Why Do East Tennesseans Love Their Guns?

Few issues in America, aside from war and abortion, are as polarizing as guns. But why are we so obsessed by them in the first place?

Bob Delmore has a gun on the worktable in front of him. It is an M1911 semi-automatic pistol, and it is partly disassembled, its barrel and spring separated from the bottom frame that holds the trigger and grip. Delmore is a gunsmith at Coal Creek Armory in West Knox County, and he is customizing the handgun, tinkering with its mechanics to make its action smoother and its firing more reliable.

"It's probably the most customizable of the handguns out there," he says, admiringly. The gun was designed in 1908 by John Browning—"a mechanical genius," Delmore says—and was adopted 99 years ago by the U.S. Army, which dubbed it the Model (or M) 1911. The .45-caliber weapon was standard military issue until the 1980s, when it was phased out in favor of a 9 mm Beretta, a move Delmore still thinks was a mistake. It remains popular in U.S. Special Forces units, and, especially, among civilians.

That includes Delmore, a tall, red-and-gray whiskered man with round glasses and a skeptical manner—or, at least, a skeptical manner when confronted by a writer from the local weekly whose politics he suspects he may not share. Continuing his disquisition on the 1911, Delmore casually reaches to his right side and pulls up from some not-immediately-obvious place his own Coal Creek-made version, stamped on its black body with the armory's logo: CCA in three adjacent lightning bolts. With practiced ease, he ejects a round from the chamber and removes the magazine.

"Self-defense is the reason everyone I know who carries a gun carries one," Delmore says. He allows that he has never had to fire a gun to protect himself, but he says he did brandish one once to useful effect. The point is, it is better to have one and not need it than need one and not have it. "It is a piece of emergency equipment," he says, "like a fire extinguisher."

Then he looks up from his seat at the worktable, narrows his eyes a little, and asks, "Why don't you own a gun?"

The question, and the somewhat baffled tone that accompanies it, hints at the gulf that separates gun people from non-gun people in contemporary America. On one side are people who don't own, carry, or want guns. Whether they've studied the issue closely or not, they tend to believe that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has something to do with state militias and little to do with a personal right to firearms. They also wonder why anyone thinks they need a gun, given the statistical unlikelihood of most people ending up in a situation where one might come in handy, and the potential risks of keeping one around the house.

On the other side are people like Delmore, who think the Constitution is perfectly clear about not infringing on "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms," and who don't understand why some of their fellow citizens are so bothered by the whole idea of a well-armed populace. They cite FBI statistics showing that as gun ownership has risen in recent years, violent crime has fallen. There is of course a whole world of pro- and anti-gun-control experts out there debating the correlation of guns to public safety, and all sorts of economic and cultural factors come into play in crime-rate trends. But it is obviously true that of the estimated 300 million or so guns at large in the United States, only a tiny percentage of them are ever used in assaults, robberies, or murders.

And very, very few legally owned guns are ever used criminally by legal gun owners like Delmore. Which is why gun people can't help suspecting that anti-gun sentiment is driven mostly by cultural prejudice and ignorance. They know the jokes that non-gun people make about them, that they're compensating for something, or they're paranoid, or they're just plain nuts. They hear condescension and—that dreaded word—elitism in those characterizations. They can recite President Obama's line about how people "bitterly cling" to guns as evidence of liberal arrogance on the issue.

But if they're not bitter, or compensating, or paranoid, if they're not "gun nuts" at all, then why, in their own words, do they care so much about having easy access to a particular kind of machine made for propelling small pieces of metal at lethal velocity? Well, they'd be happy to tell you.

The Instructor

"Americans own firearms for five reasons," Mike Crow says, "outside of the fact that we can."

He ticks them off on his fingers: "Certainly personal protection is one. Hunting is another. Then we have recreational shooting, just people wanting to go out and plink, knock over cans and do something that their brother can't do because he hasn't practiced it at all. Then you have competitive shooting, everything from the Single-Action Shooter Society, the cowboy-action shooters, to the IDPA"—the International Defensive Pistol Association—"and so on and so forth. And of course finally, the fifth one is collecting. There are people that really don't shoot much, they just buy the guns for their collector value."

