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STEINBERG: Would-be terrorists can buy guns, but a reporter? No.

The Maxon Shooters Supply & Indoor Range facility is in Des Plaines. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

There’s something soothing about buying a gun.

Driving to Maxon Shooter’s Supplies in Des Plaines on Wednesday to purchase my first assault rifle, I admit, I was nervous. I’d never owned a gun before. And with the horror of Sunday’s Orlando massacre still echoing, even the pleasant summer day — the lush green trees, fluffy white clouds, blue sky — took on a grim aspect, the sweetness of fragile life flashing by as I headed into the Valley of Death.

Earlier, in my editor’s office, I had ticked off the reasons for me not to buy a gun: this was a journalistic stunt; done repeatedly; supporting an industry I despise. But as I tell people, I just work here, I don’t own the place. And my qualms melted as I dug into the issue.

I had trouble even figuring out whether bringing an assault rifle into Chicago is legal. The Internet was contradictory. The Chicago corporation counsel’s office punted me on to that black hole of silence, Bill McCaffrey. I found that Illinois has a 24-hour waiting period between buying and taking possession of a gun. Unearthing that fact alone made the exercise seem worthwhile. I was learning something.

Reluctance melted when I walked into the large, well-lit store. Maxon’s looked like a meeting of the Mid-50ish Guy Club. A dozen grizzled men in ball caps , milling around. More on the glassed-in shooting range. Imagine a steady, muffled pop-pop . . . pop pop going on behind the rest of this column.

I eyed the cases of weapons. Ooo. Big revolvers, matte steel. Despite the run on weaponry that happens after these shootings — Smith & Wesson stock went up 6.9 percent Monday — as gun fans guard against restrictions that never come, there were a few dozen assault rifles — a vague term, yes, I know — including a Sig Sauer like the one used in Orlando.

“I’m interested in one of the ARs,” I said, trying to project an air of manly ease. “What’s the difference between the cheap ones and the expensive ones?”

“Not much,” said Rob, a clerk with a winged death’s head with a dagger tattooed on his right forearm. “Mostly it’s manufacturing tolerances, different sights and stuff.”


He immediately asked for my FOID card — Firearm Owner’s Identification Card — no gun purchase without it.

He showed me a Smith & Wesson M & P 15 Sport II, a lean black weapon, 6.5 pounds.

We talked barrel profiles.

“Assault rifle” is a misnomer. Despite what another clerk called the “black, evil-looking” appearance of the guns, the only aspect relevant to the national debate is the “standard issue 30-round magazine” which holds a nightclub-clearing 30 bullets. Eight states and the District of Columbia ban selling them. But not, of course, Florida. Or Illinois.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

A few months earlier, a friend’s life is dissolving into alcoholism and divorce. I try to just listen — no point putting in my two cents anymore. Bewailing his fate, he mentions that his soon-to-be ex-wife is insisting he hand his guns over to a neighbor for safekeeping.

“Good,” I say, slipping.

“F— you,” he replies, with sincerity. I don’t know if I say this or just think it: “Your father shot himself. Your grandfather shot himself. Maybe guns are not a good idea in your life right now.” Whether I say it or not, we both already knew it’s true. But wants the guns anyway. For protection.

Driving to Maxon’s, the whole gun debate clarified in bold relief. There is the danger of the gun. itself. And there is the danger the gun protects you from. Another divide. Which danger you feel is greater decides which side of the divide you live on.

Being fact-based I know, you buy a gun, the person you are most likely to shoot, statistically, is yourself. And your family. More pre-schoolers are killed by guns than are police officers. Nor do I need the sense of security, false though it may be, that guns bring. I live in Northbrook, where criminal danger is remote. My boys laugh at us for locking the doors. I don’t plan on keeping this gun a second longer than I have to for this column.

