please don't
Armed, Dangerous, and Blue: Confessions of a Machine Gun Liberal
by J.D. Greene

I picked up my first gun at AB Pawn & Gun in Hallandale Beach, Florida. This wasn't the first gun I'd ever handled. A former boss back in Massachusetts had taken me shooting at a small, civilized gun club in Watertown. It was there that I learned to shoot skeet and black powder. Guns were powerful and fun, but my family and my home state frowned upon these tools of death.

But this pistol at the pawn shop would become my first gun. I would buy it, take it home, and fondle it in ways that would make an NRA instructor irate. The gun in question was an Enfield No. 2 Mark 1* Revolver. The barrel was scuffed and worn, but it retained its original WWII wood grips. The gun itself lay in a dirty glass case wedged between two racks of power tools in the back of the shop.

I asked the shopowner, a beefy guy in a teal Hawaiian shirt and a sunvisor, if I could handle the firearm. He agreed and retrieved the revolver from its place beside three cheap-o Jennings .25 ACP pistols, the white trash upstarts of the gun world. My Enfield was a different animal altogether. It had an octagonal barrel, smooth lines, and a spurless hammer. A yellow label dangled from the trigger guard that read: "ENFIELD .38 SPECIAL / DA REVOLVER / YEAR: 1954 / PRICE: $140." All that background information on the gun, including the caliber, was incorrect—-to my advantage. Later I would learn the true history of my particular Enfield. It was stamped 1934 and it had been built in the Albion factory in Scotland. This would contribute to the gun's value, but at the time all I cared about was how cool it looked.

I depressed the action that released the hinged barrel and started the break-open mechanism. The gun split in half and a claw-like device kicked out, ejecting imaginary shell casings. "Awesome," I said. I licked my lips. I'd seen Indiana Jones use a Webbley, the Enfield's spiritual ancestor, in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The action had been identical. I turned to the proprietor. "How much for this?"

"Price is on the label." He swigged from a can of Pibb Xtra.

I turned the gun over in my hands again, carelessly pointing it around the dingy interiors of the shop. I was fresh in Miami. I had just moved here for graduate school, to pursue an artsy writing degree at a state university. This meant I was on a tight budget and purchasing a gun seemed like a frivolous expenditure. I cocked my head toward the storeowner. "How about one-twenty-five?"

He didn't say anything for a moment—just held the can steady in one hand and swayed. Then he pulled out a yellow form from behind the counter and pointed out what lines I should fill out. In Florida all you needed was a driver's license to get a gun—a stark difference from the puritanically anti-gun state of Massachusetts. Back home there were stringent rules and regulations. I shook. It seemed too easy. The form was simple, but the state of Florida wanted answers to important questions: Was I ever adjudicated mentally defective? Had I ever been convicted of a crime? Was I currently under a restraining order? Was I citizen of the United States?

The progressive side of me revolted all the way through. I could answer no to all of these questions, but my soul burned with more serious inquiries: Would I be forever sullied by purchasing a gun? Was I becoming a bad person—a conservative asswipe, a Gingrich-in-training—a Karl Rovenstein monster with bolts in my neck and a blank stare? I had grown up in Brookline, Massachusetts, a liberal suburb of one of the most liberal cities in the United States. It was a town with high property taxes and openly gay high school teachers. The average citizen fell perfectly in step with Democrat pundits of the day. A Joe Lieberman-style Democrat might as well be Klu Klux Klansman.

I was no exception to the rule. Just before leaving Boston I voted for Al Gore and experienced the profound pain of losing that electoral vote. It just didn't seem fair. But now I was here, buying a gun. Was I selling out? Could I still be a progressive person and a gun owner? My lower lip twitched with the thought. All that was left on the form was my signature and the date. The Enfield lay inches away. It crooned to me. I signed.

I took the gun home and fired up the Internet, seeking all available information on my new purchase. I learned the Enfield No. 2 Mark 1*'s background: that of A WWII revolver of mediocre design that shot an underpowered .38SW cartridge. The Mark 1* in particular was meant to be a tanker's revolver. The spurless hammer wouldn't snag on the tight interiors of a Cromwell or a Matilda battle tank.

