Years ago while following the trail of the Oklahoma City bombers in Arizona, I worked with a freelance cameraman who showed up one morning with a pistol strapped to his leg. I asked, "Why are you wearing that?" and he said, "Because I can." In Arizona, he could.
Then I told him he could either work for network news that day, or wear the gun, but not both.
But I've thought about that moment many times in trying to understand guns, and passionate gun people. The attraction to guns and the "because I can" mentality is foreign to people like me who don't care about guns, but it is the central conflict in the national debate. Millions of Americans own guns because they can, not because they particularly need them, or have plans to use them. Most guns are never fired. But since President Obama was reelected, and the Newtown massacre, gun shops have been selling out as buyers snap up guns for fear that in a few months they won't be able to. They're buying guns now, while they can, because they can.
The president's proposal for a renewed assault weapons ban and other tighter restrictions on gun buying will only further whip up the frenzy. It's what the gun guys have been afraid of since he was first elected.
Very popular is the AR-15 and its multiple clones, the semi-automatic rifle based originally on the military M-16. It's black, mechanical, and utilitarian. With its collapsing stock, sights, scopes and accessory rails, it looks a little like a fantasy weapon out of a video game. It is quite good at putting multiple rounds dead on target without punishing your shoulder. They are known as "black guns." Buyers don't want a beautiful $3,000 custom-made Beretta shotgun with hand-carved scrollwork and a polished walnut stock. They want military-ugly.
The AR-15 feeds the fantasy that in a national emergency The Boys from Vermont could pull out their guns and save the nation. Or the true patriots could resist an American government that's gone astray and become the oppressor. Never mind that what most oppresses people is not a soldier at the door, it's a tax bill.
Think what's happening to so many Americans. Pay is shrinking, if you have a job at all. Kids are on drugs, cellphones, videogames or all three. Taxes are rising but the street department doesn't have enough money to fill the pothole in front of your house. People are being nibbled to death by medical insurance paperwork, the price of cable television and the phone bill. They are losing their homes. They can't save for retirement and think Social Security won't be there. Millions of Americans feel like there is nothing they can do about any of it.
An AR-15 puts power in your hands and tells you that in some dire situations you could do something about it. In a post-apocalyptic breakdown, that unemployed man grabs his Bushmaster, defends the home and forages for food. He becomes the man again, strong and providing. The power to do it is right there in the bedroom closet.
Assault weapons are a problem, but they are also a symptom of frustration and powerlessness out there in America. When "because I can" is the primary reason for having a gun, you're in for a fight if you try to take it away. Simply owning a powerful gun convinces millions of Americans they are free.