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I’m a British woman in America. Do I need to buy a gun?

After visiting gun shops out of curiosity, obtaining a firearm was surprisingly tempting – and very straightforward.

By Kara Kennedy

I’ve been to more gun shops in America than clothes shops. When I first got here, my frequenting of gun shops was mainly to poke fun at the dumb Americans who bought guns. Who were these monsters? What did they look like? My escapades were more to ensure that when my British friends and family visited and wanted to look at the infinite gun shops that line the streets, I would be in on the joke too. Then, a few months in, I realised it was likely that I myself would become an American who bought guns. 

Somewhere along the way, I just came to like guns. There were the cowboy-looking ones; the James Bond ones; the miserable, grumpy-farmer-looking ones; and the cartel-looking ones. I would unironically go into gun stores because everybody in those shops knows everything about each one and wants you to know everything. And I wanted to learn. Depending on which state the gun store is in (with a special shout out to West Virginia), the people in the gun store also really want you to have a gun too. “I don’t have the paperwork,” I said to one shop owner. “We’ll work something out,” he replied before pointing me to the ones I could “take home today”, the bolt-action rifles. (Pistols, or “short guns”, are regulated differently and more tightly. And even in America virtually nobody can get what gun people call a full automatic and normal people call a machine gun.)

When you first get here you think everyone has a gun. Then after a few months of asking everybody you meet, in hushed tones, “You have one?” and them looking at you like you have two heads and giggling the response, “No, I’ve never even held one,” you think that nobody has one – that you’ve been duped. If you even mention guns to young professionals on the East Coast, they start lecturing you about how evil they are. When this happens I nod Britishly and say things like, “You’re quite right,” when really all I wanted to hear was their thoughts on what shotgun they thought would look best with the heels I had on. I’ve come to learn that it’s somewhere in the middle. If someone has a gun, they usually have more than one. One friend has “over a dozen” loaded guns all around his house. Maybe he’s a bit paranoid, he acknowledged, explaining it’s something he learned from his dad, who was an undercover narcotics officer. 

When it was finally time, and I had gotten my driver’s licence for the required one month needed to obtain a firearm – that’s how they say it here – I went to the nearest gun shop to my house, aptly named GUNS. My ballad for buying my first gun was “Time to Get a Gun” by Fred Eaglesmith, with a masterpiece of a chorus that goes: 

Time to get a gun
That’s what I’ve been thinking
I could afford one
If I did just a little less drinking
Time to put something between
Me and the sun
When the talking is over
It’s time to get a gun

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GUNS is in one of those towns that doesn’t look as if it’s doing so well but at the same time has everything it needs. It looks like a little two-bedroom standalone house has been gutted out to sell guns, and, after a conversation with the gun store owner, I found out that’s exactly what happened. He lives in a little flat upstairs. 

The only decor inside was a sign that said “I’m not a racist – I think Obama’s white half sucks also”, and the only decor outside was a weird, mute kid sat on the bench. “Does he work here?” I asked the owner, who we’ll call John. “No, but I get a few of them. Kids that come in wanting to know about guns and not having many friends or other places to go.” And it wasn’t just kids. In the half hour I was talking to John, he answered a couple of phone calls from old men. Retirees. He told me: “These people work all of their lives and then they suddenly stop and realise that they have no friends. The only people they’d see each day were the ones they worked with. When they stop working, for some reason, they all come to me.” 

So John is half gun shop owner and half psychotherapist. When you walk into GUNS, whoever you are, he’ll give you a hard time. I walked in and seemed to get away with it, but he did make fun of my husband’s (admittedly awful) trainers. Later on in the conversation, he told me that that’s his trick: if you walk in his shop and can take a joke, can laugh along and even give it back, you can walk out with a gun. If you show any sign of being brittle or brutish, you’re out, and will have to buy a gun elsewhere. John figures using his insult-comedy first, gun-sales later method, he’ll never sell a weapon to a criminal.

John’s job is a thankless one. About half of the country wants to ban guns in some way or another, and gun shop owners are – at least in the court of public opinion – often blamed for the crimes that their guns go on to be used to commit. John doesn’t even want a gun shop. It was left to him by his parents and now the only way for him to retire is to offload some of the rare, antique guns he sleeps above. Until then, the most he can do, he feels, is keep the freaks of the town company, to stop them from doing whatever else it is that gun-loving freaks do. 

He doesn’t have to worry about me. I’m now the owner of two of John’s very nice guns. A .38-Special-calibre Colt Diamondback made in the late Seventies, and a reproduction of a lever-action Winchester 1873 rifle, the “gun that won the West”, made by an Italian company called Uberti. The problem is that the noise terrifies me and they are kind of heavy, so whatever I thought the guns were for – the deer in the garden, the squirrels chewing up my car’s electronics – the pair of them stay locked away in a cupboard until someone comes over and asks me, in hushed tones, “You have one?” In which case, I dust them off, get them out, ooh and ah, and then put them right back, ready for the next time. 

[See also: Posh, privileged and fraudulent: meet the slangster]

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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