Johnny, Get Your Gun?

One American's journey to (maybe) keeping and bearing arms in Rhode Island.
Illustration by Vincent Zawada.

I’ve never been a gun person. i didn’t grow up around them.

I was never particularly interested in them. Furthermore, the culture around guns — or at least the stereotypical American gun culture, as I perceived it — is something I always found off-putting: aggressive, maximalist, militaristic, even fetishistic.

My own admittedly skewed preconception of gun culture is personified in a photo from the horrible events on January 6: A man standing alone, Trump flag draped over his shoulder and assault rifle slung across his chest. He’s wearing a tactical vest with a gas mask dangling from his neck. But the part that will haunt me forever is that he chose to complete that outfit with shorts and sandals.

I have so many questions. Who could possibly think it’s acceptable to pair a weapon of war with open-toed footwear? Is this guy too nonchalant about carrying a firearm or too aggressive about going to the beach? In what situation could one possibly be in danger of getting shot or teargassed, but not be in danger of stubbing a toe?

He was a flagrant one-man pastiche of all the most distasteful cliches of gun ownership: the pseudo-militaristic cosplaying, the cavalier weekend-warrior attitude, the oppositional-defiant politics and dick-swinging bravado. Those aspects of the culture are significant reasons why I had always been perfectly content not to exercise my constitutionally enshrined right to keep and bear arms.

Well, there isn’t one moment or particular situation that caused me to reevaluate gun ownership, but I might trace it back to the start of the pandemic.

In times of great turmoil and change, gun sales spike. It’s particularly common around presidential elections. When Democrats are ascendant — as with Obama in 2008 — there is a sort of panic-buying in anticipation of the progressive nanny state coming to take everyone’s guns. But it happens when Republicans are elected too — perhaps to celebrate?

The pandemic put all previous gun rushes to shame; 2020 shattered the prior record for annual sales set in 2016. Nearly five million Americans purchased a firearm for the first time. And, this January, Americans purchased more guns than in any single month on record, says Ammoland Shooting Sports News. (Perhaps a violent insurrection against Congress live on national television makes folks a bit squirrely about safety.)

Lest we delude ourselves that this gun fever was quarantined in the red states, last March, Rhode Island led the nation with the highest percentage increase in background checks — generally considered a proxy for gun sales — and was near the top again in April, per a report from the FBI.

For the first time, I wonder: Should I own a gun? I have a home, a family. Do I need to be prepared to protect them with lethal force?

I find myself examining an increasingly polarized America with a deep political divide at its center and realizing that one side pretty much has all the guns. I don’t necessarily fear for my safety, but I’d be lying if I said I’m not at least a little uneasy being on the unarmed side of that fissure.

Apparently, I am not alone. In 2017, the Rhode Island John Brown Gun Club was founded, a self-described “leftist working-class community defense organization.” And, during the early days of the pandemic, the Boston Globe reported on the crowds rushing to Rhode Island’s gun stores: “They saw people new to gun ownership, some of whom John Francis of Competition Shooting Supplies in Pawtucket described as ‘liberal progressives’ who told him they wouldn’t have considered buying a gun six months earlier.”

Here’s the thing: I’m a forty-year-old white male homeowner, married with two children, living in the most gun happy nation on the planet. America wants me to have a gun. Everything in our society not-so-subtly defaults towards making it as easy and appealing as possible.

I decide to at least explore the possibility of exercising my Second Amendment rights. I put in a call to a friend, an avid firearm enthusiast who lives in Vermont, a state where the junior senator — the not-at-all junior Bernie Sanders — estimates that roughly half of households own guns. (In Rhode Island, it’s less than 20 percent, according to the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence.) Because this friend’s life and career tend to hover in what we might call legal gray areas, I will withhold his real name and refer to him instead by his preferred nom de guerre, Tom Phillips. (“Two Ls,” he insists.)

My first time firing a gun was under Tom’s enthusiastic yet diligent tutelage last summer. And what a first time it was. After a brief lesson in firearm operation and safety, we went full ’Murica: blowing up watermelons with an AR-10 (the bigger, heavier sibling of the famed AR-15) while listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd on a hemp farm on the Fourth of July. All we were missing was a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader jumping over us on a jet ski with a plate of buffalo wings. As far as first times go, it was akin to losing your virginity to a porn star on prom night.

“I’m thinking of buying a gun,” I tell him recently.

“Absolutely. You should buy a lot of guns,” he says, presumably on behalf of America and the Founding Fathers.

Not the carefully reasoned deliberation I was hoping for, but then, I know who I’m asking.

On Tom’s recommendation, I visit a local gun store he describes as “gun nerd Toys R Us.” The first thing I hear upon entering is a fragment of a conversation: “…you’re only allowed to own 25,000 rounds.”

“Only” is not necessarily the adverb I would choose for that sentence.

The place has enough firepower to outfit a small militia and close to a dozen staff members helping customers. I thought it might be a good place to gain insight and expert advice, to find the gun Jedi who would teach me the ways of the Force.

“I’m thinking of buying my first firearm. I know nothing about them and this is my first time in a gun store, so I’m really interested in learning as much as shopping,” I say to the gentleman behind the counter, expecting that he would ease me in.

“So what kind of gun do you want?”

I say I’m not sure, and reiterate that I am brand new to this.

“Well, what’s it for?”

“Peace of mind,” I respond, trying to sound cool. He seems satisfied, and I am glad I resisted the temptation to say it in a gravelly, Clint Eastwood-type voice.

In less than two minutes I have a 9-millimeter pistol in hand. God bless America.

I’m not sure what level of formality I was expecting — perhaps something like taking a Mercedes for a test drive — but I am a little surprised by how casually a deadly weapon is passed across the counter to someone who just admitted he knows nothing about them. The rack of shotguns sitting on the sales floor unattended also strikes me. If you want to grab a pack of razor blades at CVS, a sales associate has to come out and unlock them for you.

Perhaps a gun store isn’t the best place to wrestle with philosophical questions over gun ownership any more than a casino would be the right place to explore an intellectual curiosity about mathematical probability.

Eventually, through my North Providence “know a guy” roots, I find the firearm Sherpa I need to guide me up the mountain. Steve DiLorenzo is the founder and operator of Rising Shield Consulting, which provides security and threat evaluation, self-defense training and a variety of firearm education. He is a firearm enthusiast and strong believer in the Second Amendment but, above all, he’s a staunch advocate for personal safety, whether it’s from external threats or mishandling firearms.

“I believe everyone has the right to own a firearm and I strongly encourage everyone to be able to defend themselves,” he tells me. “But it’s up to you to make the decision about whether a firearm is right for you. I don’t try to pressure anyone. I just try to educate.”

Steve works with a variety of clients, both private and corporate, and notes that when it comes to individuals seeking his services, it’s increasingly not forty-something white men like me.

“A lot of my clients are women,” he says. “They want to feel safe. They want to know how to defend themselves.”