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."

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.

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.

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.

He started buying and selling guns to pay for his private collection. He filled out the forms, acquired all the appropriate federal licenses and permits. He thought it was no big deal; half of Missouri's households owned guns. But he started noticing more and more politicians who wanted to eliminate those guns.

They knew nothing about their chosen enemy.

"I was watching C-SPAN one day," Meyer recalls. "One of the senators stood up and said, 'My God, you can't use anything like this for deer hunting, there wouldn't be anything left!' He was holding an AK-47, which is not very powerful. I would much rather be shot with that AK-47 than with a standard thirty-aught-six deer-hunting gun. Most current military weapons are not designed to kill. They are designed to inflict extremely painful wounds that take a long time to heal. If you kill a soldier, you kill one man. If you wound a soldier, you tie up 10 additional people."

Meyer says former soldiers are his most predictable customers: They're loyal to what they carried.

"If you were in the military, you either hate or have a real fondness for that gun," he says.

It kept you alive.

Or it killed your enemy.

At a recent gun show, an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia grabbed a Russian Mosin-Nagant from Meyer's table and practically spat on it. The Yugoslavian Mausers were much better, he said: "Little bitty hole going in, great big fuckin' hole coming out. And they dropped nice."

Meyer was fascinated.

Bloodstains add value to a gun.

So does virginity: When Toni gave him a gun for his birthday, he saw that it was still mummy-wrapped in the manufacturer's greased gauze, so he didn't even unwrap it. She was crushed. But he was preserving its worth.

His customers aren't all purists, though. There's a Mercedes-Benz district manager who takes a playful approach, outfitting mannequins in original uniforms and thrusting sniper rifles into their hands, filling his basement with war ghosts.

And there's an elderly Jewish insurance salesman for whom the ghosts are real.

"He's probably a liberal Democrat," says Meyer, "except that 38 members of his family were trapped in Europe in World War II. He says he'll never trust a government again. When it comes to gun ownership, they'll 'pry it out of his cold dead hand.'"

Slogans. Meyer uses them, but his mouth twists a little; he's tired of extremes. Tired of friends' kids showing him their latest blood-spattered video game because they figure he'll like it -- he likes guns.

He does like guns. He even likes shooting machine guns, because it's such an adrenaline rush.

"You have a tremendous amount of power in your hands," he says, his quiet historian's voice taking on color. "Some military rifles can shoot half a mile away with accuracy, but with an automatic, the hell with all that. You just let it go, put in a 30-round magazine and don't let off the trigger until it's empty."

He demonstrates in the air, then smiles ruefully.

"The government should never have taught me how much fun it was."

He reminisces a bit more about those years in the Army. The years he was trusted.

Then he descends the stairs and opens the door to a large shivery-cold room lined floor to ceiling with the military handguns and long guns that reconfigured the Western Hemisphere. His private collection, 1870 through the Korean War.

Walking down a narrow aisle, he picks up one of the early Mausers -- the long gun that revolutionized warfare in the late 1800s. Using a smokeless powder that didn't give away the shooter's position, it fired bullets that could kill at 1,000 yards.

Meyer rotates the gun slowly, wipes it off and replaces it. From the back wall, he takes one of the early 1903 Springfields, which sometimes exploded. Its gunsmiths gauged when to cool the metal by the colors flowing through it -- a method that worked beautifully on sunny days. On cloudy days, the receivers overheated and crystallized, turning brittle enough to crack under the pressure of a high-power round.

He turns to another wall and points out one of the last Mausers that Brazil commissioned from Germany. The Brazilian crest is engraved in silver, the loops and flourishes as fine as the chasing on a medieval chalice. Death overlaid with beauty.

Some guns are classics, eloquent as Voltaire.

Others do rugged service.

Meyer reaches for an M-1 Garand, the U.S.'s first semiautomatic long gun. He closes his hand around its stock.

"Patton called this the best battle rifle ever designed," he says. "It was a tremendous advantage over the Japanese and Germans in World War II. But it had its flaws -- held only eight rounds, in a clip that popped out when it was empty, and in close combat the enemy could see it pop."

He can see it too, in his mind's eye.

Because when he's in this room, he's part of history.

Just west of Kingshighway, in a grungy industrial strip of Manchester along the railroad tracks, a flat white concrete building absorbs 3,000 gunshots a day.

The only firing range certified to train licensed security guards for both the city and the county, Bull's Eye was started by a retired cop. It's now run by his daughter and her husband, Geri and Jim Stephens.

