Part II: “The Gun Problem”
If you haven’t seen A Christmas Story here’s the deal: A Christmas Story is a charming little chronicle of a nine-year-old boy named Ralphie Parker and his one wish for Christmas—owning a “Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle” that has a built-in compass in the stock and “this thing that tells time.” He spends a large chunk of the film plotting ways to convince adults, and even the universe-at-large, to gift him this BB gun to which his mother, schoolteacher, and even a haggard department store Santa all rebuke him, explaining with typically uncool adulthood malaise that he’ll only shoot his eye out with it. Finally, however, he gets the Red Ryder BB gun as a last-minute gift from his father. The film ends after Ralphie takes off into the snowy Cleveland morning with dreams of Old West vigilantism running through his imagination, but not before he nearly takes his eye out while shooting at a metal target in his back yard.
I ran into Ralphie on the third day of the Republican National Convention. Only his name wasn’t Ralphie at all. It was Kevin Kvasnička, and he stood in the center of Public Square across South Roadway from the former home of Higbee’s department store, the same store where young Ralphie gets kicked down the slide by the threadbare Santa. It’s a casino now.
Anyway. . . Kevin was dressed black track pants and a bright red t-shirt that read “Someone Love Me In Liberia” in white letters around a Liberian flag, and I wasn’t sure if it was a misspelling or actually imploring love from someone in Liberia. In a strange sense he resembled a young Elvis Costello, glasses and all, but with a heavy jawline that soured his mouth into a wide perpetual grimace. He also reminded me a little of Beavis from Beavis & Butthead, and I briefly wondered how many middle school/Scut Farkus-like assholes had pulled their shirts over their heads, surrendered their hands to the sky, and mocked “I am Cornholio!” whenever he walked to fifth period.
Instead of a Red Ryder BB gun, Kevin carried a weathered Mosin Nagant bolt-action rifle, the kind of rifle that had probably capped a few freezing Germans somewhere around Stalingrad in 1942. Now it was used to plink holes into soda cans. It rested on Kevin’s shoulder with a small American flag jammed into its barrel. The flag wagged in the subtle breeze like a limp pennant as a photographer from New York snapped pictures of it. The photographer seemed to be having a hard time wrapping his head around the notion of a young twenty-something lugging a rifle to a political convention. Kevin seemed cool with the attention.
“I think we should de-stigmatize gun ownership because there is a destructive media rhetoric that gun owners are these irrational, rabidly violent people,” he explained against the backbeat of nearby bongo drums. “That’s simply not the case. I’m just a normal guy out here who happens to have a rifle.”
“What happens if something goes down here in the square?” the photographer asked, referring to all the threats of violence and doom that had been spilled out by the media the past few months.
“I’m out,” Kevin said emphatically.
“Fuck it, I’m out. It’s not my job to respond to that,” Kevin said. He gestured to the platoons of law enforcement that milled about the square. “That’s what these guys are for.”
I was with him, at least in spirit. Anyone rational about the Constitution knows that a person’s rights, for better or worse, are not dependent upon any sense of modern social normalcy. At least they’re not meant to be. If Kevin wanted to show his support for the 2nd Amendment by packing a cheap Communist-made rifle at the Republican National Convention, who was I to dispute him?
And Kevin wasn’t alone. While many people felt no need to openly carry a firearm around downtown Cleveland, the presence of guns was certainly felt around the convention. Every few hours, whether I was walking down Batshit Alley, hanging around East 4th Street and Prospect where the delegates and big-shot media walked in and out of The Q, or around Public Square, I invariably saw one or two people with a black pistol flopping against their thighs or a rifle resting across their torsos.
I’m not terrified of guns. I’ve been around guns my whole life, and in many ways love firearms as much as Kevin or any other rational gun owner. When Kevin mentioned using his rifle for something as piddly as shooting pop cans, I understood what he meant. There is something uniquely primal and exciting about the clap of smoke and noise as it bucks against the palm of your hand or your shoulder when you send lead flying through the air at an average of 2,500 feet per second. To be good at it, to actually hit a target, is not an easily mastered skill. It takes a fair amount of patience and practice to be a proficient marksman, and it produces a real sense of accomplishment in a new shooter when they hit a bull’s-eye.
