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

Greg Trojan is a member of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a statewide Second Amendment lobby group, and a gun aficionado. He believes the only legitimate mechanism for strengthening gun laws, including measures like requiring universal background checks, is to amend the Constitution. Photo: Christian Hommel
Greg Trojan is a member of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a statewide Second Amendment lobby group, and a gun aficionado. He believes the only legitimate mechanism for strengthening gun laws, including measures like requiring universal background checks, is to amend the Constitution. Photo: Christian Hommel

A shootable feast

Greg Trojan heard I wanted to talk to gun owners, so he sent me an e-mail. He’s 58, a retired firefighter and paramedic who lives with his wife Val on a farm outside of town, where she raises horses, goats, pigs, and all manner of birds, from peacocks to exotic turkeys. In his e-mail, Trojan said he had an AR-15 that he used to keep predators from killing his wife’s birds.

Aha, I thought, this must be one of those “moderate gun owners” I’ve heard about. I was a little disappointed that he only had one gun to show me, but his e-mail said he’d set up a target I could “plink at” and we could grill some burgers, so I went out there anyway.

I walked into about as lively a kitchen as I’ve ever seen, filled with a multitude of pets and boisterous conversation courtesy of Trojan’s friend George Overstreet, up from Richmond for the day with his wife Lyndell. The TV was turned to Fox News and there was a gun catalogue on the kitchen table.

While introductions were made, Trojan walked to his bedroom and came back with a gun. I sat at the table and played with my pen while he left again, returning with more guns, then again with more. Overstreet joined the fun, adding pistols to the mix, pulling rifles out of bags, until there were guns everywhere, of all types and eras, from an 1816 musket to several modern “assault weapons.”

“It’s time to go burn gunpowder,” Overstreet said.

We talked about Neil Young while Trojan loaded the guns into a box attached to the front of his tractor, then walked down to the shooting range and set up a row of balloons, tin cans, and old political yard signs in front of a big dirt berm. I didn’t let on how thrilled I was to be shooting holes, even if only nominally, in George Allen, Ken Cuccinelli, and Mitt Romney.

We shot the following guns: a .22 pistol; a Beretta 92 9mm pistol; a Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol; a Smith & Wesson .40 caliber pistol; a .22 rifle; a CZ 527 bolt action .223 rifle; three AR-15 style rifles: a .22 caliber, a .223 caliber, and a .308 caliber; and a 12 gauge pump shotgun.

The first, and maybe only, epiphany I had about the gun debate as I was covering this story was that all of my carefully collected facts and statistics were utterly useless as tools for persuasion. Sitting at the dinner table in the Trojans’ kitchen, I mentioned what I thought was a pretty basic fact: that America has more gun deaths every year than any other developed country.

“No we don’t,” Trojan said.

“Are you saying that the number of deaths that are reported every year is a lie?” I asked.

He told me that the numbers were manipulated, told me not to believe everything I read and to dig a little deeper.

“I haven’t finished this yet, but I’ll give it to you,” he said, handing me a copy of Control: Exposing the Truth About Guns by Glenn Beck.

The thing is I had been digging deeper, digging so far down that the hole was over my head and I was being buried alive in facts. At some point I had to start trusting some of them, but which ones?

The New York Times isn’t reputable in their eyes, nor is Harper’s, nor The New Yorker. Forget about Mother Jones. A prominent local gun lobbyist told me that studies by the Centers for Disease Control were “junk science.” How far did I have to dig?

To be fair, I think Glenn Beck is a complete buffoon. And there’s the rub, each side of the gun debate has its own set of facts and its own trusted sources for those facts. At some point we have to accept information that’s given to us by someone else. Short of taking our opponent by the hand and going door to door conducting surveys, how the hell are we going to make any progress?

Finally, I asked Overstreet and Trojan the question that had been on my mind the whole time. Did they understand why some people wanted to get rid of guns after Newtown?

