When Jeanne Marie Laskas set out to write about guns for GQ magazine in 2012, she knew it would be difficult but she didn’t expect it would become the story that, as she puts it, “nearly ate me alive.” She quickly found herself navigating a minefield of preconceptions and prejudices on both sides of the issue. Her ability to gracefully and candidly negotiate this tricky path is an important element of the story’s success, as is her hands-on approach, as she puts herself behind the counter at an Arizona gun shop.
Laskas is a correspondent for GQ and the author of six books. Her work has been included in a number of anthologies, including “Best American Magazine Writing” and “Best American Sports Writing.” She is also the director of the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh.
Laskas and I talked over the phone. My questions are in red; her responses in blue. To read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button to the right. Let’s start with some questions:
There are so many ways to tell the story of guns in America and they are all fraught with peril—why this story?
It wasn’t a topic I had been stewing on, any more than a regular person might be. It was born of the event of the Tucson shooting, and that moment that I write about, the Walmart clerk who turned back [shooter Jared] Loughner, who apparently said, “I won’t sell you any ammunition.” And I just never realized, I never thought of the human transaction that was involved in all of this. It might have been born of a conversation of that moment: who is that guy and who makes these decisions? And it might have been one of my GQ editors who said, “You should go work in a gun shop and find out.”
Something else that strikes me about this story is that you focus on a very ground-level issue in this debate: the exchange between customer and clerk. Most stories on this topic look at legislation or judicial rulings or other broad-based, complex aspects of this debate. You picked the simplest, most direct point: the moment when someone buys a gun. How did you settle on this approach?
It was definitely the most interesting piece of it. I was working on this book called “Hidden America,” where I was doing that kind of view of America over and over again, so when I wrote about immigration, I didn’t start broad. I started tiny with someone picking blueberries in a field. Those little tiny moments– we rarely start from them. We start broad and then go small. I wanted to start small and go broad. That was just in general my way of thinking about any issue. The issue is not as interesting as the people and the transaction.
Can you talk about the early discussions with your editors and how you settled on exactly what you would do?
The one thing that really came through clear to me when we talked about guns, they thought it was really hilarious for someone like me to go work in a gun store, or someone like them, someone from the world I inhabit. That was their assumption. There are these two distinct sides of America, and they thought it would be funny almost to send someone in, who came from a non-gun world, into a gun world. It would be shocking. The thing that struck me is that shouldn’t be that weird. That shouldn’t be shocking. You guys are presuming so much about who I am. Maybe I like guns. Maybe it will be fun. They thought that was hilarious.
You told me earlier that this story nearly ate you alive. How so?
It was really hard to not do the expected joke, the one I was just talking about. I really wanted to understand the other side. I really and truly did. I didn’t want to get into a debate about gun rights. It was a cultural question: what is your mindset that you really truly believe in what you believe? It was really hard to find a way of doing that that wasn’t judgmental, that wasn’t silly. It was really hard for me to even talk about. Everyone I was writing back to, texting pictures of my guns that I bought, that I was really interested in, they all thought that was so funny. It is crazy that you can walk in and buy something like that, but these people [gun owners] really have a point.
Guns ‘R Us
By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Out-of-state residents can purchase firearms in Arizona read the sign behind the counter at Sprague’s Sports in Yuma. ASK US HOW. I asked a clerk named Ron for details. Right off the bat, you are in the story. Why? I hate doing it. I didn’t want to do it. I thought it made me a character, but I had to, the story needed a vehicle. I was keenly aware of my audience. My audience is not going to be reading this story unless I was starting where they were starting. I am a character in that story. That’s not me. I am writing for this audience of people who do not understand why America needs guns. I need to know how to be one of them. The story needed that tour guide. Did you know, going to Arizona, that you were going to use first person, or was that something that came up in the writing process? That came later. I never know. I just go. It was like, let’s find a gun store that will let me come in and hang out and let me work behind the counter as much as I could. They were great. He was short, packed solid as a ham, with a crew cut and a genial demeanor. He pointed to the cavalcade of hunting rifles lined up on the long wall behind him. “Any of these you can get today—or these over here,” he said, leading me to a corner of the store where two young men in ball caps and a woman with a sparkly purse were admiring a selection of AK-47’s. When did you identify yourself as a reporter during your conversations with the store owners and customers? I would have done that all up front. I wasn’t in a spy mission or investigating. It would have been talking to the store owner first, “Here is what I want to do, here is what I am, here is where I come from, I want to write a story that bridges the two cultures.” I wanted to be a bridge between the two cultures. That was my ambition. And it genuinely was. I feel like it was impossible to become that. There is no bridge. I tried to find it, and I failed. I ended up just going and shooting zombies. That is literally what happened. How did people typically react when you told them you were a reporter? They were fine. They were happy. They were like, “That is so nice that you’re interested in guns.” It felt like you could be at any sporting good store. “Oh, you like volleyball too? You’re here to learn about volleyball? I love volleyball!” I had that part in the story where I say to Richard, he asked me what is the most surprising thing, and I said how normal it is.
“You have to admit this is pretty badass,” the one man was saying. He had a carbine shorty I’m guessing you didn’t know this lingo right away. How did you find out what he was holding and when? In that case, I had to ask. I am not reporting on the asking. You don’t get to see that. I would have had to say, what kind of gun is that? The lingo is important, so I was curious how long you let it go, if you let it play out. I would let it play out a while, then say, “What is it you have there?” I wouldn’t disrupt the scene. perched on his hip, Stallone-style.
“I don’t know,” the woman said. “To me, it looks mean.”
“It’s supposed to look mean.”
“They should make it in pink,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be cute?”
“You’re shitting me.” Why did you decide to lead with this bit of dialogue? It is just a glimpse of a moment. I’m writing about a shopping experience, and here is a glimpse of the shopper. Probably 15 of them happened, but here is a funny one. The idea would be to provide a quick moment. It’s not loaded, to use a pun here, but I don’t have a point. This is not a polemic. Almost trying to show that.
“They should make it in Hello Kitty!” she said. “I would totally buy it if it was Hello Kitty.”
“Sweet holy crap,” the other man said. “That would be the worst possible death. Can you imagine? Shot dead by a Hello Kitty semiauto.”
It was difficult to tell if Ron was listening in on any of this; both of us had our lips pulled back in pretend smiles. “Now, what can I show you?” he asked me while the one guy went on faking his bad death and the woman continued her torture with something about rainbow-colored bullets.
I didn’t really want to buy an assault rifle, or even a handgun, but I was curious to know what buying one felt like, how the purchase worked, what-all was involved. Nobody in my circle back east There’s a distinct voice you’re establishing here: ‘what-all’ ‘back east.’ It’s a little country, almost. Is this you? Is it a character you’re creating for this story? You know, I have no idea. I guess maybe it’s a tone I’m trying to establish there, this character that I am is friendly and not snobby. Probably folksy. I’m creating a folksy character you would want to hang out with. I don’t think it’s me, though. had guns, nobody wanted them, and if anybody talked about them, it was in cartoon terms: Guns are bad things owned by bad people who want to do bad things. About the only time the people where I come from thought about guns was when something terrible happened. A lunatic sprays into a crowd and we have the same conversation we always have: those damn guns and those damn people who insist on having them. This is such an important paragraph because it lays out your views going in. Was there ever discussion as to where this paragraph should be, or how detailed it should be? Did you worry that anyone who didn’t agree with you would stop reading right here, give up? It’s such an important moment, and it has to happen right there. It has to happen early up because you have to establish a starting point and be honest with the starting point. It needs to have a definitive point of view. This is something like an experiment, and I feel like I need to be really clear about that, even though it’s exaggerated, even if it’s the point of view of my editors. I have a more nuanced view personally because I live in Pennsylvania, where deer hunting happens in my backyard. But I’m starting where my audience is.
