Gun Ownership in Missouri
In the post-Breitbart world, the nativist right wing increasingly views the world on a tribal basis. I know the white, conservative, Midwest tribe better than most things. It is the world I grew up into, and I understand what they value, and I understand what they loathe. I might live in St.Louis now, but I grew up in Foristell, Missouri. It was for this reason, and a few others, that I decided to pay for a “Concealed Carry Training Class,” or CCW class, at a local gun range in Missouri. The zeitgeist of this era is built around bubble-popping; post-Trump, we all collectively decried our polarization, and resolved that the only real way to heal our nation is to make Republicans talk to Democrats again, and vice versa. In this spirit, I, a city-dwelling-Hillary-voter, headed into the county to learn about firearms.
When I arrived at the CCW class, twenty or thirty people were sitting at a set of tables, tucked into a makeshift classroom in a shooting range. The entire class, save for a single African-American man, are white. They vary wildly in age, some appearing to be well into their sixties or seventies, a handful are stunningly youthful, not looking a day over nineteen, and many others are much like me; a white, thirty-something male with eight hours to kill on a Saturday morning.
To understand gun culture, I think, is to take it as a whole piece together, in context of what those firearms mean to the people that cherish them. That definition is complex, intricate, and informed by a litany of different motivations. Even as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, it was impossible for me to scoff at the emotional connection these enthusiasts have with guns, with their community, and it all is ingrained into their everyday gun life. The firearm experts on staff at the range, nearly all of them coming from military or law enforcement backgrounds, all teased and razzed each other over their weight, or their beards, or any other physically defining feature for a laugh, but the subtext underneath it all is an unmistakably sincere ‘I-got-your-back’ brother-ism. I have a tough time casting a skeptical gaze at that attitude, and after a few drinks, I might begrudgingly admit that it seems to be the sort of thing the world needs a lot more of these days. At least half of the Concealed Carry class attendees were women – one woman spoke up in the middle of the class and explained she had been mugged before and wanted CCW training to protect herself – and this is another aspect of gun ownership that is difficult to be cynical about, too. I might disagree with gun enthusiasts about how people should use firearms, and who should have them, but the humanity pulsating underneath the surface is infinitely relatable. Everyone wants to be safe, secure, and happy at the end of the day, and our politics lose sight of this far too often.
The gun culture is far more than humor; to many of these enthusiasts, access to firearms is the only thing keeping their world together. The intensity of this urgency cannot be denied or understated. In their view, firearms make every other aspect of life possible. How can a man have a family if he can’t protect them? How can a man have a house if he can’t defend it against an attacker? What’s the point of owning a car if he can’t stop an armed carjacker from stealing it from him? To them, ownership of anything is impossible to conceive of without possessing the means to intercept a violent action in the defense of it. The chasm of reason between the perceived threat and actual threats is in full view here. Your child almost certainly won’t be kidnapped by an armed assailant, but keep a gun in the house and there’s a real good chance your kids will hurt themselves or someone else with it instead. The thought of being victimized by a violent crime is so terrifying that many Americans are willing to own a firearm just to have the security blanket, no matter what the statistics say, no matter the risk.
The collective obesity of the CCW class was impossible to ignore. Fifty-four ounce Styrofoam soda cups, purchased from nearby gas stations, line the tables. The motivation for taking such a class is self-defense, one presumes, and I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that if self-preservation was their aim that the gym would have been a far better choice for several students. Perhaps most disturbing was the complexity of legal questions asked by students throughout the course. When can I shoot someone in a church or a school? What happens if I conceal-carry my firearm into a gun-free zone illegally and shoot someone? They needed to know, with piercing intensity, how they could end someone’s life without entangling their own with lawsuits or criminal charges.
During a ten-minute break in the class, I wandered over to a wall stacked with military style rifles. The salesman asks if I’d like to pick up any of the firearms, and within a few moments, I’m holding a Ruger SR-762 in .308 caliber.
