A thin man in a wide-brimmed hat ambles through the swinging door of the Old West Shootery and Supply. It's a tired old building tucked behind an Italian restaurant on Fifth Street in Eureka. Rust stains drip down the off-white façade. The perimeter of the awning has been hand-painted with little red targets, now badly faded, and black lettering in all caps: "GUNS, AMMO, GUNS, HOLSTERS." A wooden plank atop the awning advertises the indoor shooting range.
Once inside, the thin man eyes the line of rifles slotted vertically behind the counter. He wears wire-rim glasses with blue-tinted lenses and has a silver badge pinned to the left breast pocket of his charcoal-colored coat. The man is not law enforcement. His badge is a lopsided parabola, a replica of the official Starfleet insignia from Star Trek.
"Do you got any Civil War-type cap-and-ball guns?" he asks the two men behind the counter, both named Kevin.
"I don't," replies one of the Kevins, the establishment's owner, Kevin Kaldveer.
"Boots, buckles, hats, tins, canteens, tents?"
"You might try Anglin's Secondhand."
The thin man's name is Barry Schrock. He's 54, lives just outside of Las Vegas and is in town with a friend, hunting for vintage weaponry and gear. "I do reenactments," he says. "Civil War era, Spanish-American, we do Greek and Roman. It gets you into the time period, what it was like at that time. And that's just part of it." Behind the blue lenses, his eyes light up as he describes his hobby. "We camp out, we eat the food, we dress in things. ... You can never relive the battles, but it gives you a brief glimpse of what the life was like."
Schrock is just one of the many customers filing in and out of the Old West Shootery and Supply on this sunny Thursday morning. A burly Arcata man with a push-broom mustache comes in to squeeze off a few rounds and renew his shootery membership. A young Trinidad couple comes in to pick up a gun they'd ordered, a cheap, WWII-era bolt-action Russian military rifle called a Mosin-Nagant. A 70-ish man from the hills outside Redway comes in to re-qualify for his concealed-carry permit, bringing with him a padlocked fishing-tackle-type box that holds four handguns, including a beautiful old .32-caliber Iver Johnson Owl Head revolver (circa turn of the 20th century) that once belonged to his grandfather, a professional gambler.
In light of the renewed debate about gun violence and gun laws in America, the Journal offers these folks an opportunity to describe their personal relationships with their firearms and share their thoughts about gun control. They happily agree, though none -- save the out-of-town Trekker -- will give his or her full name. "You can ask," says the man from Redway, "but I don't think I'm gonna tell ya."
Why not? Are they ashamed? Afraid? No, several insist, just private. And careful. "Lots of people know me down there," says Redway. "And I just, I'd rather not."
This is evidently considered wise policy when talking to "the media." I ask the Arcata guy for his name.
"And what's your last name, Stan?"
The owner, Kaldveer, is listening from behind the counter and steps in. "I wouldn't go any farther than that," he advises.
"Yeah, I didn't plan to," Stan responds.
The patrons give a variety of reasons for owning and shooting their guns: hunting, self-defense, the challenge of perfecting a skill. Matt, the young married man, admires the aesthetics and history of his new (old) Russian rifle. He enjoys looking at the wear and tear on the butt and thinking that it probably got there during the second world war.
Schrock, the Trekker/re-enactor, offers a different set of reasons. "Like any sport, it's the people that you're with, the discipline, the sense of accomplishment, and there's a lot of heritage in it."
Here inside the store there's a clear sense of camaraderie among the customers and the Kevins, the sort of relaxed, barbershop-style vibe that emerges when people know they're among folks with like values and opinions. The small supply shop is filled with items likely to provoke your average liberal. A poster tacked to one wall shows the Statue of Liberty with a holstered pistol slung over her shoulder. A framed display of various-caliber Hornady brand bullets brags, "Accurate -- Deadly -- Dependable." The cover photo on the 33rd edition of the Blue Book of Gun Values shows Wayne LaPierre, the controversial executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, smiling with a shotgun cracked open on his shoulder.
