American Gun Culture, Pacific style

By Cassandra Kolsen, Contributing Writer

The weight of the loaded Glock is greater than I had expected, certainly heftier than its ‘plastic’ reputation might lead one to assume. It’s mid-afternoon, Ross Eliot, editor-in-chief and publisher of American Gun Culture Report, a politically open-minded discourse magazine about firearms and protection of the Second Amendment, is giving us a quick rundown of basic handgun safety.

“A lot of design and engineering goes into making your hand feel comfortable on the trigger,” Eliot tells us initially. “Always be conscious of it. Remember to keep your finger off the trigger unless you mean to use it.”

Even when we all know a gun is unloaded, he is adamant. “Watch your finger. Keep it off the trigger. Do you know that’s safe? Always check. Whoa, watch where you point that; check the barrel a second time.”

It sounds so simple. But my finger is nervous. The power it suddenly holds is seductive, almost to the point of revulsion. Eliot says you probably aren’t going to kill somebody outright with a handgun, unless the victim is left to bleed to death. Somehow this information does not make it seem any safer.

Each of our party of four has already handled all of the three guns we will shoot, a Glock 17 (the full-size 9mm), a Springfield XD subcompact, and a SigSauer 220 (a .45).  Now, with real bullets in their chambers, the tools have become their own entity.

The English Pit is a public outdoor shooting range in Vancouver, Wash., that has been around since the 1940s. It is exactly what the name describes — a pit of gray sand and gravel, outfitted for target practice. At the entrance, a cheerful man in a blue button-down shirt patterned with sailboats and lighthouses takes our money, makes sure everyone is equipped with eye and ear protection, and goes over the rules. He winks when he tells us to have a good time.

Since this is the Pacific Northwest, great trees sway around the pit’s top perimeter, creating a giant globe of nature. Their roots sprout a story or two above our position, their branches rustling in the wind is the only sound aside from gunshot. There are no birds, no insects. There is only silence broken by random, frequent explosions and plants touching in the movement of nature.

My first shot is with the Glock, chunky and awkward in my grasp. I close one eye, aim down the barrel.  Gently I caress the trigger, trying to gauge how much it will take without reacting. It fights back, as tense as I am, wary of what is to come. I pull harder. Even knowing what will happen, the force of the shot is shocking.


Squaring up, I hold my arms, my wrist steady. I cock my head and keep both eyes open.  My index finger is electric. It happens again. This time I let slip a little blasphemy. Already I smell sulfur on my person, thick and sweet.

I’m glad we are the only group shooting, having forgotten how easily startled I am, especially now, armed and wasting bullets. Eventually I hit the target. I am beginning to feel the ground beneath my feet. My stance is steady.  If the shock of the expelling bullet gets me every time, at least I begin to feel the trigger, begin to know where it pulls and when.

Of the three pistols, the Springfield is my favorite. Light and compact, it fits into my palm the best. This would be an easy weapon to conceal. The Glock, despite its thug reputation, is unwieldy, hard. The .45 is notably the most powerful, I can feel the bullet being propelled, the force of it moving through my whole body, out my feet and back into the ground where its metal came from.

As I stand aiming, I keep thinking to follow-through, like in sports. Follow the shot through. Relax. Let the gun fire, retract, be one with the explosion. But it is not a ball loose by only the force of my own hand. There is smoke, there is fire. There is a very loud bang. Aside from a slip of my index finger, these actions are out of my control. I have nothing to do with it — the gun will follow-through, or not, of its own volition.

American Gun Culture Report, Issue No. 1 has a picture of a girl smiling at the camera while happily hugging an AK-47 on its cover. First printed in December 2006, Ross Eliot wrote the then-zine completely on his own, as a tool to garner attention and support for his project.

Now in the fifth issue, the Report is full-size, in color and black-and-white, has several contributors, and is sold in several major cities across the country. Perhaps because it is not specifically conservative, most people call it liberal. Undeniably, it has a counter-culture skew. But while it does not cater to the exclusive audience to which most other gun press speaks, it also does not seek to exclude them.

“I was the guy looking for the alternative gun magazine,” Eliot says, cleaning guns on his dining room table. Shooting fills a gun’s barrel with gunk and powder. The solvent to remove it reeks of pure alcohol.

Most gun press are very much the same. Right wing, male dominated, sales driven. This is not only regressive, states AGCR’s mission statement, it is boring, and AGCR promotes journalism outside these social confines.

“I will frequently meet people who don’t fit into stereotypes … who tell me none of their friends know they have a gun, they don’t want to be associated with people who own guns, but have a gun under their bed,” Eliot says. “I want to create an environment for people like that to come out and really connect.”

