My first gun: Looking for safe ground in the middle of the gun debate

At a recent gun show in Northern Virginia, attendees flocked to check out the ever-popular AR-15, affectionately nicknamed the “little black dress” of the collector’s circuit. Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Newscom
At a recent gun show in Northern Virginia, attendees flocked to check out the ever-popular AR-15, affectionately nicknamed the “little black dress” of the collector’s circuit. Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Newscom

Welcome to the gun show

Row upon row of tables displaying all manner of collectibles: coins, pens, military books, Nazi and Confederate paraphernalia, Girl Scout cookies, and guns, lots and lots of guns. What do you want? Shit, what don’t you want? Black powder muskets, fully automatic machine guns, grenade launchers, silencers, infrared scopes. Uzis and Mac-10s and AK-47s and Glocks; every gangsta rap, every action flick, come to life.

And, of course, a thousand permutations of America’s favorite gun-du-jour, the AR-15. A veritable festival of fatality, your friendly neighborhood arms bazaar. Welcome to MurderMart, may I take your order?

I spent a Saturday in May at the Showmaster’s Gun Show in Richmond, and my hands were very quickly oily from fondling barrels. I couldn’t help it, I had to pick up every gun, aim it at something, ponder its satisfying heft in my hand, how comfortably it nestled against my cheek. I could be a cowboy, a gangster (vintage or modern variety), a soldier, a spy. All my childhood dreams could come true. I could shoot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.

At a table right by the door I saw a Raven MP-25, the original “Saturday Night Special,” a six round (plus one in the chamber) pistol, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. It was chrome, with a fake pearl handle, and at $100 was the cheapest gun there. I was very tempted to buy it.

“I’m tempted to buy this,” I said to my wife.

“No,” she said. “Stop buying guns!”

After she left to go read in a coffee shop, I twice had to stop myself from heading to the ATM. Gun control is strict in our house.

Virginia is a pretty gun-friendly state. In 2007, 35 percent of us owned guns, putting us in the middle of U.S. states, but considering the record 432,387 gun sales in Virginia last year, maybe we’ve moved up since then. Eight days after Newtown, Virginia boasted its highest number of background checks, 5,150, in a single day, and gun sales in Albemarle and Charlottesville have risen by over 50 percent as well. There is one statistic where Virginia is number one: There are more legally-owned machine guns here than in any other state.

Violent gun crime, meanwhile, has been dropping statewide for the last six years.

In the early ’90s, Richmond had one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the country, but even with a slight upward trend since 2008, the current murder rate in our capital city is a quarter of what it was at its peak.

The same goes for the country as a whole, gun crime of all types is way down, half what it was in the ’90s. But ask most people and you’ll hear the exact opposite; violent crime is way up, and America is more dangerous than ever. This, of course, is why half the country is desperately stockpiling guns and the other half is rabidly trying to have them banned.

There are about 5,000 gun shows a year in this country, and at least one pretty much every weekend, year round in Virginia. If you’re not a gun person, or you grew up in a place where firearms aren’t a part of daily life, it’s well worth visiting a gun show.

You can learn a lot about cultural diversity and cultural divisiveness simply by walking the aisles and reading the bumper stickers and t-shirts for sale: Winning the hearts and minds of our enemy … 2 in the heart, 1 in the mind. Keep calm and carry. We speak English, learn it or leave. No mosque at Ground Zero. There’s plenty of room for all God’s creatures right next to the mashed potatoes. Some people are alive simply because it’s illegal to kill them. Guns save lives, guns stop crime, guns are why America is free. Happiness is a warm assault weapon. No king but Jesus: Slogan of the American Revolution.

From 2004 to 2007, the ATF investigated 195 gun shows around the country, including eight in Richmond, due to Richmond police reporting that many known gang members and criminals were buying their guns at gun shows. They found that between 2002 and 2005, 400 guns involved in crimes could be traced back to gun shows in Richmond.

So here’s where we talk about the “gun show loophole,” a term pro-gun people hate, because they say it’s not a loophole, it’s a long standing tradition recognized and safeguarded by law.