Crow is familiar with all five types, and belongs to a few of them himself. As a shooting instructor, gun dealer, and owner of Austin's Tennessee Firearms in Oak Ridge, he spends most of his time around gun people. And he naturally owns and shoots, too. From behind his counter, he hoists a short-stocked Remington 870 shotgun, an imposing-looking one-handed shooter that serves as his personal security guarantor. A personable 55-year-old with a trim white beard, he has been shooting guns since he was 8. Like many East Tennesseans, he is only a few generations removed from rural roots. His father was an electrical engineer at the Y-12 plant, but grew up on a dairy farm in Alabama.

"I grew up around firearms," Crow says. "Dad and I really never hunted. Later on when I was in high school I'd hunt squirrels with friends and things of this nature, but Dad and I, most of our stuff was just target shooting. Dad started me out with the proper firearms education: Always keep the muzzle of the gun pointed in a safe direction; always keep your finger off the trigger until you have sights on target and you're ready to shoot; and keep the guns unloaded until you're ready to use them."

Those remain the foundations of the shooting classes that Crow teaches to everyone from housewives to law-enforcement agents, out of a classroom in the back of his small storefront operation. And those classes have given him some perspective on the appeal of things with triggers and bullets.

"For kids, and to an extent adults that are still kids, they're emulating what they see on television and movies," Crow says. "And unfortunately, in most depictions, the use of firearms on the small screen or the big screen is skewed so incorrectly." It is not uncommon for gun-owning men to show up for a class already convinced they know what they're doing, he says. "Guys grew up watching Crockett and Tubbs race across the dock chasing a cigar boat with a load of drugs, shootin' and spraying bullets. And that's how guys get their initial firearms training. Then they go to the military or they come to somebody like me, we just destroy the myth and we've got to start all over again."

Those problems, maybe not surprisingly, are less evident with the many women he teaches: "They pay attention, because they don't have any preconceived notions."

For more serious shooters, Crow says the appeal is technical, a constant tweaking and tuning of mechanics and skill to produce maximum performance: "Being able to take a 125-grain projectile, make a small group of holes at—for handguns, for example—25 yards, and being able to cover all five holes with a quarter. Or in long guns, at 1,000 yards, being able to reliably hit close to the center of a 4-foot by 4-foot target."

In any case, one thing all the varieties of gun people have in common is an interest in protecting their rights to own, carry, and/or use firearms. Non-gun people may think that these days, gun people don't have much to worry about. The Clinton-era ban on "assault weapons" (a phrase you use around gun people only if you are willing to endure snorts of derision) expired in 2004 with barely a whisper in then-Republican-dominated Washington. Dealers say the market for those guns, semi-automatics like the AR-15, is now much bigger than it was before the ban. And two recent Supreme Court decisions—District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008, and McDonald v. Chicago earlier this year—seemed to firmly establish that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to own guns. Meanwhile, legislatures across the country, including in Tennessee, have been passing ever-more-permissive laws about when and how weapons can be carried. With the passage of the "guns in bars" bill earlier this year over Gov. Phil Bredesen's veto, there are only a few kinds of places in Tennessee that are completely off-limits: courts, school grounds, public parks and buildings (unless the local government has exempted them), and private businesses that explicitly post no-firearms notices.

The corollary to that is that even if you are uncomfortable with the idea of being around people with guns, you probably already are. According to the Tennessee Department of Safety, the state has issued 339,000 carry permits since October 1996. That's about one for every 14 adult Tennesseans. If half of them actually carry at any given time, that would mean about one out of every 30 Tennesseans is walking around armed. Meanwhile, a comprehensive survey of gun ownership rates by state, conducted in 2000, said that about 44 percent of Tennessee households had at least one gun. Given the trends of the past decade, that number is almost certainly higher now.

Crow thought the prolonged debate about allowing guns in places that serve alcohol was pretty funny. Not because he thinks drinking and carrying is a good idea—that is still illegal—but because he says guns were in bars a long time before they were allowed. "As an individual that carries a gun wherever I legally can, it's very simple for me to spot people that are carrying guns," Crow says. "Before permit-holders could legally carry where alcohol was served, it was easy to go in any place in the whole area and look and see guns in these places."

