“The infantile nature of male gun attachment is confirmed by the language used. ‘Good Guys’ and ‘Bad Guys’—are you kidding me? Why not regress even further and frame it as a battle between Cowboys and Indians?”
— Matthew Chapman, “Guns, Guys, and Gelding: How to Stop Men and Boys Shooting People in America,” Huffington Post

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With our limited-time “permission slips” we’d received weeks earlier at the police station, my wife and I gathered up the other concealed carry application paperwork and our courage one evening and took a road trip to not just a store that sold guns, but to a holy cathedral for all things that went bang.

Outside, the store looked like the world’s biggest hunting lodge, and inside it was decorated the same, with furry full-body tributes to taxidermy everywhere. We set off between the critter corpses in search of the gun counter. Hunting shoes and boots come first, then shirts and pants, light jackets, heavier coats, overalls, backpacks and water bottles, scents and camouflage, then a huge archery section that ended at a noisy open floor filled with customers, almost exclusively male, sitting at tables and computer monitors that looked like a solitary-study area at a college library, nearly every station staffed by a store clerk acting as a private tutor.

Beyond those men were guns, lots of guns. Miles of guns. Acres of guns. Military rifles, then street legal gangster-tribute machine pistol replicas, then shotguns, then bolt-action rifles, black-powder muskets, collectibles. Opposite these were the handguns, three separate display cases full of them, and across the aisle from the firearms were row after row of holsters, cases, scopes, cleaning supplies, ear and eye protection, shooting caps and gloves, and more ammunition than a small nation’s military could use in a year, fully stocked and attractively displayed and sorted by caliber and manufacturer.

It looked just like a grocery store, if the groceries were designed to explode.

With an army of sales clerks on staff, waiting in line went quickly and we were actually surprised when a clerk behind the shotgun counter signaled to us. We waved back at him and pointed to the handgun case filled with revolvers. The clerk was a stocky, short-haired kid in his early 20s with an impressive Confederate-style goatee hanging several inches below his chin. He put both palms down on the glass counter, hunched his shoulders, made a friendly let’s get started expression, and said, “All right, what are we looking for?”

To my surprise, he looked directly at my wife, not me, when he asked. I’d been trying for years to get car dealers, appliance salesmen, plumbers, and tree trimmers to include her when they talked to us, to no avail. This guy knew what he was doing.

And my wife noticed it instantly. “A couple of revolvers,” she said happily, “for concealed carry.”

The clerk nodded firmly. “Perfect. Because that happens to be exactly what I’ve got here.” He opened the case, moved his hand across the shelves like a divining rod (the bottom shelf was filled with enormous X-frame hand cannons, so he skipped that) and extracted a little silver and black .357 snub-nose Ruger.

“Try this one, he said, popping out the cylinder to show that it was empty, then snapping it back into place and handing the gun to my wife. “See how the trigger action feels.”

She held the gun up and aimed it between his heart and his left shoulder.

“Down at the floor, sweetie,” I tried to mumble, not wanting to embarrass her, but the clerk stood completely calm and still, no sign of alarm on his young bearded face. I realized that this was how he must spend many of his days behind the counter, having guns aimed directly at him by first-time buyers. Safety First was trumped by Sales First.

He pretended not to have heard me, and my wife’s blush was only momentary. She aimed the Ruger at the floor and squeezed the trigger. And squeezed a little more. There was a long pull on this gun’s trigger. Finally, it made a solid and satisfying click.

“Again,” the clerk told her, kindly. “Get a good feel for the trigger, but also the gun itself. How’s it feel in your hand?”

She squeezed the trigger again, then once more, before moving her wrist in up-down, side-side motions to feel the gun’s weight moving with her hand. “A little heavy, I think,” she admitted, and held the gun out to me.

The clerk reached into the display again and handed her a Smith & Wesson “Airweight” .38 snubbie with a shrouded hammer covered inside the frame to prevent it getting snagged on clothing if the gun ever needed to come up fast from its concealed location. My wife bounced this gun a few times in her hand, and then click click click click click — no problems with this trigger.

She smiled approvingly and raised her arm, well above the clerk’s head, to check the sights. I looked down the length of my arm and across the top of the rejected .357 revolver she’d placed in my hand, aiming it at the floor and aligning the top of the front sight to fill the notch in the rear one. Nothing tricky about it. The gun felt right all around.

“Looks like a couple of happy couples,” the clerk said wittily. “Once you find the right gun for you, it’s one of life’s great relationships. Let’s get your paperwork started.”