It used to be that licensed dealers, i.e. gun stores, weren’t allowed to sell their wares at gun shows, but this was changed in 1986, and today, between 50 and 75 percent of gun show sales are by licensed dealers, meaning that the buyer has to go through a background check. The other 50 to 25 percent are private sales, one non-licensed dude to another, and since private sales are exempt from the background check requirement, or any requirements at all, they’re a great way to get a gun if you happen to have a pesky felony conviction, domestic violence charge, or mental illness.

The problem with the term “gun show loophole” isn’t the word “loophole,” it’s the idea that gun shows are an integral part of the equation. In reality, they’re just a convenient and traditional meeting place. What we should be afraid of are private sales taking place online via Craigslist style websites like Armslist, or VA Gun Trader, because when it comes to anonymity and no-questions-asked purchasing, comparing a gun show to the Internet is like comparing 7-11 to Sam’s Club.

Universal background checks are one of those issues that gun rights groups actively fight against, but a Washington Post poll taken in May of this year, showed that 86 percent of all Virginia residents support requiring background checks for private and online sales, including 82 percent of Republicans. Oddly, background checks are one of the few places where Virginia has always been a leader in gun control instead of gun freedom. Ours was the first state to check the criminal records of firearms purchasers, nine years before the national system, and we make more arrests for failed background checks than any other state.

Virginia’s background checks stopped 3,444 gun sales in 2012, 340 of which were for mental illness. In 2007, the year Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, only 109 mentally ill people were denied a gun, Cho being noticeably absent from that list. But what’s really crazy is that thanks to the NRA, Virginia is one of the states that gives violent felons and the mentally ill the chance to petition to get their gun rights back.

In 2011, The New York Times investigated Virginia’s system for restoring firearms rights to the mentally ill and found that often all it took was a brief letter or a doctor’s note sent to a judge. “The hearings,” the Times reported, “were often relatively brief, sometimes perfunctory.”

Parked outside the gun show was the Mobile Firearms Training Unit; a large trailer decorated with a giant bald eagle and a copy of the constitution. Pay $75, sit through a two hour class, and you’ve got the training required to get a Virginia concealed handgun permit. I really wanted to do it, but the eagerness I’d felt earlier to drop money on a gun had vanished. Seventy five bucks for a class? Screw that! Plus who has two hours to spare?

Luckily, Virginia law was changed in 2009 to allow concealed carry training through online classes. Most cost $30 to $40, but I found one for $20. All I had to do was watch a video and take a test which, late at night after several glasses of wine, I did.

“The decision to purchase and own a firearm is exciting,” the narrator informed me. “And it introduces both new opportunities and new responsibilities.… Respect your firearm and it will provide you with years of enjoyment and faithful protection.”

The video consisted of a man in camouflage pants demonstrating how to load, unload, and clean a handgun, and dispensing invaluable safety advice like, “Know how to safely use your firearm.” It lasted 17 minutes and 28 seconds and was followed by a laughably easy 15 question test. For good measure, one of the questions included a joke about being limp wristed.

I printed out my official certificate, proof that I’d successfully completed a handgun safety course “conducted by a certified instructor” who didn’t know or care that I was drinking during class, or if I’d ever held a gun before, or even how limp my wrist was. All I have to do now is pay the city $50 and pass another background check, and I can legally carry a concealed weapon.

As of 2011, there are roughly 279,000 people with Virginia concealed handgun permits, about 5,000 of whom don’t live in Virginia. Why would someone who doesn’t live here want a Virginia permit? Because they’re a lot harder to get in other states. Texas, for instance, requires 10-15 hours of real world training, including actual target practice. But 29 states, including Texas, accept a Virginia CHP in place of their own, which is why the number of Texans applying for them jumped by 96 percent once online classes were approved.

Locally more people are getting CHPs as well. Charlottesville issued 181 in 2012, up from 101 in 2011, while Albemarle County gave out 798 last year, 277 more than the year before. And CHP holders can sneak their guns into an increasingly large number of places. Virginia just became one of five states to allow concealed handguns in places where alcohol is served, as long as the person with the concealed gun isn’t drinking. If you want to drink, then just throw that gun in a holster and let it be seen; no permit is needed to openly carry a pistol, and it’s totally legal to drink while you do.

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