Sympathy for the Devils

Torn by the war between "gun nuts" and "gun grabbers"

There are some societal issues with which I go round and round, never arriving at a firm and comfortable position on either side. They're just too murky, too seemingly logical at both ends, too complex. For me, at least. For some others, these issues are easily reducible to black and white, with an obviously right and wrong side on which to be.

Like gun control, for instance. Diehard anti-gun control pundits tend to base their entire argument on the Second Amendment, conveniently omitting its opening phrase —you know, the part about the entire thing being predicated on the nation's need for a "well regulated militia" — and the probability that the notion of something like an Uzi would've caused the authors of the Bill of Rights to die of fright. On the other side, there are those who apparently believe that outlawing the possession of firearms today would somehow make people stop using the ones they already have.

Those are the polar reaches of the argument, and there's a whole lot of space between them. But those are the stereotypical images we all know, right? The bleeding-heart liberal and the gun nut. The bleeding-heart liberals have their weapons-for-recycling donation rallies.

And the gun nuts have their gun shows.

Cameras are not allowed in the Suncoast Gun Show, an event held several times annually at one of the Florida State Fairgrounds' hangar-sized halls. (They're held all over the state, actually, and according to the website, nearly 150,000 people attended 'em last year.) Ostensibly, this is for the protection of the vendors and the patrons, which is kind of funny if you think about it. After all, they're probably pretty adequately protected.

A gun show isn't really a "show," per se. It's more of a firearm/firearm accessory/ survivalist literature/military-lifestyle accoutrement flea market. Rows of booths running the massive barn's length offer pretty much anything anyone either mildly intrigued or distressingly obsessed with hand-held firepower might want. A large, surprisingly diverse throng wanders slowly, stops often, and discusses much.

There are hand-tanned custom holster belts. There are alternate grips, spare clips, replacement parts, laser sights, ammunition and literature for seemingly every gun ever manufactured. There's The Anarchist Cookbook, and all of its lesser-known clones. Hilariously, there's a booth selling pills to ease the strain of PMS near a booth where a couple of young women consider buying pistols. There's a shudder-inducing bumper sticker jokingly proclaiming itself a Terrorist Hunting License. There are stun guns — every 10 minutes or so, somebody pushes the button on one, sending a sound like miniature lightning crackling over the booths. One merchant offers clothing, from military-issue camos and black SWAT pants to T-shirts emblazoned with the logos of the Rangers, the SEALs, the New York Fire Department.

Services abound, as well. Join the NRA here today and you'll get into the next Suncoast Gun Show for free. Several kiosks pimp businesses that buy guns, build guns, rebuild guns, fix guns. If you've got $35 and about two hours to spare, and are not the owner of a felony, a violence-related misdemeanor or an obvious drug problem, you can apply for a concealed weapon permit, take the class, and probably get one.

And, of course, there are guns.

Pistols: from large, industrial-looking devices made solely for target shooting to .32 caliber semiautomatics scarcely larger than a pack of smokes. Rifles: from large-caliber big-game hunters to, God help us, a scaled-down .22 in a box with the words "My First Rifle" and a picture of Davey Crickett — presumably a more sporting relative of Jiminy's — emblazoned on it. (To be fair, the box also strongly recommends adult supervision.) Shotguns: from beautiful handmade models with filigreed metal and walnut stocks to nasty matte-black fuckers marketed as "Tactical Home Defense."

What appear to be assault weapons also are on display. The AR-15, better known to war-flick fans as the M16. The AK-47, a weapon associated by readers of combat fiction with Russia, the Middle East and Vietnam. Boxy one-handers resembling that gangster-movie staple, the Mac-10. But these aren't assault weapons, or even machine guns, at least technically; they are stripped of the ability to fire more than one round per pull of the trigger. With some trouble, there are conversion kits available to realize that option, but fully automatic weapons are unlawful in the state of Florida without special permission by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

It seems that only two things I expected to find in abundance reveal themselves to be in startlingly short supply. One is ninja throwing stars, which I can't find; the 12-year-old in me is heartbroken at the unfairness of the world. The other is real gun nuts, the ostentatious survivor types in black coveralls or hunting vests and truckers' caps saying something about guns and cold, dead hands. There are a few guys edging into that area, strolling around with unloaded semiautomatic rifles slung over one shoulder and unloaded semiautomatic handguns holstered at the waist, like expensive fashion accessories begging for questions and compliments. But most of the people here appear to be average folks, men by themselves or with friends or family, calmly chatting with vendors about magazine capacity, price or differences in caliber. They're not obsessed, or strange, or afraid the storm troopers are going to come in the middle of the night and take away the rest of their rights. By and large, they're just Americans.

So I come away no closer to a firm position on the issue of gun control than I was when I walked in. I still don't see why anybody needs a rifle that can be converted to fire bullets for as long as they can hold the trigger back. I still don't know why a citizen would carry around a pistol that would fit into a change purpose — I don't know why a citizen would carry a gun around at all, really, but if the objective is crime deterrent, wouldn't a great big Colt revolver jammed into the waistband of one's pants (perhaps with a giant neon arrow pointing at it) be more effective?

On the other hand, I don't see why intelligent, competent, morally even-keeled folks shouldn't own firearms, if I don't have to look at the ugly things.

So what then?

It's a vicious circle. We buy a big gun because we fear that bad people have guns. Then we start worrying that the bad people have stolen bigger guns like ours, and we end up having to buy an even bigger gun to protect ourselves.

That's called an arms race.

Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].