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?)
Recently, a "peace index" released by the nonprofit Institute for Economics and Peace confirmed my anecdotal experience. The institute uses the word "peace" as a proxy for "absence of violence." Among the regions of the country, the Northeast was deemed the most "peaceful," while the Southeast was found to be the least "peaceful."
The institute used five indicators to determine level of peacefulness: violent crimes, homicides, incarceration rates, policing and availability of small arms. (The statistics are from 2009.) Of the 10 least-peaceful states in the country, eight were in the South (Oklahoma and Nevada were the only two outside of the traditional South).
My state, Georgia, ranked 39th on the peace index, meaning that it just missed being among the top 10 most violent because there were 11 states less "peaceful" than Georgia. (Although Georgia deserves credit for improvement, in the past 19 years, there have been only three years when the state was not in the top 10.) The two least-peaceful states were Louisiana and Tennessee.
There was, however, at least one area of the institute's report in which Georgia still ranked in the top 10: the availability of small arms. There were only eight states in which small arms were deemed more readily available than in Georgia — and all but two (West Virginia and Idaho) of those were in the South. (As for my old state of New Jersey, only four states in the country had fewer small arms.)
Incidentally, the states with the highest level of small arms availability also had the highest levels of homicides and violent crimes. So if the "self-defense" theory of gun ownership had any truth to it, in the places where there were more guns lying around, the criminals would be less likely to commit violent crimes because they'd be so chastened by fear of their gun-toting fellow citizens. But clearly that's not what's going on.
My wife and I were startled when a friend of ours, a Southern gal who has never been to the Northeast, expressed her surprise that we weren't accustomed to seeing people walking around with guns in holsters. She thought that in the big, scary cities up North, guns were prevalent. At least that's the way it seems on Law & Order. We quickly corrected her.
I'm back in my car now. The Glocks are still on sale. I hear you can get one that shoots 33 rounds. You know — in case you need to take out a whole herd of deer without reloading on your next hunting trip.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author or co-author of eight books, including the New York Times best-seller The Blueprint: A Plan for Living Above Life's Storms, written with Kirk Franklin.