I had come to Arizona, the most gun-friendly state, How did you determine what is the most gun-friendly state? Were there other states you considered? I think Utah and Arizona are the top, because of just how easy it is to get a gun, and the carry laws. But Arizona was a natural fit because Tucson shooting had just happened. It was kind of like a ground zero for that kind of thing anyway. What I didn’t understand until I was there is that since it borders California, people come from California to buy guns. There was a lot of talk about that, how weird (Californians) were, and so that was nice too, to have that influence. They were getting people who were desperate because they couldn’t get guns in California. to listen to the conversation the rest of America was apparently having. One in three Americans owns a gun. About 59 million handguns, 46 million rifles, and 28 million shotguns—nearly 135 million new firearms for sale in the U.S. since 1986. We are the most heavily armed society in the world. If an armed citizenry is a piece of our national identity, how is it that I’d never even met it?
In Arizona, anyone over 18 can buy an assault rifle, at 21 you can get a pistol, and you can carry your gun, loaded or unloaded, concealed or openly, just about anywhere. The IHOP was said to be the only restaurant in Yuma that prohibited you from bringing your gun in. “Needless to say, most of us won’t eat there,” Ron said. On the rack behind him, assault rifles stood stupid as pool cues, black and blocky, with long magazines protruding erotically this way and that. What were your thoughts the first time you walked into the store? I was really surprised by the assault rifle section. That was startling. But the rest just seemed like a pretty good store, like going into Dick’s Sporting Goods except everything was guns. But the assault rifle section was really, wow, and it literally did happen that way. I walked right back, and said, “I can just buy one of these?” And I knew nothing. They were like, “Just pick one, okay that one.” That is how simple it is. That to me was startling. Also, you’re using language here in a very provocative way—‘stupid as pool cues,’ the reference to the magazines being phallic and a substitute for masculinity. This must be deliberate. Why did you make this choice? Truthfully, I was just having fun there. I think it’s more to take the pressure off instead of being like I’m about to get into an argument.
“I’m kind of surprised you carry assault rifles,” I said to Ron.
“There’s no such thing as an assault rifle,” he said. “These are ‘military-style rifles’ or ‘modern sporting rifles.’ ”
“But they’re assault rifles,” I noted. I knew that much from TV.
“Assault is one of the worst things the media has ever done to us,” he said. “Have any of these rifles ever assaulted anyone?” I’m curious here… We know you were up front with everyone you talked to, so Ron knows you’re a reporter. Still, how did you set everything up with the store? I think it was just a real honest approach. It helped that I came from Pennsylvania and I have hunters in my background. They were so proud of the store, so it wasn’t hard to get them to agree. The only time they had any publicity was the stuff from running guns into Mexico, and I dug into that and realized they really did get a raw deal. That was a trumped-up charge, it really was. That seemed to be unfair, and that was the publicity. They were attacked and it was unfair, and so I think I was just really straightforward. I want to learn about this culture that I don’t understand and just come and hang out and work behind the counter.
He went on to say I could buy as many of them as I wanted and walk out with my arsenal today. “These guns have helped our industry tremendously,” he said. “They’ve attracted a whole new generation…. Is there one you want to try?” He brought down a Colt AR15-A3 tactical carbine, slammed in an empty magazine, and handed it to me. It felt disappointingly fake, an awesome water pistol, perhaps, or a Halloween prop. Was this the first time you had held a gun? A gun like that. I had held revolver types. What was it like? Enticing. It was easy to get into the toy thoughts of it all, the gadgetry. It was fun. I got it. The lethal part doesn’t enter your mind in that moment. But then it wasn’t as heavy as I thought it would be, and I was kind of disappointed. I thought, “This is kind of cheap.” I asked if I would need to tell him why I wanted to buy a gun like that or what I intended to do with it. He squinted and smiled and appeared politely speechless. “Would you have to do what, now?” he asked.
It was difficult for us to find a comfortable, common starting place, but the reach was certainly genuine. Among the things I wanted to talk to Ron and the people at Sprague’s about were killing sprees. America has had a bad run of large-scale gun violence, including the theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and, closer to home, Arizona’s infamous 2011 Tucson massacre. I wondered when would be an appropriate time to bring up the subject; a massacre is, well, a massacre, and I feared it would dampen the mood. As I read this story, I kept thinking about all the massacres that have occurred since it ran, including most notably, Sandy Hook. Do you think about that? All the time. Do you think the story had any impact on the issue at all? Was that even a goal? I don’t think my goal would have been to change minds. My goal was to try and be a translator between the two cultures. Both sides think the other side is crazy. I did not understand that. At the end of the story, I talk about the crazy neighbor, and that metaphor is exactly it. It’s almost like it takes great courage to go down to that crazy neighbor’s house and you’re prepared to forgive and have this moment of reckoning only to find out that they think you’re the crazy one. I was blown away by that notion.
A few reported details from the Tucson incident always stuck with me. Before Jared Loughner shot Gabby Giffords, he ran some errands first. He stopped at the Circle K on Ina Road to get something to eat. He went down to the Walgreens to pick up some photos he’d gotten developed. Then he went to the Walmart Supercenter at the Foothills Mall to buy some ammo for his Glock. Something happened there. A snag in the plan. The clerk at the register, who was never identified and whom Walmart officials refused to talk about, said no. He, or she, denied the sale to Loughner, who left and went to a different Walmart six miles away, where he bought enough ammunition to fill two fifteen-round magazines and the thirty-three-round extended magazine he would unload a few hours later into the crowd over at Safeway, killing six and injuring another thirteen, including Giffords. Why do you think these details have stuck with you for so long? Is this what made you want to tackle this story? That one was fresh in my mind because it was the most recent. I get angry at this issue. Get rid of guns! Just get rid of guns! What is going on? Look what happens in Canada. Nothing like this! But I really felt that people in the store would be embarrassed or have some kind of moment of “Oooh boy, that was a terrible thing that happened, those people are right.” But I didn’t find that at all.
Why did the first Walmart clerk refuse the sale, and how? Did you try to find this clerk, and if so, when did you give up? We did, and Walmart would not cooperate. I did go to that Walmart, and just kind of walked around there and their ammo section. I would have loved to have found that person, even just a clerk who is ringing someone up. Oh, there’s bananas, shirts, there’s some bullets. What did that person see in Loughner, and where does a private citizen get the authority, or the gumption, to refuse to sell ammo to someone? These questions were never answered, if they were even asked by media providing day and night coverage in the bloody aftermath. The mysterious clerk at the Foothills Mall Walmart dropped out of the headlines almost as soon as he, or she, appeared. What may have lingered then for some, or at least it did for me, was a nagging sense of unfinished business. So these are the people who stand at the front lines, guarding America against its lunatic mass murderers? Clerks at Walmart. Clerks at sporting-goods stores. Minimum-wage cashiers busily scanning soccer balls, fishing tackle, and boxes of Tide. This ends the first section of the story. Can you talk about why you wanted to end here, with these anonymous cashiers? I always like ending a section with something you’ll think about. It’s a great place to plant whatever the lingering thoughts are that you’re having, almost like the echo that you’re looking for in a story.