“Is a rifle like this good for home defense?” I ask the store clerk, while pawing curiously at the safety switch.
“No sir.” He replies, matter-of-factly. “.308 round is a little too much for home defense.”
“Oh really? How far can a rifle like this send a round?” I asked, puzzled.
“Well, the military has to qualify them at 500 yards minimum.” The salesman explains casually. “A .308 round, you do it right? It can travel 1000 yards.”
Firearm enthusiasts tightly segment their weaponry into certain categories. PDW’s, or ‘personal defense weapons’ are often earmarked for home defense or concealed carry for their relatively diminutive size and caliber. When a weapon is ‘good for home defense,’ it usually means that the round won’t often travel through walls. Shotguns are especially popular for these purposes as well; the projectiles usually fired from these weapons are comprised of pellets or ‘buckshot.’ No point in defending your family from the dreaded bad guy with a gun if your good-guy-bullets can shred your wife and kids to ribbons in the next room. This begs the question; if military-grade weapons aren’t suitable for home defense, why do so many people want to own them? The typical fall back response? Hunting. Sometimes that deer is a thousand yards away, and maybe they just don’t feel like walking.
It isn’t enough to take Grandpa’s old bolt-action out into the woods to slay a buck anymore – no way, that shit is boring, old man – they want AK-47s. They want Barret .50 caliber sniper rifles. They don’t want to just kill game, they want to tear it in half. ‘Hunting’ as a justification is a lazy deflection, an intentionally duplicitous answer, if there ever was one. Many of them want military-grade weapons because they are intoxicated with the notion of going to war without all the discipline and hassle of joining the armed forces. They want to play dress up, and by God, just see what happens if you try to stop them. I mosey over to an adjacent aisle and browse through a pegboard shelf of magazines. The mainstream media – the class instructor had lamented – incorrectly refers to these items as ‘clips’ instead of calling them magazines. The ‘extended’ versions of magazines, designed to increase the amount of ammunition a shooter can carry without reloading, are incredibly popular and exist for nearly every conceivable firearm. For eighteen American dollars, I could have walked out of that shop with a thirty round magazine for a rifle, or a pistol, and for a little bit more money, I could have loaded it with ‘MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN’ ammunition. The target demographic being chased here is not all that difficult to deduce.
After four or five more hours, the class draws to a close, and my group heads onto the gun range for the ‘live fire’ portion of the class. I approach the stall timorously, overly cautious, double-checking every motion, skittish, recalling the last eight hours of instruction as quickly as I can. The range officer teaches me to load the magazine into the pistol, and while keeping my finger on the frame of the weapon (trigger discipline, as I’ve heard it called in the past) I place the firearm in a low-ready stance, clutching it with two hands near my chest. The range officer gives the order to take aim and fire. The first shot, even from a bite-sized, .22 caliber, pea-shooting pistol is exhilarating. The appeal is not difficult to grasp; it’s a rush, and a powerful one at that. My heart rate soars, my pupils widen, and the endorphins race around in my brain as I crack off round after round.
As a hobby, target shooting is an absolute thrill. Firearm ownership, on the other hand, seems to be rather laborious, requiring routine maintenance and a litany of merchandise. There’s the purchase of the gun itself, usually an expenditure greater than $500, then the ammunition, then the cleaning kits, and then the ‘optics’ or gun sights, extended magazines, suppressors, gun safes, trigger locks, holsters, range time, targets, and on and on until your bank account is sufficiently drained. Business is good, the owner of the range assured us during a break in the classroom lecture. They had raised $1.5 million in private investment years ago to custom-build this facility from the ground-up. The getting is good in Missouri, and by all accounts, it shows no sign of stopping anytime in the foreseeable future.
