Something to Shoot For

A note for the reader: 

I had the idea to attend a gun show and doing some writing about it a while ago, but the appeal of it faded relatively quickly. I filed it away as an idea that seemed good, but that I didn’t feel like I had the energy to actually follow through with. I think on some level I didn’t know what I could possibly say about it if I went. There was one coming up in Tucson, I put it in my google calendar when the idea initially hit me, but eventually I deleted it. The week it was scheduled ended up being a really stressful one for me. My equilibrium already felt a bit fucked up as I reached the end of my workday on Friday, and even though I had written the idea off I remembered that it was happening and figured that I might as well push myself to my limit. I decided to spend my Saturday morning interfacing with a sliver of American culture that I don’t understand. It’s also a part of America that leaves an awful taste in my mouth.

When I told a friend that I was going to do this, they asked me what my angle was. What was I hoping I would get out of it? What questions did I have? The voyeur in me wanted to see who goes to these things, what they’re like, what they do there, and if it’s as wild as I imagine it to be. But I also wondered if I might be able to find some common ground with people who love guns. I wondered if I went, if I could see what they see. I thought that maybe if I talked to them, I might be able bring myself to a new level of understanding. Maybe I’d be better off. Maybe I’d come out of it as less of an asshole about this issue.

I guess those were my goals, but I didn’t achieve them. I didn’t find any common ground. I tried, but as I’ve reflected on everything I saw and heard that morning, I’m willing to admit that I can’t. I had hoped that perhaps I could separate my experiences there from the broader context of gun violence in America, the structural inequalities built into American society and the reality that they disproportionately affect people who don’t present like me (white, able-bodied, male, straight), and the fact that so many kids keep fucking dying. I can’t do that. What I saw and what I heard was, I think, part of what Alex Chávez (2017: 330) recently described as “the deafening swell of a lethal white supremacy now relegitimized in the wake of the presidential election of 2016.” As Chávez points out, of course, it’s not as if we woke up on November 9th, 2016 and realized that the nation had given birth to white nationalism or xenophobia. They’re at the core of this country. I certainly saw them that morning. Sometimes they were veiled with legalese, tired discussions of individual rights, or appeals to heritage, history, and craft. Sometimes they were on full display.

So, here’s what I saw and what I heard. This is how I experienced it. It’s unquestionably painted by my own feelings about the broader sociopolitical context in which the event took place. I’m fine with that. This falls far short of qualifying as an ‘objective’ piece of writing, if a such a piece could even exist. Honestly, I don’t think I have a responsibility to provide anything that has objectivity as its target. Acting as if I could write objectively about this feels like the intellectually dishonest road to walk down. I started writing this piece on May 7th, 2018. I finished on the morning of May 18th and a few hours later I saw news of the Santa Fe High School shooting. A couple of days before this was actually posted on the blog there was another shooting, this time at a middle school in Indiana. I’m willing to walk the road of objectivity when other people stop walking into schools and shooting children.

***

Something to Shoot For

Spring felt incredibly brief this year. It’s early May in southern Arizona and it’s getting hotter, earlier. People are already talking about monsoon season, even though we probably have two months before the skies open up and, if we’re lucky, water makes its way down from the mountains and the Rillito and the Santa Cruz rivers flow without restraint. As the seasons transition I can feel my body changing as well. I’m constantly covered in sweat, I need to start consuming more water, and as the weather warms I find myself getting up with the sun.

There was an alarm set but today, like most mornings, I get up when I feel the looming presence of a 70lb black lab standing over me on the bed. He’s been waking up earlier as well, and his breath hangs just above my face while he waits for me to realize he’s there. It’s 5am. I look out the broken blinds in my bedroom to see that it’s not quite light out yet and I try to negotiate with him that we sleep a little while longer. Today, like most days, I lose the negotiation.

***

Staring out the large glass windows in one of Tucson’s more popular yuppie coffee shops I think about how I’ve been spending too much money on coffee again. I come here to work a lot. I also come here to be seen out in public, with other people who also come here to be seen in public. The barista this morning is someone I had an awkward OkCupid (and in-person) interaction with a number of months ago. I avoided the place for at least a month after that. But by now we’ve settled into a comfortable service encounter routine. The smiles are less strained now. They know my order and we seem to know each other’s names. Recently, they charged me for a small coffee instead of the large Americano that I had ordered. It felt like a subtle acknowledgement that we were in a good place and it put my social anxiety at ease.

My phone alarm vibrates against the table; its pulsing telling me that it’s 8:45. I notice the dried sweat on the lens of my glasses when I look out the window again. The glass door feels heavy, a subtle reminder perhaps that I didn’t sleep particularly well last night. It’s still cool out. Morning hasn’t given way to the heat yet. I rarely travel south of Broadway Blvd in Tucson, but the expo center is on the far south side, near the Air Force base. I can already see people up in the sky getting their flight hours in even though the day has barely started. As I sit down in the car I’m reminded of the person I fell in love with two years prior who had been in the air force long before we met. Their service and our relationship both feel so long ago now.