But guns change the social polarity in the air, and not necessarily for the better. Most people understand this, even if only subconsciously. Every single time I saw a man in a baggy t-shirt and scuffed shoes walking down Batshit Alley with a loaded Glock swinging from a loose drop holster on his thigh all the air molecules around him felt as if they had been charged by an unfortunate gunpowder fart. Wide-eyed mothers and college kids squinted at them with a sense of mild fear followed by a subtle grimacing disdain for making them feel fear at all. A few people shook their hands and offered thanks for supporting their cause so publically, but the majority of folks around the convention either ignored them, or viewed them with the exact same nut-job filter many of the gun-toters like Kevin were trying so hard to change. Despite what Kevin or anyone else might tell a confused New York photographer or any other member of the media, a person who isn’t a cop but walks the streets of a modern American city in broad daylight with a rifle across his chest isn’t quite “just a normal guy.”
On the last day of the convention I stumbled across two armed men in their twenties. One of them, who we’ll call Cory, was dressed in the black shirt partially covered in a black armor plate carrier with attachable magazine pouches and a black ball cap with a subdued American flag stuck to the front with Velcro. A black semiautomatic rifle with an aftermarket stock and scope rested across his chest. A black pistol was strapped to his thigh. His friend had a pistol in a holster attached to his belt.
Cory and his friend were in a heated debate with Dave Ninehouser, the cofounder of a group called the HearYourselfThink Project, which according to their website aims to “reclaim America’s brain from media outlets that use fear and misinformation to shut down our ability to think critically and act rationally in our democracy.” A laudable goal, no doubt. But he was getting his ass kicked. He looked like a threadbare adjunct professor from a community college up against two Millennials who were faster, smarter, and certainly snarkier. Dave read from a sheet loaded with various quotes pertaining to personal freedoms and liberties and other boring gibberish that was having no impact on his argument. He crackled a little missive from George Washington—“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”—and for his troubles Cory tapped his rifle and with a thin snide grins countered him with, “Yeah, no shit. Why do you think I’m carrying this?”
It wasn’t the guns or the even the debate I was interested in. I tend to treat the 2nd Amendment like the security blanket it’s meant to be, for better or worse, and not the scared little child threatened by anti-gun ghouls as it’s made out to be by nearly everyone on the right, from Wayne LaPierre down to every single gun-totin’ Yosemite Sam wannabe who kills stuffed animals with shotguns. The last piece of federal gun control—the Federal Assault Weapons Ban—expired in 2004, and the most recent federal law—the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005—protects gun dealers from liability when guns they sell are used to commit crimes. By the National Rifle Association’s own count only 20 percent of U.S. states fall within a “rights restricted” category, meaning those states typical require permits to own and carry rifles, shotguns, and pistols, and outright ban assault weapons. Congress is certainly no threat to the 2nd Amendment, either. Gun control advocates could line the marble walls leading into the chambers of the U.S Capitol building with the corpses of the past half-dozen mass shootings and still nothing would get passed, as indicated by the defeat of the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013, which was stomped in the Senate. The 2nd Amendment is doing just fine, for what it’s worth. . . .
What interested me more than the rifles and pistols was the body armor I saw on a number of gun-totin’ Republicans who lurched around Cleveland. After the two young gun owners were finished with Dave, I turned to the man with the rifle and armor plate carrier.
“Do you have plates in that carrier?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” Cory said. He was a little on edge. His right hand rested on the collapsible butt stock of his rifle. It was very likely he had spent much of that morning answering stiff questions from media and others about his politics, which he undoubtedly felt were antagonistic. I was hoping to get him off the edge a little, if only to get a more rational response other than the default programming that comes when people get heated and dig their heels into their political positions. I asked him if he was a veteran. He wasn’t, Cory said. I explained to him that I was a veteran and that I understood his points about gun ownership—that it doesn’t matter what anyone really thinks about it, the Constitution protects his right to own them. He seemed to relax greatly, and then he shook my hand and thanked me in typical patriotic style.
