I hadn’t thought much about the gun debate until one night Wayne La Pierre, head of the NRA, changed my life with a single sentence. It wasn’t his stage presence that did it, which is, after all, roughly equivalent to the classroom manner of Ichabod Crane. Nor was it the force of his logic-free discourse. But one night, as I listened to him defend our God-given, constitutionally protected right to carry any weapon we like, whatever its size or killing capacity, he hit me like Moses reading the tablets. “If you don’t own a gun,” he said, ”You’re part of the problem.”
That was hitting below the belt, a blow to the already swollen and violently discolored organ where my Lutheran guilt resides. La Pierre made it clear I was putting my neighbors and fellow citizens in serious danger by failing to carry a gun. I was a 2nd Amendment sycophant, living off the sacrifices of the people who courageously stood ready to defend me while I sipped coffee at the People’s Food Co-op. It was time to man up and share the load. It was time to get my gun out.
There was only one problem:  I didn’t have any. I had never owned one. Nor had my father been particularly helpful, having lost his appetite for the sound of gunfire at the Remagen Bridge and other such places. Nonetheless he took my older brother and me to the woods one day with a shotgun, a .22 rifle and a grocery bag of tin cans. He showed us how the guns worked, had us rap off a few rounds at the cans, and that was that. He even quit hunting deer with a gun, although he did eventually take up stalking them with a bow and arrow. I realize now he completely neglected our weapons preparation, though neither my brother nor I protested.
Actually we did have other guns in the house: two snazzy German Lugers and an impressive German submachine gun. We didn’t have bullets for any of these weapons, so my brother and I used them in our living room war games. The machine gun was too heavy for either of us to hold properly, so one of us would prop it up on an overturned kitchen chair and make machine gun noises while the other returned fire with the Lugers.
Then one night two FBI agents appeared at our door with a serious interest in the submachine gun. My father wondered aloud if he was in some kind of trouble. “Not with us,” one of the agents explained. “But if we know about the gun so do other people, people who would be happy to kill all of you to get it.” That got my father’s attention. The machine gun was not technically confiscated, but it was disabled and placed in a glass case on the wall of our local VFW with Dad’s name on a little metal plate below it.
That left us pretty much defenseless. The shotgun and the rifle were somewhere in the basement, but we had used all the ammunition shooting at cans. After this loosely strung childhood I wandered around for decades without thinking much about guns or the possibility that I might need one. The two wives and four children I lived with over the years went without the protection I was supposed to provide. None of them complained, but I suspect they all thought they were safer if I didn’t have a gun.
But I was alone in the world now and didn’t need to worry about protecting family. Also, I was getting older, and the irrational optimism about human nature that supported me through most of my life had jumped ship. At any moment, I felt, some hoody-wearing, Skittle-sucking monster could invade my neighborhood. So I decided to go shopping. A friend who works at the co-op warned me that guns were pricey, so I decided to start at Walmart, where I thought I might score a Saturday Night Special cheap. A lot of my friends are boycotting Walmart, so I waited until the supper hour, when the chances of running into any of them would be minimal. As it turns out Walmart doesn’t carry handguns, or assault rifles either, because they cater to hunters. Apparently it’s a local option thing, and other Walmarts offer more choices.  
So I continued my search at Gander Mountain, where I found a much larger selection of firearms. I asked a young man working there to show me the handsome Beretta I spotted near the back of the display case. It cost nearly $500, so I asked him if he had something in a .22. I wasn’t sure a .22 would be much help in facing down the gangs of four or five bad guys armed with assault rifles La Pierre had warned  us about, but what the hell, it was better than nothing. The .22 was $300, so rather than look foolish I asked him if he had an M-16, the assault rifle Americans used in Vietnam. When he shook his head to indicate a negative, I asked if it was store policy not to carry such weapons. “Not at all,” he explained. “We can’t keep them in stock. We’re months behind, and we can’t keep up with the demand.”  That at least was good news. The idea of hundreds, perhaps thousands of assault rifles in the hands of neighbors who had no experience with them would surely strike fear into the hearts of the bad guys. I also learned that the average price of an assault rifle was around $1,500. Apparently gun security, like most things in America, was based upon income. I found myself wondering about young couples who were putting off marriage or that first child until they could afford adequate defense.
As I rode the bus back home I looked around at the eight other passengers and wondered which of them was carrying a weapon. I hoped it was the middle-aged, balding guy wearing a pea coat and resting one arm on the gym bag next to him. If someone started something, we might get lucky and he’d have an AR-15 hidden in there. I considered taking out a second mortgage on the house and getting into the game.
