Guns and guns and guns in this huge space, a square room about 75 metres in each direction. Plain concrete flooring, plain beige walls, fluoros on high, the fading background of an expo centre. Trestle tables 20 by 20, aisles running beneath, back alleys and links, and spread along the most of them, guns, guns, guns. Rifles and shotguns in stand-up racks running for metres, pistols laid flat in their cases, semi-automatics on racks and cradles, their curved magazines slotted in.
Between the guns, knives. Tens upon thousands in glass cases, dainty flick, switch, butterfly with gaudy handles, neat working knives with plain bone handles, up to hunting knives, serrated edges, half a foot long, longer, brutal weapons. There are whole rows consisting of nothing but ammo stalls, piles of bullets, gleaming in clear baggies, there are gun repairers, disposal stores, with survivalist kits, home surgery kits, hand-powered generators, military rations and plain-covered manuals about how to stay hidden in the mountains. There’s a Susan G. Komen pink ribbon breast cancer stall and a couple of stalls selling pink pistols — money to the cause — and whole sections for lady gun owners, as well as a couple of jewellery and Body Shop-style places round the edges there for gals who aren’t pistol-packing mamas — there being more than a few of the latter, among the few hundred or so men circulating the room. The men divide, between tall, stacked and lean types in plain T-shirts and jeans and a whole lot of fat, old, bent and scraggly-hairy ones, who tend to favour military-style jackets and duck-hunting hats with anti-government buttons on the side.
The gals try out small snub-nose pistols, Berettas, etc, holstering and unholstering for practice, a few of the men are watching a guy strip and re-assemble a modified semi-automatic. “See. I like to use all the real estate of the gun,” one says to a crowd hanging on to his every word. This is a stall of modifieds, kept just within the legal limits — no machine guns — and he is clearly some sort of hero-figure. “So I can get a hundred rounds into this thing.” Later, I pick it up and hold it. It is a sort of sawn-off, half Kalashnikov, half Sten, light enough to wield with one hand, if you could get the hang of it, for all the situations where you need to fire off a hundred rounds without stopping in legitimate self-defence.
Talk wafts across the tables: “I got six of these different models, and I’m looking for a something something.” Six? Of the same make? How many guns does this guy own? An announcement comes across the PA. “The exhibition will be closing in 10 minutes, so if you’re going to buy a gun better do it now, so we’s can get the paperwork done.” Ten minutes is far more than you’ll need, because this is Kansas City, Missouri, a state where no background checks are required by “private gun sellers” — i.e. the branded businesses set up here — at gun shows and elsewhere. None at all. You can come here straight from Leavenworth prison down the road having done a 20-year stretch and pick up a pistol with the money they gave you to get back on the road. You can be off your meds for a week and wander out of the crisis clinic and be back on the street packing heat, in, well, less than 10 minutes. Many states are now trying to extend the background checks required of licensed gun sellers to all gun sales, and 15 states have done so. Missouri’s gone the other way, abolishing such a requirement in 2007. Since then, there have been 50 to 60 extra gun killings a year in the state. That is 350 dead, just over the total number of all murders in Australia in a year. But surrounded by the damn things, you can feel the intoxicating effect.
“Old ideas of isolationism are buried deep in the collective psyche, and the refusal of the CDC to impose a quarantine has caused dark muttering as to whether it’s America or Africa that Obama cares about more.”
The Kansas City knife and gun show — the knife sellers get antsy about being left out — is, unsurprisingly, no hotbed of Democratic support. There are signs — ”Biden ’15” and “Ebola” with the Obama round blue-and-red logo substituted for the “O” — that verge on the alarming, even the innocuous ones. “Stop Obama trashing the country,” one reads, but it is sandwiched next to a sign saying, simply, “Buy a Gun!”. The sheer, em, overshoot so many guns in the one place gives this place based around merchandise of the most real potential impact, a fantasy air, a touch of Comic-Con. The racks and racks of guns appear less a display than a set of walls against the world. That bit in The Matrix where all the guns appear at once out of nothingness — it’s all like that, something put up against the mundane world of Holiday Inns and car parks, freeways and Olive Gardens outside.