Ron grew up in Yuma and had worked at Sprague’s for twenty-seven years; several of his co-workers had put in at least twenty. That’s an amazing longevity for retail. Were you surprised at that? Yes. That went with the whole general notion that they were all so proud of that place that they created. They will not leave! When you found that out, did it change any preconceived thoughts about who these people are? Definitely. It made me like them. Was that a bad thing? It was confusing; it was a really freaking confusing story. Why was it hard? It’s all of these things you’re talking about. I like Ron, who is working there all these years with his name on his shirt, but he’s telling you to buy horrible things that you can go kill people with. It’s really confusing. All the clerks milling about the store were clean-cut, dressed in crisp button-down shirts with their names embroidered on the pockets, and the respect they showed the merchandise reminded me of department-store shoe salesmen in the old days who wore suits and used shoehorns. This is a really interesting comparison. That popped into my head while I was there. It was one of the phrases I used when I called my editors. While I’m reporting this thing, I went there for a week twice, and while I was there, I was calling back, and we would have these conversations. Here is what is going well. I’m really confused. It’s like a shoe store, but it’s guns! They thought I was so crazy that this is what was bothering me. The store was brightly lit and impeccably clean—no dust or cobwebs on the hundreds of bobcat, coyote, elk, and other taxidermy mounted on high. Stray scraps of paper were instantly swept up, Disneyland-style. The merchandise was arranged in boutique fashion: colorful boxes of ammo stacked like candy by the register, a library of gun books and magazines near the restrooms. There was a holster department, a gun-safe department, and an optical-equipment department—OVER 75 MODELS of Binoculars in stock. OVER 100 MODELS of Rifle Scopes in stock. The guns were in the back of the store, and this is where most of the customers hung out. How much time did you ultimately spend in the store? Two trips of approximately a week each. It wouldn’t be a full week because I would get sick of it before that. But a long time. I would spend a long time at these things.
“I have six handguns—bought five of them here,” an old man said to me. I was waiting for Ron, who’d gone to the back room to find a gun he thought I might like. “I have five rifles, got all of them here,” the man said. “I spend most of my time reloading shells. All my friends are dead.” I don’t think there are any customer names in this piece. Did you go into the reporting knowing you would probably not use some people’s names? I don’t think I needed them. I just tell the story. I needed the names of the clerks. That one guy telling me his whole violent fantasies while he is buying his new gun, I knew I would have to blur his identification, but I probably got his name in my notebook. I’m usually pretty frank. In some ways, I think it works because these people could be stand-ins for any gun owner. I think once you make it specific and you get, “Here is Charlie Smith, 53, who lives in a town you’ve never heard of,” it’s distracting to a story like this. You want your characters to stand for something.
He had thin white hair and a long, sagging face dotted with age spots. “Do you know what the biggest problem with divorce is? It’s the bedroom. And a lot of it’s the man’s fault. Like a damn rabbit, on and off.” Why do you include this last quote, given that it doesn’t really have anything to do with guns? Because my larger point there is I am trying to demonstrate this general store feel and that is how it felt. That conversation lasted probably 20 minutes. That is what you do. You start talking about guns but then you’re talking about marriage and wife, the old bag. I was just showing that.
It felt like we should have had rocking chairs, perhaps a set of checkers between us. This was one of the things I liked most about Sprague’s: the general-store feel. Groups would form, strangers becoming neighbors, sharing stories. “I lost my wife in November,” the man said. “Sixty years. Now my kids keep trying to get me to go live with them in California. My doctor said, ‘What’s your lifestyle?’ I told him guns. He said, ‘Stay in Yuma.’ ” There are moments of humor throughout the story. Why did you want some humor in here, and how did you go about setting it up? I think this kind of story needs humor. There is so much at stake, really, but I’m not presenting an argument. It’s a cultural study, almost anthropological. If it’s all of us, we need to laugh at ourselves. We’re not laughing at our neighbors, but we’re laughing all together that our neighbors are pretty wacky. And you know that is just where we come from. That is our culture looking at that culture. You need humor in that kind of story, if it is not at the expense of somebody.
Ron came back carrying two assault rifles. “Hey there,” he said, greeting the old man. “What brings you in today?”
“Same as yesterday.”
Gently, Ron placed the rifles on the counter. He told me one was a Smith & Wesson M&P15 and the other a Heckler & Koch 416. They looked every bit as formidable as the first one I held, but these were .22s, and Ron said they’d be easier to shoot.
“So more like beginner assault rifles?” I asked. Was it a conscious effort on your part to keep referring to them as assault rifles? Oh yeah, because I let him make his point, and that is actually truly his point and he gets so mad at me for not accepting it, and I’m not going to accept it. But I am going to remind the reader that he is still making his point. For me to accept his terminology without making fun of my own refusal to accept it would be missing a whole little spin.
“There-is-no-such-thing-as-an-assault-rifle,” Ron said.
The Smith M&P15 sold for $425 and had a snazzy bright orange cardboard wrapper on its fat barrel that read “Kick Brass.” “I’ll go with this one,” I said. How did you choose? That orange label on it was very exciting. I wanted it to look rough and mean but to be easy to learn on. But that is how confusing this story is, because when I found out that that guy bought it for his six-year-old, I was both horrified and embarrassed by my choice. I had both of those reactions. That is how confusing this story is. Did you go out knowing that you would buy a gun, or is that something that evolved while you were there? Most definitely that evolved. It was all the better for it. I didn’t want to write that story; here I am a character, naïve East Coast girl going to buy a gun, but that is what turned out to happen. But it happened because of being there and actually wanting one. I wanted one. I wanted to see what it was like. You called your editors and said, “I’m going to buy a gun?” Yes. I told them I’m buying this Glock, and is it okay if Conde Nast buys me a Glock? I just really need one. They’re like, “What’s happening to you, what’s happening?” And you asked if the magazine would pay for it? It’s expensive! I’m like, “I’m going to have to expense this. What do you think they’ll say?” They said, “I don’t know, just put it through.” Did it go through? I think it did.
“Okay, you’ll need to fill this out.” He handed me a six-page government-issued form, told me not to make any mistakes or else I’d have to start all over. “No cross-outs,” he said.
Anyone in America who wants to buy a gun has to fill out ATF Form 4473, with thirty-six questions in all, and hand it in to the dealer selling the gun. [ How much of this stuff did you already know going in? How much research did you do before heading to Arizona? I knew that there is something called a background check, and that this is our safeguard. I wanted to walk deliberately through that. I had never read one of those forms before, but once I’m in the store I have every reason to. I wanted to be like, slow down everybody, this is what actually happens. I am pretty much learning that live. I’m learning what the process is, and that it’s a kind of a bogus situation. The clerk takes the form and contacts NICS, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (open every day of the year except Christmas), where an examiner runs your answers through a series of databases to make sure you haven’t lied and, within minutes, tells the clerk what to do: proceed with the sale, deny it, or delay it for three days while NICS does some deeper digging and decides later.
