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.
* * *
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.
Me: "Maybe I should just build it legal.”
Ray: "Just build it. Don't be a fuckin' pussy.”
Me: "Why do I even need a gun?”
Ray: "What do you think? This thing's not going to get better, especially with the Israelis and Lebanese going at it.”
Me: "Uh, aren't they halfway around the world?”
Ray: "You don't think there's Israelis and Lebanese here?”
Me: "Fuck! Well, what about what happened at Columbine? Don't you think if I had a gun, some asshole would take it away from me and shoot me with it?”
Ray: "It's not the gun's fault. Or the kid's fault. What if he went and got a sword and ran around with that? He wouldn't have killed as many people, but still. You ban guns and they'll get swords. Ban swords and they'll get knives. You ban knives and they'll get sticks. You ban sticks, people will throw rocks.
Guns don't kill people. People kill people.”
Me: "What about all the illegal guns—like those kids had, like the ones in the North Hollywood shootout? Doesn't that bother you? Doesn't that make you want a gun law?”
Ray: "The gun law's stupid. All it does is take [guns away from] people that actually want to have a gun and do the legal thing with it and [they] can't have 'e[they] criminals can have 'em. They'll always have 'em, so there's no point in banning them. Pull the ban. It doesn't do anything. There's other states that have full machine gun laws. It seems the places with the most guns have the least amount of problems.”
This is not unlike what the National Rifle Association lawyer man had to say—without the xenophobia.
“It's always been about cosmetic features, and allegations that those features somehow make a gun more sinister,” says Long Beach lawyer Chuck Michel, a gun law critic and NRA member. “But those features never had anything to do with what comes out of the barrel or how fast it comes out of the barrel. It's all ridiculous, because criminals don't care. The murder law doesn't stop them. Why would the assault weapon law stop them? The history of the assault weapon law in the past 15 years is marked more by good people becoming accidental felons than by felons going to prison.”
By now, my own natural paranoia had me convinced I'd be one of the former if I went ahead with building Osama's gun. I live near an Army Reserve post, and whenever a low-flying helicopter rattled my windows—three or four times a day—I felt like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas,trying to outrun the Feds in Ray-Ban Baloramas and a Coupe de Ville. All that was missing was the coke, which I'd replaced with Vicodin.
Being—yes—a pussy at heart, I caved in and started figuring how I'd build a legalAK-47. I'd already spent $220 on my lower receiver; I was already locked into the most expensive story of my career (yes, I know what that says about my career), but I really didn't want to go to jail. If some guy I'd never met in my life who worked for the attorney general's office said that it was possible, I'd believe him in a heartbeat.
“Is it possible to take [an AK-47 lower] rec[an AK-47 lower]a firearm out of it that is not illegal? Yes, it's physically possible,” Carruthers told me. “It's basically a rifle without a pistol grip.” A semiautomatic rifle (one trigger pull/one bullet fired) with no evil features, a long barrel and a very small magazine—and a hundred or so other parts, all of which I still needed: the stock, the barrel, the bolt, the bolt cover, the piston, the piston spring, the trigger assembly—wasn't a trigger one piece? No, it wasn't. The average assault rifle is supposedly so simple a soldier could tear it down in the rain—and put it back together under enemy AK fire from Charlie—but I had no idea how to do that, or what an AK “parts kit” (basically, all the rest of the parts except the rivets that hold it together) looked like. I just knew I needed one—a legal one—so I dug up my friend Eddie and we went to the Crossroads of the West gun show at the Costa Mesa fairgrounds.
* * *
It's always springtime for Hitler at the gun show, where nearly all things Nazi are sold, excepting mein Fuhrer's head in a jar of formaldehyde: personal documents from dead Germans with the eagle and swastika featured prominently; cloth helmets for Nazi fighter pilots; Nazi uniforms, banners, insignias. There's also 10 of everything you'd see at the gun store, plus rare weaponry you'll never find anywhere else. I did not know this, but you can also buy really good beer at the gun show—Widmer Hefeweizen draft, sold by a big tubby guy who spills it as he pulls—and then drink it as you contemplate the spoils of wars. Some men bring their wives, and for those wives the As Seen on TV store had a booth showcasing its miracle pasta cooker. Elsewhere was cheap jewelry and overpriced T-shirts and bumper stickers with witty sayings (“The Marines: When It Absolutely Positively Has to Be Destroyed Overnight”) but mostly there were weapons and their support systems—manuals, speed loaders, ammo boxes, gun slings, gun cases, cleaning kits, and genuine military ordnance like the packets of quick-clotting agent that could save your life if you're gut-shot and bleeding out: $20 each. As we wandered through a John Wayne movie of Colt six-shooters, body armor, assault weapons, army-issue .45 automatics, disabled machine guns and Vietnam-era pilot's helmets, I wondered if anyone else was thinking of the last days of the Weimar Republic. It seemed incredibly surreal and decadent that we could be browsing through some of the best ordnance from the last 200 years of wars when the guys in Iraq were probably still waiting for the armor for their Humvees.