To some, says Eliot, the social stigma of gun ownership suggests irresponsibility, and becomes a thing to defend.

“I am trying to make the gun culture more interesting. A lot of people, for whatever reason, don’t feel comfortable identifying with mainstream gun culture. I’m working on expanding what that definition is, with what a gun owner is.”

“Of course, it is all highly political,” he says. “It is just about impossible to be a gun owner without being in some way political.”

Another way of putting this can be found among AGCR’s frequently asked questions:

Your magazine glorifies nothing but liberal crackpots and leftist traitors. Why are you wasting my time with this Commie bullshit?

Answer: “AGCR does appeal mostly to people outside the political mainstream, many of whom are self identified leftists or Communists even. However, Libertarians and anarchists form a significant portion … of AGCR’s fan base as well … you probably didn’t notice our Myspace page lists as “heroes” several figures commonly venerated by the extreme right. At AGCR, our bullshit is equal opportunity.”

Eliot wears Soviet boots and a hooded sweatshirt with a patch of the Virgin Mary across the back. He bought his first gun compelled by a feeling of social responsibility, deeply impacted by the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

“It really drove into me the causes of social violence,” Eliot says. “It was the most efficient genocide, and not with atomic bombs, not with gasses. That most people killed happened [without] modern weapons … that really impacted me.”

It occurred to him that “maybe all you need is a rifle, and that’s going to be enough to dissuade a much larger group of people with machetes.”

His handguns are disassembled, spread out between us on the table. People choose to own guns for reasons from personal defense to sport. Some are afraid to go to the grocery store unarmed, and others keep their guns and bullets locked in separate safes.

Street Roots reporter Cassandra Koslen.

“(Shooting) is fun,” he says, “the same kind of fun you might get from skipping a rock, or any other act like that. … The main thing that compels me about guns isn’t really about guns at all, but the larger social equations they bring up.  When people talk about firearms, they end up talking about power in society and who has it, and that is what got me into this. … I like guns, but I am preoccupied with the larger picture.”

He continues, on into the night, the solvent and several beers easing the conversation along.

“We talk about such gut level instances when we talk about why people might want to own a gun. Self-defense is a human right — in some cases people will chose safety over food. Even though those aren’t the circumstances we live in, these things happen from time to time. And people want to be able to defend themselves in a situation.”

“Right,” I say, “like when the zombies attack.”

Eliot nods. “Zombies are a metaphor for some sort of social breakdown. Zombies are fanciful, but in some ways it deflects thinking about some really hard issues; in a lot of ways it is preferable to thinking about a situation where there no water, and people are going to steal mine.

“People often try to turn the equivalence of force into a moral argument, until it becomes paralyzing. It has to come down to on-the-moment judgments. When it comes down to it, force works both ways, it works for the good, it works for the bad.”

Gun culture in Portland today

My favorite picture yet to grace the cover of AGCR is of Eliot’s grandmother, smiling and holding a Glock in front of her apartment building. Her knuckles are swollen with age, her hand twisting confidently around the piece. Grandma knows not to slip her finger in the trigger without intending to use it.  Grandma has held a gun before.

Across America, most anyone over 18 with a record clean of serious felonies can legally own a gun. Growing up outside a very violent city taught me that pulling out a gun was a good way to get shot. It also taught me that learning about them is smart. I support the Second Amendment. Extra commas be damned, I believe “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

The current issue, No. 5, is my second issue with the magazine, and going to the English Pit is only the second time I’ve ever shot. The first was under the most opposite of circumstances. That time I held a shotgun in somebody’s back yard, wore no protection (I may even have been barefoot), and my basic instruction was how to aim, and how not to break my shoulder. Later, drunk, a group of us cheered as one of my friends bulls-eyed a watermelon near a bonfire.

Guns are a means of control, and the very human fear that perpetuates legal battles over who can and cannot own them is fascinating. American culture — the undercurrent of revolution, the notion it is a good idea to keep an armory in case of an ever-impending survival scenario, be it nuclear, the undead, or the Great Tribulation — is sick with that fear.

Deciding who can own a gun is as significant as deciding those deemed worthy of the responsibility. Is it just for criminals to be denied the right to arm themselves? How far do states rights go; how organized must a community of gun owners be, could a husband and wife for instance constitute a militia?

I am not a paranoid person. I don’t own a gun. But I understand that the power of the state is in part due to the regulation of who does and who does not get to legally arm themselves, and the classism which ensues is a problem in our society.

Find out more about the American Gun Culture Report.

One response to “American Gun Culture, Pacific style

  1. Smack-dab what I was lokiong for—ty!

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