God Bless My Gun

The Seattle Times
September 23, 2001
By Alex Tizon

FORT COLLINS, Colorado — The sign above Clifford Hamblen’s shop reads GUNS GUNS GUNS in big white letters that span the width of the storefront. He wanted no ambiguity. He wanted to make sure unsuspecting citizens would not wander in thinking it was a bagel shop or a Socks Galore, which are nearby. If he had an extra five feet, he would have added another GUNS to match his business card.

But it hasn’t been necessary. Customers come, young and old. More so lately with the nation anxious about the war on terrorists. President Bush has been telling the country to get ready, and that’s what Hamblen’s customers have been doing. Gun sales are up 20 percent; ammunition sales, 50 percent. “People are nervous,” Hamblen says. “Anytime people are nervous, the first thing they do is stock up on bullets.”

It was a long haul southward along the Rocky Mountains from Sheridan, Wyo., to this eclectic town of college students, shopping malls and, for lack of a better term, gun people. This includes hunters, target shooters, paramilitary patriots, self-defenders and people who just like to shoot prairie dogs for relaxation.

Fort Collins began as a military outpost to protect white settlers from the Indians. The Indians are gone, but the name stuck, and some of the Old West gun-slinging culture remains. In a city of just over 100,000, there are at least six shooting clubs and four shooting ranges, not to mention the Rockies to the immediate west, which some regard as one giant shooting range.

GUNS GUNS GUNS sits off Highway 14, in the truck-stop part of town. Across from the shop is a cornfield and next to that, a cemetery.

Hamblen is 42, a former traveling gun-safe salesman who decided, along with his wife, Carol, to open their own shop in 1996 and leave the life of the road. He wears a Beretta polo shirt stretched tight around the midsection, old jeans and white Nikes. On his right hand he wears a shotgun-shell ring. He looks harmless compared to his employees, who all have semi-automatic pistols tucked under their waistbands.

There’s Tim Bliss, the sales manager, with a Glock 23 on his hip and 20,000 rounds of ammunition in his basement — just in case he’s forced to protect his family from “a foreign army.” There’s Steve McKinley, an office worker with one handgun and a knife on each hip — presumably in case one arm is disabled and he would need his other hand to access a weapon. They are all self-professed rednecks — “My neck is as red as they come,” says Hamblen — and exceedingly nice guys. Don’t think because they carry enough firepower to destroy a small town that they’re uncivilized or mean.

But it did take a while for them to warm up. When I walked in, they were businesslike, aloof. As we talked and got to know each other, they got looser. The turning point came when the subject turned to God, and I mentioned that my younger brother was head pastor at a church in Berkeley, California. Everyone at GUNS GUNS GUNS is a born-again Christian, and many of them attend the same Assembly of God church. Suddenly, we were brethren.

While I was in the store, the director of missions for their church, Thomas “Doc” Collins, was looking over a Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum. Doc Collins said he came in to sell two handguns for a patient of his. Collins is a real doctor. The patient, an elderly man, has a chronic illness and became depressed over the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; he talked about shooting himself. Doc Collins took his guns away and offered to get rid of them.

Most discussion at the store — between staff and customers, staff and staff, even customers and customers — centered on the current crisis. It was coffee talk, over-the-counter and break-room talk.

“You know what Hitler said,” says Hamblen. “A country needs a war every 15 years to get united.”

“I thought it was the Founding Fathers who said that,” McKinley says.

“No, it was Hitler, wasn’t it?” says Hamblen. “Every 15 or 17 years.”

“I’m pretty sure it was the Founding Fathers,” McKinley insists.

“And it wasn’t about being united. They said a country needs a revolution every once in a while to keep people vigilant.”

Unity, vigilance, faith — they were all good.

The one with the Glock, Tim Bliss, says war always brings people to God.

“The day before, they couldn’t give two hoots about God, but now… ” Bliss says.

“You know what they say: There are no atheists in foxholes.”

Bliss explained why citizens were stocking up: If the country goes to a real shooting war, ammunition for civilians would be the first to run out because munitions factories would produce exclusively for the military. And if martial law is declared, he says, all gun shops would be shut down.

Handguns and handgun ammo are selling faster than anything else. Handguns are considered by gun-shop owners as self-defense weapons. Those who own or want handguns are “just-in-case” kind of people, anyway, and the current situation is seen as the ultimate just-in-case scenario. So the rush is on. The cash register rings from 9 to 5, six days a week, at GUNS GUNS GUNS. Citizens come with questions and fears — and cash. Clifford Hamblen and staff happily, dutifully, oblige.