It was either late 2008 or the start of 2009 when a co-worker at The State mentioned that he’d had trouble laying his hands on buckshot, and that the shopkeepers he’d talked to said this started to happen at about the time of the election. It’s been so long that I forget whether he said that it was just before the election or just after that the run on ammunition started. But I do remember he said you could get birdshot; the problem was with the deadlier stuff that you’d need to take down a deer — or a man.
It was sometime after that that I noticed at a local Wal-Mart that the case where ammunition of all kinds was locked behind glass was mostly empty. Looking more closely, I saw none of the usual pistol stuff (.38-cal., 9 mm). In fact, all I saw was shotgun shells with the smaller sort of shot.
I filed this away as interesting, even ominous. And I figured I would write something about it once it became better documented and the fact was established. I assumed I’d see news stories about it soon. (As you know, in my former position I had nothing to do with news or decisions on what to cover; I was kept as separate from that as I was from advertising. Like you, I saw things in the paper when I saw them.) Then I forgot about it. I was pretty busy in those days.
So when I saw it on the front page of The State today, I sort of went “Wow,” on a couple of levels. First, that it took this long to make news, and second, that there was still a shortage.
Back when I first heard about it, I didn’t know what I wanted to say about it. Some things popped into my head, of course. One of the first was my memory of being in South Carolina when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. I remember knowing at least one very nice white person who had never owned a gun before going out and buying one, because of fear of what might happen next. And I heard of others. I didn’t want to think this was related to that, but it did pop into my head.
Another was that Barack Obama had inspired some fairly weird Internet conspiracy theories. You know, like the one that he’s not really a citizen. I hadn’t attached importance to that — after all, the man was elected — but it popped into my head that there was something going on in the dank underbelly of the American psyche. Everything might be fine on the conscious level, but maybe some things were brewing down in the more reptilian parts of our collective brain.
But I set it aside. We had lots of other stuff to think about, what with the economy collapsing around us, and all the debates over what to do about it. The stimulus, for instance, was about as unemotional and bloodless, colorless subject as you were likely to find; it was not something to inspire dark dreams of violence.
Now that the ammunition story is documented and verified and duly reported, it comes at a time when we have additional information, and this colors our perception. We’ve seen that a lot of people are really, REALLY emotional about this president and his policies. I mean, we’ve had a lot of heated debates about health care in this country in the past, but even when it involved the polarizing figure of Hillary Clinton, people didn’t get THIS stirred up. Harry and Louise and the rest of the insurance industry’s allies simply deep-sixed reform, and it went away for 15 years.
But the last couple of months have been … weird. You might expect a guy like me, who has griped for years about our health care situation and finds himself paying $600 a month for COBRA, with the prospect of it going up to $1,200 or even $1,500 very soon) would be emotional about it, but I’m Lake Placid compared to the people who DON’T WANT reform. “Death panels.” Old folks absurdly demanding that the gummint stay out of their Medicare. People showing up in crowds with automatic weapons. An otherwise mild-mannered congressman yelling “You lie!” at the president during what I thought was a fairly ho-hum speech. Then there’s the truly disturbing “Joker” posters. (I thought Democrats really went overboard with hating Bush, but this plumbed new depths.)
Against that background, a run on ammunition sounds really ominous.
The sunniest interpretation you can put on this phenomenon is that when the economy is collapsing, people naturally fear our devolving into a state of nature, and naturally want to arm themselves. Under that interpretation, we’d have run out of ammo whether Obama or McCain had been elected.
But there’s this other thing going on, and it has to do with some fairly unpleasant things rattling around in our collective subconscious. Some people have tried to give it a simple name, saying it’s about race. But it’s more complicated than that. Just as scary and ugly perhaps, and entangled somehow with race, but more complicated.
And frankly, I’m still not sure what to think of it.