Given the overall clientele you think they’d be happy about the array of forces in the upcoming election. You’d be wrong. ‘”They ain’t worth a pinch of … y’ll have to excuse me, I won’t finish that sentence,” says Jim, behind his knives and camouflage backpacks.
The dissatisfaction is a measure not only of the general downturn towards politics on the Right — with the fading of the Tea Party, nothing that really expresses a transformative hope is on the agenda — but also perhaps a specific disappointment with the way that this election is going. For though things still look dire for the Democrats, and the Senate is most likely gone, they appear to be fighting back, inch by inch, one-tenth of a percentile by the next. That has been despite some extraordinary bad luck and bad handling of national affairs by the White House and the gaffe-prone nature of not a few Democratic candidates. Having entered the election with the Islamic State crisis dominating the news, and played on for fear value to the point where it is the question most aspiring congresspeople had to answer in TV interviews, those brutal ninjas gave way to Ebola about 10 days ago.
The CDC was unquestionably incompetent and indecisive, but much of the failure was at the state level. But it all got sheeted home to the President, and every states’ rights enthusiast suddenly becoming an advocate of big government. Ebola has hit the bullseye on every target you could want — distrust of government, distrust of science and experts, and finally, a belief that Obama is so internationalist that he would prefer to see Americans die than act to “secure the borders” by banning all entry of people flying from afflicted west Africa. In vain has the government pointed out that there are no direct flights from Ebola-hit west Africa, that other citizens coming in and out of west Africa through Lagos or Nairobi may be carriers, and that the best way to stop a global epidemic is to arrest it at the source. Old ideas of isolationism are buried deep in the collective psyche, and the refusal of the CDC to impose a quarantine has caused dark muttering as to whether it’s America or Africa that Obama cares about more.
The issue has gone live again by the decision of New Jersey governor Chris Christie to impose a quarantine on medical staff returning from west Africa — which resulted in a nurse hustled out of Newark airport to a hospital, where she was housed in a tent in the car park, with no heating, as “a precautionary measure”. Precautionary to Christie’s renewed election hopes, one imagines, but it has forced New York to follow suit, and it has simply made an end-run round the Democratic President. If the measures result in a fall in medical staff going to Africa, then it will simply make the situation worse, but that is a complicated argument to make.
And in fact, the Christie stand did not last long. After protests by aid groups, the general public, and after the nurse herself phoned CNN from her tent to point out that she had no symptoms and her current treatment was worse than being in Liberia, Christie — and Andrew Cuomo in New York — backed down, allowing her to leave for self-imposed period of self-monitoring at her family home in Maine. “Her conditions of quarantine remain in force,” Christie noted, keeping a straight face.
It’s another example of the limited effectiveness of many Republican political feints.
For all the Koch brothers’ money going into attack ads, the Republicans have stalled. In Kansas, just across the river from Kansas City, a deep-red state for half a century, both the GOP Senator Pat Roberts and Republican governor Sam Brownback are struggling. Roberts is fighting toe-to-toe with an independent — i.e. ex-Republican, mainstream — named Greg Orman, who is really running against Roberts because of the latter’s social conservatism. But the advertising on his behalf is largely targeting Roberts as a time-serving insider — how many meetings he missed, how many pay rises he voted for. The shots back the other way portray a vote for Orman as a vote for Obama, but that doesn’t seem to be frightening many people off, since Orman has said he won’t caucus with either party unless they remove their current Senate leaders. Brownback’s difficulties are even more interesting, because he is a hardcore Tea Partier who proudly announced that the state would be an experiment and model for small-government-led prosperity. Result? He sacked thousands of public servants, slashed the tax base and spending — but attracted no new major business (it’s Kansas!) and sucked demand out of the economy. Kansas has thus fallen back into recession and had its credit downgraded. A beautifully simple ad has a hole in the ground in long focus, with dirt flying out and a shovel appearing and disappearing, as stats on the Brownback disaster scroll through. At the end, someone walks up and yells down it, “Hey, don’t you think you should stop digging?”. It seems a majority of Kansans believe so, and will vote for Paul Davis, a down-the-line Democrat, tied to Obamacare, amnesty for illegal aliens, etc, etc, come November 4.
