I Was a Teenage Gun Nut

But things were different in the '80s—assault weapons weren't cool, and hardly anybody actually wanted to own one.

Eddie Adams/AP Images

Ducking behind a concrete wall, I brushed the hot barrel of the M16 against my ear and yelped in pain. The barrel glowed orange against the black sky. They said you could melt the barrel if you fired on full-auto for too long. One of my buddies saw what I had done and shook his head in disdain. We were a rag-tag squad, in hand-me-down fatigues of every style, festooned with canteens and ammo pouches that smelled like mothballs and surplus store mold. Most of us had barely started shaving, and few of us were old enough to drive.

When I was a freshman in high school, I didn't know anyone who owned an assault weapon. No one I knew had parents who owned military-style rifles; or, if they did, the kids didn't talk about it. There were no pop songs that called out brand names of guns, and, if there was such a thing as a first-person shooter videogame back in 1982, they didn't have it at the bowling alley near my suburban townhouse—the only place my friends and I ever played games more sophisticated than Pong.

Guys I went to high school with got drunk, smoked pot, got in fistfights, crashed cars, got bored, stole things, got girls pregnant, and did all the other stupid stuff boys do today. But they didn't really play with guns, or even talk about guns much. Of course, living in the suburbs of D.C., which at the time was essentially still the Virginia countryside, some of my classmates were hunters; but that was considered too rural to be cool. Far more boys would have known that Edelbrock made carburetors than would have recognized Glock as the brand name of a pistol. If you wanted to mess around with military weapons, or simply geek out about them with like-minded peers, you needed to go out of your way.

Today, kids (especially boys) grow up interacting with gun violence in ways that makes it seem sexy and exciting, and they grow up knowing that it will be easy to acquire real guns like the ones they see in movies and games, legally as soon as they're old enough, or illegally whenever they want. Since the 1980s, firearms manufacturers have reacted to declines in demand for hunting rifles by increasingly focusing their production and marketing on pistols and "assault weapons" (a term gun advocates hate, but which I will use here for lack of a better one). And increasingly hyper-realistic videogames have featured recognizable incarnations of those weapons, sometimes even providing links to the manufacturers' website in a macabre product placement scheme. Along with more gun porn in music, movies, and TV, the combination of weapons marketing and violent videogames has helped to make gun fetishism mainstream within the last few decades. However, it was not that long ago when the idea that a civilian would have a desire to own an assault weapon seemed suspicious, or at the very least, odd.

Being an old guy, I can only speak to current attitudes about guns among young people based on my stint teaching high school, and on what I have read about the topic. But I can attest first-hand to the fact that enthusiasm about tactical weapons was not considered normal when I was a 15-year old.

My road to joining a paramilitary scouting group was tortuous. The short version is that I had been a debauched 13-year-old punk rocker, who had become a 14-year-old "straight-edge" (anti-drugs and drinking) punk, and finally an angry 15-year-old with nationalistic views and an aching desire to blow shit up. This is a simplified version of the 15-year-old me: My parents would tell you that I was a friendly, funny, helpful kid who loved playing with his dog and chopping firewood, and that would be true, too.

But I was dealing with a dangerous combination of testosterone, suburban isolation, and an attitude that made it difficult for me to channel the aggression that a lot of teen boys sublimate in socially acceptable ways. I wasn't great at team sports, and so I decided that sports were stupid. I played guitar and bass, but everybody else at my school that I might have played in a band with liked popular (i.e. stupid) music. I had a weight bench in the basement that I used faithfully, and that helped. If I was lucky enough to catch a ride with an older friend to a punk show in D.C., flailing in the pit went a long way toward bleeding off the unfocused anger. When idle, though, I stewed in hatred toward the TV programming that I endlessly stared at out of boredom, the jocks and rednecks who beat me up for being a punk, the stoners who listened to irrelevant classic rock, the girls who wouldn't have anything to do with me, the grownups who oppressed me, and the posers who tried to be friends with me.

