Why do a lot of Americans love guns? Why do they keep on buying weapons despite a homicide rate that far exceeds that of other developed countries? In search of answers to these questions I turned to the place where the industry meets the consumer: the local gun shop.
Although there are no gun shops allowed within Chicago's city limits, it takes less than an hour to get to whatever kind of gun shop you like – be it the small, one-room shack at a strip mall, the two-floor superstore just off the highway, or the family-owned business in a residential neighborhood where you can get your choice of gun and the newest fishing equipment. The market seems to serve every need – if you are a customer.
But if you are a reporter looking for information, you will often be shown the door. “We don’t talk to the media” was the usual reply when I stepped into a store – apparently not looking like the typical customer. In the weeks and months after the mass shootings in Aurora and Newtown and a newly sparked gun debate, those who make a living selling guns, rifles and ammunition grew more cautious toward reporters who they feel have long had a biased take on the discussion.
So the first few encounters with local gun shops were nothing but frustrating. Not being an American reporter finally paid off when I met an owner who not only talked openly about business, markets and private collections, but also handed me everything from revolvers to a semi-automatic military-style rifles so I could experience the high-quality feel of products that he said were "so much fun.”
I never associated guns with fun before, but in talking to one of the bosses and his employees it became clear that for them guns are not at all about protection and self-defense. Collecting, target shooting – the reasons to sell guns and support ownership – are multifaceted, as are the reasons to defend the second amendment and be outraged by any possible political action to implement stricter gun laws. Could be bad for business.
Spending time in Illinois and Indiana gun shops, I was introduced into a subculture where one feels safer with more guns. “Bad guys” will always have guns anyway, so better for "good guys" to be safe than sorry. Where do bad guys get their guns? Of course, not from the shops – although statistics show that of the 7,511 weapons that Illinois police could trace back in 2011, almost 4,000 came from within the state and an additional 1,000 from neighboring Indiana.
But gun shop owners do not want to argue about the travels of a gun. They’d rather talk about how safe guns are if used correctly, and how guns are not at all a threat, but a weapon of self-defense. Everything is a matter of training and safety. Teach your children how to use guns properly just as you teach them how to drive a car. The car analogy is also used quite often when questioning the reason for owning a semi-automatic military style rifle: it's a matter of choice. Why buy a fast and expensive car when you have a speed limit? Because you can. Why buy an AR-15 with bullets that travel far and can break through walls and therefore might not only hurt an intruder but also your neighbor next door? It's a matter of choice.
The flaw in this logic: No 8-year old possesses a Porsche 911, but he might own a kid’s rifle and go to shoot-outs at the nearby range with dad on Sunday morning. As one female employee told me, “My 15-year-old son has three guns and I taught him how to shoot and be safe with guns when he was eight.” Of course, the 15-year old does not have a license to legally possess any of these guns, but he claims them anyway.
Buying a weapon and having the right to own a weapon, I learned quickly, have nothing to do with reasoned arguments, although everybody wants to appear reasonable. This is a highly emotional issue with no room for compromise – and that accounts for both sides of the debate.
As for those making a living selling weapons, it’s a highly profitable market. In Illinois alone, 1,856 shops had a license to sell firearms in 2011. Now they are selling out their stocks. “Everything that looks like a gun is selling," one employee told me. And another one pointed to empty spots in the glass cabinets saying, “Every manufacturer has problems delivering right now.” Business is booming. The guns that are selling can end up sitting unused in a nightstand drawer of the next door neighbor as well as on the streets of Chicago. But that, it seems, is no one's business.