When the newspaper sent a photographer to take a picture of the Maxon sign, the gun shop called the police. Who came, reminded them that this still is America, despite their best efforts. This was that kind of story.
There’s something soothing about buying a gun.
Driving to Maxon Shooter’s Supplies in Des Plaines Wednesday to purchase my first assault rifle, I admit, I was nervous. I’d never owned a gun before. And with the horror of Sunday’s Orlando massacre still echoing, even the most pleasant summer day—the lush green trees, the fluffy clouds, blue sky–took on a grim aspect, the sweetness of fragile life flashing by as I headed into the Valley of Death.
Earlier, in my editor’s office, I had ticked off the reasons for me not to buy a gun: this was a journalistic stunt; done repeatedly; supporting an industry I despise. But as I tell people, I just work here, I don’t own the place. And my qualms melted as I dug into the issue. I couldn’t even figure whether bringing an assault rifle into Chicago is legal. The Internet was contradictory. The Chicago corporation consul’s office punted me on to that black hole of silence, Bill McCaffrey. I found that Illinois has a 24-hour waiting period between buying and taking possession of a gun. Unearthing that fact alone made the exercise seem worthwhile. I was learning stuff.
Reluctance melted when I walked into the large, well-lit store. Maxon’s looked like a meeting of the Mid-50ish Guy Club. A dozen grizzled men in ball caps , milling around. More on the glassed in shooting range. Imagine a steady, muffled pop-pop…pop going on behind the rest of this column.
I eyed the cases of weapons. Ooo. Big revolvers, matte steel. Despite the run on weaponry that happens after these shootings—Smith & Wesson stock went up 6.9 percent Monday—as gun fans guard against restrictions that never come, there were a few dozen assault rifles (a vague term, yes, I know) including a Sig Sauer like the one used in Orlando.
"I'm interested in one of the ARs," I said, trying to project an air of manly ease. "What's the difference between the cheap ones and the expensive ones?"
"Not much," said Rob, a clerk with a winged death's head with a dagger tattooed on his right forearm. "Mostly it's manufacturing tolerances, different sights and stuff."
He immediately asked for my FOID card—Firearm Owner's Identification Card—no gun purchase without it.
He showed me a Smith & Wesson M & P 15 Sport II, a lean black weapon, 6.5 pounds.
We talked barrel profiles.
"Assault rifle" a misnomer. Despite what another clerk called the "black, evil-looking" appearance of the guns, the only aspect relevant to the national debate is the "standard issue 30-round magazine" which holds a nightclub-clearing 30 bullets. Eight states and the District of Columbia ban selling them. But not, of course, Florida. Or Illinois.
"I'll take it," I said.
A few months earlier, a friend's life is dissolving into alcoholism and divorce. I try to just listen—no point putting in my two cents anymore. Bewailing his fate, he mentions that his soon-to-be ex-wife is insisting he hand his guns over to a neighbor for safekeeping.
"Good," I say, slipping.
"Fuck you," he replies, with sincerity. I don't know if I say this or just think it: "Your father shot himself. Your grandfather shot himself. Maybe guns are not a good idea in your life right now." Whether I say it or not, we both already knew it's true. But wants the guns anyway. For protection.
Driving to Maxon's, the whole gun debate clarified in bold relief. There is the danger of the gun. itself. And there is the danger the gun protects you from. Another divide. Which danger you feel is greater decides which side of the divide you live on.
Being fact-based I know, you buy a gun, the person you are most likely to shoot, statistically, is yourself. And your family. More pre-schoolers are killed by guns than are police officers. Nor do I need the sense of security, false though it may be, that guns bring. I live in Northbrook, where criminal danger is remote. My boys laugh at us for locking the doors. I don't plan on keeping this gun a second longer than I have to for this column.
Not everyone feels that way. A house on the next block has a high fence and an electric gate across the driveway. The blinds are drawn and in 15 years of walking by, I've never seen a person there. I would guess the owner is afraid. Maybe just shy. But he sees a hazard requiring that fence, gate and security service that I do not. I imagine he owns a gun. Or many guns.
When it came time to make the purchase, Rob, the clerk with the tattoos, handed me over to Mike, who gave his name shaking my hand, I gave mine. "The writer?" he said. If I wanted to lie as part of my job, I'd have gone into public relations. "Yes," I said, explaining that I plan to buy the gun, shoot at their range, then give it to the police. He suggested I sell it back to them instead and I heartily agreed. Economical. If they would let me photograph myself with it there, the gun need never leave the store.
A reporter in Philadelphia bought an assault rifle in seven minutes; 40 percent of gun transactions in the U.S. have no background checks. Here, I had paperwork. A federal form asking, was I an illegal alien? No. Was I a fugitive? Again no? Had I ever been convicted on charges of domestic abuse? No. Handed over my credit card: $842.50. Another $40 for the instructor to acquaint me with the gun the next day.
Our transaction took nearly an hour because we chatted. Mike used to read newspapers but doesn't anymore because of opinion writers like me. He knew whether it was legal to bring the gun to Chicago—it's not. He was friendly, candid, so I asked difficult questions. Did he ever feel guilty about the people killed by the guns he sells? No, he said, that's like asking a car dealer if he felt guilty if someone gets drunk and kills somebody in a car he sold. It seemed a fair answer. I asked him if I could quote him in the newspaper, and he said no, I couldn't, so I'm not quoting him.