Are you a fugitive from justice?
Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective?
Are you subject to a court order restraining you from harassing, stalking, or threatening your child or an intimate partner or child of such partner? How did you decide which questions to include in the piece? I imagine there were so many to choose from. I chose the most ridiculous sounding ones. Some of them were boring. Are you a citizen of the United States? I think at that point, just in general in America, it was all about the mental health issues and how someone could get hold of a gun if you’ve got problems, so I probably focused on those types of questions.
I stood there puzzling through the form when a guy walked up, replacing the old man beside me, and he, too, struck up a conversation. He was a man of some heft in a red T-shirt and sunglasses wrapped behind his neck, as was the fashion in Yuma. “You say you’re just starting out?” he said. “You picked a good one. With the HK, you would have just been paying for extra steel you don’t need.”
“That’s sort of what I thought,” I lied.
“I just got that same Smith for my kid,” he said.
I looked at him. He appeared far too young to have a grown son.
“Wait, how old is your kid?” I asked.
“Six,” he said. Were you taking notes at the time or did you reconstruct later? I do notes while I’m there. I tape record a lot and I take notes at the same time. I’ve got things pretty well documented. I depend on my notes more than my tape but I have it there in case I need it.
Richard Sprague, the owner of Sprague’s Sports, is a slender man in his fifties with a tapered face, coarse graying hair, and an easy smile. Other Arizona gun stores would not even entertain my request to visit and ask questions about selling guns and ammunition, but Richard without hesitation invited me to spend as much time as I wanted at Sprague’s—behind the counter, in the back room, at the shooting range, anywhere I wished. How many stores did you approach? Maybe two or three. We wanted big ones, legitimate ones. There are lots of shady places and we were turned down by a few. Why place this information here, fairly far down in the story? It’s a way of helping you know Richard a bit, knowing he is the kind of guy who would say yes. I thought it a somewhat courageous offer, especially given that a 2010 Washington Post investigation spectacularly put Sprague’s eleventh on a list of top U.S. stores that sold guns traced to crime scenes in Mexico. Attempts to stem the flow of arms south of the border began intensifying during the last Bush administration and have continued with the ATF’s infamous Fast and Furious operation.
In response to the hoopla about his store, Richard said that he and his employees were always on the lookout for straw purchasers: a person buying a gun for someone who hadn’t passed the background check. “Unfortunately,” he said, “some people do break the law once they leave our store.” The Mexican border was just eight miles away, and so proximity, rather than reckless selling, was the truer though far less titillating explanation of the ranking. And the number-crunching behind the headline was misleading: The actual number traced to Sprague’s was just fifty-five out of a spectacular 60,000 guns smuggled to Mexico. Again, I’m curious. Did you know this information before you went to Sprague’s, or is this something you found out while there? I knew that that stuff was reported but I don’t think I learned the reasons why it was unfair as I illustrate in the story until I got there. How did it change your perspective on the store? A lot. It was like, “Wait a minute.” It made me think about how quick we are to attack on our side and to find it was really an unfair claim, and an easy brushstroke, making this guy sound like he was some bad guy. And you get there and he is some shoe salesman, and it’s like how can that shoe salesman have been a bad guy and you dig a bit further and you go, “Oh, he really is just a shoe salesman who sells guns.”
Richard was a busy man, with quick eyes, and he spoke of “firearms” and “the industry” in the dry, responsible way a man might discuss flood insurance. Still, he talked more about his family than he did guns. He spoke proudly of the long line of Spragues (his father opened the store in 1956), and the raw weirdness of being the last of his generation left. He toured me around Yuma, a cozy town of 93,000 with parks stretching along the river where families picnicked under the ironwood trees. He took me to the Yuma county fair. He was proud of Yuma and wanted me to like it, and I told him I did. How much time did you spend with Richard? Quite a bit. I liked him. I went to his house and met his wife. We went to the fair together. He very, very accommodating, and they love Yuma so much, I would go on a tour with them. I loved his wife. She was great, and we went shooting together. I think that got cut. He was proud of the firearms industry and wanted me to like that, too, and I was working on it. This is one of the places where you are attempting to signal your open-mindedness on this issue (the implied critique of the Post piece above is another, I think.) I would love to know your thinking on this and why you made it an element of the story. I wish I made that more of an element of the story, frankly. I wouldn’t get to know this world if I stayed an outsider looking in and judging. It was almost a conceit that I had for the world for my audience. I don’t think they would have been with me if I didn’t enter with that cynical way, but I feel like I did change and I needed the reader to watch me change, if ever so slightly. It’s not a big change. I’m not going to be a gun owner, but it definitely changed. Maybe that is the arc of the story.
“What’s the most surprising thing about your trip so far?” Richard asked me one morning. We were driving back from a daybreak session at the outdoor range where he had given me some lessons on my new M&P15. Learning to shoot it wasn’t hard. Virtually no recoil, just as Ron had promised, and while in that way I was satisfied with my purchase, I found that I could not let go of a feeling of disappointment, of some kind of tangled shame that had nothing to do with shooting guns, or gun ownership, but that somehow I had wimped out and bought an assault rifle a 6-year-old could use. Are you indicating here that you’re starting, at least a tiny bit, to adopt the mindset of the people you’re writing about? One thing that got cut, but it’s in the book version, is a whole sequence where I go toddling off with my guns to the airport, driving around with it in the car, to the airport. I confront the US Air people and say I have a gun. It’s about what that experience was like, and how I feel judged and how I’m just a regular person and it’s not fair. I’m trying on what it’s like for [gun owners]. Was that cut for space? Yeah. And also it was too much me. My character was starting to take over.
“The most surprising thing?” I said to Richard. He was backlit against a morning sky exploding with red and pink and orange. “That’s going to be hard to summarize.”
“There must be something,” he said.
“I guess the most surprising thing is that everyone thinks guns are so normal,” I said. I told him it wasn’t like that where I come from, not like that at all.
He nodded in consideration, and I wondered if he understood. I offered him a piece of gum, and he took it, and for a while we just chewed and admired the passing mesquite. “Think of just the hunters,” he said. “Thirteen million in this country. That’s 13 million Americans trained with firearms—the equivalent of the largest army in the world.” He flipped his visor down to cut the sky. “Anyone thinking of invading this country has to take that into consideration.”
Well, wow. Hunters? Hunters rising up? It took me a moment to conjure the image. I wondered whom Richard imagined an army of guys dressed in orange rising up against. Al Qaeda? The Chinese?
I asked him who. Who?
He shrugged, said it could be anyone, another country, anyone. He said the whole point of guns was personal responsibility: taking care of yourself, your family, your neighborhood, your country. The more people there are with guns, the safer the society. “That’s part of what has made this country great,” he said. “That we have the freedom to make sure we’re safe, that we have the means to protect ourselves, to be ready for the occasional wackos out there.” Given that this piece starts with your curiosity about Jared Loughner, it strikes me that Richard is saying the guns keep us safe because they protect us from occasional wackos. But aren’t the occasional wackos people like Loughner and James Holmes and even Adam Lanza, who attacked Sandy Hook just four months after this story ran? Did you push Richard on that? I tried. I tried to push all of them, not push, but question that perspective, and didn’t get anywhere with it. You get a lot of the same argument that you hear all of the time, if we had been here with our guns, that wouldn’t have happened. To them, they can use that as an argument for more guns.