Trojan: “We hate children being hurt. And [it was] horrific, and they’re mad as hell over the fact that these children have been massacred… They have to do something, but our problem is the madman.”

Overstreet: “I understand their reaction, and even if it was 98 percent of the population, it still would run counter to our Bill of Rights, which was put in place by geniuses and is now administered by idiots.”

Me: “But those geniuses intended the Constitution to be changed and to evolve.”

Trojan: “If they believe the situation that we have nowadays warrants changing the Constitution, then let’s go ahead and do that. Let’s have the discussion and go ahead and change the Second Amendment, but are they doing that? No. What they’re doing is they’re chiseling away at that Constitutional right by passing legislative laws instead of changing the Constitution.”

Despite being very different, Trojan and Overstreet have become fast friends because of their shared belief in guns and the Second Amendment. Trojan is average height, with sandy hair turning gray. He’s originally from Ohio, and there’s something essentially Midwestern about his demeanor; knowledgeable but not academic, intense without being overbearing. If you were designing the perfect grass-roots warrior he’s probably what you’d come up with.

Overstreet is his opposite. Tall and broad, with curly gray hair and a goatee, he’s gregarious, loud, and always grinning. A good ol’ boy to his bones, he’s the color commentary to Trojan’s sober analysis. Overstreet identifies as a liberal, “a left-winger from way back.” He used to be a Democrat, but the more the Democrats come after his guns, the more that’s starting to change.

Trojan: “The moral compass on [criminals] is pointing the wrong way, [and] all [gun control advocates] can think of is, ‘We gotta ban the guns!’”

Me: “But their desire to ban guns doesn’t come from a desire to limit your freedom.”

Overstreet: “Yes it does.”

Me: “It just comes from a desire to stop these tragedies from happening. It’s not motivated by malice towards gun owners.”

But it is malice, Trojan said, and to prove it he showed me a picture on his iPad of Glenn Beck speaking at the recent NRA convention, a musket held over his head with one hand. It’s an iconic image, if only because Beck is imitating the much more iconic Charlton Heston, who struck the same pose at an NRA convention in 2000. Scrolling down, Trojan showed me the comments, which were mostly nasty, angry insults and threats of violence directed at Beck.

Me: “But you see the same stuff said by the right on liberal sites.”

Trojan: “Not death threats. Nobody I know. Any of the places I look at the commentary, I don’t find gun owners threatening to go out and kill people. If the gun owners were as violent as the anti-gun owners say we are, how many anti-gun people would be left?”

I thought about this for a while afterwards. Politics aside, which side in this debate is nastier?

Me: “But if you say that your side is misunderstood, do you see how the other side could be misunderstood as well?”

Trojan: “Their focus is either misinformed, or going off in the wrong direction. They’re not going to prevent the mass murders from occurring… We’re either gonna have to be equal force, the evil vs. the good, or the evil wins.”

Both men are active in a way that most Americans aren’t. Veterans of many lobbying trips to Richmond and D.C., they were at the State Capitol for this year’s General Assembly, where Trojan testified against several gun control measures. The whole let’s-party-like-it’s-1776 thing isn’t a joke to them. They’re still complaining about taxation without representation, still fighting against the tyranny of King George III. Mostly, this strikes me as crazy, because surely our country has grown up a bit since then and moved past its rebellious stage. But there’s something admirable about their commitment. They’re as passionate as Mr. Smith, they just go to Washington better armed.

Me: “You say the government’s not listening to you. What about the large numbers of people on the other side who say they want the government to listen to them about gun control?”

Trojan: “There’s always been two, and sometimes three, sides to every argument in a representational republic, but they seem to think that they can dictate our rights. They can’t! It’s written in the Constitution. There’s a method for amending it, if they think that society is ready to change the Second Amendment then let them do so. Obviously, they don’t have a majority, or enough people to push that through.”

Me: “But, there is support for gun control. A majority of Americans want some of those proposals.”

