Why I Got Out of the Gun-Dealing Business - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Why I Got Out of the Gun-Dealing Business

Why I Got Out of the Gun-Dealing Business

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because bullets, no matter the time or place, hurt.

By Eugene S. Robinson

There was never a time when I didn’t love guns. As tools of force projection, it was impossible to miss the fact that they provided a kind of punctuation that guaranteed you were heard. This I knew at the age of 4. Courtesy of George Reeves, the guy who played Superman on a TV show I watched religiously. Reeves as Superman was immune to the charm of guns, but he was SUPERman. 

And there were westerns, film noir and all kinds of cultural triggers that told the tale that very few in the overheated debates around guns are really honest about: Guns are mystical/mythical talismans of the word made flesh. In this case the word was stop. As in bad guys. But later, just about any kind of guy. Guys with the kinds of sneakers you may have wanted. Guys who drove too slowly in traffic. Guys who looked at you longer than any guy should look at any other guy he’s not planning on having sex with.

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Magnum force.

Source Photo courtesy of Eugene S. Robinson

The world, paradoxically, was made both safer and more dangerous because of guns, but like Dutch Schultz said to someone he was about to murder in the E.L. Doctorow novel Billy Bathgate, “Who would you rather be at this moment?” The guy without the gun or the guy with?

I chose the latter and while working at Defense Electronics magazine with a raft of military men, I made my first moves, with their help, to get a Federal Firearms License. A license that would allow me to buy and sell firearms, ammunition and sundry and assorted items, all for wholesale. The rules were fairly simple, as I understood them, and my understanding of them was scant as I didn’t read them all that closely, but what I took away from the application process were three things.

1] I could not sell a gun to a convicted felon.

2] I could not sell a gun to a mental patient.

3] I could not sell guns to those who intended to sell guns to convicted felons and mental patients.


And with license in hand, I hung out a shingle and started the only record, tape, T-shirt, video, tattoo parlor and gun shop in, well, the world: CFY/House of Faith, located at the end of Urban Lane in Palo Alto, California, with a recording and rehearsal studio, a few blocks from Palo Alto High School. Though the records, tapes, T-shirts and videos were on open display, and tattoos were given on an appointment-only basis on a couch at the front of the store, the guns were specialty items. Only for preorder and only by people I had decided were not 1s, 2s or 3s from the above list.

Hunters came. For ducks, geese and wild boar. Skeet shooters came. Urban blighters, ultimately. And even Armageddon men came.

“When it all comes down…” There was always a lot of talk about “it” coming “down.” One guy asked, “You think you’re going to haul outta here with a backpack full of .223 ammo?” He peered at me from behind his glasses over the counter. I worked only on weekends, with a few employees who worked during the week. So guns? Only on weekends. “But .22 ammo? It’s light and I can carry enough to last me forever.” 

And the thing was? He was right. Once you go through the looking glass, it ALL starts to make sense. 

Someone in Mexico was dead. Someone had killed that someone who was dead. And I had gotten what for it?

But I sold widely, and for the most part my buyers were normal. Maybe even much more than normal. You see, I didn’t sell to strangers. So Los Angeles Times journalists who, while on the tail of some fairly terrifying investigative reporting, started getting weird calls at home and wanted to iron up. Domestically abused women who had gotten tired of being afraid. My grandmother, who was neither, for Chrissakes. These were a large number of my sales. Dutifully dropped off by UPS drivers who, after a while, had figured out that there are no five-foot-long videotapes or 60 pounds of CDs in boxes marked LIVE AMMO.

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Singing a song of six-shots.

Source Photo courtesy of Eugene S. Robinson

The debate raged around me. Clinton was president, and there was always talk inside the fence of him coming to take our guns away. Talk that inevitably fueled sales without my customers noticing that if they were going to take away anything, they were doing a poor job of it. But the laws did tighten, and the proximity to a high school ended up being grounds for the license to be rescinded. No harm, no foul. I understood.

Small print on the license app: Sales paperwork should be kept for seven years, at least. I’d have ignored it but for one of my last purchasers, a guy who bought six or seven Czech-made semi-autos. All the same make. Czech semi-autos are not Austrian semi-autos, but it takes all types. But this type? Made my Spidey sense tingle. And I sold to him anyway.

Three years after the sale and after the passage of my license, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) called with the serial number and a request to know whom I had sold it to. 


“It was used in a crime,” he said. “In Mexico. A murder, in fact.”

There it was. I rang off, telling him I’d look for the paper I had in my hand and instead called the guy I had sold them to. He had been a number 3. And he didn’t apologize but instead offered this: a threat. “Jake discovered that the .45 we sold him for $500 wasn’t worth but $50. He wants his money back, and if you don’t give it to him, he’s going to the cops and …”

WE didn’t sell him anything.” And I hung up the phone and dialed the number I had scrawled on a piece of paper, giving the name, address, phone and driver’s license number to the officer on the other end.

Someone in Mexico was dead. Someone had killed that someone who was dead. And I had gotten what for it?

Out of the business, I guess. Cold comfort. But, in the end, comfort nonetheless. I still love guns. Just from afar. And in movies. Seems a lot safer that way.

* The original version of this story misnamed Austrian semi-autos and Dutch Schultz’s fictional role.

This story is a part of a partnership between OZY and DoSomething.org to help you see more, be more and DO more. Interested in what you read here? Want to get involved and be part of the solution? Click here to learn more.

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