He is similarly sanguine about accidental gun deaths, one of the rallying points of gun-control groups. "People talk about, ‘All of these children wouldn't be dying if we didn't have guns,'" he says. "And yes, children die from gun accidents. But the truth is, more children die every day in automobile accidents." (A lot more: In 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 122 Americans under the age of 18 died from accidental shootings; 5,387 died in motor vehicle accidents.)

But even with the recent legal and legislative victories, gun people see no reason to relax. Crow says he got a chance to talk with some of the attorneys involved in the Supreme Court cases last fall at a Gun Rights Policy Conference in St. Louis. And while he was glad for the results, he says, "The anti-gun individuals continue to try and subvert that with gun laws that restrict gun owners' ability to enjoy their sport, or gun owners' ability to protect themselves." The mere election of Obama, who has barely breathed a word about guns since the "bitterly clinging" remark, was enough to send gun sales skyrocketing. That might suggest a sort of perennial bunker mentality. But Crow notes initiatives aimed at limiting access to ammunition, reloading components, even gunpowder. "What kind of sense does this make?" he asks. "None. It's somebody thinking, ‘Boy if we could only do this, we could put a stop to those gun people.'"

He chuckles and shakes his head.

The Constitutionalists

Glenn Reynolds, who is firmly on the side of the gun people, thinks the whole cultural chasm was best summarized more than 30 years ago in a policy journal. Seated in his office at the University of Tennessee Law School, Reynolds—a law professor best-known outside academia as publisher of the blog Instapundit—hands over a photocopied quotation from an article called "The Great American Gun War," published in The Public Interest in 1976 and written by researcher Barry Bruce-Briggs. In part, it reads:

"The intensity of passion on this issue suggests to me that we are experiencing a sort of low-grade war going on between two alternative views of what America is and ought to be. On the one side are those who take bourgeois Europe as a model of a civilized society: a society just, equitable, and democratic; but well ordered, with the lines of authority clearly drawn, and with decisions made rationally and correctly by intelligent men for the entire nation. To such people, hunting is atavistic, personal violence is shameful, and uncontrolled gun ownership is a blot upon civilization.

"On the other side is a group people who do not tend to be especially articulate or literate, and whose world view is rarely expressed in print. Their model is that of the independent frontiersman who takes care of himself and his family with no interference from the state. They are conservative in the sense that they cling to America's unique pre-modern tradition—a non-feudal society with a sort of medieval liberty at large for everyman. To these people, ‘sociological' is an epithet. Life is tough and competitive. Manhood means responsibility and caring for your own."

"That really kind of spells it out," Reynolds says. "It is a division between two very different views not only of American society, but also life itself."

And it's a division particularly visible in Appalachia, Reynolds believes, with its strong cultural traditions of independence and deeply rooted suspicion of outside authority. He cites the book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, by Sen. James Webb of Virginia, which traces the insistent self-reliance and, on the other hand, insecurity of the people who made up much of the early European population of this area. Webb notes that the Scots-Irish have been over and over at cultural and political fault-lines: between the English and Scottish, then between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, then between the North and South in the American Civil War. The result, Webb argues, is a warrior mentality and a high premium on the ability to fend for yourself.

Reynolds, who is often characterized as a conservative but has called himself a "libertarian transhumanist," has somewhat accidentally become one of Tennessee's leading scholars on gun rights. In 1994, he agreed to host a Law School symposium on the Second Amendment, which he says he hadn't given much thought to before. "It really interested me," he says. "I felt like it was really an understudied area. It really is fundamentally about the relationship between the citizenry and the government." He ended up writing an article called "A Critical Guide to the Second Amendment," which, among other things, concluded that the prevailing view of people who had seriously studied the Second Amendment was that it does indeed protect an individual right to bear arms. The article lamented "widespread popular ignorance" of the historical background and legal grounding of the Amendment.