Even though I rarely go that far south, I know it’s not far away. Still, it seems to take me forever as I drive south on Campbell Ave and hop on I-10 towards El Paso. Maybe it feels that way because I’m lost in thought about my upcoming fieldwork and the new Dylan Carlson record on the stereo. The off-ramp is full of potholes that I do my best to avoid as I ease off I-10, noticing a Tucson Electric Power generating station in the distance. My phone sends me in that direction.

This feels like the perfect location for an expo center. We’re only a few miles from the center of Tucson, but it feels like nowhere. Whatever happens here feels to me like it would go curiously unnoticed by the class of people who orient their lives around the university a few miles up the road, including me.

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The entrance road of the Tucson Expo Center and sign for the Tucson Expo Gun Show

The ’98 Honda Civic I’m driving shakes as it lurches over the speed bumps at the entrance. Thankfully there’s no one behind me because I stop in the middle of the road, floored by the way that traffic is being diverted for the two events being held at the expo center that morning. To the left, a sign directs traffic to a quinceañera. To the right, a sign directing the bulk of the day’s traffic to the Tucson Expo Gun Show. I shut the car door with more force than I mean to. It’s gotten noticeably hotter already.

Walking back to the entrance road, I stand staring at the two signs again. These worlds seem so far apart to me. On one side a young woman is celebrating her 15th birthday. On the other, people are celebrating their right to acquire weapons that have often been used to prevent others from ever making it to 15. But today these things exist in the same space, in a strange symbiosis. In the distance I notice two cops standing at the door of the expo center, and I try to figure out if that makes me feel better or worse about all of this. Ultimately it does little to assuage my anxiety about being here.

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Traffic being diverted at the Tucson Expo Center for a quinceanera and the gun show

When I was a kid I took hunter’s safety classes. Though I can’t really recall a time when we ever hunted anything. I remember the pellet gun that I had when I was young. I also remember the time that I shot a robin in my parents’ back yard. I didn’t actually think I would hit it, but I guess my aim was better than I realized. I’m from Michigan. The robin is our state bird. I don’t think I ever told anyone that I had committed that crime. I remember its lifeless body lying in a thicket at the back of our property, next to the grave where we had buried the family dog. Throughout my childhood there was a 4-10 shotgun leaning against the wall behind my parents’ closet door. It was always unloaded, but I always knew where we kept the shells. The only time I remember it coming out was when my dad and I would shoot coffee cans in the back yard. I remember loving the smell that wafted up to my nose when I breached it to eject the spent shell.

This can’t be that bad, I say to myself.

The day before I had talked to my dad and I mentioned that I was going to the gun show. He told me that I would probably be surprised by how normal everyone was. When I was little we used to go to guitar shows together. As I approach the front door I wondered if this might be something like that. Predominantly middle-aged white men, hobbyists, and collectors. They gather to sell and trade these things that they’ve loved and cherished. Things that they had invested time and energy into. Objects that they viewed as art, emblematic of a period of American history or a legacy of craftsmanship. I remember the time my dad bought us an American made Fender Telecaster. It was sunburst, with a white pickguard. I certainly thought it was art. Thinking about those events now, as I near the entrance, I don’t think applying that image to a gun show is wrong, per se. But, the guitar shows don’t have gun checks.

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Sign at the entrance to the expo center

A large sign sits on the ground next to the gun check table. No loaded guns. I notice two more signs hanging from the concrete columns that straddle the entrance to the expo center, both repeating what feels to me like something that shouldn’t need to be stated. No loaded guns.

Breathe deep, I mutter under my breath as the doors open and I’m met with wide smiles by two older women standing behind the ticket table. A stale smell hits my nose. This expo center must not get used very often. Shop fans dot the floor. I see three from where I’m standing at the entrance, watching them attempting in mechanical vain to circulate this stale air.

Do you all take credit cards? Posing the question to the smiling women at the ticket table.

No sir, but there’s an ATM right back there. If you could come back up here to pay I’d really appreciate it.

 Ah great. I say. I’ll be right back.

Oh, you’ve got an online coupon, that’s great. You save two dollars off the ticket price. Can I have your right wrist? If we put the stamp there we find it stays for longer.

 Extending my wrist, of course.  

I can’t really pretend to be objective about this experience and, in truth, I don’t think there’s reason to be. At my core, I’m one of the people who thinks we should take all your guns. I want them all melted down. We don’t need them. You don’t need them. In my mind, we’re better off without them. But, I recognize that I live in a world where not everyone shares my point of view. So, here I am. I’ve paid my $10. I’ve crossed the threshold, I’m inside, and there are fucking guns everywhere.