Then one night, after putting down a particularly indigestible bit of beef and quaffing a mug of undistinguished ale (gun ownership was even changing my eating habits) and after barely falling into a troubled sleep, I was roused by a pale green light emanating from the imperfectly closed dresser drawer where I kept, or would keep, my putative gun. It was still in its putative box, waiting for the appearance of that Skittle-addicted, hoody-wearing intruder.
Whether this was a dream or not, I’m certain the gun spoke, if not in actual language, then in tone and attitude, in the very greenness of its weird light. It wanted me to know it wasn’t loaded. In a series of sleep-dazed movements I found the box of imaginary ammunition, stuffed some rounds into the gun’s magazine, and went back to bed, but the green light persisted. Apparently having a loaded weapon a few feet from my head wasn’t soporific. By morning I concluded that no matter how responsible I was being, I was totally inept, green as grass, and I would have to get better fast.
I would take a concealed carry class. Up to now I had been thinking mainly of protecting myself. I would tame my nervousness by carrying a gun everywhere and saving others. Of course my favorite coffee house doesn’t allow guns, but then that’s the point of concealed carry, isn’t it? No one would know. And when push came to shove and I put down some bad guys, I would be a hero.
At the same time, my actual attempt to arm myself was going nowhere. But then, as fate would have it, I came across an ad for a gun show at the Onalaska Omni Center the following weekend. I had been to a similar event a few years previously, where I had encountered a mild-looking bald guy running a Nazi paraphernalia booth. He had tons of the same swastikaed junk my father had stuffed into a desk drawer and forgot about after the war, but Dad never dreamed those relics would quickly be illegal in their native country while gaining value rapidly in ours.
The show turned out to exceed my expectations. For one thing, the turnout was awesome. Cars lined the road in front of the center as far as the eye could see. Inside, the crowd was made up of ordinary people in camouflage coats and baseball caps, quietly going about the business of buying armaments. Particularly interesting were the Gungoth girls, a bevy of young women with hair dyed jet black and wearing studded dog collar necklaces. Judging from their T-shirts, their attraction to guns was a piece with their interest in vampires and zombies. What I hadn’t expected was a small group of Amish men. Weren’t they pacifists?  Of course they were, but they were also deer hunters.
Then I spent 15 disappointing minutes searching for a usable handgun. There were a few B.B. and pellet pistols, and even a few ancient cap and ball dueling pistols. But that was it. The Nazi guy I had encountered in my earlier gun show experience wasn’t there either, although I did find a vendor who offered, in addition to a variety of rifles, photos of Hitler at $5 a crack. Another booth offered bumper stickers. One praised the president as the No. 1 gun salesman, while another showed Hilary Clinton and admonished us that since life is a bitch, we shouldn’t vote for one. I bought one of each. For friends.
I also picked up a brochure from a group called the Appleseed Project, claiming it wants to turn America back into a nation of riflemen. It will do this by training young boys and girls to defend America against its enemies, foreign and domestic. Just being in this atmosphere raised my spirits. Wayne La Pierre had explained that the 2nd Amendment didn’t just give us the right to bear arms, but to bear them against a tyrannical government, like the Obama administration, for example. No wonder assault rifles were selling like hotcakes. We might have to stand shoulder with those little Appleseeds to fight off a gun-grabbing national government. I felt sorry my father wasn’t around today, when he might have had the firepower to send those FBI guys packing.
Finally I got around to asking a vendor about the dearth of handguns. “Can’t get ‘em,” he explained. “Everyone’s sold out because folks are afraid of what kind of bans are going to be passed.” This was essentially the story I had heard about assault rifles. The administration’s ill-conceived plan to frighten people about guns was clearly backfiring. In spite of the vendor’s warning, I did find a seller with a supply of 50 or so handguns, but his prices were roughly the same as Gander Mountain’s. By the time you added in the cost of a concealed carry class, the price of security was climbing out of reach.
Liberals were making it difficult for people like me. Besides advocating restrictions designed to make us feel guilty, the administration was creating false scarcity, a phony gun shortage aimed directly at the middle class. I narrowed my options to three: 1) I could take out a loan; 2) I could get a copy of a gun registration record, have it laminated in some durable material, and display in on my front door. This would be like those townships that can’t afford radar but display the sign anyway. It’s pretty effective and much less costly; or 3) I could steal a weapon. I was definitely making progress sorting things out and I would keep trying. Wayne La Pierre would be proud of me.