I hadn’t come here to discuss the Second Amendment, but it kept coming up, as pervasive as the constant hot sunshine. People wanted to talk about it, explain it. Is this something that really changed the way you reported and ultimately wrote the story? I’m glad you bring that up, because that was a masterstroke by my editor, that line, “I didn’t come there to talk about the Second Amendment,” because that was another problem with the piece. I kept getting sidetracked by digging through the Second Amendment and arguing that in the story. This story was a gazillion pages long and I couldn’t stop myself. It got me going. And I had to figure out where I landed until my editor [said], “You‘re not writing about that and that’s not your point; you have to get rid of it.” I thought, “How can I get rid of it, how can I avoid it?” And she said, “That is not why you went. Just say it.” We got rid of five pages of my rant with that single stroke. It was the right choice, totally.
“The largest army in the world,” Richard said again. “Bigger than China’s. And if you think Afghanistan and their populace is well armed, wait till they try to come into this country. It should give you some cause for comfort.”
He looked at me. I had my head jutted forward, my thumbnail between my teeth.
“That’s just how I look at it,” he said, and continued driving. The heat on the horizon was already visible in wobbles and waves. How much did the story change in the editing process? Oh my God, I’m telling you, it was really unusual how much it changed and how many versions we ran through. Probably a dozen actual final drafts of that thing before we were satisfied, and that’s a lot. I do drafts. I’ve had a dozen unfinished drafts to get to it, but that’s not what I’m talking about. A dozen finished drafts, where we think we have it and then no. What was the thing that kept pushing it into another direction? The distraction of the Second Amendment definitely, and the fact that I changed, so that if I am starting the story as an already changed person, I can’t get my audience, so I had to unpack, wind back time. I had to be two people in the story. You had to walk through my change. That’s a good question about the ‘why me’ in the story. Because my character has to undergo a kind of reckoning. And that, that is really hard for me to mentally get. I kept getting really defensive about the fact that I got a gun and it’s okay, and I’m trying to justify that and everybody back at the office is laughing at me, like something is wrong with me now.
Nearly all the shoppers I met at Sprague’s came in asking for something for self-protection. They wanted guns for their nightstands, guns for their purses, guns for their pickups, guns for holsters on waistbands, ankles, and bras.
“The people I hang out with back east don’t talk about shooting bad guys as much as you folks do,” I said one day to a gathering of customers and clerks.
“You depend on the government to protect you,” said a middle-aged woman dry-firing a Ruger. She was admiring the smooth trigger action and regretting her clunkier Glock. “We depend on ourselves.”
“It’s an entirely different mind-set back east,” said Kevin, a slim clerk with thinning black hair who had sold me a ticket for the Yuma Catholic High School 125 Gun Raffle. This is amazing, a school raffling off guns (of course, the Fraternal Order of Police in my town raffles off an assault rifle every year to raise money). What’s interesting to me here and at several other points in the story is how you drop this detail in without comment, without blowing it out and making a big deal of it. Why did you handle it this way? I’m laying detail down, peppering it with detail. It’s a cumulative effect of those observations. “You can get a permit in New York City to own a gun,” he said. “That’s the thing. They’ll permit you. In Arizona we don’t care. Our government doesn’t allow us; our government stays out of our ability to protect ourselves.”
But—from what? I’d never been attacked by anyone; I hardly know anyone who has been attacked. I follow the news, of course, and I see violence enacted all the time on TV. But I didn’t walk around in fear of getting mugged or worse. Was this simply naive? The people shopping at Sprague’s were saying yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Anyone without a gun was inviting disaster. At this point, how much time had you spent in the store? Did you find that you had the same conversations every day? Did it get tiring? Eventually. That is when you know you’re done, when everything starts repeating. When I can predict what people are going to say, then I’m done. Did it happen faster or slower than you would have expected? Slower in that one. It starts repeating but my reaction changes, so it’s repeating but I’m hearing it differently.
Standing at the counter with Kevin, I asked him to show me something small, for my purse. It is difficult for me to say what exactly was prompting me, or what kind of corner I was turning. Perhaps buying an assault rifle—even as a joke or an experiment—puts you over some sort of threshold. Or it could be something about anyone’s capacity to get caught up in a shopping frenzy: Hang around people buying stuff long enough and pretty soon you want to buy the stuff, too. I do know the gadgetry of guns appealed to me. The clicking and the clacking, the feel of steel so expertly shaped to fit a human grip. Did you ever find yourself thinking that maybe you had been missing something in your life, with regards to guns, after these discussions? In that moment when I’m trying to buy a .22, and he’s telling me to get something stronger, more powerful, and he’s saying, “The guy’s on meth, the guy’s on meth, and your kids are sleeping, and you’re going to be poking holes,” at that moment, I was like, “Holy crap he’s right. I’m really going to die. I have to save my children.” Those kind of moments, when the fear was really revved up.
“Women always come in saying they want something small,” he said. “Then they find out how much harder a small gun is to shoot. Save yourself the time and get something big.”
He unfolded a felt pad and put it on top of the glass case, then brought out a Glock nine-millimeter semiauto. It felt solid and serious. I asked to see an alloy Smith & Wesson on the top shelf of the case. It was wearing a little tag about being featherlight. Kevin said it was too small for me and the caliber was worthless.
“You’re not going to stop anybody with a .22. It’s going to poke little holes in the guy.” I’m curious… Did you ever start to feel the paranoia that so many of the people buying those guns felt, that not having a gun meant you were in mortal danger? I got it. Here is also how you get it: It’s really a rural-urban split. Where I live, 911 doesn’t mean much. It’s going to be a long time before anyone gets there. And when you’re driving through Arizona with an assault rifle in the back seat, there is nobody, no cars, nothing but desert. You can pull over on the side of road and load that thing and aim at some brush and you realize it’s just no big deal. It really would hurt no one. It couldn’t possibly hurt anyone. But you know, you can’t have that thought if you’re driving through suburban anywhere. It’s just a different conversation.
“He’ll run off after that,” I said. “Anybody would.”
“He’s on meth,” Kevin said. “He’s got your kid by the throat. It’s the middle of the night, and he’s going to take your whole family out. He’s coming after you. He’s dragging your kid. He’s on meth! He’s not feeling your little .22s hitting him, I promise you. Those bullets are going right through him, and the ones that miss are going through the drywall right into the baby’s room—” This seems like a sales pitch to me. Was it? A story created to generate fear in the customer so they will buy the more powerful (and probably more expensive) gun? It was. Oh, it was. It got at it. It got me. Fear is a great motivator. I don’t think it was cynically for him. I think he believed it. It was completely honest. I don’t think it was just to make any money. They needed to help me. In their minds.
I put the Smith down on the counter and shifted my weight in consideration. If anything like that happened to me or my kid, I definitely would want something capable of blowing a guy’s face off.