The next day I took my pistol to Big Al's Gun & Pawn, a large, dilapidated building with slat roofs. Inside were a considerable number of guns on racks and an indoor firing range. My roommate Chris came along with his Glock 27, a slick, deadly polymer pistol that looked like it had come from outer space rather than Austria.

We bought ammo at complete ripoff prices—gun ranges make money on their ammo by mark-up, kind of like how movie theatres make a killing on their popcorn—and then I was asked to pick a target. Chris and I bought printed silhouettes of Osama Bin Laden.

We fitted our eye and ear protection, grabbed the cardboard backings and our equipment, and headed upstairs. The fourteen firing lanes were thick with cordite and smoke. And I wasn't at all used to the sound of firing guns. An obese man in the seventh lane slowly fired a .357 Magnum revolver, but to me it might as well have been a cannon. I flinched with every miniature explosion. After a moment I worked up the nerve to scoot to the firing line and shakily load up my revolver.

I was a terrible shot. In my defense, I didn't exactly know how to line up the military-style fixed sights, which are terrible on the Enfield. Afterwards when I reeled in my target, the ragged punctures were all over the place. While Chris had been wailing away with his Glock, placing neat two inch groups all over Osama's chest and grinning face, I had been lucky to graze the edges of Bin Laden's shoulder or to catch a round in his turban.

Six months and two gun purchases later, I was rapidly becoming a better shot. I studied practical shooting advice and gun safety. I trolled the gun forums and read gun rags while standing in Barnes and Noble. My next pistol was a CZ 75B, a Czechlozvakian 9mm, a shiny European descendent of John Browning's infamous Hi-Power. I started buying bulk ammo online and spending a few hours a week at the range. It became ritual. A grad school buddy and I would gather our collections and head down to Big Al's for some lead-filled, poorly filtered air and the cheapest firing lane rates in town. After destroying many targets we would drive over to Billabong, a local dive in a strip mall next to a massage parlor, and we would knock back a few beers. Very masculine activity.

About this time I started dating Rena, a pretty Jewish girl from Kendall. She was a cute redhead and we both liked emo rock and animals. We laughed at the same bad movies and enjoyed taste-testing Thom Yum Goong at all the local Thai eateries. It seemed like a great match and now, five years later, we're engaged.

Back then, though, we were still in the early stages of our relationship—we weren't sharing secrets about our first love or our first betrayal or our first gun. Instead we were in the honeymoon phase, engaging in rampant sexual exploration and dumb chats. At one point we were at my apartment, lounging around on my bed and making out. I excused myself to go to the bathroom. When I returned Rena was sitting up on my bed, fondling my glossy CZ 75. I didn't know what to say. I'd been caught—outed. By this point few of my colleagues, professors, or friends even knew that I was a gun owner. The idea of people finding out—the intense judgment and scrutiny that I would weather—it was unthinkable. They'd look at me differently.

She pointed the pistol haphazardly in my direction. "What is this?"

"It's a gun."

She quirked a brow. "Is it real?"

"It's not loaded." Lie. "But please don't point it at me."

A few months later I went to my first gun show. I arrived early with a couple hundred dollars smoldering in my pocket, ready to pick up a 1911 clone. I joined the snaking line of old men and mustachioed black powder enthusiasts out front; this was the early morning crowd. They held the show at the Dade County Fairgrounds, in a building that could easily double as a high school gymnasium. The inside was filled with folding tables covered in guns and electronic wiring that would trip if someone dared to try to pull a gun free.

I toured the aisles at a slow pace, admiring the shiny metals and artful trigger guards and boxes of bullets. At one table a Christopher Lloyd lookalike fumbled with the bolt of a Romanian AK-47 clone. At the far end of the aisle stood a booth selling spicy venison jerky. A morbidly obese man in full cowboy regalia, complete with six shooters and spurred boots, waddled by. A Russian family huddled around a trunk of Spanish compact 9mm pistols. The oldest woman I think I've ever seen—a toothless lady in a Babushka who looked like she had just stepped out of a reel of documentary film on the fall of the Soviet Union—taped a piece of paper to the trunk lid and scribbled "Star BM - $125" on it in black ink.