Politicians who vote for gun control sneak in after dark to shoot.

"One won't keep his membership card on him," Jim chuckles. "He keeps it here."

Jim would vote for concealed-carry in a minute; the crazies already have guns. "I could get a license to carry right now," he notes, "just ask a lawyer friend to make me a process server. See? It makes no sense."

Cops come here to qualify, civilians to learn or blow steam. Target shooters come to practice an art so refined, they'll measure out their own bullets, polish off the burrs and put 20 consecutive shots through the same hole.

Bill Pollihan, a retired battalion chief with the St. Louis Fire Department, once qualified for Olympic trials as a target shooter. Newly married, he couldn't afford the trip to California. But he soon began competing -- and winning medals -- in the World Police and Fire Games.

To practice, he shoots 20 shots offhand (standing), 20 shots prone and 20 shots kneeling, all at 50 meters, hitting a target the size of the end of a pen. Next year in Barcelona, he will enter the small-bore .22-rifle match and, the next day, the English match: 60 shots prone over two hours.

Pure precision.

He opens a box and removes the air pistol nestled in its molding.

"This has a trigger so light that if you pick it up in a hurry, gravity will set it off," he says.

Then he tucks it back into the box, his fingers delicate as a surgeon's.

"The cuckoos don't understand me," he says. "What I do is too hard. I'm a terrible shotgun shooter, because a shotgun goes boom and shoots where you think the clay pigeon's gonna be. A target shooter has to finesse and love the trigger. It's about the mechanisms of your own body -- your brain, your eye, your finger."

Not long ago he visited his daughter and went along with her to a party. They played a game -- write down something wonderful you've done -- and she wrote his for him, bragging about his Olympic-caliber shooting.

Nobody guessed that the tall, kindly fire chief was the gun nut. When he finally admitted his claim to fame, two young women gasped.

He shrugs, used to being misunderstood but still hurt by it. Eastern Europeans understand, he says. He owns a Czech pistol, and he once met a Czech gunsmith who had the same gun with a silencer on it; it came that way so people could practice at home and not bother anyone.

"It came from the factory with a silencer on it so he could practice at home," Pollihan repeats, sick of the assumption that anybody with a silencer is up to no good. "In Europe, their shooting sportspeople are like our football players -- they're celebrities. Here, the idea of a gun is that it's a tool to kill, and everything in between is foreign to people."

Pollihan never wanted to kill anybody. He just craved the challenge. He'd hit a target, miss the next three, grit his teeth and keep at it until he hit them. His hand became callused from squeezing the pistol grip so tight. His patience expanded. He felt his mind and body align perfectly to express his will, project it into the air, find his goal.

For him, shooting was pure sport. A triumph over the odds. The ultimate in control in a world that can go up in flames without warning.

At sundown on a warmish Thursday evening, three beginners file into the Bull's Eye classroom.

After September 11, these classes swelled to nearly 100 students a month.

Tonight's a light night, though: an older man named Ricky, his face seamed and patient, sits alongside two young women, college age, their dark hair pulled back in bands and butterfly clips. Both pale, small-boned and pretty, they could be sisters -- but only one, call her Sally, looks rapt.

"I always wanted to do this," she says. Her friend nods agreement, but her eyes keep shuttling between the instructor's face and the Ruger Blackhawk .44 Magnum he just laid on top of her desk.

Alvah L. Brooks, a correctional officer in the county by day, hands Sally a sculpted Glock and repeats that the students are to treat these guns -- all guns -- as though they are loaded.

"Never point a gun at something you don't want to shoot," he snaps. "Never put your finger on the trigger until you're ready to shoot."

Then he relaxes and tells them how much fun they're going to have.

Sally picks up the Glock and lets it rest in her hand, bouncing it a little to feel its heft.

Brooks passes out single-action revolvers and shows them how to cock the hammer manually. Then he passes out double-action revolvers.

"Pulling the trigger cocks the hammer for you," he says Brooks. "You'll hear two clicks before it falls."

Ricky experiments, gingerly squeezing the trigger with the first pad of his finger. He frowns, tries again. Finally his brow clears. He's heard the clicks.

Next Brooks demonstrates how to rack a semiautomatic pistol and slap a magazine of bullets up into the grip.

Sally's finger keeps going to the trigger, as if pulled by unseen strings.

