Exploring American gun culture and the thin line between fact and fiction.
Image by Flickr user Todd Lapin
By Joseph Huff-Hannon
I’ve never been to Machine Gun America, the amusement park in Orlando where parents can take their kids to shoot AK-47s. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I once even visited in a dream. I half remember letting loose on a horde of advancing zombies with a satisfying burst of lead from the automatic weapon cradled in my arms.
Marketed as an “Automatic Adrenaline Attraction,” the park is only a few miles from Disney World, and only a few miles more from Pulse nightclub, where a madman massacred forty-nine men and women with an AR-15 on June 12. In the aftermath of the bloodbath, Machine Gun America put up a #PrayforOrlando sign at the entrance, and recently announced free shooting lessons through the end of July, offering visitors the “ammunition they need to fight back.”
I can’t get the macabre geographic juxtaposition of these two Orlando landmarks out of my head. The Florida temple to firearms, where families can spend their Sundays mowing down imaginary terrorists and criminal scum, just down the road from a nightclub turned into a charnel house by a maniac aided by a highly efficient, highly available killing machine—of the sort people pay good money to use at Machine Gun America.
These kinds of contradictions have been nagging at me a lot lately; after almost a year of obsessively reading and researching and going down the online rabbit hole investigating the country’s gun culture, while developing a new play that explores some of the more bizarre elements of it.
Between the wall-to-wall coverage of each mass shooting, there’s a whole world of tragic and often bizarre gun violence filler.
The play has gone through a number of title changes since it was first cooked up (Bullets Over Preschool, Springtime for the NRA), but at the end of the day I figured, if it isn’t broke don’t fix it. So it’s called, eponymously, Machine Gun America. It premieres this summer at the New York International Fringe Festival.
It’s a farce, a dark one of course, because the instinct to squeeze some gallows humor from the nation’s unending bloodshed felt like one of the more authentic ways to tell a story about the Machine Gun America we’re fast becoming. Because our national reality TV horror show is frankly difficult to parody; it only needs a thin layer of embellishment to work as fiction. Between the wall-to-wall coverage of each mass shooting, there’s a whole world of tragic and often bizarre gun violence filler.
Like the gun safety instructor shot dead in Ohio recently by a student in his concealed carry class. Or the Florida mother who bragged about the marksmanship of her 4-year old on Facebook, only to have the gun toting toddler turn around and shoot her in the back. Or the Texas gun rights advocate who warned against the dangers of a semi-automatic weapon ban, writing on Facebook that, “It would be horribly tragic if my ability to protect myself or my family were to be taken away.” This month she shot and killed her two daughters after a family argument.
How many of these people watched GunTV, the new late night home shopping network, promising viewers easy access to firearms, “without the usual hoopla of visiting the nearest gun store”?
In this sprawling American saga there are genres and sub-genres. There’s a whole world of arguments that end with bullets flying, and an entire subset of culinary arguments that set guns a-blazing. A slice of buttermilk pie motivated a shootout in Corpus Christi, Texas, and a Florida man recently shot and killed his brother over a cheeseburger. A Texas man was just shot to death over an argument about line butting at a taco truck, and a father and son were both shot dead this week after fighting over a beer.
Is Machine Gun America just a one-off? Or the first outpost of a soon to be wildly successful 21st century franchise?
I’ve barely scratched the surface; the list of you can’t make this shit up anecdotes goes on and on. Admittedly most of these bloody episodes happen in Handgun America as opposed to in Machine Gun America, but still. Same country. Different caliber.
In other words, is Machine Gun America just a quirky place in Florida? Or a window into the country we’re becoming, where training ourselves in machine gun marksmanship to defend against machine gun toting maniacs is the new norm? Is Machine Gun America just a one-off? Or the first outpost of a soon to be wildly successful 21st century franchise?
Market trends favor the latter. There are now more gun dealers in the country than McDonald’s, Starbucks, and grocery stores combined, and gun sales, particularly sales of the AR-15 used in the Orlando bloodbath, are again through the roof, as they are after every mass shooting. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, Americans now own more than 40 percent of the world’s guns. At what point, if ever, do we reach a saturation point? What does the country look like when there’s an AR-15 in every garage, or a Machine Gun America in every strip mall?
