On the edge of Oklahoma’s Ozarks, where prairies ascend to rolling hills, an outgrowth of American tradition thunders in the air. Under a powerful summer sun, gun enthusiasts peer down the sights of devastating weapons at the annual Oklahoma Full Auto Shoot and Trade Show (OFASTS), one of the country’s largest fully automatic machine gun expos. In the valley below, explosive-laden cars, airplanes, and old appliances lie in wait; incendiary prizes for the sharp or lucky. Husbands and wives, often with children in tow, make a weekend of firing a vast array of fully automatic weapons, riding in tanks, and flying in military helicopters.
My journey to the OFASTS was born of a growing fascination with the similarities between global gun cultures. For the last three years, I worked in South Sudan, an embryonic African country which, following decades of war, remains awash with weapons. There I observed a conflict between the nascent government, which holds little influence outside of major towns, and scores of well-armed, cattle-herding tribes that retain weapons for protection and raiding in the hostile and ungovernable hinterlands. Each year, government forces attempt, often with grievous brutality, to strip such communities of their weapons. Knowing their vulnerability and dubious of the government’s ability to ensure their safety, pastoral tribes hide their weapons and endure torture to protect them.
When I departed South Sudan last month, I left pondering what seems like a universal dynamic: In wild and hostile environments, where no police are in sight, the civilian-owned weapon is sacrosanct.
It was not so very long ago that communities in the Four States region (the nexus point between Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas) where OFASTS is held, faced similar circumstances. During the settlement period in the 19th century, the region was rife with hazards and low on effective law enforcement. According to one informal written history of the area, “In the early days of its history… all border towns were the scene of much gunplay.” Arms were prevalent and violence was common as bandits, cattle rustlers and rebel soldiers roamed the plains. “In those days all men went armed…There was little or no law enforcement…” a group of historians from Seneca, Missouri wrote.
The prominent role of weapons in the history of the American Midwest, both for practical purposes and protection, seems to inform, at least in part, contemporary attitudes toward guns. Some still cite the remoteness of many Midwestern communities and skeletal structure of law enforcement agencies assigned to protect them,. “You might have two deputies on call for the whole county,” explains Brian Richie, an Oklahoman gun exhibitor at OFASTS. “If you can’t protect yourself, there’s no law enforcement that’s going to protect you. I had a trespasser on my property and the police told me, basically straight up, we’re not coming out there.”
Mike Friend, the chief organizer of the OFASTS, emphasizes the history of self-reliance that has been at play in Oklahoma and other parts of the Midwest for generations. “A lot of country people are self-sufficient and guns are part of that,” he says while fixing his own truck on land where he keeps his own cattle. “The ability to protect your family is in the same category as being able to fix your own truck and take care of your own equipment.”
Today, events like OFASTS are outgrowths of the established weapons tradition that the Mike Friend and others discuss. These events, and the extreme weapons available at them, exist more for show, recreation and principle than for practical use. “Walking down this firing line is a tour through history,” Mike Friend explains with a sweep of his arm. “We’ve got weapons from most of America’s modern wars. It’s like going to a museum except here people can touch, hold and experience the artifacts.”
For those familiar with guns, events like OFASTS provide a rare opportunity to handle the more aggressive versions of guns they grew up with. “It was such an adrenaline rush,” exclaims Story Rush, a kindergarten teacher who traveled to OFASTS from Greenwood, Arkansas. “I’ve always hunted but this was my first time to shoot a fully automatic machine gun.” Story and her 8 year-old son, Rowdy, took turns on a thunderous M1919 Browning machine gun while her husband recorded video on his phone. They beamed with excitement.
One need not come of age in a gun-friendly environment to understand and appreciate the excitement and camaraderie at OFASTS. I was born and raised in Massachusetts and had shot a hand gun only once, but I’d be lying if I said I did not grin ear-to-ear as I fired belt-fed machine guns off that Oklahoma ridgeline. The invitations to shoot came from kind and welcoming dealers and collectors who were a far cry from the “gun nut” stereotypes that have become mythical protagonists in the American gun debate. While I didn’t flout my progressive politics, I never concealed them and, throughout my stay in the gun-toting heartland, I was treated with inclusive respect and moving hospitality.
As I explore this issue, in locations as varied as South Sudan and Oklahoma, I cannot help but feel that environments play a critical role in shaping attitudes about firearms. Where institutions are stronger, police forces more bountiful and people less isolated, the civilian owned firearm is less a priority. On the wild plains, be they those in modern South Sudan or 19th century Oklahoma, the gun is essential for survival and, over time, comes to represent a way of life.