Capital Letters: Paper Targets

In which our man in Washington shoots his rocks off, keeps his lunch down in the company of Janet Reno, and attends a Ralph Nader sermon


Subj: Point & Click Technology
Date: 6/14/2000
From: mwlynch@reason.com

Wade's Eastside Guns is in Bellevue, Washington, a plush suburb of Microsoft. I was in the Pacific Northwest to attend a conference organized by Academics for the Second Amendment, a group dedicated to encouraging scholarship about gun rights. About 20 people participated, mostly professor types, but a few journalists and a retired cop too. We were at Wade's on a field trip. We didn't just talk about guns at the conference, you see. We got to shoot them.

If guns do cause crime and suicide, then Wade's should have been a dangerous place. A federal judge had just ordered Microsoft to split up, and the net worth of most folks around these parts had taken a substantial hit. Yet there was neither a run on handguns nor a single suicide at Wade's, at least for the three hours I and the other conferees spent firing off 17,000 rounds from five submachine guns, one modified machine gun, and a long-range sniper rifle.

Members of the Microsoft Gun Club–each attired in the club's black polo shirts imprinted with the slogan "Point and Click Technology"–helped run the range.

"Judge Jackson didn't understand the technological issues," was how ex-Microsoft programmer Jim Gordon put it as he loaded up the magazine of a fully automatic Heckler & Koch MP5. Gordon, who's now with a software startup, said he's been hurt by the Microsoft decision. Yet he handed over the submachine gun, turning it on neither himself nor me in anger, and I was soon putting holes in my target's paper belly and head.

One station offered the Swedish K, a submachine gun first manufactured in Sweden and later in Egypt. To its left
sat a British Sten gun, a popular World War II firearm. There were two H&Ks, the submachine gun of choice for America's law enforcement community. "It's the ultimate status symbol for police," noted Joseph Olson, a gun-toting professor from Minnesota's Hamline School of Law. "Many of them lie awake at night thinking about having one."

Irv Benzion, a National Rifle Association board member, was kind enough to bring out his .30 caliber Browning 1919, a lie-on-your-belly-and-shoot-'em-up semi-automatic rifle, a version of a machine gun used in both World War II and Korea–and quite a kick to shoot.

But even this bundle of fun was upstaged by Professor Olson's Barrett Bolt Action 50 BMG, a gun so big the federal government is considering banning it. In the hands of a skilled marksman, this long-range precision rifle can take out a politician or other object of hatred as far away as 1,000 yards. In my hands, it could barely hit a piece of paper a few yards away.

Lying on my stomach, I struggled to lift the damn thing into a position to fire. It was like a cannon going off. Its deafening blast rattled my head; its substantial kick sent pain through my shoulder and put a temporary crick in my back.

The academics and journalists appeared to have fun. "That's not too shabby," said Carl Moody, an economics professor at the College of William & Mary, after unloading two magazines of bullets from an M-16.

Our joy didn't go unnoticed by staff. "These guys are getting their rocks off," said a range hand. It wasn't just rocks that were getting off.

"It kind of feels like an accomplishment," REASON Contributing Editor Cathy Young told me, after blasting away at a target with a version of the very gun Janet Reno claims was never pointed at young Elian Gonzalez. "I can see myself owning a handgun."

Yet it wasn't only a day of accomplishment for Young, whose weak hands forced her to rely on a range staffer to load a pistol. "I just feel so humiliated," the author of Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality, told me. "I needed a man to load my gun for me."

And one fellow didn't enjoy the afternoon at all. "It's not my idea of fun," he confided in the men's room, where signs warned us to keep our guns holstered. "I don't like loud noises and…." His voice trailed off as he got down to business.

Subj: DOJ Victory Tour
Date: 6/22/2000
From: mwlynch@reason.com

I stopped by the National Press Club last Thursday for a leg of the Janet Reno–Joel Klein victory tour. The American Antitrust Institute, a cheerleading group for antitrust enforcement, was bestowing its first annual Level Playing Field Award upon Klein the Mighty Microsoft Slayer.