“My own assessment of the Tea Party — whose thousands of groups are now mainly ghost sites on the internet — was that they died because much of it was fiction and fantasy, and the slow work of mass politics killed the fizz … “
That single result would show the tenuous position of the Republican Party, their false belief that they had won these states on cultural grounds and wouldn’t lose them back. It’s giving the Democrats hope that if the GOP lose Kansas and Georgia, the offset will be sufficient to hold the numbers in the upper house to 49-51, or 50-all. A victory in Georgia by Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of a former Georgia Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, on some issues the most liberal member of the Senate in his era, would be an equally shocking upset, since it would bring forward the Democrats’ “new south” (or “new new south”) strategy, whereby North Carolina and Georgia are detached from the Republican South on the basis of shifting demographics — a black middle class moving there, new tech and finance sector jobs in the big cities, and a separation from the inland agrarian southern states, overly dependent on agriculture and small towns and cities. To take Georgia now would prepare it for 2016 — and to make it a key battleground state, should say, hmm, a southern woman, a southern white woman, be the candidate, that would all but destroy Republican hopes for the presidency.
So it’s nice and warm in the gun show, where these complexities don’t figure. Indeed there were a few stalls for political groups — though no Tea Party, a measure of their further decline — and I ran into a fairly lo-fi group called “Overpasses for America”. The name is no metaphor — these groups are coalesced around the activity of standing on freeway overpasses, holding up signs urging people to “impeach Obama”, “take back the country”, etc. That’s it. That’s all they do, every weekend or so. I’d seen them a day ago, on the route in — on a Greyhound bus that would have been their nightmare, rollicking, multi-hued and reeking of weed — about half a dozen of them braving the cold and indifference on an overpass from nowhere to not very much. At the gun show, they were cagey, the leader, Fred, too-neat, worried that I would “misquote” him. “We’re just a bunch of folks trying to get the country back to the constitution.” The leaflet was a bit crazier, blathering on about impeachment, Benghazi, Common Core — the nationwide minimum curriculum standards, seen as mass indoctrination — and blaming Obama for the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security. So were they Tea Party? “No, but we don’t disagree with them, but they’ve been crippled by the IRS inquiries. So we operate under the radar, see? No money, no fixed place. We pop up in different places each week.”
My own assessment of the Tea Party — whose thousands of groups are now mainly ghost sites on the internet — was that they died because much of it was fiction and fantasy, and the slow work of mass politics killed the fizz, but the Overpassers are having none of it. “See,” says Fred, “the original revolution only involved 3% of Americans, and that’s all it takes. So” — he stretches his hands expansively round the gun space — “if we could convert all of these people to constitutional government, then that’s our revolution”. “But you never will,” I say. “The best you can do is shift things a little. Are you ready for a political life that does nothing but that? Would that be enough over 10, 20, 30 years?” A pause “Well, I guess so.” Another pause. “But if we could convert people like these people here …”
I left them to their packing up, said I had to go buy a gun quickly, to shoot my dog. They didn’t hear or didn’t understand that last bit. The last thing Fred told me was that he worked for the public library system, and proudly so. “You need public libraries, because private libraries can censor the material they hold.” Thus, a man whose ideas on the matter of his work, his area of expertise, match those of any sensible centrist and leftist. But give him a clipboard and a hand-out copy of the constitution, and he is lost to fantasy, the American Right coming apart like a dum-dum bullet, but well-defended as the psychoanalysts say, behind guns, a wall of guns, a castle of guns, stacked high to the prairie sky.