***

I’m not sure that I can say that I’ve ever had an out out-of-body experience, but this felt close to that. The first thing my eyes focused on after I left the ticket table was a sign hovering directly in front of me. “Arizona Citizens Defense League.” I’m unsure exactly what the ACDL is, but the sight of a bald eagle clutching an AR-15 in their logo is a definite red flag. Thinking to myself, this is either a lobby organization or a citizen militia. Either option is possible, and they both scare me.

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Logo of the Arizona Citizens Defense League

Without even realizing that it was happening my body moves left, away from ACDL. Dropping my eyes to the floor, I check my watch. It’s 9:05. I feel like I need to make it half an hour. I should stay for at least half an hour. I look around again, avoiding the ACDL table that’s just a few feet away from me. The portion of the expo center where the gun show is being held is more or less divided into thirds. Even though it just started, it’s already teeming with life. Deciding that the best way to handle this is to take each third in turns, I walk slowly towards the row of tables lining the outer edge of the section closest to where I’m standing.

How can there possibly be this many different kinds of handguns? The table closest to me looks like a poorly curated museum exhibit or a garage sale, cluttered with a random collection of collectible knives and guns. But everything is behind glass. $2,850 for a handgun. $150 for a rare knife. The Vietnam War veteran running the table seems happy to open the case at the request of a potential buyer. He starts to remove a handgun for the guy standing next to me and I start walking away. I can’t move too quickly. I need to spend half an hour here. After all, I paid $10 to the nice ladies at the entrance and drove all the way to the south side.

Walther. Smith & Wesson. Colt. Glock. SIG Sauer. I realize that, oddly, gun branding is not completely unfamiliar to me. I haven’t fired a gun in over a decade and I hope I never fire one again, but my enduring love of 1990s procedural police dramas has left me with residual firearm knowledge that I wasn’t aware of.

Still, I feel completely overwhelmed by what I see around me. When my foot hits the concrete floor on my next step I can feel my knees subtly shaking. It’s actually physically challenging for me to support my weight in this space, which was not a reaction that I had anticipated. When I browse in a store I typically walk with my arms behind my back. Feeling myself leaning in to look at what’s on sale and I see a sign taped to the table: Private sale. No background check. Arizona ID required.

Is this really how it works?

My hand goes into my pocket, grasping for my phone I quickly text a friend from high school to tell him that I’m here, that I’m doing this thing. I want to be a diligent anthropologist, so I start making notes to myself on my phone about what I see and how I feel. But, I don’t know how I feel. It’s a blend of scared and confused. The thing that I’m wrapped up in right now is the realization that I had no idea how much a handgun would actually cost if you wanted to buy one. It’s far more than I thought, at least for what I’m gathering are the “good” ones.

There’s a .357 magnum sitting on a table in front of me with a dowel rod pushed through the trigger guard. Putting the dowel rod through the trigger guard props the gun up in a way that makes it show better on the table. It’s a subtle aesthetic move, but an effective one. Staring down at this gun on the table, I start laughing quietly to myself. As often happens to me when I’m moving through the world, a scene from West Wing pops into my head and I feel strangely calm. Thank you, Aaron Sorkin.

In “We Killed Yamamoto” at the end of Season Three, CJ Cregg is using the gym at the secret service office while secret service agent Simon Donovan is doing target practice in their indoor shooting range. After her shower, CJ joins him and says she wants to shoot his gun. Simon suggests getting her a smaller caliber, prompting CJ to ask what’s wrong with his:

It’s a .357 Magnum. Simon says.

I’ve heard of that, that’s a good brand…Let’s go. I’m feeling twitchy. 

That sense of amused calm didn’t last. There’s a three-table spread of glocks, each one meticulously displayed on top of their cases. Matte black glocks, camo glocks, military green glocks, blue glocks. Jesus Christ, there’s even a pink glock. Why should the needless gendering of material items not also extend here? I check my watch. It’s 9:20. I’m halfway there. Despite my own inner-horror, I’ve noticed as I’ve started to make my way through the tables: people are pleasant…and I kind of want to pick up a handgun. I’ve never held one and I want to know what it feels like. But, I’m not ready for that. I push the thought out of my mind as my eyes scan prices, trying to figure out what makes this glock worth $750, while this one is $895.

There’s a break in the guns and two well-dressed young men are sitting at a table sparsely populated with literature about a congressional Republican primary candidate who is running for Martha McSally’s seat in congress. The candidate is, they tell me, a pro-gun, conservative, Latina.

Are you registered to vote? They ask.

 I smile at them, realizing they have no idea where I’m at politically. I am.

 Is McSally your representative? They’re like a Republican chorus.

 She is. How I wish she wasn’t, though.

 Would you like to sign our petition to get Leah on the primary ballot?

Their demeanor changes slightly when I mention that I’m a registered Democrat. Together, we all work to do a little conversational repair. I can tell that I’ve caught them off guard. I ask them if the Republican field is getting crowded, mentioning that the Democratic field seems similarly full. One of them chimes in.

Did you hear that Kirkpatrick just moved down to the district so she can run for the seat? And Matt Heinz is running again. He’s always wearing his stethoscope so you know he’s a ‘doctor’.