So when one of my classmates, a nerdy reject I tolerated because he liked punk rock and, like me, hated everyone in our school, told me about this group he was in where they got to shoot real assault rifles and machine guns, my interest was piqued.

Despite being an avowed non-joiner, I signed up for the chapter of Explorer scouts that was attached to the National Guard unit in Manassas, Virginia. Most Explorer troops back then were associated with law enforcement and firefighting (these days they also work with Border Patrol and FBI), with the aim of getting kids interested in careers in those fields. Our troop existed as a recruiting tool for the military.

My friend's mom and my mom took turns driving us (an hour each way) out to the National Guard Armory for our weekly meetings. The meetings took about two hours and consisted of a short lesson on military procedures by either a guest speaker or our sponsor, a young lieutenant with a wispy mustache. The adults would then disappear, leaving us to drill under the command of the older scouts, one of whom often broke into a broad German accent and made us goose-step and Sieg Heil. We would practice marching and standing in various positions until the higher-ranking kids got bored, at which point we would talk about the most violent war movies available at Erol's Video and pass around copies of Soldier of Fortune magazine so we could take turns ogling pictures of pistols, assault rifles, and machine guns, and reading longingly about mercenaries in far-flung military conflicts. Some guys brought in Guns & Ammo as well, but it was too tame in those days, featuring endless photos of shotguns and dead bucks. Whoever's mom had driven that week waited in the car, happy that my friend and I were participating in a legitimate extra-curricular activity for once.

The main reason we went to the meetings, aside from our common infatuation with firearms, was that attendance was mandatory for scouts who wanted to go on weekend maneuvers with the Guard once a month. Those weekends were when we got to fire live rounds from M16s, M60 machine guns, and M203 grenade launchers. Maneuvers would take place at one of several different military bases. The best location was Marine Corps Base Quantico, where we would have urban firefights (shooting blanks, of course) in Combat Town, a warren of concrete buildings designed for just that purpose. The exercise always devolved into a free-for-all, with all of us weekend warriors emptying clip after clip of blanks until we couldn't see past the end of our rifles for all the smoke in the air. After the battle, we would snuggle up with the rifles we had checked out from the armory, and camp out under our rain ponchos. But I could never get to sleep with all the adrenaline buzzing around in my head.

Between drill weekends, my friend and I watched movies about the Vietnam War, studied Army field manuals with pictures and specifications of different weapons, and used my dad's tools to build wooden versions of our favorite assault rifles for playing war. We even recruited other kids from school to go on "missions" with us in the middle of the night, sneaking out of our houses, creeping around in the woods, and inflicting minor damage on our largely inanimate "targets."

My gun obsession was not considered cool back at school, though. Classmates found my interest in firearms even weirder than my love of bands that didn't sound anything like Journey. And on the day that the four or five of us from my school who had joined the Explorers showed up for first period in fatigues and camo face-paint in an effort to recruit more students, even the administrators were worried. I don't think anyone thought we were armed or meant harm to our classmates, because that kind of thing was unheard of. They just thought it was disturbing and disruptive. They made us wash our faces and sent us off to class.

In 2013, if a handful of students showed up to school in camouflage face-paint, the campus would go on lockdown, and rightly so. In the context of 1982, though, the decision the administrators at my school made was sensible. School shootings, or at least the indiscriminately lethal sieges that have happened with such regularity in the past 15 years or so, were virtually unheard of. Other factors contributed to the relative scarcity of these tragedies, of course. But before firearms manufacturers started pushing to normalize ownership of military weapons by civilians, the idea that a kid might have access to a gun specifically designed to kill people wouldn't have seemed like a serious possibility.

As much as I was infatuated by military guns and the idea of someday using them in my future career as a mercenary (a dream that lost its luster once I got a driver's license and learned how to be less repulsive to girls), I would have had no idea where to begin trying to get my hands on one. The only assault rifles I had ever seen in real life were locked up in the armory whenever they were not in use. Thankfully, the gun industry had not yet enticed ordinary citizens into thinking they needed M16s—a version of the AR-15, which is not just a favorite weapon of mass-shooters, but also the best-selling rifle in the country today—in their homes.