Postcard from the gun show

I went to my first gun show recently–part of my ongoing remedial education in American cultural literacy, which my (American) wife has lately taken in hand–and I have been turning the experience over in my mind these past few days. As a Brit, of course, I was conditioned to expect that the first time I saw an unholstered pistol would be when a mugger stuck one in my face. That is how it works in a civilised country. So for me it was passing strange to see many hundreds of pistols–not to mention shotguns, assault rifles, armour-piercing bullets, laser-sighting attachments and all manner of other lethal weaponry–arrayed for the delectation of ordinary citizens. They let me pick up a gun, for heaven’s sake!

A few moments inside the exhibition hall, I was still puzzling over the perfunctory security check at the door–“Are you carrying firearms?” “No, but why would that be a problem?”–when I gaped as a rotund and cheerful old gentleman with a white beard walked past me to the exit, with what looked like an Armalite and attached bayonet slung casually over his shoulder. (I was pleased to see that the trigger was secured by a plastic tie. Dangerous otherwise.) Trade was brisk. The Supreme Court had just overturned DC’s de facto prohibition on hand guns, upholding the Second Amendment as an individual rather than collective right.

Though a Brit, as I say, I did not bring the default attitude of many  Europeans (or East Coast liberals, same thing) to the event. I am by no means an instinctive gun controller. It is not obvious to me what is wrong with the argument that says, “The criminals already have guns; gun control disarms the rest of us.” I don’t know how many times I have heard that view sneered at, or laughed at, or pointed to as an infallible marker of stupidity. But I haven’t ever heard it seriously confronted, let alone refuted. Thought experiment: would I feel safer walking around DC at night if the district allowed concealed carry, so that some fraction of law-abiding citizens on the street would be armed, or would I feel more at risk? Answer: safer. I don’t say this settles the matter: I’m not sure what I think about gun control, and the seeming resistance in some quarters to any and all forms of regulation is ridiculous. But why is this not a legitimate consideration?

I don’t think the Democratic nominee would have felt at home with this crowd. I heard several references to Comrade Obama, and saw one button (which I coveted) that said, “I am a BITTER gun-owner.” They seemed to me an affable, friendly and very courteous bunch (well, you would be, wouldn’t you?). I don’t think you could mix with the show’s visitors for more than five minutes without thinking it was nonsense to attribute their interest in guns to bitterness or disappointment or some form of social pathology. But of course there is a political dimension. Aside from other motivations–sport, self-defence–the gun-show universe is about pride, self-reliance, and resentment at being bossed around. Distinctively American traits, wouldn’t you say? Best in moderation, no doubt–but still, where would the country be without those attitudes? I may get thrown out of Georgetown for this, but I say, good for them.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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