But we were. We browsed through three buildings and tables upon tables of deadly things that weren't the right deadly things. I found a handsome wooden stock, $40, but it was a thumbhole stock; I found barrels and front grips, but they were for an AR-15. I even found a genuine World War II army-issue .45 automatic, but it was $2,400 and, obviously, I didn't need it. Then, when we all but ready to leave, I saw the Asian man and his wife—selling, finally, an AK-47 parts kit for just $175. It was all there—pistol grip, shortened barrel—and it was all illegal, but it was so tempting. For under $200, I'd have all the parts I needed—shiny black metal barrel, handsomely polished wooden grips—and it'd be illegal. But I'd have it. As we discussed this, I saw a guy behind the next table over—ordinary guy, Hawaiian shirt, baseball cap, neat beard—listening. He said he thought he had what we wanted, and he brought it up from under the table; being legal, it wasn't a big draw. It was $400 for everything—long barrel, fixed plastic stock and front grip, trigger assembly, piston and spring, bolt cover, five-round plastic clip—and we said we'd take it. The man, who said his name was Jim, even said he'd help us rivet it together if we bought the rivets, which I thought was suspicious. Gun shows are supposedly crawling with ATF agent spies, so you don't do anything illegal—and so that if you do, they know about it—but Eddie said he thought the guy looked okay so we exchanged numbers and I said I'd call him when I was ready. All I needed now was a $20 rivet kit, which was not as easy to find as it sounded.
* * *
Guns do violent things: they kill. And killing is itself a violent act for a gun; each shot is a miniature explosion which must be contained in the firing chamber and barrel of the gun—a very small, confined area. For this reason, for containment, the gun must be riveted together; were it all merely bolted together like a bicycle, it would fly apart after just a few shots. And it must be riveted with rivets specifically designed for a gun—to withstand extremes of temperature and stress for long periods of time—forever, perhaps. I was told—again, by one of my friends—that a company called K-VAR in Las Vegas had those kinds of rivets, which was true up to a point. The man who answered the phone at K-VAR with a Middle Eastern accent said yes they did sell an AK-47 rivet kit but that it was out of stock indefinitely. Back to the Internet; back to the assorted gun enthusiast bulletin boards I'd found where responsible AK-47 owners warned against having a guy you'd just met rivet up an AK-47 you'd pieced together yourself. I swallowed the lump in my throat and kept looking for the gun store I knew was out there. And in less than a day, I found it, in Florida—of course! The store not only had my rivet kit, it had it in stock, and when I left the man a message on his voicemail, he called me right back. I bought the kit over the phone with a credit card and had it sent next-day air. I felt like a big shot.
Then it arrived, and I felt, again, like a small shot. Were these tiny pieces of metal really going to transform the hundred or so other pieces of metal and plastic into a working rifle? Apparently.
Now I finally had all my parts, I drove back up to Gunrunners for some encouraging free legal advice. Eddie was supposed to come with, but he flaked. It was the Friday before Labor Day, and I found a hand-lettered cardboard sign in the window: “Gone Done Fishin.” The store would be closed for the next four days and I'd just made a 30-mile drive for nothing.
Then, driving home south on the 605 with all the parts for an AK-47 in my filthy Honda, I ran right into a nest of cops. Traffic stopped dead at Peck Road and I spent 30 minutes covering the half-dozen miles to Whittier Boulevard, where I started seeing helicopters and called home to my wife, to have her check the news for me. The northbound side of the freeway looked closed, but my side was jammed with cars and trucks, and I kept seeing black-and-whites whiz by on the shoulder, sirens screaming. One was a canine unit. My wife turned up the TV, and I heard one of the pilots above me explaining that sheriff's deputies were looking for two men who'd shot at them, then fled. They'd already caught one guy, but were still looking for the other, and the handgun they used. Another 10 minutes and I was back in fifth gear, doing 80 with a semiautomatic rifle in my trunk. I finally sped past them a few feet away: police cars and SUVS, men with dogs, helicopters, all looking for a gun. They just weren't looking for my gun. I should have been refreshed; I felt only slightly less uneasy.
* * *
It was time to build—or at least it should have been—but that Friday, when I looked for Jim's number, I couldn't find it in any of my stacks of bills, campaign literature, doorhangers, car magazines or take-out menus. I called one of my car buddies, and he said to call a guy named Fred whom he knew well enough that I could use his name to say, “Please, can I use you and your shop?”So I left a message for Fred. And waited. And left him another message. And waited. I needed help. I can work on houses; I can talk like I know how to work on cars—but I had none of the experience hitting a tiny rivet with a five-pound sledge hammer I would need to rivet together my own AK-47 rifle. Without Fred, I'd be stuck. There was no way I could build this thing. I didn't even know exactly how it went together, and I had none of the equipment I'd need to buck rivets. And I couldn't take it to a real, licensed gunsmith; they won't even work on an AK-47 unless you bring it in with the paperwork, because they know the Department of Justice will audit them every year like clockwork. I left Fred message after message that weekend as I lay on the couch watching—I'm not making this up—a History Channel documentary on Charles Whitman, the University of Texas tower sniper. I even had my friend Ray, who knew Fred, call him up, but I didn't hear from Ray until that Monday.
Ray said he'd managed to get Fred's wife on the telephone for a minute. She said her husband had spent his weekend under the house with a friend: killing rats with an Airsoft gun. That—that—was why he hadn't called us back: too busy being half of a two-man vector control agency. I'd been out-maneuvered by vermin. And I suddenly understood why, according to the NRA guy, the most common gun used in a crime is a handgun. It's not that crooks love handguns, even if they do—only that it's too fucking hard to get your hands on a genuine assault weapon in California. You can't buy one, you can't build one, and you can't own one either.
And if you're me, you can't even not do it legally.
* * *
I hear, again through my friends, that www.gunbroker.com is like eBay for guns—which would maybe give me something to do with certain pieces of certain things. I start composing the ad in my head:
“For sale: one AK-47 Mark 99 lower receiver with paperwork. Made by ICM Arms of Ohio to Romanian specifications. 7.62 caliber. Comes with single-shot long gun parts kit, rivets kit and gun lock. Never used. $400 or best offer.”
*All names have been changed.