One of Reynolds' students in those years was Andrew Fox, now a family-law attorney in downtown Knoxville. Partly as a result of Reynolds' influence, he wrote his third-year paper on Tennessee's then-new carry-permit law—particularly on its requirement that anyone applying for a carry permit post a $50,000 bond. "That bond provision, I opined, was unconstitutional," Fox says. Under the Tennessee state constitution adopted in 1834, the Legislature can limit the right to bear arms only for purposes of preventing crime. Since bonds are insurance against negligence, not criminal acts, Fox argued that the Legislature had no right to impose them. Soon after, the state dropped the bond, and Fox heard through law school friends that his paper had circulated in Nashville before the vote.

Fox says he owns several firearms and goes target shooting a few times year. "Last time we went shooting, my whole family went," he says. "My dad went, my mom went, everybody took their hand at shooting various firearms." His children shot, too. "If you're going to have firearms in your home, I think it's important for the children to understand them and know how to be safe with them," he says.

But Fox's interest in guns is clearly more intellectual than visceral. He loves talking about the legal intricacies of gun rights, and is a strong proponent of what gun people call the Insurrection Theory of the right to bear arms: that the Second Amendment's primary purpose is to allow private citizens—whether in "well regulated militias" or not—to resist government tyranny. He says "bearing arms" in the legal, historical sense means to go armed as a soldier (which means, for one thing, that Fox thinks all Americans should be able to be legally as well armed as a U.S. Army private). Under this construction, carrying arms for hunting doesn't even count as "bearing" them. "Hunting weapons aren't protected," Fox says. "It's weapons to kill people. That's the intellectually honest way to approach it without trying to sweeten it up. It's actually weapons of war that are more protected."

He even has reservations about the Heller and McDonald cases. While he's happy to see an individual right to arms upheld, he doesn't think the decisions were well-grounded historically. "I'm an original intent/strict constructionist kind of guy," Fox says, "and I think it's important to have an understanding of what the law stood for initially."

Fox, who hardly matches the Bruce-Briggs description of illiterate or inarticulate gun enthusiasts, is part of what Reynolds sees as a new wave of gun owners, many of them affluent and well informed on the social and historical debate surrounding firearms. Reynolds thinks the gun-control movement was partly driven by civic panic in the 1960s and '70s in the wake of high-profile assassinations and mounting urban crime rates. As crime rates have fallen even while gun ownership continues to grow, he says, "Maybe we're back to sort of a renormalization"—a society that is growing more comfortable with guns on its streets, in its office buildings, in its restaurants and movie theaters.

The Dealers

That is certainly borne out by the observations of the guys at Coal Creek Armory, which manufactures and/or sells all kinds of firearms, from dainty pistols to machine guns, teaches classes in their use, and boasts Knox County's only indoor firing range (25 yards, 10 lanes, handgun ammunition only, please). The Armory's handgun carry-permit course is attended by a few thousand people a year, some of them sent at the request of their employers (pharmacies and doctor's offices, for example) or even their churches.

Eric Parish, the Armory's general manager and one of its instructors, says specific crimes can drive up enrollment. "After that double murder, there was a big spike in people just wanting to arm themselves," he says, referring to the brutal and highly publicized slayings of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom.

"You don't want your last thought to be, ‘I wish I had a gun,'" Parish says, offering one of the standard rationales for carry permits. (Also sometimes phrased more flippantly: "People carry guns because cops are too heavy.")

And Coal Creek is more than happy to make sure no gun wish goes unfilled. Its shelves and cabinets bristle with hardware: an M16 here, a MAC11 there, custom-made Saiga shotguns and rifles. At the back of the shop, visible through thick Lexan plastic windows and audible via muffled pops, is the range. It is fairly quiet on a Friday afternoon, but Parish says it's not unusual for all 10 lanes to fill up on weekends—or on Tuesdays, when women can shoot for free. A complicated and expensive ventilation system keeps air moving through, pushing the sulfuric fumes of gunpowder downwind from shooters.

