The Dixie Knife and Gun Show
BY STAN GOFF
Being one of the few progressives in the Carolinas with both expertise in the field of firearms and long experience with those who make them a fetish, I try to stay current on the gun controversy. As part of my continuing education, last summer I went to the Dixie Knife and Gun Show at the N.C. State Fairgrounds in Raleigh.
When I got there, I was shocked by the normalcy of the crowd. I had expected a militia scene. But there were more women than men, plenty of children in tow, and a fair degree of racial diversity.
I noticed there were no guns, no knives, no military paraphernalia. There was everything else, though, from watermelons to designer doghouses. It looked like a flea market.
I stopped at a stand that sold funnel cakes and asked, "Where's the guns?"
"Oh, that's over there," a gentleman said, pointing to the building a quarter-mile away. "This is a flea market."
Approaching the arena with the sign "Dixie Knife and Gun Show," the crowd got whiter, more camouflaged, more tattooed and more male (although there were a number of women).
By the time I reached the door, there were no black people in sight. A blonde-headed woman was talking to a big-bellied man. She was wearing her revolver openly on a hip holster. Chrome with Pachmeyer grips and a thumbless hammer. A real custom piece.
These technical details -- with their lexicon-checkered stocks, hollow-point boattails, light gathering optics, closed bolts, muzzle brakes and calibers enough to fill a logarithm -- are the social currency among gun people. Gun-people bond around these conversations, like other people bond around football or serial dramas.
I was immersed in it when I was on active duty with the Army. I had to be. For a time, I was even the sniper training coordinator and senior instructor for 2nd Battalion, 7th Special Forces. This was real precision shooting, where you might hold off 10 inches right of the bull at 1,000 yards in response to the pressure of the wind on your right cheek, and fire a specially loaded, match-quality round.
So I circulated around the gun show, asking how much that Ranch model, blued, .223 Mini-14 is, what is the muzzle velocity on this .300 Win Mag, and don't you experience problems with failure to feed when you use that 40-round magazine? Instant friendship. They could have taken me home.
Confederate flags were in abundance. At least 10 tables sold some rendition of the flag. The first thing I encountered walking in was the table for the Dixie Cotton Exchange. It was actually three tables abreast, laden with signs, bumper stickers, and license plates that revered the South, the Confederacy, the Stars and Bars.
And they had a sideline. Nazi paraphernalia. Insignia, patches, flags, medals, daggers, helmets and rank chevrons. Side by side with the Confederate flags, there was a message there. The sign outside that prohibited cameras and camcorders began to make sense. One bumper sticker stood out at another stand. You have your "X" (a reference to the "X" hats popular after the film Malcolm X), and I have mine, with a picture of the Confederate battle flag, its stars and bars arranged in their "X".
Gun fanatics do not want their public image tarred with overt racism; it's bad politics. But I've never been to a "gun event" where white supremacy, both the Aryan and Confederate variety, wasn't on open display. No generalizations, just my own experience.
At one table, a woman with her husband was asking a dealer if they could buy guns without signing anything. No, the dealer told her. A licensed dealer must notify the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms of every sale, but the computer background check only takes a couple of minutes. No, she insisted. They needed to find untraceable weapons.
The dealer openly sympathized with her. Thank Bill Clinton for this rule, he said, but my hands are tied. If you need guns without a record of the sale, he advised her confidentially, you need to buy used weapons from private individuals. That's between you and them. He winked. She thanked him, the disappointment still visible in her face and her husband's.
The most overwhelming impression from the gun and knife show was the vast quantity of guns. And for every one on display, there were stacked boxes of the same models under the tables. One should really go to one of these shows just to appreciate the size of this industry.
One older black man passed me inside. He had purchased a lever-action .32 Winchester rifle with very prominent dovetail sights. It's a deer-hunting rifle. My father owned one exactly like it, and my brother hunts with it to this day.
The only other black faces in the crowd were three teenage boys. They were intensly fascinated with some cheap, stamped-metal submachine guns. They didn't notice the predator stares from around the room.
Besides guns and knives and Confederate-Nazi paraphernalia, there were abundant military supplies. There were special surveillance optics for both day and night. There were SWAT vests, tactical holsters, combat load carrying equipment, high-capacity magazines, camouflage nets, uniforms, sniper guns, and hundreds of manuals on how to plan small unit operations, how to escape and evade, how to build bombs and explosive booby traps, and how to build tactical hide sites.
Guns are in the news because of the recent shootings in Littleton and Atlanta, and because of the Aryan Nation attack on Jewish children. Gun people are vigorously defending the Second Amendment from every perceived threat. In public, it's a constitutional issue.
