On a recent trip to the US while filming Unplanned America, we visited three groups of what some may call extreme gun nuts. And for a group of anti-gun Australians, we found them surprisingly hard to argue with.
The first place we visited was a Disneyland of violence that it was hard to believe actually existed. “Drive-A-Tank” is out in the middle of nowhere in freezing cold Kasota, Minnesota.
As you can guess by Drive-A-Tank’s name, it’s a warfare wonderland where the unlicensed and unqualified can remarkably drive a tank.
Owner Tony Borglum is the man responsible for giving this particular 35-year-old man his first ever gun to shoot. The fact that I was an armed violence virgin surprised Tony, given that he first owned a firearm as a young kid.
When I popped my cherry and shot the vintage “Sten” sub-machinegun, the rapid pop pop pop of the bullets down the indoor range was deeply satisfying and the action movie-loving eight-year-old boy inside me was in heaven.
But when the next weapon came out, s**t got real and kick-arse elation turned to sickening shock. Legend has it that the Geneva Convention bans the Barrett M82A1 from being shot at human targets, due to it being a war crime. And while this may not technically be true, the US Army does train soldiers not to shoot it at personnel.
We were speechless. So why does the weapon exist, we asked? Tony replied that it’s to shoot at “material”. Like a building or vehicle or army equipment — even military issued zippers or military issued glasses. And if a human happened to be attached to that equipment, well it might be the case that the massive 50 caliber bullets accidentally ensure that human becomes nothing more than “red mist”.
One by one we leant over the huge weapon and pulled the trigger, and each time everyone within a two meter radius felt a shock wave from the barrel like a punch in the chest. Boom! And the chilling thought of a cloud of red mist left behind was felt in the pit of my stomach.
So why do Americans love guns? Why the hell do they need them? Why do they take such joy in owning and shooting these things, when so many Australians would be terrified to even touch them?
The way Tony explains it is that due to the prevalence of violent crime in the US, and given the remote location of his own home, he’d be crazy not to have a gun. He says if an armed intruder broke into his house to kill his loved ones, by the time the county sheriff eventually got there, he would be trying to solve a slaying, not prevent one.
Secondly, Tony says there are so many guns in the US it would take a government generations to entirely rid the nation of them. And most gun owners would never agree to it, indeed many would respond in violence.
This point is key. Once you consider that the guns might be here to stay, the issue gets infinitely more complicated.
The next group of presumed gun nuts we spent time with was the Virginia Open Carry group. Remarkably, in most states in the US it is totally legal to openly carry a firearm on your hip. Without a license of any kind. We could’ve even done it.
This immediately conjures up images of a lawless Wild West that has no place in a modern civilised society. But as we sat down for a lunch of BBQ ribs (what else) with the open carriers we found them to be intelligent and thoughtful in their views.
There was not a nut among them, but each was staunchly attached to their view and their gun and would never ever let them go. It’s the opinion of these guys that the tragic daily mass shootings in the US are the result of a mental health problem in America, not a gun problem and that the government misdirects the issue so they don’t have to tackle the more complex and expensive issue.
Where it gets tricky for our open carry friends however is that while they agree that psychologically disturbed people are the ones that carry out mass murders, they still believe they have a constitutional right to own a gun, and a God given right to privacy that means the government shouldn’t be allowed to dig into their backgrounds when they want to purchase a firearm. Tricky.
The final group we shot the s**t out of a bunch of cans with were the ones we were most scared of before we met them. They were the Texas State Militia — a self-styled army consisting of ex-military men who have armed themselves to the hilt to protect the American way of life.
We were expecting racist rednecks, paranoid about Muslims and Mexicans taking over their country. This was far from the case. When we spoke to Matt, the young leader of the 1100 strong group we found an ex-soldier who feels deep guilt for the things he did in Iraq and thinks that the US wars in the Middle East are based on government lies.
His group for now however is still keen to work with the government like a terrifying Neighborhood Watch, until such a time where the government stops respecting the rule of law.
And herein lies the crux of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, the part that most Australians don’t understand.
All of those we spoke to believe that it is a citizen’s duty, as explicitly stated in the founding document of the United States, to be armed in order to keep the government in check. They say that the country was founded after their British rulers became corrupt and an armed uprising saved a whole nation from tyranny. They say it will happen again, and they’re ready to protect their freedom if and when it does.
And they might stand a decent chance, given there’s more guns that people in the US right now.
If only they could find a way to stop turning their weapons on each other. Ending gun violence is one of the most serious and complex problems this country faces. And the most unique to the “land of the free”.