They say that there are more guns in America than human beings and most of them seemed to be at Shot Show in Las Vegas last week.
Shot (Shooting Hunting Outdoor Trade) Show — the firearms industry’s biggest shop window — occupied several floors of a building roughly the size of Wembley Stadium, wedged between a couple of casinos and a replica of the Grand Canal. Like a kleptomaniac at Harrods, I didn’t know what to try out first. I was momentarily torn between being Dirty Harry (at the Smith & Wesson stand, with the most powerful handgun in the world) and James Bond (I couldn’t find the Walther PPK, it seems to have given way to the PPQ).
Winchester, Springfield, Beretta, Glock, Sig Sauer, Mossberg, Heckler & Koch: how could I not be bewitched by the sheer poetry of such names? Not to mention the nostalgia of tucking a classic Colt six-shooter or two in my belt. But Che Guevara, I thought, and other fans of the classic AK-47 might have been shocked to come across the very glitzy Kalashnikov USA stand (‘Russian tradition, American innovation’).
Maybe it was the smell of powder or gun oil, but there was definitely an aphrodisiac quality to Shot Show. I kid you not when I say that a higher than normal proportion of the women there struck up a conversation with me. They weren’t all trying to sell me extra ammo, either. ‘Honey, if I had hair like yours, I’d be a real bitch,’ said one smoking gun-toter. But the truth is I only had eyes for Amanda Lynn Mayhew. Amanda is a hunter and a fitness fanatic (she actually owns a magazine called Fytness Fanatik) who is in training for a bodybuilding competition: ‘Doing a lot of tightening and toning.’ She works for the Department of Natural Resources in Canada and regularly shoots moose and deer and bear in northern Ontario.
I watched promotional movies of people creeping up behind assorted critters and then posing with their dying victims, grinning their heads off. Amanda Lynn Mayhew made a pretty good case for the necessity of this sort of hunting, with a view to stopping deer from taking over the world. But I still found myself crying out, from time to time, ‘At least leave the bloody buffalo alone!’
There is an interesting split here in the gun-owning community. Amanda swore by her rifle (Weatherby Vanguard), but disdained the pistol. The hunters are wary of the urban cowboys. The best-selling novelist Lee Child, who was signing books at the 5.11 Tactical stand, similarly heaped scorn on the theory of ‘personal defence’ (with the stress on the ‘de-’) in a home invasion. ‘All the FBI guys point out that civilians with guns in practice never succeed in seeing off home invaders. They’re always too groggy, or they forget where the gun is.’
Jack Reacher, Child’s muscular protagonist, is no kind of trigger-happy hero. If the gun-lovers who queued around the block to buy a signed copy of Make Me read the book carefully, they will discover that its protagonist never reaches for a gun unless he really has to. He only carries a folding toothbrush, for goodness sake. As a rule he prefers to hospitalise bad guys with his elbows, or just head-butt them to death.
Trigger-happy heroes were, however, in attendance at Shot Show’s NRA enclave. A lot of them. They are all constitutional experts, although they had a tendency to zero in specifically on the Second Amendment. They didn’t like Hillary Clinton much. There was a general consensus that it was unpatriotic not to bear arms. I came within a whisker of signing up. There was a special deal on and they were throwing in a free subscription to American Rifle. I too wanted to ‘Stand and Fight’ (as their slogan has it) — is that so bad?
But Lee Child scoffed. ‘Right-wing politics in the USA has lost any connection with reality. “If everyone had guns in their pockets then there would be no more mass shootings” — that’s cobblers. No one has ever stopped one of these mass shootings. It’s all just toys for boys. Or fashion accessories.’
I couldn’t find my way out of the show; I had to ask somebody. Maybe there is no way out, I had started to think. It seemed symbolic of the whole American gun debate. Whatever Obama may say about the need for stricter gun control, Shot Show is a microcosm of a locked-and-loaded nation, with the safety permanently off. As the ad says, this really is ‘Remington Country’. The simple fact that even I, a rank amateur, could go and kit myself out like Rambo — and I was seriously tempted by the multiple grenade launcher — is testimony to the militarisation of an entire society. Something like Sparta.
I am sympathetic to the neo-frontier spirit. I want to be a hero too. As I strolled up the Strip in the sun, courted by Elvis and Mickey Mouse and Scooby-Doo and Darth Vader, I thought I could understand the mentality even more. At the Venetian complex, I could take a gondola or climb St Mark’s Campanile. Or further up the street, visit the Eiffel Tower. Everything in Las Vegas is fake. Even the sky is a lie — a trompe l’oeil concoction straight out of David Copperfield’s box of tricks. It makes you want to reach for a gun.
Coincidentally, there would be a shooting on this street just a few hours later, outside the Bellagio Hotel & Casino. The Strip was sealed off but no one batted an eyelid.
Maybe the gun in America is the last refuge of truth. It is an exercise in hardcore empirical epistemology: like Dr Johnson kicking a stone, when you get hit by a bullet, you really know it. No more room for doubt. Maybe dousing myself in elk urine (I could have bought a bottle at the show, ‘with enhanced estrus’) and climbing a tree with a crossbow over my shoulder would make me feel more real for a while in a land of dreams and delusions and semi-naked ‘policewomen’ with big truncheons.
But then again, maybe gunplay is just another form of semi-automatic entertainment. Just as I was imagining myself as an NRA cowboy, so too the other gun show guests were passing themselves off as Jack Reacher or Tom Cruise or Amanda Lynn Mayhew. America is in thrall to a Hollywood fantasy, but with real bullets and actual blood.