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

Dawson's still tracing crime guns back to Marshal's Gun Shop, which his agents closed in a 1999 sting operation after following more than 600 crime guns to its door.

Owner Henry Cernicek was famous for fatally shooting a robber -- who was armed with a Ruger originally bought at Cernicek's own store.

After the thwarted robbery, Cernicek hung a big sign on the counter: "Guns Save Lives."

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

Five years later, he admitted selling guns to people he knew were buying for convicted felons.

He got off with a six-month sentence and a $2,000 fine.

Dawson's still furious.

The necessary laws are already in place, he says, but they're not being enforced.

That pattern convinces Jim Stephens that for law-abiding types, the less law there is, the better. He sees every imaginable form of firearm idiocy on the range at Bull's Eye. He cringes daily over the guys who assume knowledge flows automatically in the red blood of the American male; the rednecks too ignorant to know they need lessons; the frightening number of misinformed professionals.

Yet he'd never vote for safety classes as a prerequisite for buying a gun.

"It'd be a good thing," he concedes, "but no, it shouldn't be done. It's your right. Start making laws, and politicians will get involved, and they have no clue. They'll make laws they can't enforce, and then they'll make more laws to fix them."

For more than a decade, Congress has ignored the loopholes and shot its wad on the obvious targets: detachable magazines holding multiple rounds; bayonet lugs; flash suppressors; collapsible or removable stocks that make it possible for a machine gun to be tucked under a coat.

In St. Louis County, most of the 1,235 guns examined by the central crime lab last year were handguns. In the city, more than 66 percent of the crime guns traced by ATF have been handguns: the .38 Smith & Wesson; a 9mm Ruger; a Colt revolver. Of the 34 percent accounted for by long guns, the most frequent were Marlin .22 rifles and Mossberg 12-gauge shotguns.

But what drew all the political fire was the imported military assault rifle. When the ban went into effect, Meyer teased an ATF agent, "Everybody's trying to buy something -- you guys are really driving the price up." He says she laughed and said, "Don't you understand? That is the whole idea."

Prices went up, and foreign gun manufacturers modified the weapons -- doing cosmetic surgery to make them look more like hunting rifles -- or opened factories in the U.S.

Now people lust after military assault rifles the way they lust after flesh or uncut diamonds. A mythology of evil swirls around the very word "assault," turning bits of alphabet -- AK, SKS -- into sinister code and historic accessories such as bayonet lugs into death warrants.

"When was the last time you saw a drive-by bayoneting?" asks Stephens. "The bayonet on a military rifle is probably used to cut your lunch. A .22 is the choice of assassins, because it's easily silenced, low recoil, you're right up close."

The oversimplified hype about assault weapons only deepens the divide, terrifying one side and infuriating the other. Again, all emphasis falls on the gun as object. By defining this object as sinister, the anti-gun lobby hopes to banish such violence from the face of the earth. By arguing for the object's innocence, owners hope to distance themselves another acre or two from those people who kill people.

Soon they'll be so far away, they can forget they live in the same society.

And share, with different consequences, the same obsession.

A West County gun lover who shoots at Bull's Eye -- but prefers not to be named because he knows how that fact will be stereotyped -- owns all kinds of guns. He relishes, but does not dwell on, their lethal firepower. What he craves are the powers the mind lends.

He collects military rifles because they tell heroic stories. He hunts because "it keeps the instincts alive." He wants a handgun because he thinks it will let him travel, untouched, through danger. He shoots machine guns because it's a rush to unleash that much power, even if you're not using it to kill anything but your own boredom.

"Everybody thinks machine guns are about mowing people down," he says, "but people who do drive-bys don't give a damn about guns. They're just reaching out and extracting vengeance."

Legal owners wouldn't dream of such a use.

"We wouldn't want to dirty the gun."

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