Some brilliant social scientist came up with the concept of the “third place.” This third place is a necessary and universal feature in American life. It’s the place we go that isn’t our house and isn’t our workplace, each of which require specific behaviors that may not feel quite natural. Work and home, after all, often involve dealing with the expectations of others and conforming to certain tribal patterns. I don’t know about you, but I hate the expectations of others and I loathe tribal patterns.
The third place, then, is where we get to be who we are, without apology or remorse, without politics or prejudices. Mine, however, seems to exist more as a concept than a place. It’s where I go for surcease, relief, possibly even healing. It is gun culture.
Does it exist as an actual place? Can one go to it physically? Or is it a psycho-spatial phenomenon like the internet, which manages to be everywhere and nowhere at once? To me, gun culture is ethereal, incandescent, even gossamer.
And, with my concrete imagination, I do prefer a build- ing, an address, a zip code. Too much psycho-spatiality makes my head strobe hot purple and then I need a medicinal martini or six. I don’t like concepts. I like stuff. Therefore, I need to have a place I can touch, see and feel and of which I can say, “Here is the here that is gun culture. Here is home and, yes, I can go to it again.” Physically, I mean.
Several localities come to mind. One might be certain quasi-religious cathedrals where the history of the gun maker’s art is celebrated. I think of the NRA Museum in Fairfax, Va., where the long cavalcade of steel genius and those who deployed it are on display. The same would certainly be true of other gun spaces, such as the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyo., the NRA National Sporting Arms Museum in Springfield, Mo., or the Gene Autry Peacemaker collection in Los Angeles. But, great as they are, such edifices are too ceremonial. Visiting is a special event, demanding formalized behavior; after all, one doesn’t visit the Vatican in flip-flops, even if one lives in flip-flops.
I need a place ... of which I can say, “Here is the here that is gun culture. Here is home and, yes, I can go to it again.”
You might argue, then, that any shooting competition is the thing and place called gun culture—but the thing is, at the highest level, no matter the discipline, the athletic skill is so refined it seems extra-terrestrial. What these folks can do! To watch is to be awestruck. It’s an inspiration and an aspiration, and the only small thing that keeps me from being a championship shooter is a complete lack of talent.
At lower levels, the matches devolve into simple delight. When I get all dressed up as Pike Bishop (gang leader in the 1969 movie The Wild Bunch), I am having so much fun that … oh, wait, I would never do that. Like thousands of others, I’m too repressed for such shenanigans, too self-aware. Some can look in the mirror and see Pike; I just see Steve in a dirty black suit and a face broadcasting pie-faced goofiness. My loss, your gain.
Instead, I think for many of us in the gun world, the third place, the actual brick and mortar location of our oasis, is the local gun store and range. Always significantly more than mere retail, the gun store has reliably offered acceptance, respect, camaraderie, good humor and an oasis of calm amid a life less calm by far. It isn’t just selling guns. It’s giving kinship. It is the cockpit of gun culture. Additionally, there’s no hangover the next morning.
Yes, I know about gun clubs. I mean them no harm, but from scarred survivor testimony, I conclude that most are pits of discord, full of cliques bitterly defended, grudges fiercely held and, forever, coups and counter-coups, with pressures to conform under the threat of exile. Sounds just like an office! Plus, you have to pay to belong. Thanks, but no thanks.
I will take the gun store any day. I was in fact the longest-serving member of my gun shop/range, having joined in 1983 when I bought my first gun, a Taurus PT-99. I spent 40 years there, longer than I’ve held any job, lasted in any marriage, lived in any house, followed any team, educated any child. I realize now I spent a significant part of my adulthood there and if I’ve enjoyed any success, who’s to say the gun store isn’t part of the reason?
It is a place of many rewards. One of the keenest is empty bliss. People think we shoot out of power fantasies and homicidal impulses. Quite the opposite. We shoot for numbness. Being me has turned out to be complicated. Like the expectation of others and tribal patterns, I hate complications. Such is the charisma of the gun that complications are banished. Instead, one enters a world of micro-management of the components of the shot, from grip, to stance, to focus, to the nuance of the trigger. For a little while, at least, I don’t have to be me. It’s like a steam-bath in mental health.
Of course, do not forget the people. The staff was generally terrific; I saw them come and go, all bright young people with a surpassing knowledge of firearms. Many were U.S. Marines and still affected by Marine discipline. Many were combat veterans, but none were boastful. For the past 10 years—maybe more—they were ruled over by a benevolent despot named Ed, who could fix anything and always had the disposition of the teacher you never forgot, and no one could guess he was a former First Sergeant and ‘Nam combat veteran. If you had to go to war, you’d want an Ed on each side of you. Danielle was one of those sly ones, always giving as good as she got. And guess what: super smart.
I don’t want to over-romanticize the old place, along the familiar lines of a bitter old-man who claims it used to be better, even though I am a bitter old man and it used to be better. Yes, each of the 16 shooting positions had its own personality, when it had any personality at all. Sometimes the target lanes’ wiring system reversed polarity on you, so that “out” didn’t mean “out,” it meant “back,” and when it meant “back,” the target clip could smack you in the forehead. The lighting was indifferent, the linoleum faded, the temperature whimsical. The selection of firearms was never gigantic. Some of the rules were illogical. So what?
Alas, my third place has just recently gone away. New owners have taken over, changed the name, shuttered it to remodel and restaff. They will open soon, and no matter how bright and shiny their enterprise is, it won’t be the same. Thus I mourn.