Her friend can't pull the trigger. Glycerin hand lotion is mixing with sweat, slicking her palms.

"Unload your guns," calls Brooks. They pop out the magazines, proud of themselves.

Brooks takes Ricky's gun and racks the slide, revealing a bullet.

"That's what happens with automatics," he warns. "You take the magazine out and think it's unloaded. See how easy it is to shoot somebody by accident?"

Ricky stares down at his gun.

"Gives you something to think about," he mutters.

Brooks drills them in stance and focus, then leads them to the target range.

"One at a time," he says, "and close the first door before you open the second. When you get out there, wait for me."

The doors close and echo like the old Get Smart TV show. Bullets bang and vibrate down every alley, the noise cutting straight through ear protectors.

Sally doesn't even blink.

She steps up to the firing station, moves her feet apart, extends and straightens her arms.




When she finally stops, she's breathless and her eyes are shining, and there are holes in the paper silhouette of her target.

Above her, the ceiling is pockmarked, and light streams through round bullet holes in the target's metal stand.

"That's from security guards who carry a gun for a living and don't know how to shoot," says Brooks.

Then he smiles at her.

"Want to try a machine gun?"

At the northernmost edge of the Ozarks, between the tufted green quilt of Mark Twain National Forest and the stark rise of the old Pea Ridge iron mine, lies Eden.

More than 5,000 acres of savanna, wetland, woods, prairie, briar and bramble and grassland, teeming with white-tail deer, coyote, bobcat, dove, turkey, woodcock, snipe, duck, geese, quail, grouse, fox, rabbit and squirrel.

All here for the taking.

Adam is Jim Kennedy, a former stockbroker with the baby face of a soap-opera star. Seven years ago, fed up with the vagaries of paper-money peddling, he climbed into his Alfa Romeo, drove out to the middle of nowhere and bought up the land.

He replaced the cattlemen's fescue with tall native grasses and shrubs, cleared dense hardwood thickets, moved the earth around until he'd restored natural habitats.

Remade paradise.

When the wildlife started returning, he took trees he'd harvested from the land and built a lodge; stocked it with cigars, whiskey and gourmet delicacies; hung the walls with skins and trophies. Downstairs, he set up what he jokingly calls his "David Koresh locker," lined with factory ammo, orange vests and shotguns of every size.

He'd created a hunting preserve, called Upland Wings, smack in the middle of one of the poorest counties in Missouri.

"In Washington County, the cattlemen rule the roost," he says, "and the only other people are trailer people on welfare." The upside? Permits spread easy as butter. Kennedy was able to amass and convert a lot of land, fast. Now he wants to see it encircled by minimum-3-acre lots and pricey homes.

"Be careful," warns a friend. "The new residents will vote out guns."

"Oh no," says Kennedy. "I want it acknowledged that it's a hunting community. A wildlife community."

To him, the phrases are interchangeable.

He sees hunting as a connection with nature, a claiming of wildness. People are animals who kill to eat, and he has no patience with gunshy vegetarians who pretend we've evolved into something gentler.

"If you are opposed to hunting and eating red meat," he says, "you are suffering from evolutionary guilt."

The lodge door swings open and two hunters enter, their steps loud on the plank floor. The men greet each other with macho-casual enthusiasm. The energy in the room flares and ripples like the ring of a gas broiler catching fire.

"We've been very p.c. until now," says Kennedy. "Let's go kill shit."

Silent now, businesslike, each man selects his weapon, then grabs safety glasses, earplugs and shotgun shells. Scott Mikols, Kennedy's wildlife manager, points out choke tubes that will tighten the density of the shotguns' pellet spray, keeping the pattern tight even at long distances.

They warm up at the clay range, shooting skeet until the cordite burns their nostrils and the guns feel like extensions of their arms.

"Clay's a controlled situation," says Eric Freukes, a gravedigger turned massage therapist. He runs a day spa for bridesmaids. And hunts with the rough passion of Hemingway.

"When you have a pheasant come busting up between your legs, wings beating against you -- you can't awaken that primitive hunting instinct until you experience it."

"Outdoor Dan" Young nods gravely: "Hunting's about getting close to nature."

"And then killing it," adds Kennedy.

"Ain't nothin' like a steaming gut pile," Young agrees. "But I don't talk like that on my radio show. I try to be sensitive. Women are the fastest-growing segment of the hunting industry."

At lunch, they talk about the courage real hunting requires.