The mantra of the gun owner – in particular, of the concealed-carry enthusiast – is as simple as it is trite. “I hope I never have to use it, but if I do, I need to be ready.” I don’t believe in the sincerity of this statement; quite a bit of the excitement of this hobby must be the conceptualization of using these tools against other humans. To fantasize about stopping the next school shooter in their tracks, to be lauded as a hero, to be the commander of one’s own destiny, to be important enough to wield deadly force, to be the judge, jury, and even executioner when the right time comes. Power, in short, is what they want, and is exactly what guns give them. Baseball players don’t buy bats and hope they never have to hit a home run, right? They dream about swinging for the fences, and I find myself deeply unsettled when I wonder what the CCW crowd really dreams about.
What was the value of the course I successfully passed? I just needed to sit in a classroom for eight hours and listen to material (the operative word here was ‘listen’ as I was never tested on any of the curriculum that was taught) and discharge 50 rounds from a .22 pistol into a target only seven yards away. Having never picked up a gun before in my life, my very first shot at a this distance landed a few inches from the ‘X’ at center-mass on my paper target. A strenuous test it definitely ain’t. I needed to understand rudimentary English, needed to sit still for eight hours, needed to follow basic instructions while on the range, and needed not to shoot myself or others for the ten minutes an actual firearm was in my control. The truly terrifying reality is that people occasionally fail to qualify on the shooting portion of classes like these, unable to pass the easiest of cakewalks. For another $100, I can obtain a physical permit for a concealed weapon, but this purchase would be largely worthless. Why? Because Missourians don’t need a permit in order to legally carry a concealed weapon.
Sure, some restrictions, albeit mostly toothless ones, still apply. Felons, those ‘adjudged to be mentally incompetent,’ or those dishonorably discharged from the military cannot conceal and carry, among a few others, but the scale of the law is stunning: a teenager as young as nineteen can legally conceal and carry a weapon nearly everywhere. Your nineteen-year-old teenager can’t buy a bottle of whisky, but they can carry an AR-15. Missouri’s deregulated gun paradise is the vision the NRA has for the rest of the country. If you haven’t read Missouri’s gun laws, let me save you some time – there are no gun laws, basically. No permits are required for purchase, firearms do not need to be registered when purchased. No permits are required for concealed weapons, no magazine capacities are outlawed, and no background checks are required for private sales. Tragically, our police officers often suffer the most on account of our lack of gun control:
“Officer Michael, 37, was collateral damage in the misguided reading of the Second Amendment that prevails in the Missouri Legislature and in most other parts of the country.
Police identified McCarthy from surveillance video taken at nearby convenience stores before the shooting. He escaped on foot but was arrested Tuesday night.
Authorities said a .223 shell casing was found in the SUV. Tape recordings of police dispatchers and emergency responders contain a chilling response to the question of what kind of weapon was used.
“Should be a long gun,” came the response. “Went through the vest.”
The ballistic vests worn by police officers will not stop a .223 round, the common load for semiautomatic AR-15-type “black rifles.” This is the civilian version of the military M-16 or the shorter-barreled M-4 carbine. In combat, soldiers insert bulky armor plates into pockets on the vests. Cops don’t.
In 2013, retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan, described to MSNBC what weapons like the AR-15 can do:
“I spent a career carrying typically either an M-16 or an M-4 carbine. An M-4 carbine fires a .223 caliber round, which is 5.56 mm at about 3,000 feet per second. When it hits a human body, the effects are devastating. It’s designed for that. That’s what our soldiers ought to carry. I personally don’t think there’s any need for that kind of weaponry on the streets and particularly around the schools in America.”
Thanks to efforts by gun manufacturers and their mouthpieces at the National Rifle Association, there are no longer limits on civilian ownership of semiautomatic black rifles. Such weapons do not belong in civilian hands.
People nervous about shootouts sometimes tout them as self-defense weapons. They have a certain cachet on the streets, and often are stolen from careless owners. Indeed, because Missouri has so many easily stolen legal guns, homicide rates are rising in St. Louis and Kansas City.