Back home later Wednesday, a neighbor asks how my day is going. "I just bought an assault rifle," I say. Her eyes widen. She mentions that her brother-in-law owns 100 guns.
"A hundred guns!" I marvel. "That's a lot. Why does he own 100 guns?"
"He's afraid," she replies.
I was looking forward to shooting my new rifle the next day. I've shot guns. It's fun. I was worried though, about having fun with guns in the current environment of outrage and horror. Had I been co-opted by the purchase process? By the friendly staff at Maxon's? Heck, there is a whole world of hobbyists, of hunters, of people who love guns for a variety of reasons that are not crazy. Three hundred million guns in America. If the vast majority weren't handled safely, we'd all be dead. Oh well, I thought, no harm in a gun story reflecting the gun owner's perspective.
At 5:13 Sarah from Maxon called. They were canceling my sale and refunding my money. No gun for you. I called back. Why? "I don't have to tell you," she said. I knew that, but was curious. I wasn't rejected by the government? No. So what is it? "I'm not at liberty," she said.
Gun dealers do have the right to refuse sales to anyone, usually exercised for people who seem to be straw purchasers. I told her I assume they wouldn't sell me a gun because I'm a reporter. She denied it. But hating the media is right behind hating the government as a pastime for many gun owners. They damn you for being ignorant then hide when you try to find out.
A few hours later, Maxon sent the newspaper a lengthy statement, the key part being: "it was uncovered that Mr. Steinberg has an admitted history of alcohol abuse, and a charge for domestic battery involving his wife."
Well, didn't see that coming. Were that same standard applied to the American public, there would be a whole lot fewer guns sold. Beside, they knew I planned to immediately sell it back to them.
Okay, Maxon has had its chance to offer their reason.
Now I'll state what I believe the real reason is: Gun manufacturers and the stores that sell them make their money in the dark. Congress, which has so much trouble passing the most basic gun laws, passed a law making it illegal for the federal government to fund research into gun violence. Except for the week or two after massacres, the public covers its eyes. Would-be terrorists can buy guns. Insane people can buy guns. But reporters ... that's a different story. Gun makers avoid publicity because the truth is this: they sell tools of death to frightened people and make a fortune doing so. They shun attention because they know, if we saw clearly what is happening in our country, we'd demand change.
"What's your brother in-law afraid of?" I ask my neighbor.
"Other people with guns," she says.
"Satanic Marxist?, JM I think it's time you get into a padded cell.ReplyDelete
Anyway, NS, great column. My first thought was that the ST should have given you a company credit card incase you didn't want all $ that on yours, even if temporary.
But then I'm left shocked at what they claim was an excuse for not selling you a gun. That bunch is indeed anti freedom of the press (and also as shown by their reaction to the photog.) What a crock of sh*t they fed you. Perhaps you or the paper should threaten a suit. Talk about being discriminated against for flimsy purpose. Yes, they would sell that to just about anyone else, no problem.
I think this was just a publicity stunt and the ST probably wanted the gun shop to cancel the sale. If they were serious they would have sent Mark Brown or someone else whom the gun shop couldn't refuse. Of course, if the ST really wanted to make it a stunt, they would have sent Mary Mitchell.ReplyDelete
Why would sending Mary Mitchell make it a stunt? Because she's black?Delete
I would like to imagine that lots of people are denied the opportunity to purchase firearms for the exact reason maxons gave. i sincerely doubt it. but it is a legitimate reason . this like so many circumstances points to a significant problem we face in our effort to reduce gun violence in our country. while the reason maxons cited is a regulation as compared to a law, there are already many laws in place restricting the purchase and especially the use of firearms. if followed and enforced these laws should keep people from being shot. they are not followed by a tiny number of people and even when enforced not prosecuted to a point of incarceration, or even punishment. while i support additional laws regulating the ownership and misuse of guns, if we aren't able to enforce existing laws how will additional laws lessen the carnage being wrought upon the people in our nation? i believe educational programs are a key to a policy designed to foster personal responsibility amongst the populace. that and severe restrictions on ammunition. without bullets a guns is only a club. i don't see where ammo is even mentioned in the constitution .ReplyDelete
The question that came to my mind as I read NS's column was... were the "negative findings" that led to denial of a gun sale found in a background check, or because the salespeople were familiar with NS's writing? NS has written columns and a book re: his experiences - very open, and to the support of many in recovery, or thinking about recovery. "history of alcoholism" would not show up on a background check....Delete
Ammo is covered under the umbrella of "arms." Because without it, a firearm is rendered pretty much useless.Delete
Here, from the Heller opinion,
"We must also address the District’s requirement (as applied to respondent’s handgun) that firearms in the home be rendered and kept inoperable at all times. This makes it impossible for citizens to use them for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional."
You made a lot of excellent points until that. Abstinence only gun education isn't working. I'd like to see shooting back in schools. Firearms education just like driver's education available, but not compulsory, with the permission of the parents.
