even with a slight upward trend since 2008, the current murder rate in our capital city is a quarter of what it was at its peak.

The same goes for the country as a whole, gun crime of all types is way down, half what it was in the ’90s. But ask most people and you’ll hear the exact opposite; violent crime is way up, and America is more dangerous than ever. This, of course, is why half the country is desperately stockpiling guns and the other half is rabidly trying to have them banned.

There are about 5,000 gun shows a year in this country, and at least one pretty much every weekend, year round in Virginia. If you’re not a gun person, or you grew up in a place where firearms aren’t a part of daily life, it’s well worth visiting a gun show.

You can learn a lot about cultural diversity and cultural divisiveness simply by walking the aisles and reading the bumper stickers and t-shirts for sale: Winning the hearts and minds of our enemy … 2 in the heart, 1 in the mind. Keep calm and carry. We speak English, learn it or leave. No mosque at Ground Zero. There’s plenty of room for all God’s creatures right next to the mashed potatoes. Some people are alive simply because it’s illegal to kill them. Guns save lives, guns stop crime, guns are why America is free. Happiness is a warm assault weapon. No king but Jesus: Slogan of the American Revolution.

From 2004 to 2007, the ATF investigated 195 gun shows around the country, including eight in Richmond, due to Richmond police reporting that many known gang members and criminals were buying their guns at gun shows. They found that between 2002 and 2005, 400 guns involved in crimes could be traced back to gun shows in Richmond.

So here’s where we talk about the “gun show loophole,” a term pro-gun people hate, because they say it’s not a loophole, it’s a long standing tradition recognized and safeguarded by law.

It used to be that licensed dealers, i.e. gun stores, weren’t allowed to sell their wares at gun shows, but this was changed in 1986, and today, between 50 and 75 percent of gun show sales are by licensed dealers, meaning that the buyer has to go through a background check. The other 50 to 25 percent are private sales, one non-licensed dude to another, and since private sales are exempt from the background check requirement, or any requirements at all, they’re a great way to get a gun if you happen to have a pesky felony conviction, domestic violence charge, or mental illness.

The problem with the term “gun show loophole” isn’t the word “loophole,” it’s the idea that gun shows are an integral part of the equation. In reality, they’re just a convenient and traditional meeting place. What we should be afraid of are private sales taking place online via Craigslist style websites like Armslist, or VA Gun Trader, because when it comes to anonymity and no-questions-asked purchasing, comparing a gun show to the Internet is like comparing 7-11 to Sam’s Club.

Universal background checks are one of those issues that gun rights groups actively fight against, but a Washington Post poll taken in May of this year, showed that 86 percent of all Virginia residents support requiring background checks for private and online sales, including 82 percent of Republicans. Oddly, background checks are one of the few places where Virginia has always been a leader in gun control instead of gun freedom. Ours was the first state to check the criminal records of firearms purchasers, nine years before the national system, and we make more arrests for failed background checks than any other state.

Virginia’s background checks stopped 3,444 gun sales in 2012, 340 of which were for mental illness. In 2007, the year Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, only 109 mentally ill people were denied a gun, Cho being noticeably absent from that list. But what’s really crazy is that thanks to the NRA, Virginia is one of the states that gives violent felons and the mentally ill the chance to petition to get their gun rights back.

In 2011, The New York Times investigated Virginia’s system for restoring firearms rights to the mentally ill and found that often all it took was a brief letter or a doctor’s note sent to a judge. “The hearings,” the Times reported, “were often relatively brief, sometimes perfunctory.”

Parked outside the gun show was the Mobile Firearms Training Unit; a large trailer decorated with a giant bald eagle and a copy of the constitution. Pay $75, sit through a two hour class, and you’ve got the training required to get a Virginia concealed handgun permit. I really wanted to do it, but the eagerness I’d felt earlier to drop money on a gun had vanished. Seventy five bucks for a class? Screw that! Plus who has two hours to spare?

Luckily, Virginia law was changed in 2009 to allow concealed carry training through online classes. Most cost $30 to $40, but I found one for $20. All I had to do was watch a video and take a test which, late at night after several glasses of wine, I did.

“The decision to purchase and own a firearm is exciting,” the narrator informed me. “And it introduces both new opportunities and new responsibilities.… Respect your firearm and it will provide you with years of enjoyment and faithful protection.”