And inside one of the glass display cases are disassembled components for AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifles, the same type of gun used last month to slaughter 6-year-olds in Newtown, Conn.; the same type of gun used 10 days later -- on Christmas Eve in Webster, N.Y. -- to shoot four firefighters, killing two; the same type of gun used by the U.S. military, and also used in many of the 31 school shootings in the United States since Columbine in 1999.
Kaldveer reaches into the case and pulls out the lower portion of the rifle along with two partially assembled uppers and sets them on the glass. Even separated like this, the black metal components are easily recognizable. The barrels of the iconic AR-15s fit snugly into ridged hand-guards the size of tennis ball cans. The lower section features a slot for the trigger, a well where the magazine clips in and a threaded cylinder up top for the scope. These hunks of metal on the counter are precision-crafted pieces of a machine designed to kill people -- many of them, as quickly as possible.
"This is what a lot of people are buying up," Kaldveer says.
When President Obama suggested that he'd like to reinstitute a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, Kaldveer explains, that created a panic that sparked a buying frenzy. "Right now my wholesalers are literally out of most firearms. And ammunition is slowly starting to dry up."
The store is busy. The phone keeps ringing -- customers asking about ordering guns. When a shooter is in the range, muffled gunshots can be heard -- "pum-pum-pum" -- through the wall by the cash register.
When asked what's to blame for our country's epidemic of mass shootings, the patrons and employees suggest a variety of culprits: Our society doesn't provide sufficient care for the mentally ill. Criminals get released from prison too early. The media encourages copycats by turning the troubled young perpetrators of these crimes into superstars. Many young boys lack positive male role models. Parents don't train their kids to be responsible with guns, and they don't lock those guns up well enough. Gangs, the government, public education, our violent culture -- the list goes on.
One young woman, the wife of the Russian-rifle buyer, suggests that mass-shooters likely have an entitlement mentality, and she drops a reference to Russian literature while she's at it: "It's always white males in your age group," she says, gesturing at her husband. "You're in a power group of a power group of a power group. You're a young, white, able-bodied male in the most powerful country in the world. I think it's almost like a Dostoyevsky, like a little bit of a superman kind of thing, like ‘I can get away with it.'"
All told, they offer a long and thoughtful list of cultural woes. Many if not all seem like plausible contributing factors to gun violence in America. But should nothing be done about the guns themselves?
They're skeptical. Gun enthusiasts worry that any government action will lead to a domino effect, Kaldveer says. "The concern is that they're limiting our options of what we can or cannot get."
The man from Redway admits that he doesn't "see any need" for assault weapons, but he also balks at the notion of outlawing them: "Oh, well, I don't like laws."
Schrock says there are plenty of laws already, and that licensed gun owners are "probably the best citizens on the planet. ... Us permit-carriers? We're the cleanest of the clean. We've been checked. We've been trained."
If anything, more people should carry guns: "Generally," says Kaldveer, "an armed society is a polite society."
Evidence suggests otherwise. The United States is the most armed society in the world by a large margin, with nearly enough guns to arm every man, woman and child. And the recent explosion in gun sales hasn't seemed to improve our manners. Where there are more guns there are more murders, whether you're looking at different states or different countries, according to research from the Harvard School of Public Health.
Evidence also suggests that keeping a gun in your house doesn't make you safer. "An American is 50 percent more likely to be shot dead by his or her own hand than to be shot dead by a criminal assailant," conservative analyst David Frum reported for CNN in July, citing statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kaldveer says that he does believe in placing limits on the types of weapons Americans are allowed to possess. "We shouldn't be allowed to have, in my opinion, full-auto machine guns, rocket launchers, tanks."
So where do you draw the line?
He thinks about it for a second and says, "That is the question of the century: Where do you draw the line?"