I paid $450 for the Glock, a used one—a bargain. Normally a gun like that would go for $100 more. Kevin said he would ship it to a licensed dealer near my home in Pennsylvania, in accordance with federal law, and that I could pick it up there. I could then go to my local sheriff’s office, and in the time it would take to snap my picture, print it out, and laminate it, I would be able to get a license to carry my new Glock concealed. Why did you feel like you needed to buy a second gun? That just sounds so preposterous. Well, it was clear to me that the assault rifle wasn’t practical. I didn’t know what I was going to gain from that. I decided to get what they said I needed for protection. Did you keep the guns? For a while. But then I really truly didn’t know what to do with them. There’s another whole section, I think I cut it from the story, about living with a Glock. I wanted to then go experience that. What would I feel like with a Glock in my purse. And going to the pool with my children and your purse has a gun in it. It really affects how you go about your life. There’s a whole sequence in there that I did end up cutting, but I did use in the book version. They’re in my brother’s gun cabinet. I didn’t know what to do with them. I’ve just sort of ignored it to this point.
All of it was so easy, and that really was the only confusing part about buying guns. So easy. And yet why should it be difficult? I wasn’t a criminal. I wasn’t going to commit a heinous act—not unless I had to defend myself or my family. Defending yourself and your family is what good people do. Getting a gun should be easy for good people and impossible for bad people. The only trick is telling the difference. This harkens back to that unknown Walmart clerk and all the other clerks who stand in the way between the good and the bad, who have to be able to tell the difference, which seems an impossible task. I agree. I love that Sergio the gun clerk was able to speak to that: “I don’t wear a badge. I don’t have any authority. And yet I’m making these decisions.” These are some of the practical matters as to having a society where you’re allowed to buy guns.
Working in a gun store is hard on your feet and your back. There was a stool behind the counter at Sprague’s, and I was trying not to hog it. I sat and watched customer after customer feel and fondle and dry-fire guns, and I thought about the burden on the clerks whose job it was to dole out firepower. Why did you want to work in the store? I just wanted to get as close as I could to the action of the transaction. It’s just a matter of perspective, which side of the counter you’re on, and I didn’t want to be a customer the whole time. I wanted to see what that experience is like, just as close as I could get to that experience, even though it’s a made-up experiment, really. I don’t work at a gun store, but you get as close as you can.
I saw customers get turned down, most commonly teenagers getting carded when they tried to buy bullets. You have to be at least 18 to buy rifle or shotgun ammo, 21 to buy rounds for a handgun. “Sorry, man,” the cashier would say. Had you ever worked retail before? I worked at a drug store. When you were much younger? Yes. First Drugs. Loved it. But it’s not the same. How did it compare with working in a gun store? Well, you still had to deal with the public, but nothing like this.
Sergio, one of the clerks, had some thoughts about what it felt like to work behind the counter and size up people like Jared Loughner. Sergio was quiet, small, with a broad swarthy face and a big, rugged nose. He’d been in the business for twenty-five years, and he often sat on the stool.
“You get suspicious,” he said. “A woman yesterday. She was with a guy holding a baby. She said she wanted three guns, but he did all the talking. He kept saying ‘me’ and ‘mine’ and ‘my money.’ They were just bad actors. I don’t mean bad people. I mean they couldn’t act. I said to the guy, ‘I think you’re trying to get her to buy guns for you,’ and he said, ‘Oh, er, ehhh,’ and he shoved the baby back at her and flew out the door.”
Looking out for Loughners and other lunatics was part of the job, he said, and he didn’t like that part of the job. “I remember years ago going to an ATF seminar. The agent was talking to us, the counter people, and he said, ‘I need you as a front line of defense. To watch out for criminals.’ And I remember thinking he was out of his mind. How can I tell who’s a criminal? And I don’t have any rights as far as enforcing anything, I don’t have a badge, you know, what can I do?”
He could refuse a sale. That’s what he’s supposed to do, according to the ATF agents I spoke to, and according to the YouTube “ATF Channel,” where you can watch informational skits featuring clerks doing the right thing. If a clerk feels iffy about selling a gun to someone, he or she should simply say, “No.” You write that you only saw a clerk reject customers when they were underage. Did that surprise you? Not given what I saw except for that one guy that truly struck me as someone who may not be thoroughly stable, but that is only because he was standing there telling me about his life and his rage and his hospitalization. That is just not on a questionnaire. We were just chatting.
The ATF has little else to say on the matter, because the ATF is busy. A network of twenty-five ATF field divisions, essentially one for every two states, oversees America’s 57,500 licensed dealers. About 650 inspectors monitor how the large-scale gun stores, like Sprague’s and Walmart, conduct business. Inspectors are supposed to go into each store once every three years but are lucky if they make the rounds in six or seven, given the paltry manpower (thanks at least in part to gun lobbyists, who have worked hard to keep the ATF small). I like how you take short sections like this and work in factual details. How did you decide where to sprinkle information like this? Sprinkle is a really good word. I don’t tend to do long fact-heavy sections. You only need them when you need them. You need the knowledge when you need the knowledge. If you get it too soon, you forget it. If you get it too late, it’s irrelevant. It’s a whole timing thing. Yet you need it. I didn’t know anything about the ATF until I started this story, but once I got it, I really got it. It’s important for the reader to have that background.
Meanwhile, NICS, the FBI’s background check, is designed to weed out the criminals and the wackos. I wonder if “wackos” was used on purpose, to echo what Richard said earlier in the story? I think I’m echoing and being colloquial so we’re all in this, almost like code, you know what I’m talking about. so the clerks don’t have to. In 2010, NICS did not flag Jared Loughner’s application to buy a gun: He’d never been legally declared mentally ill, and so there was no official record of his lunacy. Nor did NICS object to the paperwork submitted by Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter. He had been ordered by a court to receive involuntary outpatient treatment in 2005, and yet there was not an official record of his lunacy, either. The Commonwealth of Virginia didn’t report it to NICS because, at the time, Virginia only flagged inpatient treatment, and anyway, nobody really has to report anything to anybody, because NICS is a voluntary system.
The system is only as good as its databases. And critics say the databases suck. Did you ever try and talk to the NRA for this story? Not for this story. I had thought maybe I would, but frankly being in the store talking to all these people was the NRA. I didn’t need [NRA executive vice president and CEO] Wayne LaPierre to offer thoughts on top of what these people were saying. They represented the NRA thoroughly. Similarly, you don’t include any voices from the gun regulation/control movement either. Why? I wasn’t even tempted to have that voice in there. It wasn’t my point. It was not a story that was going to further an argument. I didn’t want to debate. I had to keep pulling out the Second Amendment bit. It was crowding the … experiment of doing a cultural study.
Beyond NICS, and discounting an impotent ATF, refusing a sale was typically an in-house matter, according to Richard: “It’s not unheard-of for a salesperson to come upstairs and talk to management. We’ll take a look at it, and we can refuse the sale—and we do. I don’t know if it happens more than a few times a year, but it does happen.”
I asked him if there was any specific training regimen for his clerks, teaching them how to spot people with bad intentions. What would the threatening person look like? Was there some manual or something somewhere with pictures?
“We deal with a lot of people who would scare you,” Richard said. “They’re tatted up, they wear their hair different than you do, they dress different than you. It’s quite a responsibility to see through that. Because you know, they could be good people.”