I pointed to his vest. “So what made you want to wear the armor?” I asked.
“Because it’s my right,” he said.
“Absolutely it is. You can wear whatever you want,” I said, waving him off the assumption I was suggesting he shouldn’t be allowed to own or wear body armor. “What I’m asking is, why do you feel the need to wear it? Not whether you should be allowed to, but why you’re wearing it?”
“Anything could happen, man,” he said.
“Do you think you live in a world where you need to have access to an armored vest?” I asked.
“Yep,” he said. “I think we’re at the end. I mean, governments collapse all the time, and America is going to as well. Any day now. I think most governments lasted like two hundred or two hundred and fifty years. I mean, look at the Roman Empire. We’re almost done, and I want to be ready.”
Fear, anger, terror, rage, war, hate, doom, crime, tragedy, collapse, death, anarchy, apocalypse—perhaps I’ve added a few more than necessary, but by the end of the RNC these themes hovered over Lake Erie like a shit-mist. The entire tenor of the convention leaned heavily toward the terrors of crime and immigrants, of Islamic fundamentalism, of murders and rapes. And from the pulpit of the convention came one message: the Republicans are the only ones who can save us, who can protect us from the darkness that looms just outside our borders and our front doors, who can protect us from ourselves. Ex-Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s stated on the first day, “the world outside our borders is a dark place, a scary place” and implored a younger generation of conservatives to pick up the mantle because “your war is here.” Former New York Mayor and presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani used the word “fear” within the first five seconds of his speech, suggesting Americans are afraid for their children and themselves—afraid of crime and terrorism, of Obama and Clinton. Sherriff David Clarke illuminated some aggrandized “collapse of social order” after the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the death of police at the hands of a madman in Baton Rouge, then called the Black Lives Matter movement “anarchy.” Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who is arguably the worst senator we’ve seen since Gene McCarthy and Strom Thurmond with his Curtis LeMay/Kill-Them-All mode of foreign policy, expressed to all who would listen that even though his father and grandfather failed to achieve peace with their own wars that killed millions, by-golly his generation is just as willing to pick up a rifle and kill a few more.
Fear is not a terribly new thing in politics, however. Conservative politicians, and more than a few liberals, have been running the same cheap scam to terrify Americans into voting for their candidates since Truman. The only difference has been the delivery system. First it was communism. Then it was drugs and crime. Today it’s immigrants and terrorism. But there is something more sinister and violent lives across large swaths of the right wing voter base over any other. There has been a genuine anger from voters toward anyone other than the GOP about all the things they were told to believe were coming to kill them, including the government itself. Since 9/11 and the wars that followed there has been a slow increase among conservatives toward a seemingly endless war-like mindset to the point that some gun-owners—or at least the ones more inclined to a doomsday level of fear-based rationalizing—are learning how to use firearms in ways typically reserved for soldiers headed to the Korengal valley of Afghanistan, as if they will be faced with the dubious prospect of fighting hooded Kalashnikov-packing suicide bombers on cul-de-sacs outside Springfield, Illinois or Marietta, Georgia.
While defending oneself is certainly a rational right for every human on this planet, there seems to be a horrible notion among many that every stranger might be The One who turns us into the victim in a new episode of Law & Order, despite the fact both violent crime and murder rates have seen a net decline over the past five years and the overall crime rate is at its lowest in decades. Yet no matter what the Uniformed Crime Report might state, it’s somewhat difficult to fault voters for treating strangers like villain’s every time local news kicks them in the shin with the police blotter and Trump bellows them into an existential panic with nonsense like “decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.”
On the afternoon of the first day a squad appeared outside Public Square with armored vests, cheap two-way radios, and an assortment of tactical rifles and shotguns hanging from their chests. There were ten of them, and they smoked cigarettes and rolled balls of snuff behind their lower lips. Their eyes were wrapped in various cop-like shades and those who could grow them sported haggard beards and trim goatees. A few of them looked like they were fresh out of high school. They were all very serious.