I promise to stop back by on my way out. I’m not stopping by again.

Another row of tables that is utterly full of handguns. The array of different colors, patterns and models is staggering. Is model the right word? Does a handgun have a model? I feel myself getting invested in trying to figure out what the actual differences are between them based on the tags attached to the trigger guards. Sometimes I flip the tag over to see the price. This is equivalent to half my monthly income as a graduate student. Someone told me once that guns don’t really depreciate in value. Maybe it’s a good investment. Something to keep tucked away for a rainy day.

You see, that’s how I met her. But now she can barely get around. Her knees are bad and she doesn’t do a damn thing now.

Three men are standing around an unoccupied vendor table. Each of them with large steel belt buckles and mesh trucker hats. The man who had been speaking pauses. I’ve walked by right when the punchline of a story is about to be delivered.

But that’s always how it goes, right!

 The group chuckles as I thumb through John Edward’s famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, copies of which are displayed on another sparsely filled table alongside bibles and other religious literature. The proprietor of the tables forming the end of this row notices me.

Feel free to take that, he offers

 I feel my face forming into a half smile. Thanks, that’s very kind of you.

The sermon gets folded up, pushing it into the pocket of my shorts as I form another polite smile at the older man with a table full of knives and a rusty heaps of gun parts.

How are you doing? I ask as I start to inspect the pile of rusted metal in front of me.

Easing back on his chair as he lets out a deep sigh. Well, if you’ve got half an hour, I’ll tell you.

I don’t have half an hour, but as I try to articulate a small joke that I think is befitting his intentionally humorous comment, he jumps up to greet a woman walking by the table. They’re clearly old friends but by the excitement with which they embrace each other, I’m guessing they haven’t seen each other in ages. Listening in as I watch them out of the corner of my eye, I hear them asking after each other’s families, their health, noting which gun show they saw each other at last. Looking at the heap of rusted gun parts I think to myself that in some really strange way this feels like the kind of interaction I have at professional meetings. I see graduates of my program and old friends, we hug, we go out to dinner, we gossip. Maybe the gulf between myself and everyone I see around me isn’t as profound as I’ve been imagining it to be. As I move on I overhear a new group of three middle-aged men, guns on their hips and in their hands. One of them is talking, delivering more of a sermon really.

See, if they know about all your guns, if you tell them about all of them, then there’s a chance that they can come and take each and every one. They can take them all…Well, let me tell you, they don’t know about all my guns. They definitely don’t know about all of mine!

A few feet ahead of me I see a child, he can’t be more than 10. He looks ridiculous, mainly because the hat he’s wearing is entirely too large for his head. There’s a confederate flag sewn on the front of it, with more confederate flags adorning the folding table he’s standing at along with three older men. These are the Sons of Confederate Veterans. I noticed them shortly after I walked into the expo center, and the kid has noticed me as well. He’s clearly waiting for me to approach the table. How long have I been here? Wow, 45 minutes.

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An informational pamphlet for the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a copy of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

I watch as the kid breathes in, his chest rising as he takes in enough air to deliver the lines I can sense he’s been practicing.

Hello sir, do you have any ancestors who may have fought for the confederacy? If you do, you could join our organization.

Resting my hand on the table, the elderly man standing near him leans in to listen for my response. I notice the hearing aid in his right ear.

I’m not really sure if I do, I say. My family is mostly from Michigan. But I do have family in Arkansas.

There’s a sense of excitement in his young voice.

I’m from Arkansas myself, the kid says.

I notice his distinctly southern accent, which isn’t one that I hear often in Southern Arizona. I actually relish when I meet people from Arkansas. I spent every spring break there was I was younger, and have nothing but fond memories of visiting, despite the fact that most of my family in Arkansas sincerely believe that Barak Obama was the antichrist, and that Donald Trump will save us from the horrors wrought by the Democratic party.

Which part of Arkansas? I ask gently. My family is in Drasco, not far from Heber Springs. 

I can tell he and I have something in common by the tone in his voice.

Benton, he says. But I’ve heard of Heber Springs.

Smiling at him from across the table, I’ve heard of Benton. I used to go down to Arkansas every spring when I was your age and I’d go trout fishing in Heber Springs with my parents.

I watch him lean back slightly and put his hands in his pants pockets,

there is lots of good trout fishing in that part of Arkansas.

He’s not wrong. Our conversation is relatively short-lived. The older man to the right of him chimes in,

Well if you have family in Arkansas, you almost certainly have an ancestor that fought for the south in the Civil War.

He’s favoring his right ear again as he leans in close, waiting for me to respond.

I suppose it’s possible. I’ve never really thought much about it since I grew up in Michigan.

Someone hands me a business card.

You just call Mike; his number is right there on that card and he can look up your whole family history. He’ll let you know if one of your ancestors fought for the confederacy, and if they did, you can join our organization. We’re mainly educational in our focus. We try to present a more accurate picture of the confederacy.

