Power  /  Book Review

Bang for the Buck

Three new books paint a more nuanced portrait of the American militias whose gun rights have been protected since the founding.

One of the greatest predictors of American gun ownership today is whether someone has been in the military: a veteran is more than twice as likely as a nonveteran to own one or more guns. Among the bumper stickers and signs at the gun show are JIHAD FREE ZONE and I’LL SEE YOUR JIHAD AND RAISE YOU A CRUSADE; the latter shows a bloody sword. Many a vet is strolling the aisles, happy to talk about fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. The first of the chain of mass shootings that have bedeviled the United States over the last half-century or so, from atop a tower at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, was by Charles Whitman, an ex-Marine.

The passion for guns felt by tens of millions of Americans also has deep social and economic roots. The fervor with which they believe liberals are trying to take all their guns away is so intense because so much else has been taken away. In much of the South, in the Rust Belt along the Great Lakes, in rural districts throughout the country, young people are leaving or sinking into addiction and jobs are disappearing. These hard-hit areas have not shared the profits of Silicon Valley and its offshoots or the prosperity of coastal cities from Seattle to New York. Even many of his supporters know in their hearts that Trump can never deliver on his promises to bring back coal mining and restore abundant manufacturing jobs. But the one promise he, and other politicians, can deliver on is to protect and enlarge every imaginable kind of right to carry arms.

People passionate about guns often display a sense of being under siege, left behind, pushed down, at risk. One of the large paper targets on sale at the gun show shows a scowling man aiming a pistol at you. On bumper stickers, window signs, flags, is the Revolutionary era DON’T TREAD ON ME, with its image of a coiled rattlesnake. At one table, two men are selling bulletproof vests. For $500 you can get an eight-pound one whose plates—front, back, side—are made of lightweight compressed polyethylene. “They used to use it to line the bottom of combat helicopters,” said one of the men. For only $300, you can get one with steel plates, but it weighs twenty-three pounds. Also on sale is a concealable vest that goes under your clothing: medium, large, and X-large for $285; XX-large and XXX-large for $315.

Who buys these? I ask.

“Everybody—who sees the way the world is going.”