St. Louis County Police Officer Blake Snyder was shot and killed last October by an 18-year-old. It’s legal for 18-year-olds with their immature brains to own guns in Missouri. Younger kids have to steal them, and they do.” [Post-Dispatch]
AR-15’s (not short for ‘assault rifle’ but rather an abbreviation of its manufacturer’s name, ArmaLite) and other military-grade rifles are devastatingly lethal, and many models can discharge rounds at three times the velocity of a handgun. So powerful, so devastating, are the rounds fired from these weapons, that when an active shooter in Aurora, Colorado, peppered a crowd of innocent civilians at a movie theater with one, forensic investigators found bone fragments from his victims buried in the nearby walls, propelled out of their exit wounds with horrifying force.
Let’s dispose of the notion that guns and politics should be separated from each other like oil and water. Owning a firearm, in and of itself, is a political act. I did not expect, in a firearm safety class, to hear informed commentary about what Missouri’s state legislature did five years ago, but this political topic was covered quite comprehensively. The use, transport, and legal ownership of a gun requires political knowledge. We cannot say that the time is wrong to talk about gun control after a mass shooting; the gun community talks politics at all hours of the day, organizes collectively, phones their representatives, and refuses to sit on the sidelines. What does our contrived, quasi-respectful silence do for the victims and their families, exactly?
I’ve had a gun put to me before, and I have long fantasized about being able to turn the tables on anyone who tried to do it to me again. I wanted to say something cool while under the gun – like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction – and I longed to undo what had already been done to me, eager to re-invent my history so that I could be unafraid, calm, and collected in the next life-or-death situation. Sigmund Freud had a word for this back in the 1920’s – narcissistic rage – and on account of my narcissistic injury, I entertained in my mind for years, scenarios where I could settle the score, daydreaming fitfully about shooting the next mugger. The assault put me in a position where I was weak, ineffectual, and vulnerable. This event attracted me to gun ownership; and no doubt countless others have been drawn to it for similar reasons. These desires are not confined to my past. As my wife and I moved further into the city just a few months ago, we started to hear the second-hand reports from our new neighbors of break-ins in nearby alleyways, or tales of violence on ‘sketchy’ streets not too far down the road, and the thought of buying a pistol, or a shotgun, or a rifle reoccurred to me yet again. I understand why people want guns to defend themselves, and it makes sense to me because the impulse is not unfamiliar.
For those of you who have not experienced a violent crime, let me explain how it generally happens. Criminals are largely opportunists – striking at moments that minimize their personal risk and diminish their target’s ability to retaliate – and they are almost always premeditating their acts while your mind is a thousand miles away. At this impasse, one might be tempted to proclaim that being ‘always prepared’ like a Boy Scout is the only rational response, and as someone who has dealt with PTSD for the better part of a decade, let me be the first to tell you that hyper-vigilance is fucking exhausting, and is a terrible way to live.
If we rewound time to a few moments before I was mugged, had you given me a defensive firearm, I think the outcome would probably have been far worse, with me dead or gravely injured. In the fractions of a second – from the time I saw my attackers to the time it took them both to shove two pistols in my face – do you really think I could have opened fire? Do you really think I could have successfully hit them both with gunfire before they took me out? Do you really think (as gun-enthusiasts often claim) that even the implication of a firearm or my brandishing of a firearm would have made them back off? Don’t be ridiculous. When a criminal brings a firearm to a crime, they come ready to put it to use. When a criminal takes their first step toward you, almost always, they’ve got the drop on you, and there’s not much you can do to turn the tables, but rationality isn’t good for business. Panic sells just as well as sex, and making people afraid makes them spend, even if they become actively less safe as a result of their purchases:
“Packing heat may backfire. People who carry guns are far likelier to get shot – and killed – than those who are unarmed, a study of shooting victims in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has found.
It would be impractical – not to say unethical – to randomly assign volunteers to carry a gun or not and see what happens. So Charles Branas‘s team at the University of Pennsylvania analysed 677 shootings over two-and-a-half years to discover whether victims were carrying at the time, and compared them to other Philly residents of similar age, sex and ethnicity. The team also accounted for other potentially confounding differences, such as the socioeconomic status of their neighbourhood.
