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The Atlantic Monthly | April 2001
The Gun Lobby

A short story
by Jim Shepard
y old friend Chick sells guns out of a hamper he keeps in his basement. He sells them at gun fairs and uses the money to buy more guns, which he sells at other gun fairs. "It's a living," he says.

I give him some mild grief about the hamper, and he puts up with it, like it's a little rain on a nice day. The hamper's got straw flowers on it and a little wicker clasp. He could have phased it out by now, certainly, and it hasn't been close to big enough since what he calls "the early years," but he keeps it in service. He says, "My reasons cluster in the what-do-you-care? category"—as in when you ask, that's what you're told. His attachment to the hamper feels to me like nostalgia. But Chick is a puzzle, and I may be wrong.

Chick says that a sentence about selling whatever you want to whomever you want is in the Bill of Rights but never gets talked about. He says that in our history books someone's reaching for a gun every paragraph and a half.

He gets no arguments from me. I grew up on all those snub-nosed pioneer kids sitting around on their little woven rugs, learning their long division with coal on the backs of shovels while they listened to stories about Daniel Boone's Old Bess, Bess Boone's Little Danny, Betsy Ross's Philadelphia derringer, or Carrie Nation's homemade zip gun. Sergeant York, from the hills of West Virginia, who could peg a squirrel's retina at 9,000 yards. Slow Tick Billy, last to draw but first to let fly once things were unholstered. As kids we just knew that everybody, tiny tots to tall Texans, sat around dreaming about potting the next Mohawk to cut through the back garden.

As far as Chick is concerned, guns pay for braces, trips, and, pretty soon, colleges. He has two big girls, Amanda and Astra, and two little boys, Emmett and Jasper. Before bed the girls kneel side by side and pass along to God prayers for Mommy and Daddy and their brothers and the gun lobby.

Chick sells Colts, Walthers, Glocks, Uzis, and Ingrams. He services the Colts and Ingrams himself, with one hand on the manual. He dabbles in Kalashnikovs. His big score was a Schmeiser with the original firing pin, which he turned around in two days for triple his money. He's had poison-tipped darts from the Amazon and a box of curved rubber truncheons said to be favored by the Albanian police. He has squirreled away in his little root-cellar sub-basement some high-end contraband laser sights, a crate of phased-out NATO flash grenades (with the rounder bodies, before they went to the narrow design), and a drop-tank from an F-18. In the sub-sub-basement, in a beer cooler, he has stashed an old scorched liquid-nitrogen canister wrapped in gummy and tenacious biohazard tape. The kids call the sub-sub-basement "Daddy's secret secret room." He's mum on what's inside the canister, which is part of the mystery of Chick.

He also stockpiled some Claymores for a buddy who wanted to move them upstate. He gave the buddy thirty-six hours to pick them up. They had to be primed and set to blow, but even so, you don't want the kids poking around the anti-personnel mines. He kept everything locked up tight, but still, how many parents have said that before?

He sold my wife everything she wanted when, without fully consulting me, she stopped by his basement. She went the better-safe-than-sorry route when it came to quantity. He sold her a Glock, an Uzi, an Ingram M-10, and a nifty little Travis Bickle .25 caliber on a sliding brace arrangement that fits around the forearm and allows the wearer to squeeze off a clip even after extensive arm trauma. The package looked like overkill to me, and now he admits that he may have gone, as he puts it, a gun too far. Stephanie paid in cash (Chick doesn't take Visa), and I have to assume that the total was a stiff piece of change, especially with holsters and ammo thrown in.

Stephanie kept her family name when she married me, so our mailbox says home of ROGER CHANUTE and STEPHANIE VON WATZDORF. I tell her I'm sorry she's never been happy here, and she tells me she's always thought the place was fine; it's me she's never been happy with.

"Here" is Waterbury, Connecticut, which right now is the main show in terms of the cutaway news, because of the standoff. You can see Stephanie or me, the hostage, at a window every so often on TV. We watch ourselves.

The house is always on. My rake is still in the leaves in the front yard. You can see frost on the ground.

Stephanie has turned off the heat (to get serious, she says), so she's usually in her outgrown Brearley blazer. In the mornings we can see our breath. I asked about the heat the first morning, but I'm not going to press it. She goes around the house with a semi-automatic in each hand. She's originally from Manhattan.

"They're lining me up right now," she cackled yesterday when she passed a window. "Some SWAT guy's shouting into his radio, 'I could take her now!'"

I reminded her of all the hostage movies we've seen that have turned out badly. Dog Day Afternoon. I ran out of titles.

"Rebel Without a Cause," I added.

"They weren't hostages," Stephanie said contemptuously.

"He was waving a gun around," I told her.

She was sitting at the kitchen table flipping a quarter in one hand, like George Raft.

"My point is, it was a tragedy that could easily have been averted," I murmured.

"You're a pig," she said. "You respect nothing. You have the integrity of a grease trap."

I asked her whatever happened to divorce in such situations. Flak-jacketed sharpshooters for the state were peeking out here and there around the cop cars and TV vans. She gave me a look to let me know that the whole standoff could have come to an end right then.

