What a gun auction taught me about ‘middle America’


SHARES

“Do you know why Lincoln was splittin’ wood?”

My grandpa’s question, inspired by the sight of decades old split rail fences lining Highway 40, abruptly broke the silence. As my phone signal aggressively cut in and out, I couldn’t help but curse the Blue Ridge mountains appearing beneath the sunrise and grunt an inaudible reply.

“He was makin’ them fences right there. He won the election off that.”

We set out at the crack of dawn to make our way to an auction house just outside Smith Mountain Lake – a favorite pastime of my grandpa, now in his early 70s. I’ve accompanied him to dozens of auctions since he and my grandma moved to rural Virginia from Raleigh, North Carolina in the early 2000s, but I remembered this house in particular because we used to go there for horse shows and livestock auctions when I was young. Sadly, that exciting atmosphere had all but died since the prices of horses collapsed while the cost of keeping them skyrocketed. Today’s auction was still promising though – because the primary products weren’t Quarter Horses, but guns.

An America divided.

Although I didn’t grow up in Virginia, I’ve been visiting since I was a child and attended Virginia Tech for college. This state is a prime example of the rural/urban divide witnessed across the country. Locals understand the stark contrast between the more liberal and urban, northern Virginia – known as NoVA – and the more conservative and rural, southern Virginia – known as the “real” Virginia. As a user on Reddit pointed out: “I was taking classes over the summer in Blacksburg, and this guy asked me where I was from. I replied Northern Virginia. He referred to people there as Communist pricks…Well, that escalated pretty quickly.”

This in-state divide is partly explained by demographic data collected in recent years. Lisa A. Sturtevant, now the President of Lisa Sturtevant & Associates, wrote in a 2012 study:

“The continued growth of Virginia’s urban areas at the expense of its rural communities is indicative of the growing urban/rural divide in the state. Northern Virginia, in particular, continues to be a dominant source of growth in Virginia and now accounts for nearly a third of the state’s population.”

Over a 10-year period, from 2000 to 2010, Sturtevant reported that “the minority share of the population” grew to 35.2 percent: a relatively high percentage in a still majority-white state. Interestingly, the fastest rates of growth in the racial and ethnic minority population actually occurred in the rural areas during this period. This “uncomfortable” change for many white, rural Virginians – along with economic strains felt in the southern region – were exacerbated by the surprising shift of Virginia from a solid red state to a blue state in 2012. It even went blue for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. One nurse interviewed after attending a Trump rally last year blamed the shift on Northerners moving to Virginia, while a county GOP chairman stated outright: “The changes that we’ve seen over the last 10 or 15 years – we want those to go away.”

NRA Trump

Photo by: Johnny Silvercloud, Flikr

Where God, Country and Guns reign supreme.

Throughout the hour-and-a-half journey to the auction house, I had managed to somehow lose myself in the moody ballads of Gabrielle Aplin, banishing the political thoughts that had plagued my mind since November and twisted my stomach into knots since I came back to the United States in December. Just like a dreaded ex-boyfriend however, there it was as we pulled up, a stark reminder proudly displayed on top of a barn: Trump – Pence 2016.

Luckily, my grandpa isn’t one to talk politics with me and according to southern tradition politics is not something you’re supposed to discuss in public with strangers. So I wasn’t too worried I’d have to talk my way out of an awkward situation. That illusion quickly vanished however when the auctioneer squinted to read a man’s shirt in the crowd, “What’s that say – deplora…I’m a deplorable? Ah well, according to Hillary.” The whole crowd chuckled while I sunk deeper into my chair. (I later saw the back of that man’s shirt which had a picture of Hillary’s face behind bars and the saying, “One good reason to vote Trump.”)

If you’ve never been to an auction – particularly a gun auction – let me set the scene. Imagine a crowd between 20 – 80 people sitting on retired car seats, church benches, and plastic chairs facing tables full of recycled trinkets, car parts, toys, and rusty tools. Most attendees are single, older men, but there are a few kids running around with their moms rummaging through the piles.

The guns are typically kept in a separate room under close watch. The product range at this particular auction was pretty impressive. There were “pocket” revolvers no bigger than your palm, a gold-plated magnum that looked like it stepped right out of an Austin Powers movie, and a black-matted tactical rifle called the Cobb Bushmaster BA 50.

These guns come from many places, but most are retired military/police weapons or family heirlooms. If the auction is legitimate, the guns’ origins are traced before they’re sold to make sure there’s no funny business. However, as my grandpa informed me, there’s plenty of exceptions.

Standing in a room full of deadly weapons, I couldn’t help but feel a little sick. As someone who studies conflict and security, I now know all too well the violence that these crafted chunks of metal can have. This feeling re-emerged later that night, with more intensity, as I learned about the New Year’s Eve shooting in Istanbul.

