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

In 2000, the St. Louis medical examiner recorded 130 deaths involving gunshots: 1 accident, 25 suicides and 104 homicides. In St. Louis County, which has three times the population of the city, the medical examiner recorded only 89 deaths involving gunshots: 1 accident, 54 suicides and 34 homicides.

Nationwide, the firearms toll remains higher than in any other developed country, although it's dropping: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted 28,874 in 1999, down from 38,505 in 1994.

But at a crowded gun show, statistics feel remote.

Bill Pollihan, firing his hair-trigger target pistol, the ultimate in control
Jennifer Silverberg
Bill Pollihan, firing his hair-trigger target pistol, the ultimate in control
Jim Stephens outside Bull's Eye, where security guards and scared civilians learn to shoot
Jennifer Silverberg
Jim Stephens outside Bull's Eye, where security guards and scared civilians learn to shoot

Meyer polishes the smooth cold barrel of a Polish Tokarev handgun and watches people walk by his table. Most folks head for clean-kill hunting guns or home defense. But every once in a while, somebody walks up and hands him, say, a Mauser mountain carbine, the stock nicked and the bluing worn but all the serial numbers matching, plus capture papers that prove a grandfather took it from a German soldier.

For collectors, a gun's power lies in its past.

The gun may not even fire anymore, but its very existence tells a story. Sometimes it's a story of heroism, or conquest, or technological brilliance. Always it's a story of death.

All guns carry the possibility of death.

They also promise to prevent it.

For people driven to self-defense, the promise is a literal one. But other gun owners are trying to avoid death of the spirit.

The death of freedom, which is billed as political but is always personal.

The death of natural instincts and the ability to survive in nature.

The death that creeps in, slow as fog, when someone trades risk and challenge for helplessness and vulnerability.

Guns are charged with the supreme power: They can preserve or take life.

And every time one is fired, some of that charge rubs off on the shooter.

But today's politics makes liars of gun owners, forcing them to drum up elaborate rationales and absurd scenarios because it's no longer OK to admit that guns are cool. They're fun. They're fascinating little machines with an aura of romance, danger and self-reliance.

"They're tools," the owners say carefully.

But who ever got this passionate about an awl?

A computer analyst by day, Meyer lives on a farm in Robertsville with his gentle blonde wife, Toni. They don't have kids, but they've filled the place with every other kind of life. Gardens and terraced pools surround the house, German shepherds compete with a corgi's high barks and a pride of peacocks struts back and forth across the gravel driveway.

Soft-lipped llamas stand placid in an enclosure, the old ones cranky enough to spit. The youngest, a pure white one born just after Sept. 11, is still sweet-tempered.

They named her Freedom.

Downhill, past a loose scattering of chickens, cracked headstones mark a Civil War cemetery. Meyer raises a flag every Veterans Day and Memorial Day.

"People have paid a helluva price," he says, "and we forget it. Holidays don't mean anything anymore but a day off work."

Meyer spends hours thinking and reading, and opinions tumble from him. He's proud of their unpredictability, but he returns again and again to three constants: patriotism, respect for soldiers' sacrifices and an insistence on the llama's namesake, freedom.

Those are the principles he'll cite if somebody wants to argue about guns.

But he also gets a real kick out of oiling the intricate mechanisms of the Martini-Henry that won the Brits an empire or feeling the full force of the 1903 Springfield --the one doughboys carried through the Meuse-Argonne campaign -- kick back against his skinny shoulder.

Meyer "grew up around guns," a phrase that's often invoked these days to explain the absence of irrational terror in the presence of a firearm. His father hunted deer, and all the kids knew the guns were off limits, because, in those days, parents made rules and kids kept them.

His grandfather helped mop up after World War II, rounding up German deserters who'd scattered across the French countryside. Told to shoot up all the open ammunition, his unit spent days at a time firing every kind of gun. When he came home, he cleared the carnivals out of prizes.

As a kid, Meyer listened open-mouthed to his grandfather's stories -- but as a teenager, he grew his hair long and went to antiwar rallies.

Then, in 1973, he found himself in the Army.

He learned self-discipline.

And he learned how to use a machine gun.

Eventually he became the company armorer, responsible for securing and maintaining all weapons.

"About 24 pistols, 139 M-16s, 24 M-203 grenade launchers, 15 M-60 machine guns, six bazookas, a couple of tube-laminated optically tracked tank missiles" -- he can still recite the list. His security clearance got him into officers' meetings. He received letters of commendation because the arms always passed inspection. He felt responsible -- and trusted.

Then he returned to civilian life. And all that trust evaporated.

Meyer bought a $150 military rifle because it was cheaper and better made than a $500 Remington hunting rifle. He hunted, as his father had. He came across other military guns and found he wanted to buy them, own them, own their stories. Recapture the excitement of his grandfather's days in Europe. Escape the cold drone of computers and play armorer again.

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