The older man leans in again, his voice is lower now, as if he’s worried about someone overhearing about what he’s about to say.

There’s a lot of misconceptions out there about the south and the flag, mostly put out there by ‘liberals’.

I shift my focus back to the kid, who I notice has a small confederate flag in his hand. The flag is glued to a thin plastic stick. Another man at the table jumps into the conversation,

There was actually a lot of diversity in the confederacy. We had Blacks in the confederacy, as well as Hispanics. 

He motions with his hands to the table in front of him where I see two books sitting. One, with a black cover and white font, titled “Blacks in the Confederacy.” Another, with a lighter colored cover and black font, “Hispanics in the Confederacy.” I find myself appeasing them,

You know, I had no idea.

The man hands me a “Friends of the Sons of Confederate Veterans” membership form,

If you call Mike and it turns out that you don’t have any relatives who fought for the south but you’d still like to support our organization you can join as a friend of the SCV.

Someone else hands me a CD and tells me to take it. I joke that I don’t have any way to play a cd because I have a Mac and there’s no cd drive. I’m trying to blame technology, looking for an excuse not to have to carry this media about the confederacy home with me, where I know it will end up laying on my kitchen table until I throw it away a few days later when I clean up my apartment.

Don’t worry, it’s a DVD, and it has more information about the real history of the Confederacy.

I smile at the kid. At least we had trout fishing.

***

Oh. I was wondering if preppers might be well represented at a gun show. I had no idea a giant food-grade water tank was so reasonably priced. How does an entire month’s worth of food fit into a box that looks like it’s just big enough to hold a pair of hiking boots? What is a bury tube? Oh, I get it, it’s so you can bury your gun.

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A steel bury tube at a table of prepper gear

But, why do you need to bury your gun?

***

I found a spot in the snack bar to sit and rest. My coffee cup still has coffee in it from earlier in the morning. I’m less anxious now, but I’m not entirely sure when my body calmed down from the various forms of stimulation I’ve been experiencing. I got here an hour ago and all the literature I’ve been given this morning is laying in front of me on the table. Wondering to myself, should I actually watch this DVD when I get home? No way, it’s going straight in the trash. I brought a pocket notebook with me and I’m jotting things down. There’s a guy at the table across from me trying to convince someone to buy his rifle. I actually feel calm now in this space.

There’s a dull feeling of soreness in my legs when I stand up again. I hope I make it through the 10k I’m running tomorrow morning. As I turn towards the section where I left off I see the Arizona Citizens Defense League table in the distance again. Jesus, I have to talk to them too. I know have to. But not yet. I’m not ready for that yet.

***

There’s a guy with a cowboy hat who I noticed earlier and I’m really into his aesthetic. He’s selling universal gun holsters, but really, he’s performing. I’m not the only one drawn to him. There’s a crowd around the table, and he’s enumerating all the benefits of his $30 holster. It clips easily to your belt, it holds your Glock, your Beretta, and even your rifle. He has poor quality photographs of different guns in the holster printed out on what is now slightly crumpled white paper that accompany the performance. You can even clip it under the steering wheel of your car, for ease of access. For those moments while driving when you just need your gun, I suppose. The company being veteran owned gets a warm response from the crowd. He has a mock handgun that he keeps putting into the holster. His arm stretches out to me,

Hold that upside down and tell me if it feels like it’s going to fall out of there. Just shake that thing a little bit and tell me if that feels secure.

I admit to the waiting crowd that the gun isn’t going anywhere. The guy who made the joke about his wife is standing next to me, gun in one hand with his other resting on his hip. He’s visibly impressed.

I’ll take one. This is clearly something he feels he needs.

Our performer comes back,

are you going to be concealing and carrying sir? If so, I’d like to recommend that you get the nylon model, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what leather feels like against your skin during an Arizona summer.

He knows how to sell. And he knows his audience, because we’re all laughing.

As I move into the main part of the expo hall there’s a surreal soundscape rising up behind me over the din of the shop fans that are still trying in vain to circulate the stale air. Loud cracks from a taser demonstration drown out the sound of the fans and the hum of hundreds of gun obsessed bodies. The crowd in front of me is overwhelmingly, but not entirely white, and predominantly male. More or less the demographic I had imagined. More unsettling is the fact that I see a surprisingly large number of young white men, well dressed, in deck shoes, high white socks, and tshirts. They look like my students.

Some of these people are clearly hobbyists and collectors. From the snippets of conversations that I overhear as my body moves through the crowd I can tell that many view guns as a craft, a heritage, and I’m assuming…in some way, art. I understand that position, at least from an intellectual standpoint. I study craft things. The passion and where it comes from really isn’t lost on me when I hear a collector talking about the antique Colts he has for sale and the history behind each one. But I can’t move myself past the fact that this is a craft that, in my mind, serves only one purpose. To kill things.

