Longform.org’s Guide to Guns: Great Stories About Guns and the People Who Love, Hate, and Sell Them

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Nov. 24 2011 7:18 AM

The Longform.org Guide to Guns

Great stories about guns and the people who love, hate, and sell them.

Every weekend, Longform.org shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform.org or follow @longformorg on Twitter.

Gun.
The way of the gun, as collected by Longform.org

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They’re controversial and closely held; they can be both deadly and lucrative. Here are our favorite stories about guns—from the Kalashnikov to robot-operated weapons—and the notorious (and sometimes stoned) people who traffic them.

Ed Leibowitz • Los Angeles Magazine • February 2001

A profile of the late actor-turned NRA president:

‘Actor! Author! Civil Rights Champion! Patriot!’ the film's narrator cries above the trumpets' blare. ‘He hasn't just spoken the word of God, he's also spent his life defending the freedoms God has given us. Today, with your rights under the fiercest attacks in history, Heston is there.’

“A figure emerges from the wings, more than six feet tall but appearing shorter, his torso inclined forward. Speedo propylene beach slippers make the journey to the podium with hesitant steps. Hip-replacement surgery and old age have dampened the fabled dynamism: no more battles with broadswords; no more chariot races for him. But above the uncertain legs, the chest is still massive, the cheekbones still chiseled, the broken nose as resolute as the NRA eagle on all those baseball caps bobbing above the crowd. As Charlton Heston approaches the microphone, his lungs swell, the vocal cords making their splendid, vibrant music out of ordinary air. ‘I'm inclined to quit while I'm ahead,’ he jokes. ‘But I won't. No!’ ”

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C.J. Chivers • Esquire • November 2010

Adapting from his book of the same name, Chivers traces how the design and proliferation of small arms, originating from the Pentagon and the Russian army, rerouted the 20th century:

“Since the AK-47, or Kalashnikov, had first surfaced, the American military had dismissed it as cheap and ineffective. But as this new weapon's cracking bursts were heard in battle each day, the Eastern bloc's assault rifle at last captured the Pentagon's attention. It marked the Kremlin's influence on how war was experienced by combatants of limited means — the Kalashnikov-carrying guerrilla, a common man with portable and easy-to-use automatic arms, was now in the field by the tens of thousands, and these men were outgunning American troops. To close the gun gap, the Pentagon rushed the M16 into service.”

Evan Ratliff • The New Yorker • February 2009

Most military experts agree that robots, not people, will inevitably do the fighting in ground wars. In Tennessee, a high-end gunsmith is already there. The story of Jerry Baber and his robot army:

“We sat in a pair of office chairs, and Baber grabbed a radio-signal remote control. He switched on the larger robot, directing it across the concrete floor until the treads bumped against my foot. On an LCD display behind Baber, I could see an image of my leg, transmitted by a camera under the robot’s gun barrel. The gun then pointed at my stomach. He assured me that it was not loaded.”

Guy Lawson • Rolling Stone • March 2011

How two twentysomethings, equipped with the Internet and weed, ruled the lucrative world of weapons trading ... for a while:

“Packouz and Diveroli had picked the perfect moment to get into the arms business. To fight simultaneous wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration had decided to outsource virtually every facet of America's military operations, from building and staffing Army bases to hiring mercenaries to provide security for diplomats abroad. After Bush took office, private military contracts soared from $145 billion in 2001 to $390 billion in 2008. Federal contracting rules were routinely ignored or skirted, and military-industrial giants like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin cashed in as war profiteering went from war crime to business model. Why shouldn't a couple of inexperienced newcomers like Packouz and Diveroli get in on the action? After all, the two friends were after the same thing as everyone else in the arms business — lots and lots and lots of money.”

Adam Winkler • Atlantic • September 2011

On America’s relationship with the right to bear arms, from the founding fathers to the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan:

“The Text of the the Second Amendment is maddeningly ambiguous. It merely says, ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ Yet to each side in the gun debate, those words are absolutely clear.

“Gun-rights supporters believe the amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms and outlaws most gun control. Hard-line gun-rights advocates portray even modest gun laws as infringements on that right and oppose widely popular proposals — such as background checks for all gun purchasers — on the ground that any gun-control measure, no matter how seemingly reasonable, puts us on the slippery slope toward total civilian disarmament.”

Peter Landesman • New York Times Magazine • August 2003

The author sits down with notorious (and recently convicted) arms dealer Viktor Bout, Bout’s brother, and a close friend:

Bout, who is 36, six feet tall and somewhat expansive in girth, nimbly made his way through the crowded lounge. He didn't shake my hand as much as grip it, with a firm nod. Icy blue eyes like chips of glass punctuated a baby face. We sat on one of the lounge's dingy couches, and he placed a thick folder of papers on his lap.

“ ‘Look, here is the biggest arms dealer in the world,' Chichakli said, half mocking me and half mocking Bout. Bout opened his blazer. 'I don't see any guns,' he said with a shrug. Then Sergei raised his arms. ‘None here either.’ (Both spoke excellent English.) ‘Maybe I should start an arms-trafficking university and teach a course on U.N. sanctions busting,’ Victor Bout said. The brothers looked at each other and laughed.”

Michael J. Mooney • D Magazine • October 2011

In the days after 9/11, Mark Stroman went on a revenge killing spree in Texas. Rais Bhuiyan survived and, a decade later, tried to stop Stroman’s execution:

The first thing 27-year-old Rais Bhuiyan (pronounced Boo-yon) did when he got to the Texaco station every day was read the headlines in the Dallas Morning News. On September 17, 2001, he read something terrifying: a convenience store clerk had been shot and killed a few blocks away. Bhuiyan begged his boss, the owner of the station, to reinstall the security cameras—he’d already received a few tense glares in the days after 9/11—but money was tight. Bhuiyan had dreams in which customers suddenly pulled out guns and started shooting at him. He had been working at the station in Mesquite for only a few months and he’d already been robbed once. At the time, he thought the man was trying to sell him a handgun.

“ ‘How much?’ Bhuiyan asked when he saw the weapon.

“The man pulled back the hammer with his thumb — click. ‘No, amigo.’ ”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longformorg. For more great crime writing, check out Longform.org’s complete archive.

Gretchen Gavett is a contributor to Longform.org.