However, again from my own experience, the majority of the people I have come into contact with who are most emotional on this gun issue, are preparing for race war or armed rebellion -- or both. Nothing I saw in this show served to disabuse me of this impression.
At least 600 people were roaming around in there before noon on Sunday, and they were perfectly comfortable among the swastikas and the bomb-building manuals and the assault rifles that are a few file strokes away from being fully automatic. One can be assured that they already own guns -- lots of them. We should think about the somber implications of that.
Thinking about this, I decided to take liberals to task for putting their heads in the sand.
Switzerland has a standing universal military reserve, with hundreds of thousands of fully and semi-automatic weapons in private homes. Their murder rate is so low it is negligible.
Norway had 130,000 assault rifles in private homes between 1971 and 1987, during which there were eight murders. Mexico, which has positively draconian gun control laws, during the same period, had a murder rate that was 35 times as high as Norway.
Washington, DC, with some of the tightest gun laws in the country, has a murder rate 162 times as high. Gun people will tell us this, often for purely demagogic reasons, and often with a crass racist agenda, but the argument can't be simply swept away.
Liberals must be honest enough to respond to the question, why? Simply going head-to-head with conservatives over gun control policy is misguided at best, and a red herring at worst.
When we say that the availability of guns is responsible for high levels of lethal violence, the gun people tell us that guns don't kill people, people kill people. H.L. Mencken once advised some of his cronies that the way to expose the chicanery of one's opposition is not to fight them when they are right. We would do well to heed this advice.
The psychology and sociology of violence can tell us a great deal more about gun violence than this pig-headed policy fight over interpretation of the Second Amendment.
Individualism as dogma conforms to our economic norms. The pillars of the American individualist conviction are the apotheosis of the market, the refusal to take responsibility for history or its present-day consequences, poverty, racism, gender privilege and the uncritical reverence for all things military.
The aggressive (and unnecessary) preparation for war by this nation is mirrored by the preparation for war of people squeezed by economic insecurity, and lashing out at perceived threats to perceived privileges -- as males, as white people.
Conversely, the apparent helplessness of poor communities of color to stop the transplantation of their economic bases, to stop the roll back of partial gains won in the civil rights movement, breeds the hopelessness that accompanies the consequent devastation of those communities.
Neither do they perceive the police as protectors and servants, but as an occupying army. The economic voids are being filled by a violent underground economy that has embraced individualism and consumerism -- these are the etiology of violence, and the guns are merely the manifest symptom.
On the way to the gun show, I passed Central Prison. The state puts poor people in there, usually for crimes they really do commit. The state also murders people in there, again for crimes they generally have committed (with some very disturbing exceptions). African-Americans are vastly over-represented in that and every other prison in the country. We decry the loss of values, but we fail to decry poverty, that most profound form of systematic violence. Not a soul is in Central Prison for perpetuating poverty.
One public works jobs program paying living wages in South Carolina would do more to stem gun violence than the strictest of gun control laws. Don't shoot me (no pun intended). I am not advocating that guns not be monitored and controlled. I'm saying we are treating cancer with a Band-Aid.
Entertainment media have provided the right and left with a similar red herring of contention over guns. Gun violence has been a mainstay of the entertainment industry. But we have to understand that entertainment is a commodity in a wide-open consumer culture.
Liberals should be honest enough to say that entertainment commodities that glorify gun violence are reflections of the society, and conservatives need to be honest enough to admit that entertainment reflects values but in doing so also reproduces those values. It's not either-or. And again, it misses the point.
What separates our society from Switzerland and Norway is our intensely violent history and our national predisposition to solve problems by force.
And the Swiss and Norwegians have elements of functional social democracy with comparatively little inequality and poverty, a massive social safety net, an equal and high quality public education system that emphasizes critical thinking over test scores, and thus immunizes much of the population from the siren call of consumerism.
Economic insecurity is a very distant threat. In short, the cooperative impulse is still more powerful than the competitive impulse. The community impulse is still stronger than individualism. So their guns go to the range or lay in their bureau drawers, unraised in anger.
Competitive individualism is our barren and lonely credo. It has cut us off from one another. It has pit us against one another. In its extremity, that alienation has become paranoia and its political cousin, fascism -- or nihilism and the blood orgy of Littleton.
I went to the gun show to bolster my case for stricter gun control. Instead, I discovered that I and other progressives are on the wrong case. The problem is far deeper and more frightening than a policy debate. A lot of your neighbors are preparing for war.
Stan Goff retired from the Army in 1996. Most of his career was spent in Special Operations. He is writing a book about the Haiti intervention of 1994 in which he participated. He lives and works in Chapel Hill, N.C.