Reno praised Klein for his heroics in the Microsoft case. Klein praised Reno for her brilliant handling of the Elian raid. If there's one thing worse than a backslapping pol, it's two backslapping pols.

In a display of sympathy for the working press, AAI had skimped on lunch, providing only a meager tray of cold cuts and a basket of chips. If I'd ingested a full banquet spread, I'm sure my dessert would have come up around the third time I heard how Reno's Justice Department has honorably upheld the rule of law.

It's fitting, then, that the event also promulgated one of the great vomit-inducing myths this town lives by: that working for the government is somehow nobler than toiling in the private sector. This myth contends that people who exchange riches and the freedom of the private sector for the power, Lincoln town cars, and butt kissing of high-level government work are making a sacrifice.

"Life has been very good to me," Klein told the adoring audience. "I've always wanted the opportunity to give back. And there's no place in the United States better than the Department of Justice, especially under the leadership of this woman."

Reno shoveled the same fertilizer, praising Klein for his ability to "dream [up] and create enforcement opportunities" and his willingness to "leave private practice, come to government, assume these great challenges."

You only had to read it. I had to listen to it and write it down. Thank heavens for a light lunch, indeed.

Subj: No Access
Date: 7/17/2000
From: mwlynch@reason.com

"If you wrote bad things about Trent Lott, it would make me look bad," Rick Parsons of the Young America's Foundation explained to me on the phone. "I need to put a positive spin on things."

The Young America's Foundation was hosting its National Conservative Student Conference, exposing impressionable minds to the likes of Oliver North and Bay Buchanan. The program also included a Capitol Hill briefing with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and the always entertaining Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.). I had called for an invitation to the event.

REASON, with its reputation for truth-telling, made Parsons nervous, and he was uncomfortable with my going to the Capitol Hill briefing. He tried to shoo me away from it, telling me I'd be better off covering the non-politician speakers: "Ollie is popular with the students," he explained as he started working his way down the program. But when I reiterated my interest in the pols, he cut me out. "I hope you understand," he said, even indicating that he is sympathetic to the magazine's view of politicians. "I feel terrible about it."

Subj: Ralph's World
Date: 7/18/2000
From: mwlynch@reason.com

Presidential candidate Ralph Nader was blowing more smoke than a Corvair tail pipe: George W. Bush, he said, is "a legitimate conglomerate corporation disguised as a person." "The Democrats," he opined, have "become very good at electing very bad Republicans."

Democrats and Republicans marinated in corporate money have all but shut down civil society in America, preached St. Ralph. That was the message he delivered today at the National Press Club, where he killed an hour outlining his plans for "Deep Democracy." No, it's not a porn flick shot in D.C. He pledged to re-educate, not renominate, Alan Greenspan, to throw misbehaving corporations into federal trusteeship, and to empower bureaucrats to make the world a better place.

I wasn't politically aware in Ralph's heyday, when he was cool enough to appear on Saturday Night Live, which itself was once cool (or so I've been told). To me, Nader's always been just another busybody liberal, a bright lights, big city version of the characters who hang out at town council meetings. Ralph's world is one where solutions to problems–dangerous cars, child poverty, adult acne, whatever–are readily available. "Solutions are on the shelf that can deal with so many of our problems," he explained. The only thing that stands between our current hell of low wages, environmental degradation, ailing health, sexual repression, and racial animosity are those corporate forces that refuse to let us citizens pull the solutions off the shelf and run them up to the cash register.

To Nader, it's simply a matter of unleashing the creative energy of bureaucrats in every agency from the Forest Service to the Department of Energy. "They know what the problems are, they know how to solve these problems, but they are walking around with invisible chains, unable to speak," explained Ralph. This liberate-the-clerks line got big applause. Be very afraid of the D.C. press corps.

Ralph seriously believes letting your neighbors take a majority-rules vote on all your major life decisions will get us to the Promised Land. The first step, he explained, is full public funding of elections. "Public schools are funded by public funds and so are public parks," he said. So why not elections?

It sounds like a plan, but I'm not sure Nader will much like the result. Extrapolating from his two examples, voters, after dodging discarded hypodermic needles and being harassed by bums, won't be able to read the ballot. Then again, what's wrong with that?