Lost in my thoughts, I stop paying attention to where I’m walking and before I realize it I’m a few steps away from the Arizona Citizens Defense League table. I can’t move past them without someone talking to me. Almost instantaneously I find myself engaged in conversation with the one group that I had been trying to avoid since I walked into the expo hall over an hour ago. My knees are shaking again, because I’m terrified of the possibility that this is a militia of some kind, or a far-right lobby group. I feel my heart rate going up as an aging man with a deep voice, a calm demeanor, and a large handgun on his belt tells me about their 15,000-strong membership, and the two full-time paid lobbyists they have working in Phoenix to try to defeat every ‘bad’ gun bill that makes its way to the capitol. There’s a zip-tie that’s preventing the trigger of his handgun from being pulled, but even though I’m sure it’s unloaded I’m still horrified. I feel my palms perspiring as he tells me about their success at getting gun control legislation struck down. In my head I’m thinking, how many lives could be saved if that legislation had gone through? Despite their success, he tells me that the ACDL needs my help. I look down and see that someone has shoved an ACDL member newsletter into my hands, along with a pamphlet on their legislative accomplishments, another decrying an attempt by “Bloomberg and his allies” to target Arizona for firearm background checks, and two bumper stickers.

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Arizona Citizens Defense League bumper stickers

Do you care about second amendment rights? He asks.

Well, I’m certainly interested in the issue, I hedge.

I can’t lie to them, I should tell them who I am. Out myself as someone who is diametrically opposed to their point of view.

Apparently “Doofy”’ (Doug Ducey, Arizona’s Republican governor) has failed their cause and Bloomberg wants to take everyone’s guns. Is Bloomberg just a far-right talking point, or is this an anti-Semitic dog whistle? Why can’t it be both? He says that the Republicans won’t do enough to support our rights. The Democrats want universal background checks. Apparently, they’ve already passed in Washington state.

I start wondering aloud, what’s the problem with a universal background check? It seems thoroughly reasonable to me.

The man I’ve been speaking with takes his holster, handgun and all, off his hip, and motions to hand it to me

Now, in Washington state, he says, if you were at my house and I wanted to show you my gun and I handed it to you like this, and you took it, we’d both be committing a crime because we didn’t fill out the proper paperwork.

I feel my face forming into an unconvinced expression, deciding to speak up,

Sure, under that law, you would, but who would ever actually get charged with that crime? Can you actually identify a case where anyone has been charged?

He can’t name any, but I’m told that it would likely be added on as an additional charge to make things worse for someone who already had other charges pending. I stop myself from pointing out that this, as with virtually all legislation, will be used to further harm people who are already marginalized. Not seemingly middle-class white men like him.

He finally asks the question I’m sure has been on his mind, so what do you do, what brought you to the expo today?

I give myself up, I work at the university, I’m a PhD student and an anthropologist.

Noticeable hesitation in his voice, ah so…you’re a teacher. A ‘professor’.

I clarify, well I teach, but I’m still finishing my PhD. I just thought I’d come check this out, because I don’t interact with this world much. I didn’t grow up with guns, and it’s all pretty new to me, so I thought I’d see what it was all about. Get a feel for it.

My secret’s out now. Still, I’m struck by how polite he is. He’s deliberate in where he places his words. He’s professional. He’s respectful. But, as we’re talking I notice the cartoon that’s been printed out and displayed in a plastic case on the side of the table. I strain to look at it out of the corner of my eye while our conversation carries on. In the cartoon two men are standing around a broken-down car that needs to be repaired. The driver is a young African American man. He’s wearing a hoodie. It’s obviously a depiction of Trayvon Martin. The mechanic is an Arab man. He has a keffiyeh wrapped around his head that looks like the one’s I regularly see when conducting my research with the members of the Palestinian community in the Gaza Strip and Jordan. Except in the cartoon this stereotypically depicted Arab character is wearing his keffiyeh as if it were a turban. No one would ever do that. Sartorially, it’s all wrong. His hand is on his hip. The text bubble coming from the driver reads, Thanks Mohammad, now just give me a second to run a quick background check.

I’m trying my best to grasp the intended meaning of the cartoon. I think it’s supposed to reflect the perceived absurdity of universal background checks? Through its depiction, it seems to be situating the requirement of a background check to purchase or carry a firearm as equivalent to requiring one for a simple trip to the mechanic. However, it’s not lost on me who is being depicted in the cartoon. I know that humans aren’t supposed to be able to hear dog whistles, but this one is making my ear drums pound.

He’s really going for it now.

What the mainstream media won’t tell you is that these gun regulations don’t work. Things are bad in Europe too. We had a German guy, a tourist, who was at a show a few weeks ago. He was telling me about how his house was broken into three times in one month, and he couldn’t do anything about it because of their restrictive gun laws. Three times in one month. It was immigrants who had come to Europe. We’ve got a friend in Melbourne who says it’s bad there too.