The video consisted of a man in camouflage pants demonstrating how to load, unload, and clean a handgun, and dispensing invaluable safety advice like, “Know how to safely use your firearm.” It lasted 17 minutes and 28 seconds and was followed by a laughably easy 15 question test. For good measure, one of the questions included a joke about being limp wristed.

I printed out my official certificate, proof that I’d successfully completed a handgun safety course “conducted by a certified instructor” who didn’t know or care that I was drinking during class, or if I’d ever held a gun before, or even how limp my wrist was. All I have to do now is pay the city $50 and pass another background check, and I can legally carry a concealed weapon.

As of 2011, there are roughly 279,000 people with Virginia concealed handgun permits, about 5,000 of whom don’t live in Virginia. Why would someone who doesn’t live here want a Virginia permit? Because they’re a lot harder to get in other states. Texas, for instance, requires 10-15 hours of real world training, including actual target practice. But 29 states, including Texas, accept a Virginia CHP in place of their own, which is why the number of Texans applying for them jumped by 96 percent once online classes were approved.

Locally more people are getting CHPs as well. Charlottesville issued 181 in 2012, up from 101 in 2011, while Albemarle County gave out 798 last year, 277 more than the year before. And CHP holders can sneak their guns into an increasingly large number of places. Virginia just became one of five states to allow concealed handguns in places where alcohol is served, as long as the person with the concealed gun isn’t drinking. If you want to drink, then just throw that gun in a holster and let it be seen; no permit is needed to openly carry a pistol, and it’s totally legal to drink while you do.


A shootable feast

IMG_2838-001Greg Trojan heard I wanted to talk to gun owners, so he sent me an e-mail. He’s 58, a retired firefighter and paramedic who lives with his wife Val on a farm outside of town, where she raises horses, goats, pigs, and all manner of birds, from peacocks to exotic turkeys. In his e-mail, Trojan said he had an AR-15 that he used to keep predators from killing his wife’s birds.

Aha, I thought, this must be one of those “moderate gun owners” I’ve heard about. I was a little disappointed that he only had one gun to show me, but his e-mail said he’d set up a target I could “plink at” and we could grill some burgers, so I went out there anyway.

I walked into about as lively a kitchen as I’ve ever seen, filled with a multitude of pets and boisterous conversation courtesy of Trojan’s friend George Overstreet, up from Richmond for the day with his wife Lyndell. The TV was turned to Fox News and there was a gun catalogue on the kitchen table.

While introductions were made, Trojan walked to his bedroom and came back with a gun. I sat at the table and played with my pen while he left again, returning with more guns, then again with more. Overstreet joined the fun, adding pistols to the mix, pulling rifles out of bags, until there were guns everywhere, of all types and eras, from an 1816 musket to several modern “assault weapons.”

“It’s time to go burn gunpowder,” Overstreet said.

We talked about Neil Young while Trojan loaded the guns into a box attached to the front of his tractor, then walked down to the shooting range and set up a row of balloons, tin cans, and old political yard signs in front of a big dirt berm. I didn’t let on how thrilled I was to be shooting holes, even if only nominally, in George Allen, Ken Cuccinelli, and Mitt Romney.

We shot the following guns: a .22 pistol; a Beretta 92 9mm pistol; a Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol; a Smith & Wesson .40 caliber pistol; a .22 rifle; a CZ 527 bolt action .223 rifle; three AR-15 style rifles: a .22 caliber, a .223 caliber, and a .308 caliber; and a 12 gauge pump shotgun.

The first, and maybe only, epiphany I had about the gun debate as I was covering this story was that all of my carefully collected facts and statistics were utterly useless as tools for persuasion. Sitting at the dinner table in the Trojans’ kitchen, I mentioned what I thought was a pretty basic fact: that America has more gun deaths every year than any other developed country.

“No we don’t,” Trojan said.

“Are you saying that the number of deaths that are reported every year is a lie?” I asked.

He told me that the numbers were manipulated, told me not to believe everything I read and to dig a little deeper.

“I haven’t finished this yet, but I’ll give it to you,” he said, handing me a copy ofControl: Exposing the Truth About Guns by Glenn Beck.

The thing is I had been digging deeper, digging so far down that the hole was over my head and I was being buried alive in facts. At some point I had to start trusting some of them, but which ones?