I spent the better part of the day with Sergio, offering him the stool, him giving it back, both of us sharing sore-feet stories. I saw a guy checking out an AK-47 who had a tattoo that said there is only one god and his name is death, and I wondered if I should say something. Did you feel like you stood out, like you didn’t belong behind the counter and customers could tell? Internally, I did, but everybody treated me like I was one of them. I felt like a stranger in a strange land. Most definitely, to me, but I don’t know that anyone understood that. Could customers tell that you were not a normal salesperson? They could tell that I was obviously naïve, but they would see that as someone in training. And it wasn’t that I was trying to pretend. And to the clerks themselves, I was trying to get their point of view. It wasn’t to fool customers. They knew who I was and they were training me.
Later, when I got up to stretch my legs, a guy walked up to me. He had a military haircut and a wrestler’s build, and he showed me the SIG Sauer P226 nine-millimeter, a tactical semiauto he was buying. “Finally,” he said. “Do you know how long I’ve been wanting a good practice gun?” He brought the gun up to one eye and aimed it at the wall behind me. Did you find that people wanted to come up and talk to you? Did they ask you any questions you couldn’t answer? Oh, sure. I couldn’t answer most of the stuff, because it was very technical stuff about guns. But I would have my buddy with me. Everybody wanted to talk. It wasn’t like most people were there to buy. It was really a general store feel, like they were visitors. Kinda browsing and wanting to talk about what was going on in town.
“I don’t know if you ever heard of the term pressure cooker?” he asked. “I’m one of those people. I help everyone else. Never help myself. I don’t know why I do that, because then I get mad at everyone.” He put the gun down and went on to recall a time when he got handcuffed in a hospital after hurling a nurse who had tried to sedate him. He told that story in a gun store? I know. And it was not with any apologies, let me tell you. And I’m only giving you a sliver of it. How long did he go on? Oh, gosh. He had me, at least a half-hour. He was one of those people where you’re thinking, Okay, I’m going to have a hard time getting away from this conversation. That was the one creepy moment.
“But the SIG is just for practice,” he said. “I have a .380 auto at home. That’s a sexy gun. I wanted a body stopper, so I got a Smith & Wesson 1911 .45-caliber. I’m a pretty good shot. I can empty an entire clip into six inches. Consecutively. Head, throat, heart, gut. If you’re within fifty feet of me, I’m going to take you out.” How do you even respond to a conversation like this? There is the one time when you feel like you’re not being honest, because what I really want to say is wait a second, you shouldn’t be having a gun, but that is a really judgmental thing to say, and it’s not my place and I don’t want to insert myself in the story, as a reporter. I don’t want to nudge the story along or interrupt. And did you find it gave you any insight into how difficult it might be for a clerk to say no—could you have said no to this man? Is that your purpose here—to show how impossible it is to make that call and if you do, to actually refuse a purchase? Yes. It gave me insight into that. I don’t know if I pull that off in the section or not. But most definitely, it gave me insight. It feels rude (to say he can’t have a gun). But I’m seeing it everywhere. I’m seeing red flags everywhere. The tattoos I mention. Stuff like that. These guys, though, they’re eh, not red flags really. It’s me being a scaredy cat, coming from another land that doesn’t know this culture.
He gave me a little salute, and then he went up to the front register to pay for his new SIG, and he was out the door.
One day I got into a productive discussion with some clerks and customers about shooting sprees. We were gathered on a quiet Thursday, chatting beneath the $4,500 Barrett Model 99 “Big Shot” sniper rifle.
It was the most powerful gun in the store, capable of firing .50-caliber armor-piercing rounds—gigantic bullets as long as a human hand. The gun was perched on a display stand so you could walk all the way around and admire it, like any work of art.
“So how about the Tucson shootings?” I asked our little group, two clerks and four shoppers, all male. “I imagine that was a difficult day around here.” I thought it an obvious statement that translated roughly to: Surely Loughner’s killing spree must have given you pause and forced you to face the dark side of an America that allows its citizens to own guns. But that’s not what anybody heard. Can you talk a little bit about your reporting approach for this story? It seems like it would be very difficult to talk about this topic without it turning ugly fast. What tactics did you use throughout the reporting? I waited until people really knew me and I really knew them. That was the thing I’m walking in with, how am I going to break this to everybody, be a Debbie Downer in this happy land of guns. I really thought it was going to be a very difficult moment, so I waited and I watched and I broached it very carefully, which was just completely naïve. They would love to talk about it, it’s just that they had a completely different perspective on it. It was nothing like what I thought. Nothing. That totally surprised me.
“The lines were out the door.”
“Well, not out the door, but I remember this place was packed.”
“Not as bad as the day after the election.”
“Oh God, no!”
“Ha, ha, ha!”
“Ha, ha, ha!”
In fact, one-day sales of handguns in Arizona jumped 60 percent on the day after the Tucson shootings. It was not a time to reevaluate a blithe attitude toward anything, but rather a time to hurry and stock up in case the government made its next move to take privately owned firearms away, leaving law-abiding citizens defenseless against the criminals and the lunatics.
“Mostly it was people wanting Glocks. The 19, like Loughner had, but really all the Glocks.”
“A story like that just gives the liberals more fuel.”
“The problem is, liberals are more feel than think. They don’t understand logic, and so what the hell can you even do with that?” Do they see you as a stupid, scary liberal? Yes, if I brought my own thoughts into it, and to the degree that I did, yes. They would talk about people like me.
“It’s so ridiculous. It’s sad, really.”
“It’s so scary.” This is an interesting bit of dialogue, in that it starts to get to the point I mentioned earlier, about how you can’t even really talk about this. You can’t change minds. Definitely. And nor would I even at that point begin to even try. What really got me, as soon as I got home, I happened to have people who were more anti-gun than I was over, and I was trying to explain that perspective to them and it was even harder. They were mean. They were angry. They were yelling at me, whereas the other side wasn’t like that. I’m left with that kind of frustration in the story. There are these two conversations and I couldn’t be the bridge.
Everyone in the group agreed on the stupid, scary liberals in the most casual and obvious way, like people at a grocery store railing about the rising price of beef. I asked them about a more recent event, right there in Yuma, when Carey Dyess, 73, drove his silver Mazda to the home of his ex-wife’s best friend and shot her in the face. Then he killed his ex-wife at her home. Then he drove over to some other houses and shot three more of her friends. Then he drove into downtown Yuma, where he walked into his ex-wife’s attorney’s office, shot him dead. Then he drove off to the desert and killed himself.
“Oh man, that guy was running around and I didn’t even have a gun in my shop!” someone said. “I got so scared I went home and got my Judge. A .410 pistol. It was all so unexpected. He didn’t announce himself. Walked in, shot people, walked out. He must have had tiny bullets—did you see her neck?” Did you ever feel like you were able to understand the people you were hanging out with when they start talking about stuff like this? I had heard enough of that version that it was almost expected of me. It’s almost like when you’re writing a character, you know your character so well, you know what they’re going to think, and it’s not that I sympathized with it. The thing I really couldn’t sympathize with was when Richard went off on people attacking America and we’re all going to be armed. That stuff really surprised me. I never understood that. Were you surprised by what you were able to relate to? Yes. And I think that was part of the trouble I had coming back to my regular life. My editors were making fun of me. They were like, “She’ll get over that.”
