Down Here, People Just Like to Shoot Stuff

A transplanted New Jerseyan ruminates on the Southern obsession with firearms.


The sign sits about a half mile from my home in suburban Atlanta. It gleefully advertises the wares of our neighborhood pawnshop. Apparently $499 is a great price for a new Glock. Aside from the fact that this pawnshop, which opened about six months ago, is the last "business" you see before you reach my house (not exactly the most heartening sign of local prosperity), it disturbs me greatly every time I lay eyes on this sign -- which is every damn day.

For the most part, since we moved down here from New Jersey six years ago, I have resigned myself to the realities of life in a "red" state: the bumper stickers equating abortion with mass murder, the local politicians competing to see who can devise policies more malicious to illegal immigrants, the Palin and even old "W" stickers plastered all over the SUVs and pickup trucks.

But I can't get past the guns. They're everywhere -- worn on holsters in plain sight, stashed in cars, advertised out front of all manner of businesses, from mom-and-pop gas stations to Walmarts.

It just wasn't like this up North. Gun ownership was a private matter, adjudicated by your conscience and your comfort level. They were instruments of destruction that tended to float into the consciousness only when the news blasted headlines of another drug-related drive-by in some unfortunate (and hopefully distant) hood or another questionable cop shooting. Guns weren't toys, zealously guarded and coveted like a cigar collection or a gaudy entertainment center.

When the subject of guns comes up in the public arena, it's usually cloaked in the language of hunting or self-defense. "If you take away our guns, how will we protect our families?" But over the last six years, watching it from up close, I've concluded that the public debates are just a smoke screen.

The truth is this: People down here just like to shoot stuff. Simple as that. Deer, rabbits, targets at a range, skeets, people -- doesn't matter what it is. As long as they get to pull the trigger and feel that powerful kick, they're sated. And they will fight for that feeling until you pry their cold, dead fingers off the trigger.

The whole self-defense argument quickly became suspect when I realized how many of my neighbors in our relatively bucolic suburb were armed to the teeth, waiting for the mythical "intruder" to breach the sanctity of their home and feel the blast of their piece. When we hear of guns being used on fellow citizens down here, it is never a homeowner defending his home from an intruder. No, it's usually a distraught laid-off worker directing his weapon at his former co-workers, an abusive husband turning the piece on his wife or kids, a curious child accidentally shooting his cousin in the head, or a road rager with self-control issues.

Just last week I drove past a motorcyclist speeding along with an automatic handgun flapping in the holster on his waist. Self-defense? Really? Because I suppose when most of us see a big, burly, bearded biker on his hog, our first thought is … rob him!

The guns are just the totems of a particularly dangerous hobby -- nothing else. When my kids come across my golf clubs in the garage, I don't have to worry that we will quickly wind up in the ER; if my wife and I happen to engage in some nasty marital spat, that tennis racket in the corner is unlikely to transform into a lethal weapon. But when guns are abundant, so are gun casualties. It's been a long time since I took physics, but that formula is about as uncomplicated as it gets.

Up North, even toy guns brought a gut-level fear for African-American parents. Boys running around playing an innocent game of cops and robbers with their plastic pop guns could easily be misconstrued by the police as armed felons (see: questionable cop shootings). For as far back as I can remember, the black parents around me carried a palpable paranoia about letting their little boys play with toy guns. And of course, having the real thing in the house was always a scary proposition -- the possibility of tragedy was just too high, and the upside was just too low. (After all, if you have to keep your piece locked in a safe at the top of your closet, how helpful is it going to be when that mythical armed intruder is standing over your bed?)