RCL Exclusive

Revenge of the Nerds: Gun Culture Has Become Nerd Culture

Despite NRA attempts at badass branding, Comic-Con has more swagger at the gun show.

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My friend Claiborn invited me to tag along to a gun show. He’s really into guns; I’m not. Before attending the gun show, I’d held fewer loaded guns in my hand than I’d had pointed at my face.  Once in high school, when a friend answered his front door with his father’s shotgun leveled at my head—his idea of a prank—and again in college, in Richmond, when I’d gotten distracted looking at my phone at a red light and looked up to see a guy pointing a handgun through my driver side window. He laughed when he saw the expression on my face, then strolled off. I was headed home but instead veered toward the highway when the light turned green, drove thirty minutes outside the city and finally pulled over in the parking lot of a gas station near the airport, where I cried for thirty minutes.

Claiborn said gun shows are really similar to comic book conventions. As someone who has been to many comic book conventions, I couldn’t see how that was possible. Comic book conventions are full of:

1. Cosplayers who put more time and effort into making sure their costumes are perfect than most people put into their marriages.

2. Intense nerds fawning over cheap junk as though it might make them feel complete for the first time in their lives.

3. Table after table of merchandise for sale by haughty slobs afire with the power that comes from being the most knowledgeable about something niche in a room full of people obsessed with niche stuff.

I love comic books, but my thinking was that comic book conventions are where you go to buy things that feed your psychic wound, and gun shows are where you go to buy things that can actually wound—or kill—people.

But then we got to the gun show, and within twenty-five seconds of walking inside, I realized these people are just as into cosplay as any screeching teen racing around in a Sailor Moon costume. Everywhere I looked I saw people dressed in head to toe camouflage. This was in downtown Hampton, Virginia. I don’t think there was an actual tree in sight, although the camouflage-clad did kind of blend into each other. There were also vendors selling virtually anything a person would need to dress up as a soldier from any side of any major conflict from the Civil War to today. Lots of people were walking around with their personal firearms dangling from shoulder straps or holstered at their hip. Normally people who feel compelled to brandish their weapons in public do so because they harbor a fantasy of being the hero who stops some mass mayhem from breaking out. But there were cops outside the show enforcing a rule that every gun through the door needed to be unloaded, with its trigger tied off with a plastic band. All these guns were useless as anything aside from fashion accessories. Their owners might as well have been wearing tiaras.

There were plenty of intense nerds and cheap junk around as well. I saw a man with a tattoo of “Macho Man” Randy Savage ask to have his picture taken with a mannequin exhibiting a special lingerie set with a hidden compartment for hiding a handgun built into the bra. The vendor told him photography wasn’t allowed and the dude asked if he could just give the mannequin a hug, instead. The vendor, a burly man wearing a sleeveless vest, growled, “That would be inappropriate,” and slapped the mannequin’s butt. I saw hundreds of faux samurai swords in brightly colored scabbards, the type of thing you might see hanging on the wall of a twenty-two-year-old weed dealer’s first apartment. I stopped to look at an enormous machete and the vendor rushed over to explain that the blade was specially treated carbon steel and that it was designed for combat, not yard work. It was on sale for twenty bucks. Go into combat with a machete that costs just slightly more than a large combo meal at Firehouse Subs, see what happens. At twenty bucks, I’d be shocked if the thing could cut through a meatball sub, let alone an enemy.

As for haughty slobs, Claiborn bought a little nylon pouch for holding ammunition from a guy who insisted on explaining the technique used for stitching the pouch together with the same tone of utter disdain that Angelica takes on when speaking to Tommy and the gang in Rugrats. We didn’t ask him about the stitching. He just started talking about it, and when he finished, Claiborn handed him a wad of cash and the guy took it like accepting that money was ruining his life.