“Had to be a .380.”
Nobody talked about the shooting victims, and the only mention of the neighbors shot by Dyess was the size of the bullet holes in a woman’s neck. If there were any victims at all to be singled out in the discussion, it was these people here, threatened by tighter gun laws and a government determined to impose them. This is a tough sentence. Did you get flack for it afterward? Not specifically related to that sentence. It’s an observation. In the moment, do you point that out? What about these people’s lives? “Everywhere now, it’s all an anti-gun maneuver. These liberals think, ‘Well, if we get all the guns away, there will be no crime, no one will get shot, everybody will live in harmony.’ That’s how stupid they are.”
“It’s so scary.”
I was surprised to hear them use the word scary to describe those who, back home, tend to describe them as “scary.” This is a really interesting observation. Did you point this out to the people you were talking to? I would say by that point we were all getting to know each other well enough, I would be like, “Oh my gosh, you think we’re scary, well I think you’re scary.” That way. But in a kind of aliens and earthlings finally got a chance to speak the same language and they’re laughing almost. Like wow, we really don’t understand each other. But that is as far as it goes. That’s right, we don’t, let’s agree to disagree and move on. It doesn’t go that one extra step, to let’s try to figure out how to not see each other as scary. I guess that’s the next round on this kind of story. I don’t know how you get there.
The conversation was interrupted when a young guy in Bermuda shorts walked up and said he was interested in the Barrett.
“The Barrett!” one of the clerks said, while the rest fell silent as if to take in the words, and we all looked up at the magnificent black sniper rifle.
In the end, I went over to the indoor range to blow off some steam and to release my mind from the endless loop of stupid-scary. I see so many people who say shooting at a range helps them blow off steam. Was that the case for you? Why do you think it helps release stress? Oh yeah. I really liked it. And that was good too, to experience that. I kind of got to see the fun part. It’s fun. I get why if I were a regular, if I grew up with guns and enjoyed target shooting and stuff like that, and someone was saying, “You can’t do that, it’s against the law,” I would be like, “What are you talking about? This is fun. I’m not hurting anybody. I’m responsible. I’m normal.” Or they would say to me, “You can have guns, but you can’t have a clip with more than 12 rounds.” I get it. I remember saying something to Richard, I wish I could just have a giant clip so I could do this at night in front of the TV and it would be done. I just have to keep stopping and loading the clip and that was annoying. That would be a moment when he would say, “Yes, exactly.” We should be able to sit in front of the TV and load our clips as much as we want because we’re not bad people out there hurting anybody. That is the point. That is one of those moments when I got it.
The range was sort of like a bowling alley, only instead of renting shoes you rented a gun. You had to have a friend with you. This was a precaution against suicide, the thinking being a friend would talk you out of it. You could also bring your own gun, no friend required. Whole families came to shoot, Friday night was ladies’ night, and people had birthday parties here.
A young guy came out of the lanes, carrying the target he had just shot up. “Ahhh, that feels better,” he said, taking off his ear-and-eye protection. “Whew! Re-lax-ing!” He had sweat on his brow, and he grinned up at the zombie targets hanging on the wall that I was quietly admiring. You could buy one of those targets to shoot at instead of the same old boring concentric circles or classic bad-guy silhouettes. Was there any one person who really stood out to you in this entire reporting trip? One person who you still think about? I would say I have them blurred, a combination of Ron and Sergio and the guys that are there day after day after day doing what they believe is a good job, solid citizens, no one could dispute it. I really liked them. I had a fondness for them, which surprised me.
“Oh God, aren’t those awesome?” the guy said. “Me and my boys came and shot the hell out of the Paris Hilton zombie.” Paris was wearing big pink sunglasses and a pink miniskirt and was carrying a zombie Chihuahua. “We just have fun with it. Shoot out her earrings. Take out her dog. Me and my boys having a good time.”
“Boys?” I said. “You have boys?” He did not look old enough to have any sons at all, and I was not prepared to handle the image of one more armed 6-year-old.
“My boys!” he said. “My friends.”
“Oh, okay,” I said. Why include this little bit of dialogue with this guy? The point of that whole scene was me enjoying a gun. And those guys to me are in the background, the people I’m with in the moment.
I kept thinking about neighbors. You have this crazy family living next door. One day you go over with a pie, figuring if you just confronted the crazy, you’d understand it and find acceptance. Then you discover that all this time they think you’re the crazy family. The more you try to explain yourself, the crazier you sound, and if you stay long enough, you probably will be. This is such a great way to describe the discussion over guns. How long did it take you to come up with this analogy? That was one of those ones that was percolating during the research, maybe not articulating that way but percolating. I still remember it, that moment of thinking that way. It was articulated in the writing. As I’m writing, I’m wondering, how do I get at that? I need a metaphor. I need an analogy. I need an image to connote that weird feeling.
These were burdensome thoughts, and I wanted to get rid of them. I rented an Uzi, fully automatic. Why the Uzi? It was the star performer for everybody. It was an automatic as opposed to a semi-automatic which is a big deal, It was the most powerful, dramatic thing there. It seemed famous to me, like a movie. If you were going to do the most famous gun thing you could do, it would be shoot an Uzi.
I chose the male zombie. I think he was supposed to be a lawyer. He had a briefcase. I aimed for his left eyeball and pulled the trigger. The patter of thirty-two bullets lasted maybe three seconds, and then the eyeball was gone. The release felt like one gorgeous, fantastic sneeze, and the satisfaction reminded me of cold beer. This is a really interesting ending, given at the beginning of the piece, you are a complete novice when it comes to guns. Why end here, with you shooting an Uzi? Well, it’s a really honest ending. It’s my surrender. Where I am not going to figure this out. I am not going to solve this. And I am really frustrated by that fact, and I need to just let it go. I don’t think I’ve ever done that kind of ending before. Where I am just saying, if you unpack that, it’s saying, “Sorry reader, I know I set you up for this thing I’m going to figure out. Well, guess what? I can’t. It’s not figure-outable. And I gotta go.” I don’t know that I’ve ever ended a story like that. It’s a good ending because it’s the end of your transition. You go from being someone who knows very little about guns to somebody who goes to a shooting range and shoots an Uzi. And who genuinely enjoys it. I am doing that because in that moment, I need that like I need a beer. What kind of feedback did you receive on this story? I found all these links, people on the other side talking about me. There’s one where they really made fun of me, “Oh wow, places in Arizona where anybody could buy a gun, imagine that!” I think it was a good reaction in that it was surprising to my audience, the audience who would read GQ. The response was that it was thought-provoking. That to me would be a success. Did you hear from Ron or Richard or anyone at the store? They were thankful. I think they thought it was edgier than they wanted, but people always do. They want you to basically tell the story they want you to tell, but it was pretty good. What did your friends back east think about the piece? A lot of them just didn’t believe me. Really. That is the hardest group I had. What happened to you? That was partly why the writing was so difficult and important. I felt like I really needed to explain myself. But I’m not done. That’s one of those stories where you leave and you’re not done. Do you think you’ll write something else on this topic? I wanted to as soon as I was done. I thought, I’m going to stick with this topic because it is so rich. I thought of different ways of doing a book. I just haven’t cracked it. It doesn’t mean I won’t.