The New York Times isn’t reputable in their eyes, nor is Harper’s, nor The New Yorker. Forget about Mother Jones. A prominent local gun lobbyist told me that studies by the Centers for Disease Control were “junk science.” How far did I have to dig?

To be fair, I think Glenn Beck is a complete buffoon. And there’s the rub, each side of the gun debate has its own set of facts and its own trusted sources for those facts. At some point we have to accept information that’s given to us by someone else. Short of taking our opponent by the hand and going door to door conducting surveys, how the hell are we going to make any progress?

Finally, I asked Overstreet and Trojan the question that had been on my mind the whole time. Did they understand why some people wanted to get rid of guns after Newtown?

Trojan: “We hate children being hurt. And [it was] horrific, and they’re mad as hell over the fact that these children have been massacred… They have to do something, but our problem is the madman.”

Overstreet: “I understand their reaction, and even if it was 98 percent of the population, it still would run counter to our Bill of Rights, which was put in place by geniuses and is now administered by idiots.”

Me: “But those geniuses intended the Constitution to be changed and to evolve.”

Trojan: “If they believe the situation that we have nowadays warrants changing the Constitution, then let’s go ahead and do that. Let’s have the discussion and go ahead and change the Second Amendment, but are they doing that? No. What they’re doing is they’re chiseling away at that Constitutional right by passing legislative laws instead of changing the Constitution.”

Despite being very different, Trojan and Overstreet have become fast friends because of their shared belief in guns and the Second Amendment. Trojan is average height, with sandy hair turning gray. He’s originally from Ohio, and there’s something essentially Midwestern about his demeanor; knowledgeable but not academic, intense without being overbearing. If you were designing the perfect grass-roots warrior he’s probably what you’d come up with.

Overstreet is his opposite. Tall and broad, with curly gray hair and a goatee, he’s gregarious, loud, and always grinning. A good ol’ boy to his bones, he’s the color commentary to Trojan’s sober analysis. Overstreet identifies as a liberal, “a left-winger from way back.” He used to be a Democrat, but the more the Democrats come after his guns, the more that’s starting to change.

Trojan: “The moral compass on [criminals] is pointing the wrong way, [and] all [gun control advocates] can think of is, ‘We gotta ban the guns!’”

Me: “But their desire to ban guns doesn’t come from a desire to limit your freedom.”

Overstreet: “Yes it does.”

Me: “It just comes from a desire to stop these tragedies from happening. It’s not motivated by malice towards gun owners.”

But it is malice, Trojan said, and to prove it he showed me a picture on his iPad of Glenn Beck speaking at the recent NRA convention, a musket held over his head with one hand. It’s an iconic image, if only because Beck is imitating the much more iconic Charlton Heston, who struck the same pose at an NRA convention in 2000. Scrolling down, Trojan showed me the comments, which were mostly nasty, angry insults and threats of violence directed at Beck.

Me: “But you see the same stuff said by the right on liberal sites.”

Trojan: “Not death threats. Nobody I know. Any of the places I look at the commentary, I don’t find gun owners threatening to go out and kill people. If the gun owners were as violent as the anti-gun owners say we are, how many anti-gun people would be left?”

I thought about this for a while afterwards. Politics aside, which side in this debate is nastier?

Me: “But if you say that your side is misunderstood, do you see how the other side could be misunderstood as well?”

Trojan: “Their focus is either misinformed, or going off in the wrong direction. They’re not going to prevent the mass murders from occurring… We’re either gonna have to be equal force, the evil vs. the good, or the evil wins.”

Both men are active in a way that most Americans aren’t. Veterans of many lobbying trips to Richmond and D.C., they were at the State Capitol for this year’s General Assembly, where Trojan testified against several gun control measures. The whole let’s-party-like-it’s-1776 thing isn’t a joke to them. They’re still complaining about taxation without representation, still fighting against the tyranny of King George III. Mostly, this strikes me as crazy, because surely our country has grown up a bit since then and moved past its rebellious stage. But there’s something admirable about their commitment. They’re as passionate as Mr. Smith, they just go to Washington better armed.

Me: “You say the government’s not listening to you. What about the large numbers of people on the other side who say they want the government to listen to them about gun control?”