Despite the US having the highest rate of firearms-related homicide in the industrialised world, the relationship between gun culture and violence is poorly understood. A recent study found that treating violence like an infectious disease led to a dramatic fall in shootings and killings.
Overall, Branas’s study found that people who carried guns were 4.5 times as likely to be shot and 4.2 times as likely to get killed compared with unarmed citizens. When the team looked at shootings in which victims had a chance to defend themselves, their odds of getting shot were even higher.” [New Scientist]
Part of me wants to purchase a firearm. I want to feel safer as it rests in a safe next to my nightstand. I want to feel less scared when I hear a strange noise as I lie in bed. I have come close to a purchase, and backed away in the past. It wasn’t the thought of being killed or maimed by a criminal in a gunfight that has dissuaded me from purchasing a firearm; it was the thought of killing my wife, or a friend, or a family member, or a totally innocent bystander by accident that horrified me the most. This possibility is anything but remote – on average, a child is killed every other day by an accidental discharge of a firearm – and that particular risk is far too horrible for me to stomach. The home-defense gun is the American family’s sword of Damocles; hanging over the heads of everyone in the household, ready to steal away innocent life on account of madness, miscalculation, or even mechanical failure.
I leave the gun-safety class feeling worse about the future. I now have less hope for our future generations than I had going in. This, of course, has nothing to do with the individual business I purchased the course from; the professionalism of their staff, and their commitment to safety above all else was exemplary. I walk away from the course with a better understanding of what gun ownership means, and with it, a growing knowledge of how intractable American gun violence will continue to be in the years to come. There is no cavalry coming, no help on the way, and our state of affairs won’t meaningfully change anytime soon.
We all know, somewhere deep down, that we can’t live in the wild west forever. I think, inwardly, the NRA die-hards know this, too. The ‘high score’ for active shooters will rise and rise until we just can’t stomach it anymore. Maybe it’ll take five hundred bodies in one tragic event. Maybe it’ll take one thousand. Maybe all it will take is for a child of someone very rich and very powerful to lose their life to an active shooter. I don’t know where the line is, but I know we haven’t yet crossed it. I do know what history will say about this era; that active shooters, as Louis Klarevas says, is our generation’s Cold War. “Run, fight, or hide” is our “duck and cover” drill. At any moment, at a theater, at a sporting event, at a shopping center, we can be ambushed by firepower that should be reserved for the deadliest combat zones. I suspect that the task left before Americans now is to simply decide if living in this America is worth the risk of being ripped to death by high-powered rifle fire at nearly any moment. As each day passes, I grow increasingly more unsure of my own answer. Each morning, I do my best to ignore that aching worry sloshing around in my own gut that says my school-teacher wife might leave for work one morning and never return. I don’t know if living in America is worth that risk.
Approximately 300 million Americans own firearms, and anywhere from 8-9 million of those are AR-15’s. The problem, of course, is not one single type of rifle, but the larger crisis that looms over the entire country: the ease of access to deadly semi-automatic weapons kills Americans by the tens of thousands every year. The NRA, and the pro-gun community at large, would prefer to steer the future dialog into highly segmented corners. After the massacre in Las Vegas, they are quite content to let the media fetishize ‘bump stocks’ or ‘trigger cranks’ so long as the focus remains on the symptoms rather than the disease. The primary problem isn’t a gadget; it’s the fact that basically anyone can build a devastating armory with terrifying ease.
Americans put up with these senseless deaths because many of us fall victim to the myth of defensive gun usage. It is the siren song that lures our ship into the rocks. We are obsessed with the possibility of intercepting crime as it happens, regardless of how unlikely or flatly impossible this would be nearly all of the time. Statistically, a civilian gun-owner has a 0.05% chance of stopping a violent crime in progress with their firearm. Those odds are microscopic by anyone’s definition, and in pursuit of this Hail-Mary touchdown, our children are being stacked in morgues. Easy access to firearms has worsened the epidemic of suicide in the United States, too. Guns, tragically, can often take much of the legwork out of the planning stages of a suicide attempt. Just open mouth, insert barrel, and exit the universe in a millisecond.
