Inspired by his late father's antique pistol, author, urbanite, firearm novice (and skeptic) Eli Gottlieb traveled through Colorado to figure out why guns still hold such fascination.

June 2009

When last holiday season rolled around, my 12-year-old stepson had his gift wish list already prepared. Long in the making, it was enriched with lengthy footnotes and lovingly detailed illustrations. I was struck by the fact that he'd invest as much time and feeling in this list as in any school project of his I'd even seen. My stepson is a sensitive child who is deeply interested in animal rights and global justice. He fears loud noises and speaks lovingly to our dog in complete sentences. He is in nearly every way an age-appropriate 12-year-old American boy. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised that all the items on his wish list were guns.

These weren't the colorful, cartoonish toy guns of my childhood, however. No, he was requesting an arsenal of something called "airsoft" guns. Apparently, in the last dozen or so years, pellet- and BB-gun manufacturers have cashed in on Americans' passion for guns by producing pellet versions of real weapons, just for kids. These companies market directly to your children by exploiting their developmental weaknesses; they've helped create a culture in which a six-year-old child covets a plastic Uzi submachine gun realistic down to the bolts and screws on the stock. An orange ring on the front of the gun barrel is all that distinguishes the weapon as a toy—and all that stands between children and their misidentification by police as gun-toting delinquents. Sales, insofar as they can be quantified, are strong. The question begs to be asked: How have we come to this pass, America?

In truth, our country was born to the sound of gunfire, and that original click of firing pin on explosive charge has been part of the intrinsic American soundtrack ever since. If we are today the most armed country on earth—with the poverty-stricken nation of Yemen running a distant second in per capita civilian gun ownership—it's partly because of how deeply we've internalized the frontier mythology. Looked at from Europe or Asia, our American obsession with weaponry and the free flow of it can seem passing strange, if not outright bizarre. "What do you guys want?" asks the average Italian or Japanese citizen, when reading of the latest congressional refusal to reinstate the assault weapons ban. Isn't it enough that your country is already armed to the teeth? That you have more prisoners per capita than anyone else? That the rate of homicides in your gun-choked nation is higher than most other industrialized democracies in the world, and is only surpassed by lovely havens of tranquility like Colombia and El Salvador?

Such discussions, if they involve American citizens, often quickly become shouting matches, because guns inflame passions with a vehemence unique to themselves—and for good reason: Unlike global warming or the flat tax, the repercussions of gun policy have distinct and dramatically individual consequences. By law, you're either able to hold a deadly weapon in your hand or not; you either can or cannot carry a gun in your purse, your car, or your luggage; and depending on a range of secondary circumstances, you either can or cannot legally use one to make somebody dead. A gun homicide occurs in America about every 20 minutes, and six out of 10 suicides are committed with firearms. For too many people, in the words of former Denver Post columnist Jim Spencer, "Muzzle flash constitutes conflict resolution."

It's no accident that a Coloradan conceived that pithy formulation. Coloradans have a visceral, longstanding relationship with guns. Large parts of the country, of course, are filled with hunters eagerly firing away at flying, flapping, and sprinting things, but to that Colorado adds its pedigreed frontier heritage, on the one hand, and an event called Columbine, on the other. The result is a place that offers a unique—and uniquely revealing—window into the stormy, ever-raw battle over gun use and ownership.

By way of full disclosure, I should explain that, unusually for someone with my background (Jewish, New York), I grew up in a home with a firearm, principally because my father belonged to that generation of men for whom liberal social principles did not preclude the use of deadly force when necessary. His Beretta pistol, brought back after his discharge from the Army Air Corps in 1945, sat unshot in his dresser drawer throughout my childhood, broadcasting a thrilling, faintly dangerous adult music. Upon his death, I overcame my instinctual adult distaste for guns and decided that it was important that I learn to use and shoot his pistol as an homage to him, and because I was now living in Colorado. In the process, somewhat unwillingly, I began a long, loud voyage through our state's version of the place I call Gunland.