There’s a pain growing in my neck. It’s partly from all the polite nodding that I feel myself doing, and also because all the muscles in my body are tensing up the longer I hear him talk. I decide I have to say something, even if it’s just to get him to be quiet for a second.

Well, I don’t mean to frame this in a combative way, but I have a question. I’m an anthropologist and I study migration. I work with refugees in the Middle East. Couldn’t you make the point that instead of arming everyone, it might be better in the long run for society and for people around the world if we worked more seriously, both in the US and elsewhere, to address the underlying structural issues that actually cause millions of people to flee their homes? Wouldn’t that be a better use of our resources and our time than making sure we were all armed?

He stands silently, thinking through what I had said. I can see he’s working it out. He’s an intelligent guy, and in all honesty, he’s been exceedingly polite. After a long pause he finally responds.

Well, I do think we need to work to address those systemic issues. They are important. But, while we’re working on trying to address those issues, I don’t think the solution is to limit my individual rights.

I’ll be honest: I want to limit them.

***

This is all previously enjoyed ammo. 

I look up at the middle-aged woman standing behind the table, completely confused by the sentence that just came out of her mouth,

 I’m sorry?

She gestures to the jewelry that I had been admiring on the table in front of me, all of which utilizes shell casings and bullets. Various stones carefully embedded into spent cartridges. Some are attached to keychain rings, others dangling from gold chains. She says it again, louder this time.

These were all made with previously enjoyed ammo.

I decide it’s better just to roll with the absurdity of it all.

They’re beautiful, I love what you’ve done with the inlaid stones there. Do you have a business card?

Slipping the card into my pocket I move on from the previously enjoyed ammo jewelry to a well-lit table full of tubs of soon-to-be-enjoyed ammo, shining brightly under the well-placed lighting.

Are you looking for anything in particular? Someone asks me.

No no, I’m just browsing. This is all great though. I realize how ridiculous it sounds as I say it.

I have no idea what any of this is in front of me, but the lights shining down on the well-polished bullets makes my eyes hurt. There’s a crowd gathered around a nearby table. It’s a company that uses lasers to engrave whatever you might want onto parts of your gun. They’re doing it right there in front of us. It’s hard for me to get a good look at the engraving machine because there are so many people gathered around. After a few seconds I give up to start looking at the various engraved items available for sale. I get an up close look at some engraving done on the stock of an AR-15, military logos, skulls, vicious looking dogs. I also notice that you can get magazines engraved to reflect your political affiliation, though only one affiliation really seems to be represented this morning.

My hand rubs my forehead as I remember the student who showed up to the lecture for our course on racism in America the day after Trump was elected wearing his “Hillary for Prison” shirt. He wore it proud that day. Apparently, there’s still a market for a more violent version of that sentiment a year and a half later.

***

I’ve visited nearly every table in the expo hall. Oddly I’ve started to feel both comfortable, and strangely safe here. I stopped being anxious a long time ago, but I recognize that my ability to feel safe reflects the fact that I’m 6’3, white, male, and covered in tattoos. Including a shotgun tattooed down the length of my right arm. Something that multiple vendors have commented on throughout the morning. They all assume it’s because of my love of firearms, and they seem strangely disappointed when I can’t tell them what kind of shotgun it is. Their disappointment is palpable when I explain to them that there are song lyrics on my back, tattooed into the stock of the shotgun. “This shot is not for you, it’s for the ones who smoked the resin out of life.” Lyrics from a long-defunct Louisville hardcore band that a friend turned me onto in high school. The song is a searing critique of Christianity.

Moral majority, higher authority. The burden of judgement from day to day. We have tried again and failed. We will set the message straight. Moral majority, higher authority. They’re running our lives under His name. I’m trying harder to resist. When every step is used to digress.

And this shot might. This shot might. This shot might fucking kill you.

This shot is not for you, it’s for my brothers and sisters on their way down. And this shot is not for you, it’s for the ones that smoked the resin out if life. They smoked the resin out of life.

 Moral majority, higher authority. We float through life from day to day. Every moment seems the same. Shuffled cards but nothing changed. Moral majority, higher authority. I woke up with sobering news today.

We have tried again and failed. We have tried again and failed. We have tried again and failed. We have tried again and failed. And this shot might fucking kill you.

 This shot is not for you, it’s for my brothers and sisters on their way down. And this shot is not for you, it’s for the ones that smoked the resin out if life. This shot is not for you, it’s for my brothers and sisters on their way out. And this shot is not for you, it’s for the ones that smoked the resin out if life.

 They smoked the resin out of life. They smoked the resin out of life.

I look at my watch again and realize that it’s nearing 11:30am. I’ve got to get the fuck out of here. But before I go I feel like there’s one thing I have to do. Walking up to one of the last tables on my way to the door, I feel sheepish as I get the attention of the woman running the table,

Excuse me, is it ok if I pick some of these up and check them out? 