Seeing so many guns up close, in one room, it was hard not to think about how stupid they look. Not just phallic, phalluses ravaged by disease resulting in ugly bulges and weird contours. The occasional stab at aesthetic improvement only makes them even worse. I saw a gold-plated Thompson submachine gun so gaudy that I wouldn’t be surprised if instead of going “bang, bang,” when you pull the trigger, it somehow rumbled “nouveau riche” over and over. There were more than a few guns with “Zombie Killer” written across the stock in what looked like neon green puffy paint. Imagine getting shot with a gun with “Zombie Killer” written on it in neon green puffy paint. Or, okay, they say “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” so imagine getting shot by someone who’d spent $300 on that gun. Dying on the toilet with a Hustler magazine in one hand and a strawberry milkshake in the other would be more dignified than that. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I believe my murderer should take my death at least a little bit seriously.

I mentioned this to Claiborn and he said I hadn’t seen anything yet, led me over to a vendor selling an array of t-shirts and bumper stickers featuring slogans written by people who seem to have mistaken a familiarity with memes, love of puns, and quick skim through the Wikipedia page for “jokes” with having a sense of humor. Some of these hinged on the idea that the epitome of cool blends being really horny with a blithe willingness to violently end another human life, but the majority had to do with how great it is that embracing guns and “traditional values” (i.e., cis-gender, Christian, white people stuff) seems to really, really annoy liberals.

A few days ago, former Trump White House strategist  Sebastian Gorka responded to widespread mockery of the revelation that his “daily carry” includes two handguns by tweeting that he loved “watching Lib heads explode in response!” Personally, my reaction to Gorka walking around strapped all day wasn’t annoyance as much as a pang of sympathy that he apparently feels such utter terror upon leaving the house that he can’t do so unarmed. I’ll venture that there isn’t a liberal proponent of gun control alive motivated by a desire to rile conservative gun owners, and that if you truly believe part of the allure of owning a weapon is that it antagonizes people, or even just take joy in that idea, then you are automatically too juvenile to be trusted with one.

(Speaking of juvenile, there’s a popular manufacturer of gun-related gear called “Tuff Products.” Imagine walking around wearing a shirt with “Tuff” written on it as though that’s actually cool and not a name better suited for a manufacturer of bib overalls for toddlers.)

In addition to those t-shirts, there were posters and signs everywhere about the Second Amendment and the sanctity of the Constitution and the threat a tyrannical government poses against an unarmed populace and a lot about how if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. Maybe the strongest similarity that comic book conventions and gun shows share is that both cater to people obsessed with things that outsiders regard with scorn or bewilderment and as such feature an abundance of justification for that obsession. The only difference really is that at a comic book convention that means hearing a lot about “modern mythology” and seeing way fewer slogans that seem destined for use as examples during a lesson on logical fallacies in a freshman year composition class.

Maybe I was unprepared for the gun show being so lame because, like too many Americans, my feelings toward guns are defined by a cognitive dissonance that allows me to abhor the logic that keeps assault rifles available and roll my eye’s at Duck Dynasty fans while also thinking John Wick is an awesome badass whose exploits I cannot get enough of. Because in the abstract, guns are kind of cool. They’re dangerous. They make a loud noise. Carrying a gun makes you the most noteworthy person in whatever room you’re in. I get the allure. I’ve always wanted to be most noteworthy person in a room. I’d like for that to eventually happen due to some kind of accomplishment, but if over the next decade or so I turn out not to be good at anything, I can sort of see using a pistol as a shortcut to knowing for one moment what it’s like to have all eyes on me for reasons unrelated to my zipper being down or a stain on my shirt.

Why not just admit that owning a gun makes you feel cool, or safe, or whatever? Why insist on so many layers of rhetorical bullsh-t? Why insist that your obsession makes you better than everyone else when all that does is kill any chance at ever reaching a real understanding between you and someone who doesn’t care, or get it?

Standing there looking at those t-shirts, I turned to Claiborn and said, “These people are just nerds. Gun nerds.”

He nodded, and as we walked away to browse on a group of men walked by in matching denim jackets with patches on the back that said “Gun Lives Matter” over a picture of  AR-15’s crossed at the barrel above a human skull. Suddenly, for the first and only time, I thought that owning a gun might not be such a bad idea. If those are the guys going around armed, maybe the rest of us better be, too.