'm not going to provide a whole Ring trilogy of what she has been mad about. I will say that she's right in contending that I'm not much good when it comes to empathy, my share of the day-to-day work, sobriety, monogamy, fiscal responsibility, or periodontal hygiene. We've had two trial separations, and she got skinned both times on support. She had her Manhattan lawyers, but they had to deal with good old-fashioned Waterbury judges. She didn't need the money, but, you know. It's humiliating.

Chick has been the only one allowed in to negotiate, maybe because he sold her the guns. Maybe because he's a mystery. She won't talk to the police directly, even on the phone. They drove Mel and Lucille, her father and mother, all the way up from the East Side, and she still wouldn't come to the line. Lucille's way of easing into the situation was to open with "Stephanie, pick up that phone." This over the bullhorn. I could've told her how that was going to go over.

Every so often I ask Stephanie what she thinks she's going to get out of this situation. I can tell it's not the right question to ask.

Negotiations have been on hold since one of the troopers took a round in the shoulder while passing out coffee. "What was that all about?" I asked her after I ran into the room. She didn't answer.

When Chick came, he came unarmed, which was lucky for him. You'd think she had been frisking people with the business end of an Ingram her whole life. He gave the pantry a glance to see how our food was holding out. Between calls from the police he talked to us about how the neighborhood was taking it.

When he got the chance, he gave me a look as if to say, Sorry, buddy. I gave him back the I'm-looking-through-you thing. I call it "The Stephanie."

For those who think that Chick would be a different man if he'd had some personal experience of what can happen when handguns proliferate, let me report that his uncle in Florida was shot four times in the head with a Saturday-night special in a disagreement over a game of gin rummy. Apparently it was the fourth shot that killed him. The guy who shot him was a real mutt. The guy had bought the gun that day, drunk, at a gun fair in Orlando. After his purchase he threw up in the aisle and got thrown out of the mall. A simple background check would have saved the uncle's life. Chick says a saliva test would have weeded the guy out. And has that changed his mind about guns? "Hey, I didn't stop eating ham sandwiches after Mama Cass choked to death," he says.

Nobody has even tried to negotiate with us for the past day and a half. We've been pretty much staying in the kitchen. Every so often I toast a little something in the oven with the door open, to warm up.

Stephanie has been keeping to herself, across the room. After Chick's last visit she Magic Markered an orange-and-white target and cut it out and pinned it to her Agnes B. blouse. She hung the blouse in the front window. It's a weird effect on TV.

In my opinion, the gun lobby is not pernicious or evil or embattled or heroic; it just is. It's like the Samarian gorge, or German efficiency, or beans in the soup, or the death of the sun. What does it mean to "stand up" to the gun lobby? How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

here are all sorts of things about this country I never liked, and I'm a guy who believes in making a difference. My way of doing that is by not taking part in any political activity whatsoever. While we were courting, Stephanie used to say that it was all of a piece: when we had a problem, if she brought it up, we talked about it, at least for a few minutes, and if she didn't, we didn't. I'm a big sins-of-omission kind of guy, apparently. I just go through life not doing anything to anyone, wreaking havoc left and right.

"Here are my options with you," Stephanie would say, lying in bed next to me, her eyes wet. "Either my lifemate-soulmate-husband is too stupid and self-involved to know what he's doing to me, which isn't good news, or he does know and he's being disingenuous about it, which is even worse news."

Then, of course, I'd catch grief for not having any comeback. And what, exactly, is an acceptable comeback to that?

The truth is, in most of my regrettable recent moves it's like I'm throwing a sheet over a sawhorse: I'm just trying to give some shape to all the disappointment.

I've been a problem baby, a lousy son, a distant brother, an off-putting neighbor, a poor student, a worrisome seatmate, an unreliable employee, a bewildering lover, a frustrating confidant, and a crappy husband. Among the things I do pretty well at this point I'd have to list darts, reclosing stay-fresh boxes, and keeping out of the way.

Stephanie has been pretty hemmed in for the past few years, between me ("The Lump"); her mother, whom she calls "Ilsa Koch without the charm"; and this whole cervical problem that has allowed us to go to meeting after meeting and watch doctors scratch their heads. Doctors find Stephanie's condition an interesting puzzle, something meaty to mull over. We see a lot of pursing of lips and nodding while we recite our tale of woe, and then we're told what it isn't, and then we all decide to wait and see how things develop, and then on the way out one of us pays what the insurance doesn't cover. They don't say whether we can have kids, but they do make it clear that I should have been doing more handwringing about it. Instead of screwing around with one of the checkout girls at an auto-parts store.

Add to that Roger's old friend Chick, handling the entrepreneurial training and emotional counseling. He and Stephanie hit it off, in a cobra-mongoose sort of way, right from the beginning. Iused to think they competed to see who could put up with more from me.

"You see that look?"he said to me, right in front of her, after he first met her. "That's the 'Now I see where my husband gets it from' look."

"Does he seem like a bad influence?" I asked Stephanie after he left.

"In every way possible," she said.

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Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2001; The Gun Lobby - 01.04; Volume 287, No. 4; page 82-85.