There is a stubbornness, however slight, still buried in my bones, when it comes to individual liberty. Working in technology exasperates this, and the parallels between legislative attempts to control technology are often quite similar to firearms. Encryption, up until recently, was considered legally equivalent to the export of ammunition in the United States. The United Kingdom has flirted, off and on, with bans of consumer-based encryption for their citizens, especially after terror attacks. It isn’t difficult to become cantankerous when it comes to annoying legislation and irritating safeguards. Enthusiasts will easily bypass restrictions set in place by governments, and laws never stopped criminals, or so the argument goes, and attempts to create laws for the common good are often met with eye-rolls as a result. At some point – tragically, a point likely not to occur in my lifetime – the cost of these freedoms will be weighed soberly against their value. I do not think ‘American gun culture’ is worth thirty-thousand dead Americans every year. I do not think a 0.05% percent chance of stopping a crime as it happens is worth the risk of accidentally ending the lives of my loved ones. I do not think access to a cornucopia of exciting firearms is worth the morbid phenomenon of active shooter events. Americans will eventually realize that the bargain we’ve struck is a bad one; and depressingly, it might actually require that a majority of Americans actually experience an active shooter event before their minds get changed.
Equally stupid, too, is the notion that widespread gun ownership has rendered political tyranny impossible. Armed civilians, even with these weapons of war, would be no match for the armed forces. Civilians don’t have artillery, or tanks, or fighter jets, or nuclear weapons, so until a militia can truthfully match, pound-for-pound, the strength of the American military, this line of reasoning is rubbish. The spastic paranoia of the play-dress-up-civilian-militias are not a meaningful check on federal power now, nor would they be even if an American Hitler rose to power, crushing democracy underfoot in the process. Interpreting the Second Amendment as a blank check, an open-ended carte blanche for civilians to own any weapon, no matter how dangerous or deadly, is incredibly misguided. Steve Schmidt, a former GOP adviser to the McCain Presidential campaign, said it best on his most recent appearance on Bill Maher’s HBO program: our founding fathers couldn’t have conceived of an AK-47. How relevant is that document to this era? Gun violence is a scourge, a new plague that sends scores of Americans to early graves, and for what purpose? To offer a veneer of nonsensical protection against federal tyranny that will never come?
The question is quite simple; do Americans want easy access to military-grade firearms, or fewer episodes of mass murder? We cannot have both. These two options are mutually exclusive. A higher number of guns will not make us safe. A gun in the hands of a ‘good guy’ didn’t stop the ‘bad guys’ with guns as they strolled into Columbine. It is a tautology of the highest order – to protect us from guns, give us more guns, to protect us from the guns, give us more guns – and somewhere out there in the ether, exists a round of ammunition with my name, with your name, with the name of someone you love labelled squarely upon it. America has no exit strategy for its firearm crisis, and as more and more of us are struck by gunfire, the shadow grows ever-larger upon the horizon. A functioning society requires boundaries. We don’t let just anyone call themselves a doctor; we have collectively recognized that without safeguarding that title, innocent people would suffer and perish. We don’t let people who aren’t engineers build bridges, we don’t let people who aren’t pilots fly planes, but virtually anyone can compile an armory of devastating firepower with basically no oversight. The Las Vegas shooter had forty-two firearms before murdering nearly sixty people in the space of a few minutes. The nation simply cannot continue on this path for much longer. Something, eventually, will have to give. When approximately 60,000 Americans were killed in a vicious war of attrition against the Vietnamese, we constructed a solemn monument in their honor in the very heart of our capital. Since 1968, approximately 1,516,863 Americans have been killed by domestic acts of gunfire. Where will we put their monument?