Last weekend, my wife and I flew to Colorado to spend the weekend with her brother’s family and celebrate her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. My in-laws are among the most genial and welcoming two people you could ever hope to meet; the first time I visited them, they treated me to four days of virtual nonstop fun in their native South Dakota. We biked the Mickelson Trail, hiked around the stunning granite outcrops at Sylvan Lake, rode horses through the Black Hills and spent an entire afternoon driving through Custer State Park where I was almost gored by a bison. They also happen to be the most politically conservative people with whom I’ve ever voluntarily spent an extended length of time—which makes my “East Coast Liberalism” (their take, not mine) something of a novelty, especially when I visit with them in their home state (ranked the sixth most conservative in the nation by Gallup).
We don’t see each other much, but—given our divergent belief systems—when we do, we’ve pretty much made it an unspoken rule to keep politics off the table. It’s a great policy and it works well. After all, there are certain places where it’s best to leave divisive partisanship at the door.
I only wish more people felt that way.
This was hammered home on Saturday, when I joined my brother-in-law, his father and his two sons for a trip to the Tanner Gun Show in downtown Denver.
Tanner is the largest gathering of firearms dealers in Colorado and hosts roughly 700 tables sporting merchandise as varied as homemade beef jerky and military memorabilia like broken swastika-emblazoned dinner plates from Nazi Germany and WWII-era packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes. And of course there are guns—lots of guns—guns of every age, shape, model and caliber you could ever hope to wrap your trigger finger around. Unfortunately, to get to them you first have to navigate tables piled high with virulent right-wing propaganda, patently offensive representations of Barack Obama and the office of the President, and books like “Aluminum Foil Deflector Beanie: Practical Mind Control Protection for Paranoids” and “Overthrow a Fascist Regime on $15 a Day.”
That kind of thing might be expected if you’re at a birther convention or a meeting of the Tea Party Patriots; but if, like me, you were simply looking forward to spending a nice, leisurely afternoon browsing semiautomatic handguns and antique lever-action repeaters, it seems unfair that I should be forced to digest extremist hyperbole for the privilege of doing so.
For the record, I am no stranger to guns; I started shooting as a kid and keep a loaded pistol in my home for protection. I even took my wife on a date to the shooting range once before we were married (she did great with a .22, not so much the 9mm). I was taught a healthy respect for guns at a young age by my father—a former hippie musician who spent the early 1970s running a head shop in Wayne and bore a closer resemblance to Gregg Allman than John Wayne. He was (and is) definitely not a picture of conservatism, although judging from the highly politicized atmosphere at Tanner, you would think that gun ownership and political progressivism are mutually exclusive.
I did my best to enjoy the show anyway; I managed to bypass the table sponsored by the ultra-conservative John Birch Society and steered clear of the gaggle of serious-looking bearded men speaking quietly about “stocking up on ammo” before the November election. But I still couldn’t help feeling like a 19-year-old at a bar with a fake ID, biding my time until my inevitable exposure.
After about an hour-and-a-half of browsing (punctuated by a run-in with a elderly representative of the National Rifle Association who robotically insisted that “Obama’s going to take your guns away” if I didn’t sign up right then and there), we piled back in the car and headed home. I had started to put the more distasteful aspects of the Tanner Gun Show behind me when, about halfway through the ride, my father-in-law (who seemed quite content with his new anti-Obama bumper sticker) turned to me and with an air of genuine innocence that belied his insulated Midwestern upbringing, said: “You’re kind of an anomaly aren’t you? I mean you’re liberal, but you like guns.”
I don’t blame him for pigeonholing me; given the rhetoric spewing from the most vocal gun enthusiasts, it’s easy to see why he’d think that anyone who believes in universal health care, strong public education, and the right of women to make their own decisions about their bodies—or for that matter, anyone who voted for Barack Obama instead of John McCain in 2008—must be against private gun ownership. Despite the fact that America is currently the most armed nation in the world—with 90 guns for every 100 people—and even though most Americans (and most gun owners) support basic restrictions on ownership, the right wing has declared the Second Amendment to be its own personal domain.
When I got back to Philly I decided to see just how much of an anomaly I really am. I quickly discovered that there are no fewer than a half a dozen groups catering to politically progressive gun enthusiasts like myself; and that was on my first Google search. Among the self-described liberal gun organizations and publications currently populating the Internet are: Blue Steel Democrats, Gun Loving Liberal, the Pink Pistols (a gay gun rights organization who claim as their motto “Armed gays don’t get bashed”), and American Gun Culture Report, whose mission statement reads, in part:
“Do you like guns but hate ‘gun people’? Are you uncomfortable when political ‘progressives’ support every Amendment from the Bill of Rights but the 2nd? Does it make you crazy when ‘conservatives’ swear to uphold the 2nd Amendment but look the opposite way when other rights are trampled on? If you answered yes to any of these questions, AGCR is just what you’ve been looking for.”
Gun owners are indeed a diverse bunch. Not only are most gun owners politically moderate, but only a fraction of them belong to the NRA. While the organization may have once represented the interests of all gun owners, these days it is fighting the obsolescence that comes with success by broadening its lobbying efforts to include non-gun-related conservative causes such as mandatory minimums for drug offenders and, according to CNN, controversial voter ID laws.
America has the most liberal gun laws of any developed nation, looser now than they were even under the eight years of President George W. Bush. During his first term, President Obama lifted a ban on concealed handguns in federal parks (which was instituted by Republican President Ronald Reagan), signed a law allowing passengers to check their guns when traveling on Amtrak trains and, recently, proposed easing restrictions on the export of firearms.
But rather than rejoice, the NRA’s knee-jerk reaction has been to label the president’s relatively friendly legislative stance on guns a “massive conspiracy” designed to woo patriotic Americans into a false sense of security. This position was best expressed last year by NRA President Wayne LaPierre, who told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference:
“Obama himself is no fool. So when he got elected, they concocted a scheme to stay away from the gun issue, lull gun owners to sleep and play us for fools in 2012. Well, gun owners are not fools and we are not fooled.”
Right-wing fearmongering aside, President Obama has neither the inclination, nor the power, to deprive us of our right to keep and bear arms. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that banning guns is unconstitutional. Short of a constitutional amendment, our guns are not going anywhere. Sure, there are still a few issues that need tackling; perhaps the most problematic are laws, like one in Pennsylvania, that prohibit anyone who has ever been convicted of possessing even a small amount of marijuana from carrying a concealed weapon. But, unless I missed something, I don’t see NRA lobbying to overturn that one.