Not everyone feels that way. A house on the next block has a high fence and an electric gate across the driveway. The blinds are drawn and in 15 years of walking by, I’ve never seen a person there. I would guess the owner is afraid. Maybe just shy. But he sees a hazard requiring that fence, gate and security service that I do not. I imagine he owns a gun. Or many guns.

When it came time to make the purchase, Rob, the clerk with the tattoos, handed me over to Mike, who gave his name shaking my hand, I gave mine. “The writer?” he said. If I wanted to lie as part of my job, I’d have gone into public relations. “Yes,” I said, explaining that I plan to buy the gun, shoot at their range, then give it to the police. He suggested I sell it back to them instead and I heartily agreed. Economical. If they would let me photograph myself with it there, the gun need never leave the store.

A reporter in Philadelphia bought an assault rifle in seven minutes; 40 percent of gun transactions in the U.S. have no background checks. Here, I had paperwork. A federal form asking, was I an illegal alien? No. Was I a fugitive? Again no. Had I ever been convicted on charges of domestic abuse? No. Handed over my credit card: $842.50. Another $40 for the instructor to acquaint me with the gun the next day.

Our transaction took nearly an hour because we chatted. Mike used to read newspapers but doesn’t anymore because of opinion writers like me. He knew whether it was legal to bring the gun to Chicago — it’s not. He was friendly, candid, so I asked difficult questions. Did he ever feel guilty about the people killed by the guns he sells? No, he said, that’s like asking a car dealer if he felt guilty if someone gets drunk and kills somebody in a car he sold. It seemed a fair answer. I asked him if I could quote him in the newspaper, and he said no, I couldn’t, so I’m not quoting him.

Back home later Wednesday, a neighbor asks how my day is going. “I just bought an assault rifle,” I say. Her eyes widen. She mentions that her brother-in-law owns 100 guns.
“A hundred guns!” I marvel. “That’s a lot. Why does he own 100 guns?”
“He’s afraid,” she replies.

I was looking forward to shooting my new rifle the next day. I’ve shot guns. It’s fun. I was worried though, about having fun with guns in the current environment of outrage and horror. Had I been co-opted by the purchase process? By the friendly staff at Maxon’s? Heck, there is a whole world of hobbyists, of hunters, of people who love guns for a variety of reasons that are not crazy. Three hundred million guns in America. If the vast majority weren’t handled safely, we’d all be dead. Oh well, I thought, no harm in a gun story reflecting the gun owner’s perspective.

At 5:13 Sarah from Maxon called. They were canceling my sale and refunding my money. No gun for you. I called back. Why? “I don’t have to tell you,” she said. I knew that, but was curious. I wasn’t rejected by the government? No. So what is it? “I’m not at liberty,” she said.

Gun dealers do have the right to refuse sales to anyone, usually exercised for people who seem to be straw purchasers. I told her I assume they wouldn’t sell me a gun because I’m a reporter. She denied it. But hating the media is right behind hating the government as a pastime for many gun owners. They damn you for being ignorant then hide when you try to find out.

A few hours later, Maxon sent the newspaper a lengthy statement, the key part being: “it was uncovered that Mr. Steinberg has an admitted history of alcohol abuse, and a charge for domestic battery involving his wife.”

Well, didn’t see that coming. Were that same standard applied to the American public, there would be a whole lot fewer guns sold. Beside, they knew I planned to immediately sell it back to them.

OK, Maxon has had its chance to offer their reason.

Now I’ll state what I believe the real reason is: Gun manufacturers and the stores that sell them make their money in the dark. Congress, which has so much trouble passing the most basic gun laws, passed a law making it illegal for the federal government to fund research into gun violence. Except for the week or two after massacres, the public covers its eyes. Would-be terrorists can buy guns. Insane people can buy guns. But reporters . . . that’s a different story. Gun makers avoid publicity because the truth is this: they sell tools of death to frightened people and make a fortune doing so. They shun attention because they know, if we saw clearly what is happening in our country, we’d demand change.

“What’s your brother in-law afraid of?” I ask my neighbor.

“Other people with guns,” she says.