Out-of-state residents can purchase firearms in Arizona read the sign behind the counter at Sprague's Sports in Yuma. ask us how. I asked a clerk named Ron for details. He was short, packed solid as a ham, with a crew cut and a genial demeanor. He pointed to the cavalcade of hunting rifles lined up on the long wall behind him. "Any of these you can get today—or these over here," he said, leading me to a corner of the store where two young men in ball caps and a woman with a sparkly purse were admiring a selection of AK-47's.
"You have to admit this is pretty badass," the one man was saying. He had a carbine shorty perched on his hip, Stallone-style.
"I don't know," the woman said. "To me, it looks mean."
"It's supposed to look mean."
"They should make it in pink," she said. "Wouldn't that be cute?"
"You're shitting me."
"They should make it in Hello Kitty!" she said. "I would totally buy it if it was Hello Kitty."
"Sweet holy crap," the other man said. "That would be the worst possible death. Can you imagine? Shot dead by a Hello Kitty semiauto."
It was difficult to tell if Ron was listening in on any of this; both of us had our lips pulled back in pretend smiles. "Now, what can I show you?" he asked me while the one guy went on faking his bad death and the woman continued her torture with something about rainbow-colored bullets.
I didn't really want to buy an assault rifle, or even a handgun, but I was curious to know what buying one felt like, how the purchase worked, what-all was involved. Nobody in my circle back east had guns, nobody wanted them, and if anybody talked about them, it was in cartoon terms: Guns are bad things owned by bad people who want to do bad things. About the only time the people where I come from thought about guns was when something terrible happened. A lunatic sprays into a crowd and we have the same conversation we always have: those damn guns and those damn people who insist on having them.
I had come to Arizona, the most gun-friendly state, to listen to the conversation the rest of America was apparently having. One in three Americans owns a gun. About 59 million handguns, 46 million rifles, and 28 million shotguns—nearly 135 million new firearms for sale in the U.S. since 1986. We are the most heavily armed society in the world. If an armed citizenry is a piece of our national identity, how is it that I'd never even met it?
In Arizona, anyone over 18 can buy an assault rifle, at 21 you can get a pistol, and you can carry your gun, loaded or unloaded, concealed or openly, just about anywhere. The IHOP was said to be the only restaurant in Yuma that prohibited you from bringing your gun in. "Needless to say, most of us won't eat there," Ron said. On the rack behind him, assault rifles stood stupid as pool cues, black and blocky, with long magazines protruding erotically this way and that.
"I'm kind of surprised you carry assault rifles," I said to Ron.
"There's no such thing as an assault rifle," he said. "These are 'military-style rifles' or 'modern sporting rifles.' "
"But they're assault rifles," I noted. I knew that much from TV.
"Assault is one of the worst things the media has ever done to us," he said. "Have any of these rifles ever assaulted anyone?"
He went on to say I could buy as many of them as I wanted and walk out with my arsenal today. "These guns have helped our industry tremendously," he said. "They've attracted a whole new generation.... Is there one you want to try?" He brought down a Colt AR15-A3 tactical carbine, slammed in an empty magazine, and handed it to me. It felt disappointingly fake, an awesome water pistol, perhaps, or a Halloween prop. I asked if I would need to tell him why I wanted to buy a gun like that or what I intended to do with it. He squinted and smiled and appeared politely speechless. "Would you have to do what, now?" he asked.
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