Overstreet: “Well, I’ve read that there were Chinese people on the moon.”

I found myself unable to put up much of a fight sitting at the Trojans’ dinner table. Partly that’s because I was in reporter mode, wanting to hear what they had to say and accepting it for what it was. And it felt rude to argue given their extraordinary hospitality. But mostly, I found their certainty unnerving. How can anyone be so free of even a glimmer of doubt?

At one point Trojan asked me if I could defend my family, and I answered truthfully that I didn’t know. There have been times when I’ve felt threatened and wondered if maybe I should own a gun. But I have serious doubts about whether or not I’d be able to shoot someone, and whether or not I could handle it if I did.

Back when he was a fireman, Trojan was caught in a burning house when the roof collapsed. His back was injured and now he has to walk with a cane, sometimes two. It’s a weakness that he feels makes him an easy target.

Me: “But have people attacked you?”

Trojan: “Oh, I’ve had a couple of folks that have come up and started looking at me funny, and then decided that maybe they should go find somebody else. So far I’ve been lucky.”

Me: “Why are you always arguing for total freedom? Why can’t you compromise?”

Trojan: “The Second Amendment says, ‘Shall not be infringed.’ That’s pretty clear.”

Me: “Do you think this conflict can be resolved?”

Overstreet: “No. Not if they take my guns.”


My last gun

So now I have this gun, and I don’t know what to do with it. It seemed funny at first, buying a little kid’s gun, a pink one at that, a way to mock the machismo of it all, but now it just seems stupid. My wife doesn’t want it in the house, and truthfully, neither do I. Maybe if it was a sleek looking Glock, or that little Raven I saw at the gun show, I’d want to continue being a gun owner. But as it is, my gun just sits there in its box, as it has since I got it, mocking me.

My brother and I went out to my parents house one day to see what the Crickett could do. It was surprisingly loud and more powerful than it looks (NOT A TOY), but it’s way too small for anyone normal sized to aim properly. My brother and I fired at the targets we’d set up for a while, more out of a sense of obligation than anything else, before we realized we were bored and stopped.

According to the General Social Survey conducted every two years since 1972 by the University of Chicago, the percentage of American households that own guns has been falling steadily, from 50 percent in the ’70s, to 34 percent in 2012, and the decline is steepest in people under the age of 44. It’s a hard statistic to pin down, and some polls show a smaller decline. The pro-gun side says it’s totally false, of course. Gun sales are at an all time high. How can there be more guns and less gun owners?

Simple. People like Trojan are buying more and more guns. They may be part of a shrinking minority, but they are increasingly vocal and politically active. Where, one wonders, are the gun moderates?

I did find one person occupying the middle ground. He’s a gun store owner who thinks gun control makes a lot of sense, and sees the NRA as causing more harm than good. It makes him angry that Wayne LaPierre seems to value the right to own guns over his grandkid’s right not to be shot. There may be a loaded gun behind the counter, but he doesn’t keep any in his house. Why does anyone need that much firepower?

After wrestling for months with irreconcilable viewpoints, talking to him was a huge relief. But he wouldn’t let me use his name, because moderate views don’t sell guns. They don’t sell newspapers either.

I saw a pink Crickett hanging on the wall with the other rifles for sale and asked him what he thought about marketing guns to kids. He’d never thought about it before. Mostly it’s the parents responsibility, he said, but he figures he probably wouldn’t give most 12-year-olds a gun.

Late that same afternoon, I visited another gun store. The owner’s views were not moderate in the slightest. We talked for an hour or so, in between customers until it was closing time and there was no one in the shop but the two of us.

“I’m getting numb to most of this shit,” the guy said. “Something’s gotta give.”

For a minute, I thought it was the breakthrough I’d been searching for. I thought he was talking about gun violence. But he wasn’t. He was talking about gun control.

“Something is wrong,” he said, shaking his head.

At least we can agree on that.

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