They called themselves the West Ohio Minutemen, and when I heard their name I rattled out a long deflating sigh. A militia. The absolute fringe of the Right Wing. The American “militia” of the past thirty or so years conjures images of dark, wood-paneled Elks Lodge’s where aging truck drivers and angry ex-deputies sit over cans of Busch Light and lament the latest conspiracy theory and “what they’re going to do about it.” These guys were much younger, but they were well on their way. Instead of signing on to be the next Timothy McVeigh, however, they positioned themselves as some form of home guard protector from whatever element might do us all harm. A member of their group told a reporter they were in Cleveland to protect the people if the thousands of professional police officers from all over the nation who had come to the city for the convention were suddenly unable.
I let out a longer and much emptier sigh.
Their overt, bloated seriousness and general dick-swinging compensation did nothing to make me feel safe. In fact, their spectacle created a slight traffic hazard as bystanders and media flocked to the roadside to capture them on film. Police had taken notice of them. A gaggle of ten rifles and pistols had suddenly appeared near Public Square, a high-traffic area filled hundreds of sparks of discontent and angry rhetoric just hunting for the right kindling. The police had no choice but to monitor the situation. When asked what he thought of all the guns one cop rolled his eyes all the way back to the Prime Meridian and said, “No comment, but they’re a pain in my ass.”
The West Ohio Minutemen are certainly patriotic, which is generally laudable, but their patriotism exists solely with their guns and their sort-of home grown G.I. Joe pastiche. It’s as if the Great Scorer installed a basic Patriotism App into their brains that gave them the notion to wave flags and train to kill undefined “bad guys,” but failed to install the updates that offered alternatives to local, state, and national service such as community advocacy, philanthropy, nonprofit work, and even government service at any level or fashion—of which all could be considered patriotic in the sense that they help American citizens. But the ten militiamen hanging around Cleveland were not necessarily demonstrating patriotism as they patrolled the streets as if it were Kabul. Perhaps they believed they were, but regardless of any Red, White & Blue intentions the only real thing they peddled was fear.
Talk to self-described militiamen or other like-minded individual and you’ll quickly learn a civil war is perpetually imminent the same way religious fundamentalists think the world is at the edge of the apocalypse. Not only do they think it, there is a general “leaning in” toward it, as if they hope something that terrifying would actually happen, and finally justify all their high-speed, low-drag gun training and general cynical attitude toward a world. The West Ohio Minutemen are no exception. On their Facebook page they have an image that reads, “Start thinking about your neighborhood. . . from a tactical perspective.”
This is what Ralphie has become in many ways in the American landscape. Instead of the nine-year-old plinking pop cans with his Red Ryder BB gun, he’s now a small business owner with enough armored vests, high-powered rifles, slap-shod tactical training, and a fear of the world outside his front door to make the rest of us—the same Americans he dubiously seeks to protect—remarkably uncomfortable. But as things stood with the rhetoric inside convention, it’s his world. The rest of us are just living in it like sheep that need shepherding. Yeah. . . .
As I stood in front of the ten militiamen, I noticed a spider crawling along the butt stock of a rifle carried by the man directly across from me not less than two feet away. He was older than the rest, with a pointy salt-and-pepper goatee and skin that was being eaten up by too much sunlight and cigarettes. Instinctively, and without thinking, I reached up and carefully brushed the spider to the ground. The man turned his head toward me sharply. The corners of his mouth were turned into a slight sneer.
“Shit. Sorry, man,” I said. “There was a spider on your rifle. I knocked it off.”
He just looked at me the way a truck driver might look at abstract art. I was clearly beneath him in his eyes, but now I had forced him to deal with me. But he didn’t say anything; he simply brought the rifle closer to his chest and turned away. After a few minutes their leader ordered the squad to move out. They had had enough of the media. To hell with them, their faces seemed to say. Let them write what they want. And with that the ten Ralphies turned and marched away, the sole heroes of a war no one else saw a reason to fight.