She responds politely, seemingly thrilled that I actually asked for permission,

of course, I’d just say don’t pick up that one on the end. That one is incredibly expensive.

Reaching down to the table, I feel my fingertips touch the metal body of the Uzi lying in front of me. As I open my eyes I let my hand slide around the handle, attempting to pick it up off its display. It weighs a ton, no doubt a result of the large silencer attached to the barrel. I need two hands to pick up, making me acutely aware of the fact that all my running and cycling has done little for my upper body strength. Gripping it with both hands I realize that I have no idea how you hold it. I see the trigger, sure. I’ve used a shotgun before, but what do you do with this? You kill people with it. That’s all it’s for. In my mind, it couldn’t possible serve any other purpose.

Standing there with this Uzi in my hands I start to think about how I’ve been here all morning and I’ve been trying to understand what these people see in all of this. I wish I could say that I understand where they’re coming from. Like I said, on some level my dad wasn’t wrong. Some of these people seem perfectly ‘normal’ in the way that middle-aged white guys in dad shorts and high white socks seem normal to me. But this space and what’s happening in it shouldn’t ever be normalized. I recognize that this is very much the reality of America. But it’s a shitty reality. It’s one that needs to be dismantled. This isn’t the craft fair that my mom would drag me to as a kid. I’m not here begging my dad to spend too much money on a Gibson Les Paul. I’m not chatting with baristas about the tasting notes of a rare Ethiopian varietal in my favorite hip Chicago coffee shops. I’ve been trying to come up with a way to make this all feel familiar, but it’s incredibly fucking strange.

There are beads of sweat starting to form in my palms and on my forehead. I’m not sure if it’s because having an Uzi in my hands is making me feel nauseous or if it’s the hot air coming in through the door a few feet away from me. Either way, I lower the gun clumsily back into its display. I can’t bear to hold it anymore. Reaching into my pocket for my phone, I feign a text message as the woman running this line of vendor tables walks off to chat with other potential buyers. As I feel her moving further away from me I look up from my phone, my eyes settling on the AR-15 lying on the table next to where I’m standing.

I look at its price tag, $525 + tax.

Taking what feels like an incredibly labored breath, I pick the AR-15 off the table. Holding it in my hands I realize how much lighter it is than the Uzi I had just put down. Staring down at it, I can’t help but think about what all of the these things around me have done to this country. Their place in American society is bound up with the militarization of the police, families who have lost their kids, and the enduring realities of white nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and any number of other societal ills that I’ve seen people this morning subtly, and openly, embrace.

Pulling it up to my chest, I put the butt of the stock into my shoulder and point it towards the floor. Looking through the sight at the end of the barrel, I aim it at a storage box under the table. The thought passes through my mind that I’m 15 minutes from the comfort of my normal life, my work, my apartment, my friends and my dog, but standing there in this moment I feel incredibly far away from everything. Right now I feel like we’re nowhere. It feels like we’re never going to find our way back from this.

Thanks to Anna Bax and Taylor R. Genovese for their feedback on earlier drafts.

References:

Chávez, Alex. E. 2017. Sounds of Crossing: Music, Migration, and the Aural Poetics of Huapango Arribeño. Durham: Duke University Press.

  1. Concerned Comrade May 29, 2018 at 6:14 pm

    So, I’m going to leave some anonymous feedback here because I don’t want to alienate myself from colleagues, but I’m not sure “white liberal spends a short amount of time judging people at a gun show” does much to “unsettle” anthropology. If anything it reproduces the worst aspects of the discipline where people come from a position of privilege, look around for a bit, superficially talk to a couple of people, and think that means that they have some kind of meaningful assessment of the situation and are qualified to speak on it with some kind of authority. It’s especially frustrating because the author is so ignorant of one of the basic topics (guns) that they misidentify the caliber of the gun they are reportedly most familiar with (.410, referring to the diameter of the shell. Not 4-10.) It’s nitpicky at best, but it makes it clear from the beginning that this is not a good faith effort to “understand” or “find common ground.”

    This is essentially a conservative take that seeks to reinforce and validate the author’s current understanding of a situation and hide it under the guise of being an anthropologist. Maybe the author would have found some common ground with members of the Phoenix chapter of the John Brown Gun Club? Or one of the five Redneck Revolt chapters in their home state of Michigan? Instead we have a take where a person goes in expecting to find something, finds it, doesn’t really talk to anyone, and decides that they were right all along.

    While I respect that the author was uncomfortable with the situation and is sharing this discomfort, I can’t help but wonder to what end?

    As an aside, the author should familiarize themselves with the Oka Crisis if they are wondering why anyone would need to bury their guns. In 1990, First Nations people took up arms to protect sacred land from becoming a golf course and luxury housing. For the most part they hid their identities during the standoff and, at the end, quietly assimilated back into community life to avoid large scale arrests on weapons charges. They buried their guns so that they could retrieve them if SQ, RCMP, or the military returned to once again defend the rights of settlers over their own.

    Reply

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