"Those pretty boys on ESPN," sighs Freukes. "The deer are fenced in a stand and the hunter's saying, 'Hold 'em steady -- the tranquilizer's gonna wear off!"

They chortle.

Then they set off on their own hunt: a "put-and-take." Kennedy buys the birds, confines them in tight quarters and feeds them. Then he tucks their heads under their wings, sending them into a sleep state, and drives them to a field and lays them down. By the time the hunting party arrives, they're awake and feeding.

And even the wimpiest corporate VP can bag one.

Mikols has gone ahead to "put" a dozen or so Chinese ring-necked pheasants in a field tangled in brambles and chest-high grasses. He waits there with his dog, Abraham, a black American Labrador who's already sniffing the air.

"He will crisscross and intercept the trail, and then we'll come up on the birds and bust them," Kennedy tells one of the newer hunters. "It's elegant. It's clean, almost surgical. And it's fair chase, because they can fly."

Granted, the birds are out of practice. And they're out of their natural habitat, plunked down in somebody else's field after the trauma of capture, captivity and transport. But it's a time-honored tradition, Kennedy insists. He compares these hunts to Tolstoy.

"In Europe, only the richest of the rich could do this. I want to offer hunts on horseback with English pointers and the guns in scabbards."

He drops to a whisper as the others slowly make their way through the sticky-sharp beige grass. Soon their bodies are tiny splashes of orange. Low to the ground, Abraham weaves the trail, his progress a bending of grass.

"When a dog gets birdy, his whole body buzzes," Kennedy murmurs. "Your focus increases. Everything else drops away."

He stands still, waiting.

Flushed from the wall of cattails where it froze, hoping to hide, a bird angles into the sky, wings beating frantically.

A shot breaks the air. As fast as it flew, the bird falls to earth.

"Give them free range of fire," Kennedy radios to Mikols, moving toward a stream at the field's edge.

"The world got p.c. so quick," he sighs, talking audibly now. "I call it intellectual fascism, because even if you are saying something that is true, it can't be spoken.

"The ugly truth about the Second Amendment is that it's not about self-protection. It's about protecting people from the government. A centralized authority is that dangerous. Patriots must refresh the liberty tree with blood."

A minute later he's talking about his authoritarian father, who didn't hesitate to use force. Kennedy rebelled. He says it was the rigors of Army life that taught him self-reliance -- and stopped him from destroying himself.

Now he wants to eliminate the postmodern bullshit, use firepower and take responsibility for the consequences. In the independence of the early settlers, their willingness to act without excuses, he sees a moral courage he can't discern in today's messy, abstract society.

"Most gun advocates are idiots," he says. "They're reacting to a threat, and what comes out of their mouths comes across as unintelligent or hostile. There is nothing hostile about this. It is a wholesome thing. It can be easily made ugly -- 'Look at that pretty bird, why did you have to kill it, just go to the grocery store.' Well, where do they think Tyson chicken comes from?"

He's still talking when the last bird drops. Abraham lopes up, pleased with his part in the day's adventure. The hunters follow, tired and content. They set down the shotguns and sling limp birds into the back of the truck, the oily feathers a palette of dark red, teal, burnt orange, gold, iridescent blue and green and silver.

Kennedy picks one up by the neck and turns it, showing off its beauty.

"This is an honest interaction with the environment," he says. "The alternatives are all dishonest."

On the North Side, kids don't talk about authenticity.

They talk about straps, heaters, burners, Glocks, thumpers, zaners, ninas (9mm), choppas and street sweepers (fully automatic assault weapons). One boy uses Choppa City as his street name; another calls himself L'il Speedy, "quick enough to dodge bullets."

He needs to be.

L'il Speedy is 13, burning with eagerness.

"My friends be wild," he confides. "They'll be talking about 'Let's go rob somebody.' I said, 'You do that, it's gonna come back on you. They'll probably shoot you."

He hustles instead, pumping gas for guys with Cadillacs because his mama won't give him any money.

He's the kind of kid who's always asking -- for help or trouble, whichever comes first.

He got shot at for the first time this winter:

"Somebody tried to take my head off, but I'm too quick. I was sitting in front of my grandma's building and some dudes started shooting. Gang members. They claim Peabody. They Snoops."

His friend L8-L8 clarifies: "'Snoops' another name for saying Bloods. We don't use the term 'Blood' down here 'cause 'Blood' is like when Jesus died and there was blood hangin' down from his arms.