I didn't know it then, but I was slowly being subsumed by the gun culture. The year earlier, the gun show environment would have terrified me. Made me feel like an alien or a freak. I would've fled the building laughing or shivering or both. But now as I strolled the aisles, fingering the grip of a Beretta M84 Cheetah, recognizing the quality and craftsmanship of every gun that lay before me—-subconsciously this with all the side research on guns, all the books on gunsmithing I'd read, all the gun rags and pistol review sites and forums—-something fundamental in me had clearly changed.

My third year in graduate school I moved to a tiny studio in an unfashionable part of South Beach. My apartment was in a stucco building that Rena's family owned, down near the convention center. By then she and I were dating seriously and seeing each other on weekends because her college was in the center of the state. During the week I taught classes at FIU and attended to my coursework. Weekends I drove five hours to visit her. Other times I wasn't going out much at all.

That year I also inherited Bambi, my beloved family Chihuahua, from my mother. She just couldn't care for the dog anymore, so the responsibility fell to me. I loved that dog, so I was fine with the responsibility. Florida seemed like the perfect retirement home for her.

Unfortunately her age brought on incontinence, which meant I'd be taking her on frequent jaunts around the neighborhood to relieve herself. This normally wouldn't be a problem, but sometimes she would need late night bathroom breaks, and that meant I'd be walking her in a bathrobe, down darkened streets, while being eyed by sketchy people huddled in doorways, conducting drug deals.

I decided to take advantage of Florida's concealed carry laws. I found the details for acquiring a Concealed Carry Weapon (CCW) permit on the picturesque Florida Department of Agriculture website. It was a simple process: get a passport picture, get fingerprinted, take a class, send the packet in, and then wait a few months. Easy.

I took my CCW class in a steel trailer outside of a gun show. A square-jawed man in a jean shirt and slacks handed out coffee and donuts. We filled out paperwork and listened to an hour-long lecture on self-defense law in the state of Florida. What I heard surprised me. This definitely wasn't Massachusetts at all. I was no longer in a state where a potential criminal could break into my house, slip and fall on a Christmas tree ornament, break his left leg, and then sue me for liability. No, here in Florida I could be totally justified in shooting you if I felt threatened and had no way to retreat from a deadly confrontation.

At the end of the seminar the CCW teacher turned to us and grinned. "So, anyone want to hear a joke about John Kerry?" This was right before election time and so the pre-election candidate humor was flying around faculty lounges and over water coolers everywhere. The CCW crowd, a strange mix of PTA moms, foreigners, and bikers all nodded in unison. "Before I go on," he said, "I just want to make sure: No one here is planning to vote for Kerry, right?"

I alone raised my hand and everyone looked in my direction.

"Oh, okay." He sighed and rolled his eyes. "I guess I won't tell that joke, then."

The state issued my fresh CCW permit only days after I voted Kerry and we lost the election again. But at least I could slip my Ruger SP101 down my pants and carry it around town.

In July of this year I bought my first scary black rifle. Up until this point I'd only owned friendly-looking rifles: a Marlin 1894C, a WWII Enfield rifle to go with my pistol, a Nagant M38. Historical long arms that looked like antique militaria or lever action cowboy fair. But now it was time to buy something serious and modern and deadly.

I purchased a Rock River Arms LAR-15, an AR-15 clone that is nearly indistinguishable (in physical appearance only) to the M-16 used by the American military. The weapon came with a 30-round magazine and a free-floating quad-rail. I attached a Versa-Pod foregrip to the front and it looks even deadlier. It's the kind of weapon that makes Nancy Pelosi quail in mortal terror. It's the subject of criticism from Rosie O'Donnell and other anti-gun blowhards. Even though an "assault weapon"—a term fabricated by politicians and actors—function identically to semi-automatic firearms and are rarely if ever used in crimes, they remain the subject of heavy legislation and ill-informed debate.

My black rifle is terrifying, though. I do see why people are afraid. And I understand why a picture of my RRA AR-15 could be plastered on a billboard along the Massachusetts Turnpike and be used to scare the bejeezus out of libs toting their children to ballet practice (there was a sign along the Pike very much like that the last time I visited), yet I still own my rifle. And I feel good and free in owning it.