Not that I'm interested in such weaponry, but where I live I can walk into a shop, no FOID, plunk down money, and in a few days be the owner of an AR. Scary, but even scarier is anyone can order the bits one at a time off the internet and assemble their own at home, no background check required. 'Merica!!!ReplyDelete
Not true at all. The purchase of the lower receiver via online requires and FFL transfer, which requires a background check. The purchase of any firearm online requires that. An AR15 is useless without the lower receiver.Delete
Yep the lower is the serialized portion and considered to be the actual controlled item. I love when false hoods are stated and then promptly refutedDelete
I'd like to know how many other people that shop refused to sell to on those same grounds.ReplyDelete
Easy: All of them. If you fail a NICS background check, the FFL cannot legally sell to you. If they do, they'll lose their license, livelyhood, and go to jail.Delete
If the reason they didn't sell was because he was a (yellow) "journalist", they wouldn't have even taken his money to begin with. They can refuse a sale to anyone for any reason, for good reason: no FFL wants a gun they sold to end up in the hands of a psycho.
This "journalist" can appeal to have his rights restored in court, depending on the state.
Except it states in the article that he did not fail the background check. His gun rights are uninfringed.Delete
This column is a reminder of why I tell people that Neil Sternberg is the best newspaper writer in the country. It reads almost like a short story with a surprise ending. It is a fair and literate peek into the world of an industry that doesn't care to be examined in the light of day. The system is so rigged to protect the arms industry that they can just sneer at anyone who tries to shine a light on their mad world - and sneer they do. Great work Neil.ReplyDelete
Thanks Dennis. I can assure commentators above that no one expected the sale to be denied. I have an FOID card and no criminal record whatsoever. If they hadn't ID'ed me as a columnist, they never would have denied the sale. This was an assignment, and I executed it to the best of my ability, after arguing, again to the best of my ability, that it wasn't worth doing. Turns out, my boss was right, as he so often is. It was worth doing, from a journalistic point of view. From a personal point of view, well, I'd have rather gone to the Cubs came and written about the new plaza.Delete
there's always Indiana.ReplyDelete
I remember a few years back our school district decided to allow a gun show in our high school while classes weren't in session. The public outcry over this invasion of a gun-free zone forced the school board to cancel the event. It's funny how the NRA doesn't believe gun free zones should exist, yet they forbid weapons at their stores, shows and conventions.ReplyDelete
Don't you want your poster?Delete
I'm not the Wendy who won your Saturday fun event, if that's what you mean.Delete
Ah, my mistake. Apologies.Delete
Neil, what if you now get placed on the "NO FLY" LIST? There is no realistic appeal process and some Congressman want to make it a total "NO FLY NO BUY" FOREVER LIST as determined by Government employees with NO APPEAL?Delete
The NRA does not prohibit firearms at their annual meetings (convention/show) unless required by law. "Vendors" are usually required to disable the firearms they display to comply with the rules of the building, but attendees are usually free to carry loaded, operable firearms as long as they are legally allowed to do so under the state and local laws. Also, no background checks are performed at the annual NRA "gun shows" because no guns are allowed to be sold, again, to comply with the rules of the local convention center/wherever it's held. No ammunition is allowed for sale either for the same reason.Delete
The only place the NRA prohibits its members and attendees from carrying their personally owned firearm is a secured designated area for politicians and celebrities to give speeches.
"...yet they forbid weapons at their stores, shows and conventions."Delete
Citations required, please.
Great column. I have a FOID and a CC, but I hate the atmosphere in gun shops. Entering one is akin to attending a Trump rally, only everyone is armed and crazy. From what I've overheard in these shops, I'm surprised that there hasn't been an attempt on President Obama's life.ReplyDelete
Thanks. I suppose we can credit the Secret Service for that.Delete
Does this mean you lied on the form 4473 that requires you to disclose convictions for domestic abuse/battery?ReplyDelete
No, I have no convictions. A completely clean record.Delete
perhaps the store was eroding on the side of caution. Not boing how your arrest for a domestic assault played out, they did not want to get in trouble by selling a firearm to some who couldn't own one. The Lautenberg Amendment To the Gun control act of 1968 makes it a felony to sell or for you to own a firearm if you have a domestic assault on your record. They very well might have been expecting you to show up and say "Gotcha, I am not allowed to own this but you sold it to me.Delete
Well, you'd have to really bend over backward to interpret the store's actions in that fashion. Far more likely is that the motive for mentioning Neil's history with alcohol and the domestic dispute that got him in trouble several years ago was to squelch the article altogether, believing of course that Neil would not want to be raked over the coals one more time and would kill the piece to avoid embarrassment. Not a faithful reader or he/she would have realized that Neil is as forthcoming about his own frailties and mistakes as a human being could possibly be. I think most of us daily readers find that quality endearing even if we don't share it.ReplyDelete
So it's my conspiracy theory that they are afraid of getting caught doing something that is illegal and losing their license versus yours where the store in a effort to stop a story, they blackmail him with his drinking and past run in with the law? To stop a story, that up until that point looks pretty positive for the store to me? I guess anything is possible.Delete