Osama's Gun

How to not build bin Ladens AK-47 without even trying

Gunrunners—like bars, pool halls, speed shops, card clubs and other gun stores everywhere—is the myth of America writ large: a place where men don't have to be themselves, where they can be reinvented into virtually whomever they choose so long as they bring the money. It is decorated accordingly; T-shirts and baseball caps displayed for sale advertise SigArms, Remington, and Gunrunners. A row of coffee mugs made to resemble giant shotgun shells sits atop a rack of real shotguns, and a calendar features a buxom woman in a hunting vest who is clearly topless under it. She has anti-glare makeup striped under her eyes and is holding a handgun in a pose that looks copied from Madonna's video for Vogue. She's vaguely sexy in a suburban housewife sort of way, if you can look past the gun. Behind the counter, many of the employees wear side arms at their waists, in case someone tries to steal one of the empty guns for sale. As I waited in line, I learned from an overheard conversation that Supergluing the edges of a wound together—something I understand soldiers did in Vietnam—does apparently stop the bleeding, but that it stings quite a bit. My friend Ray drifted silently around the store. I kept waiting for him to open his big mouth but he was uncharacteristically silent, having warned me on the way up not to ask a lot of stupid questions, lest the gun store people think I was a narc (or an idiot). For once, he was following his own advice.

"That's the one you want," Ray said softly, his index finger barely indicating a row of six AK-47 lower receivers in a display case, each wearing a manila tag with a cryptic series of numbers on it that didn't seem to mean anything. I felt like Joseph Cotten in The Third Manwhen Harry Lime finally stepped into the light. I stepped up to the counter and told the clerk that I wanted one. It was all very rote: he photocopied my driver's license and made a scan of its magnetic strip; I wasn't sure where that scan went. I filled out two lengthy forms—confirming I had no felony convictions, wasn't on parole, and wasn't engaged in the act of killing someone, and giving personal details like my address and telephone numbers. When I was done, the man faxed them immediately to the state Department of Justice and that was it: the government "knew"—whether it knew it or not—that I was buying an AK-47 lower receiver. There were no flashing red lights, no sirens when that happened; it was like a bread-and-milk run at Albertson's. It was $219.84. I gave the guy at the store $220 cash, some from my wallet, some from my pants. It was all the money I had on me, and as I counted it, it suddenly felt like much more—like I was buying a car. "You had exact change," the man said drily as he gave me back 16 cents with my receipt. That was it; we grabbed some discount coupons to the Costa Mesa gun show later that month and left—without the lower receiver. There's a 10-business-day waiting period to get your gun in California—during which time the DOJ actually reads and fact-checks your application—and the man painstakingly explained to me that I had to wait 10 business days down to the minute. He'd dated my receipt 11:01 a.m., and if I arrived back at the store earlier on the 10th day, he said, I'd have to stall until at least 11:01 a.m. before they could give me my lower receiver.

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Seemed like a good idea at the time. Photo by Russ Roca
Seemed like a good idea at the time. Photo by Russ Roca

The gray skies had cleared while we were inside, but when I stepped into the brilliant summer sun, I was instantly depressed. My friend Ray—who'd been one of my biggest, most juvenile boosters—was now lecturing me like some kind of non-felon or something, telling me that if the cops caught me with a fully automatic assault weapon, the judge would hand down a non-negotiable six-year sentence just for having it. Who the fuck did he think he was? Becoming a gun owner at age 36 had sounded like a thrill, but I quickly saw how dangerous it was to my dreams to live with my wife, start a family, restore an old car and someday move to a bigger house. If I went ahead with building an AK-47, this would be the day those dreams began to die. I felt terribly guilty, and the next 10 days only numbed my pain, so that when I did finally pick up the lower receiver 10 days later and buy a mandatory $6 gun lock to prevent "accidental discharge"—even though what I had wasn't close to being a gun yet—I felt close to nothing. A radio station inside the store played—I'm not kidding—Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" and I was certain the scraggly man ahead of me in line wearing the grayed-out Iron Maiden T-shirt had come here in the primered Nova parked outside. It was all perfect, but I couldn't mock it. I just didn't care. One of the guys behind the counter gave me my lower and confirmed basically everything that Aaron Carruthers had told me—and that was it. I couldn't think of any more questions that wouldn't make me look like a narc, and so I left. I'd spent nearly $250 for a piece of metal that looked like part of my cubicle at work—which was in fact the only thing about it that impressed people at work. And the idea of a prison sentence had me worried down to a point where I was ready to pack it in and build a legal gun if I built anything at all—despite a lengthy pep talk from Ray.

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