A teenager with an AR slung across his shoulder and hanging across his back stood a few yards away, idly studying a pallet of plastic ammunition boxes. “That’s just a dummy gun to show how the scope looks, right?” our clerk said quietly, never looking up from the forms he was signing. The kid was surprised at this, then confused, pulling the rifle off his shoulder and examining it to confirm that it did in fact have no working parts, and was not in fact a working rifle of any kind. He went to return the display “gun” to the scope aisle.

As he did, I pointed to an evil-looking weapon over on the special-models wall. “Seriously, there’s only one thing that gun could be useful for,” I told my wife. Following where I pointed, she nodded agreement. The clerk swiveled his head around to look.

“Only an import,” he said. “Yugoslavian, M-70.”

Just then a clerk at the next counter reached for this exact gun, safety-checked it, and handed it to a well-dressed customer who was the last person I’d ever expect to see with that kind of weapon. The man looked like a middle-aged stockbroker taking a break from his country club’s board meeting. He stood holding the pistol/rifle beast with two hands, looking it up and down, and as I realized that he had no idea how to use it, his clerk reached across the counter to demonstrate what went where and how.

The customer cut off the stream of information almost immediately to start asking about bullets for the gun. I instantly and easily imagined him going home that night and executing a family member, if he didn’t blow his own leg off first.

While he continued his research, our clerk put a final signature on the last of the information sheets and escorted us to the computer area where he gestured to my wife to have a seat at the computer, where a touchscreen with the store’s logo greeted her.


I kept watching the country-club guy. “Everything you see here is top of the line, top of the price chart,” his clerk told him. “I wouldn’t necessarily recommend any of them as a first-time rifle.”

The customer ignored this advice. “That one there,” he said, pointing to a fully accessorized tan and brown military rifle. “Let me see that one.” His clerk grabbed the gun by its magazine and pulled it down. The what’s this and how does it work routine began anew. The M-70 was still on the countertop in front of the businessman; he’d apparently decided to buy it.

My wife, finished with her final screen, stood to let me take her place. When I’d tapped the final “NEXT” on the monitor glass, it was time for a telephone call to NICS — the National Instant Criminal Background Check. While the clerk spoke pertinent data into the phone, I watched the country club guy from my peripheral vision, going up and down the aisles across from the gun counters. His Yugoslavian drive-by machine and his tan-and-brown Terminator AR were propped up with their boxes against the wall behind the computer area, waiting for him while he gathered accessories and supplies.

Our clerk again followed where I was looking, and his own eyes went just wide enough for me to notice. He let out a little whistle. “Impressive,” he said. “That’s $3,000 worth of g —”

Someone was talking to him again on the other end of the line, and a minute later the NICS portion of the evening was finished. A quick AmEx swipe later our guns were bought and paid for, and as our goateed assistant scooped up the plastic Ruger case and the cardboard Smith & Wesson box with their security-tape seals, we saw the country club customer finally plopping down his basket, filled to the top with gear and ammunition, at one of the computer stations.

He wasn’t just going after a family member, I decided. He’d be taking out his entire block. Everything he’d done here so far was the kind of “suspicious activity” that anyone in their right mind would want to report immediately, but instead he only got admiring glances from the counter clerks he’d impressed with his speedy choices and bountiful cash.

I imagined making the call myself:

Hello, police? I need to report a suspicious guy buying a suspiciously huge amount of firepower that he obviously has no training or experience in using. I think there’s a strong likelihood of tragedy to follow if he’s allowed to buy all this stuff. Yes, I know it’s his Constitutional right. No, I have no proof that he’s ever been a criminal or terrorist. Okay, sorry for bothering you. My mistake.

Suddenly we were outside in the cool, fresh air and the very last of the day’s fading sunlight, shaking hands with our sales clerk and assuring him we’d be back. Without concealed-carry permits in hand yet, we couldn’t transport our new weapons inside the car, so they went into the trunk. And as we drove home, it felt to me that they had the weight of two bags of cement back there.

The weight, I realized, of responsibility we’d never had before.

Now we owned handguns. And soon, we’d hide those handguns under our clothing and go out to the places we’d gone out to before, but with this added tonnage as a silent companion.

A line that Uncle Junior said to his nephew Tony in the first season of The Sopranos came to mind: “Next time you come in here, you come in heavy or you don’t come in at all.”

It sounded strange at the time. I thought he should’ve said packing or strapped or some other standard term. But he said heavy.

And now I knew exactly what he meant.