A class struggle is going on in the U.S. today, a confrontation between an intellectualized elite and what used to be called the democracy. The upper classes go to good schools—Ivy League or at least Big 10—where they pick up easy answers to the meaning of “life, the universe, and everything,” while members of the democracy work their way through local branches of state college, if they’re lucky: a lot of them ended up as the expendable matériel clause in Lyndon Johnson’s foreign policy. The easiest place to size up the class war is a large magazine stand. On one rack are the Harper’s, New Republic, Gourmet, and National Review, but move down past the naked-lady covers and you run into hot rod and off-the-road mags, men’s true adventure stories, and finally, an almost endless array of weapons and survival publications with names like New Breed and Combat Handguns. The readers and editors are well aware that they belong to a strange subculture. American Survival complains that the antigun elite is convinced “these magazines should be removed from the newsstands, along with other ‘pornography.”‘ There is something undeniably erotic about the “happiness-is-a-warm-gun” photo layouts of automatic weapons and grenade launchers, and you do run across gun descriptions like: “Bo Derek, it’s not” and “lovely but lethal,” and, of a small-caliber gun, it’s like “kissin’ your sister.” In fact, most of them devote the bulk of their pages to hardware. An average issue of New Breed or Soldier of Fortune discusses and advertises enough weapons to arm both sides of the civil war in El Salvador.
After you get over the pornographic shock—or thrill—of seeing so much firepower, you begin to realize that many of the military magazines exhibit a populist editorial outlook that is closer to Gen. Patton than to Conan the Barbarian. These guys see the world as quite simply a struggle between evil and good: of hoodlums against families and of communist imperialism against the aspirations of decent people to be left alone.
The most famous military magazine is Soldier of Fortune, “the journal of professional adventurers.” Sandwiched in between ads for rapid-fire conversion kits, armored personnel carriers, genuine gurkha knives, and posters showing an armed G. Gordon Liddy, are sensible and temperate articles on military history and foreign affairs. On an everyday level, SOF takes the rights of gunowners very seriously and is right now conducting a campaign to put its publisher, Robert K. Brown, on the Board of Directors of the National Rifle Association, which is, they claim, beginning to weaken in its defense of the Second Amendment. Despite its carefully maintained image as a mercenaries’ newsletter, an average issue of SOF provides its readers with a clearer idea of the armed side of politics than a decade’s worth of Foreign Affairs.
Other similar publications are much less interesting. New Breed, for example, seems to specialize more in actual military affairs. Closer to the edge are things like American Survival Guide, which recently printed a survey of worldwide terrorist activities, concluding with this call to arms: “Prepare for the worst, Now! The ring grows tighter every day. World War III has started.”
Most magazine readers are, in fact, not very interested in events in El Salvador or Afghanistan. Their fears lie closer to home, in the war of survival going on in the streets. They want to know what kind of handgun to give the little woman when they leave town. In the old days, guns and ammo journals catered only to specialists—hunters, collectors, and target shooters—but soaring crime rates and attacks on the Second Amendment have turned many of them political.
In Handgunner readers can still find an interview with the Southwest Pistol League champion, and technical evaluations of pistols, ammunition, scopes, and holsters, but it also preaches political activism. An article on the Morton Grove handgun ban warns that without “active participation in politics,” handgun owners could lose their Second Amendment rights. The Morton Grove ordinance was upheld in court, “because the law only banned handguns.” “If the same logic were applied to the First Amendment’s freedoms of speech. . . it could be argued that a town could ban newspapers—one form of media—as long as it left radio and television stations alone!”
Civilians interested in self-defense might find Combat Handguns helpful. Here are articles on choosing the right handgun for home defense, performing “the Roman salute” (a tricky reverse-hand draw), finding bullets that will “pound through a car door,” and using your pistol in a ”parking lot ambush.” A picture of one of the staff writers shows him wearing a T-shirt that reads: “Gun control is being able to hit your target.”
A more radical philosophy of gun ownership emerges in survivalist magazines like Survive or American Survival Guide. Survive describes its readership: “You are a minority: You prepare for the worst. . . . It’s a constant in the back of your mind that potential danger always exists.” Ridiculing the “doomies” who believe that a nuclear war would be the end, these magazines give advice on underground shelters, how to choose the best “alley-sweeper” or semi-automatic machine gun, and tactics for avoiding ambushes when “criminal bands” begin roaming the land after general social collapse. Survivalist writers are eager to share their bunker mentality with anyone who will buy their magazine, but don’t expect them to share their bunker: “Noah took only members of his immediate family as passengers,” observes a writer reflecting on the “moral aspects” of survival shelters. Survivalists evince an old-fashioned, even primal, commitment to family and are especially concerned with protecting their “women and children.” Unlike the social and political writers who devote volumes to the disintegration of the American family, survivalists and “gun lobby” populists are prepared to defend at least their own family—and their own country.
In one sense, survivalism is an unhealthy and paranoid reaction to social disintegration. But there are degrees of sickness, and it is hard not to see more life and hope in survivalism than in those cultural elites who cannot bring themselves to consider anything worth defending—not their country, not their families, and not even themselves. What would the gun-control fanatics use to defend themselves in a dark alley? A cyanide capsule?