The auctioneer began the morning selling the trinkets and tools before the guns; like an opening act to keep people in their seats. This is a common strategy, because the guns are the main attraction. After about midday, the guns emerged from the room one-by-one held up by a worker so the crowd could gaze at each “‘ole boy.” In all, there were 107. The cheapest sold for $250 and the most expensive for $4000. At first the bidding was slow, prompting the auctioneer to comment, “I thought Trump had got y’all excited!” As per usual however, by the end of the day every gun had been sold. In Virginia, as long as you’re over 18, don’t have a criminal record and aren’t an illegal alien – you can own a gun. It’s that simple. At some auctions background checks aren’t even performed before a gun is given to the buyer – a stark reality only recently investigated by a new study released this month by the Annals of Internal Medicine showing that 22 per cent of gun purchases throughout the US are free of checks. Although the study is no smoking gun – pardon the reference – it does bring to light a potentially deadly issue.

Only a tiny percentage of the crowd actually bid however, a somewhat puzzling fact. Most people, like my grandpa, go for the excitement of it all. They record the prices of each gun for their own records, swap a few stories with their buddies, grab a Mountain Dew and then head back home. This type of activity is a part of the culture here – a strange culmination over 200 years of revolutionary sentiment, military tradition, hunting popularity, and the pervasiveness of the arms industry.

How did we get here?

Admittedly, this all never seemed the slight bit unusual to me until I moved to Canada and realized that owning guns isn’t quite as normal as I thought. It definitely never appalled me as it does now until I learned that the arms industry, despots, war-lords, extremists and criminals have wreaked havoc across the world with the very same weapons my grandpa keeps in his gun-closet.

On the way home, I sympathetically examined the rolling hills of Rocky Mount, Virginia and I tried to make sense of it all. The relationship between God, country and guns no longer sits well in my heart as it once did when I was a little girl. How could a community that evoked the name of Jesus in prayer – a divinity I always believed promoted peace over violence – do so minutes before bidding on guns? Machines built to kill. How could a community similar to the one I hail from, embrace a man like Trump, and all that he represents?

Shenandoah valley

As I observed the houses passing by, I began to find answers to my questions. Where there was once thriving, small farms now sat empty fields disrupted only by the occasional hay bale, an empty barn, or tree stumps. Rural Virginia was once the cradle of tobacco and coal production in America. Remnants of that lost era are found everywhere, including a small, two-story barn on my grandparent’s land. Inside, the walls are covered in early 20th century newspapers suffocating any light, and a few pieces of dried tobacco still hang from the ceiling. Cash crops like corn and tobacco simply don’t make the same money they used to, and coal remains a valuable asset to the state but a headache for environmentalists.

NoVA, the predominately liberal-urban region I mentioned earlier, accounts for 45% of the state’s GDP – funded primarily through government jobs and contracts which eventually trickle down to the southern parts of the state. However, according to the 2016 State of the Commonwealth report, NoVA’s economic growth has slowed, which has negatively impacted the rest of the state. This economic peril matched with demographic changes, fear-mongering, communal isolation, decaying educational institutions, an aging population, growing chronic health problems and irrational fears of foreign terrorism, has resulted in the so-called “Trumpism” across southern Virginia.

This is the truth: parallel worlds really do exist in America, and when each collide with the other they do just that – collide.

For those of us who straddle these two worlds, we battle a constant identity crisis, because there’s no longer a common language or vision of what America can and should be. At least not that I’m aware of. One is obsessed with ‘Making America Great Again,’ while the other is trying to “Make America Great” – neither possessing a comprehensive, effective strategy to do so.

It’s not hard to recognize that people in areas like southern Virginia have been affected by what is viewed elsewhere as “progress,” and thus they are increasingly pessimistic about their future and disillusioned with the direction of the country. No matter how simplistic or correct this self-perception is, it’s an uncomfortable reality that we must accept in order to move on. It’s why Forbes called the 2016 election, “The Revolt of Middle America.”

As my grandpa drove past that old split rail fence again, I thought of Abraham Lincoln. A stoic figure in American history that was more beloved after his death than during his actual Presidency. A stark reminder that America doesn’t know what it’s got till it’s gone.

America

Honest Abe’ was also a figure of the most turbulent time in American history, a time that has yet to be forgotten in Virginia. Sitting behind the deteriorating, 19th century log cabin on my grandparents’ land for example, is a Confederate graveyard marking at least six lives lost when America was at its most divided. When blood turned against blood.

For a moment, while passing through a deserted Main Street – the lifeblood of small town America – I imagined those very guns I held in my hands earlier finding their way into the hands of modern men and women fighting the same anger, confusion and hatred that plagued my country just 152 years ago.

I was once optimistic that history would never repeat itself. That we would understand each other before it came to such senselessness, but recent experience has taught me that the Middle America I experience, has no qualms being labelled gun-loving deplorables, and liberal America has yet to understand that.