Peak Weird

I figured out when I hit peak weird in 2016. I needed to wait until the end because the weird dial had already been turned to "11" by June and they just kept adding numbers after that. You might think any one of dozens of moments in the election might earn the title but for me, the single strangest event was barely noticed by anyone.

Let me start by saying we've heard the sound of machine gun fire in our mountains as long as we've lived here. Not someone with an assault rifle squeezing off rounds as fast as they can; I mean "hold the trigger down until the clip is empty" automatic weapon fire like you hear in the movies, or you know, a war. Machine guns are tools of war, generally grouped with grenades and rocket launchers - things that shouldn't be part of a peaceful country's daily life. It's a federal crime to possess a machine gun without a staggering amount of background checks and licensing. Years ago, my brother took Carolyn and me to a shooting range in Vegas where you could rent one to shoot on their range. Until we moved here I assumed the private ownership of such weapons was pretty much limited to places like that.

The first time we heard it was shortly after 9/11 when a good bit of the national conversation was taken up with Al-Qaeda training camps on American soil. As newly minted rural Oregonians fresh out of the city, we were understandably alarmed and called 911. They didn't seem terribly concerned.

We'd hear it once or twice a year after that. I talked to a sheriff about it once up in the BLM on a ride. His comment was "Some people feel they need to own a machine gun." That was it. It was pretty clear law enforcement knew about it but didn't feel it warranted action. I can't really blame them. I'm not even sure what they could do. Our local law enforcement has been gutted with budget cuts over the years. They have their hands full with the immediate needs of victims all around them. Chasing a guy with a gun he's not supposed to have falls pretty far down the list.

Over the years the frequency of automatic weapon fire has increased to pretty much every weekend. We'd read heartbreaking stories about incidents involving machine guns occasionally so we knew there were more out there beyond our valley.

Then last November KGW ran a short piece about 8 teens who were busted for stealing 50 guns up in Cowlitz County in Washington. Buried in the copy was the following:
"The suspects sold some of the stolen firearms, pawned others and some guns were destroyed, according to the sheriff’s office. Most of them are believed to be fully automatic."
I had to go digging to conform that wasn't a typo. 50 machine guns in the hands of 8 kids ranging from 15 to 19 years old. It got weirder. They were all stolen from a single owner, an 87 year old man who had a cache of 440 weapons. Law enforcement was a bit overwhelmed with the volume but it would be safe to say that at least 100 of them were machine guns. If that wasn't crazy enough, the guy was a convicted felon and shouldn't have owned one gun. My favorite line from the KGW story: "The sheriff's office is considering pressing charges against him."

(Photo: Cowlitz County Sheriff's Office)


Oh good. I'm glad that's on the table as a possibility.  They found enough real live machine guns to prop a mid-80's Chuck Norris movie and they're "considering" pressing charges. I couldn't help thinking this was just like a scene from "Hot Fuzz":
Except that "Hot Fuzz" was a movie and none of it actually happened.

What really brings me up short is how blasé everyone was about it.  Discussion threads described the teens as "good kids who made a bad decision". Yes, that's true. It's also missing the point.
"Deputies don’t know why the man had so many guns but they believe it was just a collection."
Um no, I think the word your looking for is "arsenal". Was that supposed to make me feel better? If he had a shed full of Ricin would you describe it as "just a chemistry experiment?" Hummel figurines, Beanie Babies or shot glasses? Sure, that's a collection. If you collect hundreds of the same figurine, shot glass, or Beanie Baby, fellow collectors might consider you a bit odd but at least that doesn't represent a danger to the general public. Dozens of automatic knockoff Sten's certainly do. But all the language and action around this doesn't seem to reflect that.

I suppose that's why this wins. It's not the guns so much as everyone's response to them. While gallons of ink have been spilled debating the pros and cons of large capacity magazines and background checks, reality has moved someplace entirely different. I don't intend this as an anti-gun rant. There are plenty of compelling reasons to own one. 100 machine guns? That's nuts but I'm supposed to pretend that it isn't; or it is, but in a "harmless old hoarder guy" kind of way, which has the effect of acknowledging that there's something a bit "off" about the situation while it normalizes a private citizen possessing a machine gun or in this case, 100 of them. Listen to the newscasters at KGW reporting on this. It occupies the same tonal space as their story on the Belmont goats having to move.

I like goats, but that's just disturbing.

I don't flinch at the sound of machine guns in the hills any longer. That's what happens when official language is at odds with reality. I don't think it tricks you into thinking it's OK, though some people certainly want you to believe that. Rather, you know it's not OK, but you've also been informed by everyone around you that it's not something that warrants attention. Peak weird for me.

"The sound of gunfire, off in the distance. I'm getting used to it now."

Talking Heads - Life During Wartime


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