Guns

[Essay]

Stopping power, love, roasted pig

A day of fear, freedom and protest at the gun show and the gay rally

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Photo Illustration by Colleen Wang

Fred is trying to explain: It’s the sound of the stunner that does most of the work. When a bad guy comes my way, I just push the button on this 650-million-volt personal protection product that looks like a beeper, and—crackle—electricity will sizzle so loudly that evildoers will scurry away. So I push the button—zap!—and people all over the gun show turn to look. “See?” says Fred, the owner of Fred’s Survival Store, who seems genuinely concerned for my safety. “If the noise doesn’t scare him off,” he says, “three to five seconds of skin contact will have him flopping like a fish.” Even better, says a random fellow who also seems to be looking out for me here—if I were attacked from behind, I could reach down and hit the attacker “in the twins” with 650 million volts, which would, everyone seems to agree, incapacitate him. All this for $35. I decide to think about it.

It’s a nice Saturday and everyone in Cashman’s Claude Hall Gun Show—thousands, over the course of the weekend—waited 15 minutes in line and paid $13 to get in, and the exhibition hall rolls out before us like a dream bunker: row after row of ammo, handguns, rifles, swords, knives, stun guns, more ammo, backpacks, flare guns, MREs, nightsticks, more ammo, air guns, toy pistols, holsters, military patches, camouflage everything, scopes, lasers, books and bumper stickers: “Burglarproof your home: Get a gun” and “If you think healthcare is expensive now, wait till it’s free,” along with “Ban gay marriage” and “Dog and wife missing/Reward for dog.”

People are friendly. Another stranger, a middle-aged white guy, sees me eyeing a table full of handguns and says, “This is what you need, right here,” pointing to a .22 that folds into its own handle like a switchblade knife. “It would fit into your purse.” Folding it into its handle I immediately pinch my finger, drawing blood, and struggle to unclamp it. I definitely do not need this.

“Aw, it doesn’t have stopping power anyway,” says the dealer. That’s my third lesson of the morning. No. 1) A show of arms/electricity is sometimes as effective as killing; No. 2) guns have no business folding like switchblades; and No. 3.), despite what No. 1 says, you still need stopping power. I’ll hear it time after time: “What can I get my wife that has stopping power?” and “Does a .22 have enough stopping power to protect me from home invasion?” Stopping power.

In fact, the presence of this crowd is attributed in part to a fear that prez-elect Barack Obama has such stopping power. “I’m going to get what I can get my hands on before it’s too late,” says Mike Jameson, a construction worker with a dolly-cart full of ammo. “It’s the dawn of the militias, gentlemen,” he tells a group of friends, who laugh. A small sign at one table says, “Flare guns: Get them before Obama does,” and an NRA flier going around lays out Obama’s “Ten Point Plan,” which includes his alleged intent to “close down 90 percent of gun shops in America” and “ban the use of firearms for home self-defense.”

At the same time all of this looms, there’s the ongoing attack of illegal immigrants—of which I am reminded by a little old lady carrying a clipboard and wearing red, white and blue in front of a long table filled with fliers about Mexicans: “Officials Plot to Increase Number of Mexicans in the U.S.” and “One Dead Terrorist at a Time.”

Trouble on all sides. I pick up several handguns, deciding whether I like them based entirely on weight and design. Pearl handles are passé. Glocks are too square. There’s a little, but solid, Beretta .22 that feels about right. But in the course of visiting several tables, I’ve gleaned enough wisdom to realize that I need at least a .38—the bullet from a .22, it turns out, does not “pierce armor” and will “just bounce around inside the body.”

Fortunately, I’m delivered from this quandary by time. I look at my watch and remember that I have to be somewhere. I briefly consider stopping to buy the 650-million-volt personal stunner. But I decide against it because I know this is how it would play out: I’d be walking in a dark parking lot with my stunner in hand, a light breeze would brush my cheek, I’d panic, accidentally electrocute myself, fall to the ground, flop like a fish, pass out and get run over. The end.

It is just by happenstance that the gay-rights rally occurs on the same day. Happenstance is of course the magic confluence of wills that push and pull social change; in this case, the growing fears of gun lovers, criss-crossed with a long-brewing fear and loathing of homosexuals by the many, funneled most recently into to a ballot measure in California banning gay marriage. Combine that with the percolating frustration of gays and lesbians nationwide who want their right to marry, and you have yourself a hot day of American social turbulence in Las Vegas. I am to be at Commercial Center at 1:45, and as I drive, I take off the sweatshirt I had been wearing in the gun show to reveal my rainbow “I heart girls” T-shirt.

The Gay and Lesbian Community Center parking lot is filling up with people hoisting signs: “God made all of us equal!” and “Love is love!” People hug and dance music pumps from speakers by the stage. I see several friends and we kibbitz: Isn’t this great?!

A young woman shows up in a wedding veil. Two men appear in tuxedos, holding hands. Straight friends and family members show up. One man holds his infant up for a picture and tells me, “It’s her first protest.”

It’s a big gay crowd, by Vegas standards—more than 1,000—and the feeling is electric. But those who think gay relationships are less than straight relationships have already shown some stopping power, which is why we’re here. To object. Without weapons.

The Center offers copies of the letter it sent to leaders of the local Catholic and Mormon churches, whose members generously funded California’s anti-gay-marriage Prop 8.

In it, Thomas J. Kobach, president of the Center’s board of directors, says in part, “We intend through our rally tomorrow to advocate only love and humanity.” It goes on to specify that some 1,000 federal rights are given through marriage, and that gay couples are denied those rights unjustly. “I know that I do not need to tell you how much pain can be felt when a human being is denied a human right.”

Upon reading it, I ask a Center rep whether the gay community intends to boycott Mormon-owned businesses, which would, I suppose, constitute a more aggressive approach, something like stopping power, but not involving bullets, guns or 650 million volts to the twins, per se.

“Not yet,” is the answer.

Kobach takes the stage. He says, “We will do this peacefully, and we will succeed. … We are here because we’re angry. … But I will not fight hate with hate.”

The crowd cheers. I cheer. It’s like a lesson in American history unfolding in front of me: fear and war, fear and love. There are several ways to push and pull the lines in the social fabric, and the day plays out like a history of social progress. Unfinished, to be sure. Someone yells, “We’re not going to take this lying down!” to which a guy a few steps away from me quips to a good-looking guy beside him, “I’ll take it laying down.”

It all ends with a celebrity and a roasted pig. But of course it doesn’t end, not ever, that’s the point.

Comedian Wanda Sykes pops out of the crowd and says that, as a lesbian, she’s pissed off at Prop 8 and the ongoing state-by-state dismissal of gay marriage, and she plans to keep on speaking out about civil rights until it’s decided on a federal level.

I skip out on their march down Sahara. Filled with my share of exploring the Bill of Rights for one day—only an American could say that—my girlfriend and I go for a BBQ sandwich to cap off the Fourth of July mojo.

We are only a little afraid these days.

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