The changes in me haven't come all at once. Late in my academic career, I came out to my ultraliberal colleagues at my university. I informed them about my gun addiction. But I did so in sips. First I wore a hat with a mock bullet-hole in the forehead that read, "This is my gun cleaning hat" to a faculty meeting. They laughed. Then I invited a professor to go shooting (he declined with considerable disgust). Then I started talking about guns casually, sort of in passing, like the way people mention bands they like or movies they're interested in. Inevitably I met 2nd amendment debaters with vigor and compassion. I told them I understood their fears, but I felt firmly that individuals, not pieces of metal, should be held responsible for crimes. I introduced newbies to gun culture. I took liberal friends to gun shows and ranges. I converted a progressive, vegan couple to the way of the gun and now they own a considerable firearm collection of their own. I spread the gun love through knowledge and an open heart.

But I guess the prevailing question is whether you can still be a "progressive" and a "gun nut"? Can those two monikers ever gel? To answer that, I look back at the six-hundred pound gun safe in the corner of my office with the knowledge that my fourteen guns and many thousands of rounds of ammunition sit idly in there. I think about my beliefs. Have they really changed, honestly? I mean, I still believe in gay marriage. I'm still pro-choice. I still stand for social welfare, helping poor people, and protecting the environment.

I guess I just don't think that guns are the real problem anyway. I mean, even the most enthusiastic gun-lover can't ignore the epidemic of street violence and murder in America, but concentrating your legislative efforts on inanimate objects seems downright stupid. Guns don't shoot themselves; moreover, there are other countries, Canada and Switzlerand among them, that have civilian firearms ownership on a scale that is similar to what we've got here, but they don't share our level of violence. Why isn't blood running in their streets?

That's where the progressive side of me fires off a machinegun retort: We have violence and death because on a daily basis we tell the poorest, most disenfranchised Americans that we don't give a shit about them. We cut back on social programs and we fail to provide healthcare. We make prescription drugs so expensive that many people that need them can't afford them. We look out for corporate interests and make sure to step on the little guy. We make war on false pretenses, without apologies. Finally, in a misguided attempt at a "war on drugs," we create an unparalleled black market for the very item that we strive to outlaw.

And then we're surprised that we have gun violence? We're actually amazed that people feel compelled to kill each other? If we stopped focusing on guns—and instead tried to foster any real sense of national community by creating an America where no matter who you are you're guaranteed healthcare, a place to live, a good education, and something to eat—we might see a huge decrease in gun violence, more than any stupid gun control measure could ever hope to achieve. Please, stop addressing the trigger. Try to think about the reason why someone would want to pull the trigger in the first place.

But for many lazy Democrats it's easier to just declare war on all firearms. Hell, why talk about social change when you can sling around a new ban on magazine capacity, bayonet lugs, and flash suppressors? To PTA moms those things sound very scary. But that course of action is like trying to slap a bandaid on a severed limb. It's never going to work, but it will definitely waste important time and have disastrous results.

Beyond any sort of politics, guns have changed me as a person. I'm still a progressive at heart, but I'm much more than just that. I'm an active participant in the 9mm vs. .45 caliber debate (don't worry 9mm-—I'll defend you to the death!). I'm a passionate contributor to discussions on the strength of M-16 accuracy vs. AK-47 reliability. I'm a full-fledged advocate for purchasing a Makarov for CCW over an expensive custom Kimber 1911. I'm a sharer of cleaning tips and worshipper of the bore snake and the gun dunk kit. And most of all, I'm a wholehearted believer in an interpretation of the 2nd amendment that would horrify Ted Kennedy.

I guess I'm just a gun nut. And I'm not embarrassed about any of it—even when I get flack from both gun owners and Democrats for my views. I just smile calmly and ask both sides the same question: "Why should conservatives be the only people who are allowed to be armed?" They don't have an answer to that, but I do: You don't have to follow party lines. You can be an individual. You can be me: a pro-gun progressive. It's okay. We can stand on the roof top together and scream to the world: I'm a lib with a gun. And we don't have to feel bad at all.

J.D. Greene lives in Georgia with three chihuahuas, tons of guns, and a fiancee. He is currently working on a novel.

© Copyright 2007, 2008 Please Don't return to top