The key to understanding Machine Gun America’s allure though, despite all the blood and gore, is understanding that it’s a place with its own compelling cultural codes, its own sprawling, often DIY culture, and its own powerful myths (many of them fed by unverified online anecdotes about a good guy with a gun saving the day).
And its own music. One gun enthusiast has a popular YouTube channel filled with odes to firearms. My favorite is a sensitive piano power ballad called the “Second Amendment Song”, with poetic lyrics like, “Gun grabbing liberals use tragedy for their political gain…. they won’t blame the killer, they don’t seem to get that guns are inanimate…. If Big Brother is bad, well the UN is worse, they think our guns are a curse…. guns make us free, to fight tyranny!”
Machine Gun America also has a long lineup of enemies, and let me tell you, they’re everywhere. Wayne LaPierre, High Queen of the gun rights drama queens, catalogued a few of them in a recent speech: “Terrorists, home invaders, drug cartels, car jackers, ‘knock-out’ gamers, rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse a society that sustains us all.”
In such a terrifying world you’d be crazy not to prepare for the worst with a fully automatic at your side; a state of affairs that just so happens to fatten the wallets of gun makers. It’s also great artistic fodder. An upbeat song for the play was crafted almost entirely verbatim from these melodramatic, apocalyptic warnings.
Despite the terrifying threats around every corner, rest assured, Machine Gun America is a friendly place for the kids.
And if you think ISIS is scary enough, think again. In a video series produced by the NRA, and sponsored by gun maker Kimber, gun rights activist Dana Loesch describes an even more treacherous foe: the “Godless Left…a global alliance of elitists, media activists, Hollywood celebrities, campus radicals, and political power mongers who have openly attacked sacred American values and the people who cherish them with ruthlessness, contempt, and downright hatred.”
Who wouldn’t want a machine gun to defend against these animals?
But despite the terrifying threats around every corner, rest assured, Machine Gun America is a friendly place for the kids. While developing a plot line in which the gun lobby develops a new initiative to arm the nation’s youngsters and organize them into a fierce fighting force, I went to the Machine Gun America website for inspiration. A November blog post gives the details:
“The “Scout Law” teaches young boys to be trustworthy, loyal, brave and kind, in a time where those values seem to be slipping away. In short, it teaches boys how to become good men. That is why Machine Gun America is proud to partner with an organization such as the Boys Scouts of America to offers the Boy Scout troops in and around the Kissimmee, FL area, the opportunity to earn their Rifle Shooting Merit Badge, in a significantly discounted package.”
Boy Scouts have been getting rifle shooting merit badges for decades, so nothing new there. But it starts to feel like an episode of Twin Peaks when the cure for a world bereft of wholesome values is teaching young boys how to use fully automatic weapons. Not to mention that it doesn’t always end well. Not long ago a nine-year-old girl in Arizona accidentally shot and killed her gun instructor with the same Uzi he was teaching her to shoot on.
Like I said, I’ve never been to Machine Gun America except in my imagination, but it feels a bit closer every day. This month a mass shooting was narrowly averted at my old high school. A seventeen-year-old boy threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend and “shoot up” anyone else he came across at the school. When the police investigated and searched his home, they found an AK-47 and 180 rounds of ammunition.
We all endure the collective trauma of America’s high caliber gun violence in different ways. Many, far too many, have no choice but to mourn. Some organize, agitate, and campaign to try to get us to do something about it. Others run out to buy more guns. I’m not sure it’s going to change any hearts and minds, but for me at least it’s been therapeutic, to write a play that only slightly exaggerates what we’ve come to accept now as normal, in this national tragicomedy of ours.
Joseph Huff-Hannon is an award-winning writer published in The New York Times, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Salon, Huffington Post and elsewhere; a campaigner and activist with experience in guerilla theater, and a longtime collaborator with satirical culture jamming group the Yes Men. He also once tried to warn sun seekers on Fire Island about impending sea level rise and climate change, to little, albeit laughter inducing avail. His Twitter handle is @joehuffhannon.