Trojan: “There’s always been two, and sometimes three, sides to every argument in a representational republic, but they seem to think that they can dictate our rights. They can’t! It’s written in the Constitution. There’s a method for amending it, if they think that society is ready to change the Second Amendment then let them do so. Obviously, they don’t have a majority, or enough people to push that through.”

Me: “But, there is support for gun control. A majority of Americans want some of those proposals.”

Overstreet: “Well, I’ve read that there were Chinese people on the moon.”

I found myself unable to put up much of a fight sitting at the Trojans’ dinner table. Partly that’s because I was in reporter mode, wanting to hear what they had to say and accepting it for what it was. And it felt rude to argue given their extraordinary hospitality. But mostly, I found their certainty unnerving. How can anyone be so free of even a glimmer of doubt?

At one point Trojan asked me if I could defend my family, and I answered truthfully that I didn’t know. There have been times when I’ve felt threatened and wondered if maybe I should own a gun. But I have serious doubts about whether or not I’d be able to shoot someone, and whether or not I could handle it if I did.

Back when he was a fireman, Trojan was caught in a burning house when the roof collapsed. His back was injured and now he has to walk with a cane, sometimes two. It’s a weakness that he feels makes him an easy target.

Me: “But have people attacked you?”

Trojan: “Oh, I’ve had a couple of folks that have come up and started looking at me funny, and then decided that maybe they should go find somebody else. So far I’ve been lucky.”

Me: “Why are you always arguing for total freedom? Why can’t you compromise?”

Trojan: “The Second Amendment says, ‘Shall not be infringed.’ That’s pretty clear.”

Me: “Do you think this conflict can be resolved?”

Overstreet: “No. Not if they take my guns.”


My last gun

P1000031-001So now I have this gun, and I don’t know what to do with it. It seemed funny at first, buying a little kid’s gun, a pink one at that, a way to mock the machismo of it all, but now it just seems stupid. My wife doesn’t want it in the house, and truthfully, neither do I. Maybe if it was a sleek looking Glock, or that little Raven I saw at the gun show, I’d want to continue being a gun owner. But as it is, my gun just sits there in its box, as it has since I got it, mocking me.

My brother and I went out to my parents house one day to see what the Crickett could do. It was surprisingly loud and more powerful than it looks (NOT A TOY), but it’s way too small for anyone normal sized to aim properly. My brother and I fired at the targets we’d set up for a while, more out of a sense of obligation than anything else, before we realized we were bored and stopped.

According to the General Social Survey conducted every two years since 1972 by the University of Chicago, the percentage of American households that own guns has been falling steadily, from 50 percent in the ’70s, to 34 percent in 2012, and the decline is steepest in people under the age of 44. It’s a hard statistic to pin down, and some polls show a smaller decline. The pro-gun side says it’s totally false, of course. Gun sales are at an all time high. How can there be more guns and less gun owners?

Simple. People like Trojan are buying more and more guns. They may be part of a shrinking minority, but they are increasingly vocal and politically active. Where, one wonders, are the gun moderates?

I did find one person occupying the middle ground. He’s a gun store owner who thinks gun control makes a lot of sense, and sees the NRA as causing more harm than good. It makes him angry that Wayne LaPierre seems to value the right to own guns over his grandkid’s right not to be shot. There may be a loaded gun behind the counter, but he doesn’t keep any in his house. Why does anyone need that much firepower?

After wrestling for months with irreconcilable viewpoints, talking to him was a huge relief. But he wouldn’t let me use his name, because moderate views don’t sell guns. They don’t sell newspapers either.

I saw a pink Crickett hanging on the wall with the other rifles for sale and asked him what he thought about marketing guns to kids. He’d never thought about it before. Mostly it’s the parents responsibility, he said, but he figures he probably wouldn’t give most 12-year-olds a gun.

Late that same afternoon, I visited another gun store. The owner’s views were not moderate in the slightest. We talked for an hour or so, in between customers until it was closing time and there was no one in the shop but the two of us.

“I’m getting numb to most of this shit,” the guy said. “Something’s gotta give.”

For a minute, I thought it was the breakthrough I’d been searching for. I thought he was talking about gun violence. But he wasn’t. He was talking about gun control.

“Something is wrong,” he said, shaking his head.

At least we can agree on that.