It was an odd day, to be sure. It certainly highlighted the centrality of guns in the minds of many US citizens. Even the name of the event — Gun Appreciation Day — struck a strange chord. These are the folks who tell us guns are tools — and you can’t blame the tool, they say, for how a person uses it. But we’ve never had a Drill Press Appreciation Day, or a Chainsaws Across America rally. The name itself is evidence that guns are different. They’re not just tools. Not even close.
My cousin and I attended the local Gun Appreciation Day event, which was held on the grounds of the State Capitol building. We arrived about half an hour early and joined the crowd that had already gathered. It wasn’t quite what we’d expected — mostly white, middle-class families with young kids. Even more surprising, the gender distribution was about equally divided — nearly as many women as men. Everybody was dressed neatly in a style I think of as ‘conservative casual.’
There was no crowd at the pro-gun rally — not at first. There were a few men sort of scattered about the area, standing alone or in pairs. I wandered around until I found one of the event organizers, who pointed out the designated assembly spot. I then played border collie for a bit, herding some of the early arrivals to the rally point.
These were the people I’d been expecting to find at Gun Appreciation Day. Almost exclusively male, almost exclusively white (though to be fair, this is Iowa — so ‘almost exclusively white’ is sort of redundant). Lots of camouflage jackets, lots of ball caps with NRA logos or the icons of sports teams. Lots of beards. Lots of stoic faces. Lots of flags. Several American flags, a scattering of Naval jacks, and lots of Gadsden flags (the yellow Don’t Tread on Me flag designed during the American Revolution by Christopher Gadsden).
For the most part, people were awfully quiet waiting for the rally to begin. These were the sort of men who are reluctant to start a conversation with another guy — a guy they don’t know. Once you got them talking, though, they were uniformly cheerful and friendly. In a way, these guys weren’t very different from, say, collectors of Beanie Babies or Star Trek memorabilia. If you engaged them in a conversation about guns, they were positively chatty. At the merest mention of black powder muzzle loaders or the relative merits of a 16 inch upper barrel receiver for an AR-15, these guys would happily natter away for hours.
You expect peculiarities at any gathering of people with esoteric interests. On one level, these guys were no more eccentric than a gathering of the Society for Creative Anachronism or the Baker Street Irregulars. On another level, of course, these folks are radically different. And that difference, in my opinion, lies in a strange mixture of paranoia and romanticism.
From the comments I heard from the people in the crowd, and from the speeches given by the organizers, it seems clear many of these folks are driven in large measure by the romantic mythos of the ‘frontiersman.’ The mythos is rather contradictory — it involves a lone man, but one with a family that requires protection from savages. It’s all about self-sufficiency, but self-sufficiency within a network of similar ‘lone men with families’ who all bond together in times of need.
In this mythos, the frontiersman acts as both a stepping-stone and a bulwark between the wilderness and civilization. The uncivilized frontier is dark and full of danger, but the frontiersman manfully shoulders the burden of protecting civilization while being partially shunned by it. Whether it’s Natty Bumppo in The Last of the Mohicans or Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings or the Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men, the frontiersman stands at the border of a dangerous world and defends those who can’t or won’t defend themselves — women, children, and men who aren’t suited or capable of doing a man’s job.
There’s also the romance of defiance at work here. The concept of standing up against tyranny is very attractive, of course. But the rallying cry of “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands” is only meaningful if somebody is actually trying to take your gun. If not, then it’s just sad and pathetic blustering.
There was a great deal of bluster in the speeches yesterday. There they stood, those gallant speakers, on the grounds of the State Capitol, having been issued a permit by the government to hold a rally in which they could give speeches describing their courageous stance against governmental tyranny. They were, in effect, exercising their Constitutional rights by freely and publicly stating they were being denied their Constitutional rights.
Although I’m convinced a deep strain of heroic romanticism influenced a lot of the folks at Gun Appreciation Day, there was also a more disturbing facet — paranoia. There was a pervasive sense of fear among many of these people. They seem to truly believe they are under attack — that somebody is actively seeking to do them harm, that somebody is out to get them in some way. There was a stone-solid conviction among the people at the rally that they absolutely needed multiple firearms with high capacity magazines to protect themselves from…well, from lots of things. Despite all their protestations of courage, the heart of their argument is grounded in fear.
They’re afraid somebody will attack them in their homes. Not just somebody, but several somebodies. One woman at the rally said limiting ammunition magazines to ten rounds would would make it difficult to defend her family against multiple intruders. They’re also afraid somebody will attack them on the street, so they need to be armed all the time.
They’re afraid in their homes, they’re afraid on the streets, and they’re afraid of their own government. Those fears seem primarily grounded in wild suppositions about what the government might do and incorrect information about what the government has actually done.
They carried signs proclaiming Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make armed revolution inevitable. They carried signs with fictional quotations by Thomas Jefferson: The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government. Paranoia combined with romantic defiance against a threat that doesn’t exist — it’s an unhealthy but intoxicating mix.
But perhaps the strangest thing about the day is this: I was certain that many of the people at the rally were carrying concealed weapons. The organizers think as many as half of the people there were armed. That’s probably an exaggeration, but even if only a quarter of them were carrying, that’s a LOT of guns.
And yet I didn’t feel particularly safe. To be fair, I didn’t feel particularly at risk either. I’m pretty sure, though, that if a shot was fired at that rally, an awful lot of innocent people would have been wounded — and possibly killed — in the chaos of the returning fire.
It was an odd but instructive day. I rather doubt I learned what the organizers of Gun Appreciation Day would have wanted me to learn, but I left the rally feeling all the more convinced of the need for sensible gun control legislation.