Those who follow the way of the gun have their many reasons. Just ask them.

 The gun is an instrument of death; choose it, therefore, for its beauty and precision. -- an eighteenth-century father's advice

Sunday afternoon. People stream into the gun-and-knife show that's taken over every available inch of the Wentzville Crossings Mall. Ignoring the bright-red funnel-cake cart outside the door -- craving grease and powder of a different sort -- they pay the $6 entrance fee with alacrity. Hands stamped with a green stag, they begin their private, bloodless hunts.

Women buy bolt-action hunting rifles, neat little derringers, T-shirts that read "Gun control is being able to hit your target."

Jennifer Silverberg
Toni and Vic Meyer in the climate-controlled room that's chilling history
Jennifer Silverberg
Toni and Vic Meyer in the climate-controlled room that's chilling history

Young men in camouflage, long guns strapped awkwardly over their narrow shoulders, linger in front of a video about a trigger that will convert their semiautomatic to full auto, streaming high-powered lead without a second's hesitation.

Older men in gray suits show up after church and handle flintlocks with leftover reverence, awed by the slow old mysteries of flashpan, flint and frizzen.

Behind the black-powder muzzle-loaders, a row of dealers sells American Indian clothes, jewelry, music.

And no one registers the irony.

This hall contains a slice of America too big to digest. Tie-dye, flannel and silk tie. Fathers with babies snuggled in their arms, looking for a safe handgun to protect their families. Fathers with babies snuggled in their arms, looking for ammo that bears a Nazi stamp.

Kids lusting after plasticky black Darth Vader assault rifles, called "throwaways" in the industry. Artisans stroking intricate horn and stained-ivory inlays, tracing hand-chiseled steel nobody would dream of throwing away.

Heroes buying mementos; poseurs and wannabes buying the trappings of a courage they don't own.

There is greed here, and collector's avarice; there is fear and bravado and bloodlust.

None of it is simple, and little is what it seems.

The debate over guns plays out in comic strips, flat and bold, pitting gun nuts against clueless liberals. In Missouri's current collection, the heroes and archvillains do endless battle over citizens' right to carry concealed firearms. There's a vote coming up but no real end to the series, because no meaningful consensus can come of such a debate. Both sides focus on guns as objects and waste all their ammo trying to prove these objects innocent or lethal.

Guns have to be reckoned with at a deeper level, with a million subtle variations. To somebody who teaches self-defense, a gun gives an innocent person a chance against evil. To a hunter, a gun is a way to harvest wildness, re-enter a simpler time. To a kid in the country, a gun's an initiation into adulthood. To a kid in the 'hood, a gun spells danger and the chance to survive it.

Firearms draw their real power not from bullet speed or "knockdown" force but from the human mind. They become talismans of nobility. Or virility. Or evil. Pieces of an American dream that, in the green countryside where old ways still hold, look like responsible self-reliance -- but, in crowded, crime-soaked urban areas, become a nightmare.

Ignoring the infinite variations of fascination and fear, gun-control arguments strip away the symbolism, polarize the issue and end in dead heat. According to the National Gun Policy Survey recently released by the University of Chicago, 41 percent of Americans think guns in the home increase safety and 43 percent think they lessen it; 44 percent think concealed carry enhances safety and 45 percent think it compromises safety.

One side is afraid to admit guns' fascinations. The other's too fascinated to admit there's cause for fear.

The stalemate continues.

And so do the stereotypes.

"The mainstream press pictures people at gun shows as right-wing nuts and KKK," says Vic Meyer, a licensed dealer who's lining up military firearms, neat as a regiment, on a table near the door. He wears a red-gold ponytail he grew in the '70s and cherishes a checkered array of fiercely liberal and conservative opinions.

"The bubbas and white-power types are here," he says, "but so is everybody else."

Once a Klansman asked Meyer to order a case of AK-47s. He told the guy to take a hike. The next time he looked up, two interracial couples were walking toward a lesbian couple selling Communist surplus.

Can't stereotype, he reminded himself. Hate-spouting extremists loom large in the popular imagination, but they're only a sliver of reality.

And the criminals who cause the most real damage -- the gangbangers and drug dealers who make the fear of guns real -- don't show up here at all.

Straw purchasers come instead, parlaying their own lack of felony convictions into an explosive inventory they'll sell on the street. There's always at least one degree of separation between them and the felons they arm.

And one more degree to the neighborhood kids so terrified by the results that they buy guns just to stay alive.

People who frequent gun shows don't address that reality. Instead, they take pains to distance their mainly legal uses from the illegal ones. Wince at idiots so scared of blued steel that they never learn the facts. Rage at gun-control advocates who refuse to distinguish the American dream -- heroic self-reliance in an untamed land -- from the chaos of a city kid's nightmares.

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