"I know a person has 12 guns," he adds. "For protection, 'cause of Dukies [Crips] and Snoops. But they don't carry all 12 at once. They carry two at a time."

L'il Speedy cocks his head. "If they got a bookbag, they gonna carry all of them," he points out. "If they are going on a solo mission. To murder somebody." He says that if one guy in a gang gets beat up, they all come down to the projects, stake out Peabody or Cochran, wreak vengeance.

That's why he wants "one of them Army guns that shoot, like, a million bullets in a minute. 'Cause if it's you by yourself, and all of them got guns, you can just let go."

L8-L8 interrupts: "I know some person got shot in the head with a .22. My friend, a security guard killed him for no reason. And the police shot a boy and killed him. Shot him with a .38 special."

These boys grew up seeing guns -- sometimes in a cop's hand, sometimes an uncle's -- and they're obsessed with them, their thoughts a mix of fear, movie violence, revenge fantasies and real-life gore. They don't know a single adult male who doesn't pack heat as a matter of course. And that heat fascinates them, hypnotizes like flame. A gun represents adult male power, invulnerability, coolness in the fullest sense of the word.

Yet they all say the world is scarier, not safer, because of guns.

"This dude named Cedric, he and his friend were playing Russian Roulette," says L8-L8. "You shoot the gun, click, and he pulled the trigger and shot him in his brains. Didn't know it was loaded. Half his brain cells was dead -- he could barely talk."

L'il Speedy pulls down on the knit cap he wears even indoors.

"My homey named J-Loc, he's dead," he says.

"And Christian," offers Tweezy.

"There's Bill, that died in Cochran," says L8-L8. "And Shamar."

"My Uncle Wookie," says Tweezy.

"Oh yeah, Wookie died last summer," says L8-L8.

"Darren," says L'il Speedy.

'L'il Willie," says Choppa City. "A girl shot him in the head because he beat her brother up."

"People die every day over guns," L'il Speedy says, cutting into the list impatiently. "Dope fiend owing a dealer for some snow, work, crack, the dealer might kill him. And they losin' their life over colors. Blue and gold. Red. I can't walk down certain streets. I do, though. I walk anywhere I want. Martin Luther King ain't preached for nothin'."

He pauses.

"Course, now the blacks are fightin' each other."

L'il Speedy takes a deep breath and moves on to his next worry: gangbangers' guns.

"They do put them up when they're not using them. Maybe they got a cut, an open hole somewhere, like in a vacant house or a broken wall. But if they see the police, they scatter like mouses, and they just throw their gun someplace dark, someplace a little kid might find it."

Cherub-faced Damontai, who's been listening to every word, gestures to his tiny armpit: "If someone has one of those things they put their guns in and the police don't see them --" He's building to a 6-year-old's frenzy, getting confused with all the associations.

"All polices don't do the right thing, either," resumes L'il Speedy. "They get guns through dope deals. And crooked police give people guns to bust them."

Even the homeless guys who warm their hands on trashcan fires have guns, he adds. "They break in cars to steal them."

In 1997, the death rate from firearms for all males ages 15-24 was 38.9 per 100,000. Multiply that by three for African-American males, who died at a rate of 119.9 per 100,000.

Guns on the street don't make L'il Speedy feel any safer.

But he wants one.

L'il Speedy dreams about a fully automatic assault weapon, but the gun that's killing his friends is a Smith & Wesson .38. To the feds' amazement, these old-fashioned revolvers, perfected in 1940 and peaking in the '60s, remain the gun of choice on the streets of St. Louis. Cheaper than Glocks, more reliable than Saturday-night specials, they were used by police until the late '80s, and they fire bullets just slightly narrower than the .40 SIG Sauer semiautomatic that ATF agents carry.

Gangbangers don't see much of the ATF anyway. The federal agency's charge is to keep illegal guns off the street, but with only 11 agents in St. Louis, they can't begin to retrieve all the illegally sold and gotten firearms. Fewer than 10 percent of recovered crime guns are still in the hands of their legal buyers. Most slide through the hands of family, friends or illegal street dealers.

"Our biggest problem is straw purchases," says Doug Dawson, group supervisor for the St. Louis office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Thanks to the National Rifle Association lobby, individual gun owners can sell from their collections without doing any criminal background check. Thanks to loopholes and glitches in data retrieval, dealers can sell to someone if they don't hear back from the FBI within three days. Thanks to basic human greed, some dealers still sell knowingly to straw purchasers.

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."

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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