Out back is the shop, a modest shed where Delmore and a small crew of other gunsmiths work, making the Armory's own guns and customizing or repairing whatever comes across the counter. Delmore says that one underappreciated aspect of firearms—one that, in his view, gets to the heart of the absurdity of any attempt to rid society of them—is how long they last. Granted, a regular competitive or target shooter will eventually need to do some repairs. "If you shoot it a lot, stuff's going to wear out, stuff's going to break," he says. But your average carry-permit holder who might go to a range a few times a year just to keep in practice? Their gun's going to be around for their children and grandchildren. And there are an awful lot of guns out there.

The Collector

There is, for example, the Simeon North pistol that Greg Lambert is displaying proudly on his desk. The flintlock gun was manufactured in 1816. "It was the second pistol adopted by the U.S. military," Lambert says. "Simeon North was a pioneer in assembly-line manufacturing."

Lambert, a former Knox County commissioner known to pretty much everyone as "Lumpy," might be the best-known gun enthusiast in East Tennessee. He gained national notoriety 10 years ago when he ran a "Buy a car, get a gun" promotion at his family's Advantage Auto Sales dealership on Clinton Highway. That was eclipsed in 2006 when he faced down an armed robber in his office, forcing the man to drop his gun and flee. Police arrested the assailant, Kane Stackhouse, soon afterward and also charged him with the earlier murder of a Walgreens truck driver. Stackhouse is now serving a life sentence. Two years later, Lambert was at Knoxville Center mall when an enraged customer, William Johnson, shot and killed a store clerk. Lambert, a carry-permit holder who had a gun with him, helped stake out the store where Johnson was hiding until police arrived.

Lambert isn't shy about recounting those episodes—he recently filmed a re-enactment of the Stackhouse incident for a documentary TV show. But his interest in firearms is at least as much aesthetic as practical. He is a gun collector. He likes the history and variety of guns, in the same way a car enthusiast likes the history and variety of cars. He notes that some Simeon North pistols, maybe even this one, saw action toward the end of the Barbary Pirate wars.

"The thing you really need to understand about gun culture is, we are really no different than anyone else," he says. "It's just our hobby."

Also on his desk he has two small handguns from the early 20th century, .25-caliber Automatic Colt Pistols designed by John Browning. Commonly known as vest-pocket pistols, they would look familiar to anyone who's seen an old private-eye film. Lambert gives a quick disquisition on the evolution of the gun's safety mechanism.

Then there's a French-model PPK, a handgun with a complicated history involving the Third Reich, the division of postwar Germany, and James Bond (who carried one in Ian Fleming's books). Among other things, the PPK to Lambert represents the folly of gun-control laws. Its compact size fell afoul of the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, which was particularly concerned with small, easily concealable weapons. The solution: The European manufacturer put a larger grip on the gun, adding room for one more bullet in the magazine. That made it both legal and more potentially lethal.

"Gun bans don't work," Lambert says flatly. "Every time they've tried to ban a weapon, there's been ways around it."

He also sees some nefarious and unspoken forces at work behind many gun-control efforts. He notes that they have often gone hand-in-hand with social unease about urban crime, and seem to him most concerned with taking guns away from racial minorities. Most recently, he says, assault rifles became the target of federal legislation only after they were adopted by inner-city drug gangs in the 1980s and '90s. Gun-control advocates, Lambert says, aren't aiming at people like him: "They're not thinking, ‘We gotta keep chubby, middle-aged, Caucasian, upscale males from going to the shooting range.'"

Lambert grew up around guns, in a hunting family, but soon decided that hunting wasn't for him. As he likes to say, "I can buy meat cheaper than I can shoot it." But he did enjoy shooting, and he started accumulating guns early: a kids'-size shotgun when he was 8, then a single-shot .22, a .30-30 deer rifle, a .22 pistol when he was 14. By his own count, he now has 19 handguns, two registered machine guns, and "a whole slew of shotguns and rifles of various makes."

Unlike some gun enthusiasts, he doesn't necessarily think there's anything wrong with anyone who doesn't want to own a gun (or 19 of them). But he does wish that people who don't like guns could just think of it the way he thinks of golf: as something that other people enjoy, for some unfathomable reason.

"You really don't have to understand it," he says, almost plaintively. "I hate to use this buzzword, but I will: It's tolerance."

In other words, gun people say: We're here. Don't fear. Just get over it.