I took LSD at the Colorado Gun Show to fully understand the gun debate

I took LSD at the Colorado Gun Show to fully understand the gun debate

VicesFebruary 06, 2019 By Iver Johnson

Guns and psychedelics both make big news these days, so I took 120 ug of good LSD and went to Colorado’s PE Gun Show. I thought I should learn more about gun culture before rushing to conclusive judgments, these days of mass media bullshit. 

That bullshit has framed the gun debate as a choice between two stereotypes: the rifle-toting, chaw-chewing, MAGA-hat wearing gun owner vs. the Prius-driving, Boulder-residing, constantly-whining gun protester. I hoped the gun show might bring clarity to this mess. And maybe LSD would make that clarity shimmer.

LSD Fact #1: LSD won’t give you a streamlined narrative, so best ditch that expectation at the start.

My ride was Reggie the Butcher, a bearded chef known to hunt grouse, prairie dogs, and “wabbits” with his buddy Espenser, whom we picked up on the way. 

Upon arrival, my body felt light. Things were eerily mellow inside. No pistol-shooting Yosemite Sams. No Neos stocking trench-coats for a government raid. Just flannel-wearing folks strolling eighty-ish tables, casually admiring weapons capable of killing the strongest human in an instant.

Gun shows aren’t “shows” in any performative sense. They’re sales. They take heavy media flak after mass shootings due to something called a “gun show loophole”, which reportedly lets private party gun sales — i.e. gun shows — circumvent Federal laws mandating background checks. 

At the PE Gun Show, there was no loophole. A mustached old man in denim overalls told me, “You ain’t leavin’ here with a gun without passin’ a background check.” Apparently unpaid toll bills are enough to fail you. 

LSD Fact #2: LSD transforms “normal” interactions into strange encounters packed with ambiguous significance. That significance may become known over time, but to try and extract meaning in the moment itself is like trying to blow up a balloon while popping it. 

A woman complimented my flannel, and a minute later, I paid her five bucks for a pocket-sized U.S. Constitution — all this Second Amendment talk, I figured I should get acquainted. Unfortunately, I wasn’t currently able to read. Two heavily made-up blondes gave me a raffle ticket for camo binocs. Then they sat me in a folding chair and told me to switch to AT&T as shimmering arcs glowed around their faces. Somehow I escaped, and I took a look around. 

More guns surrounded me than any previous point of my life — magnums, glocks, shotguns, muskets, 22s, and dreaded AR-15s that mass-killing-spree loonys tend to use (around $400 retail). Espenser explained the differences between them, but his words were butter evaporating before melting. 

I noticed that as clear as I could see, every gun salesman was male. No surprise, given that gun culture tends to be “masculine”. But it’s significant, given today’s issues of gender roles, and the fragile state of masculinity, and the fact that basically all school shooters are male. 

I once met a friend of a friend who had just bought a new gun. He talked about it all night, and the more Budweiser he drank, the more he talked about how much sex he had and how powerful his truck was. Once we were wasted, I noticed an effeminate nature to his mannerisms, and a deep self-consciousness shone in his unsteady gaze as he looked at me before bed and said, “Would you like to hold my firearm?” I did, and it felt intimate in a way I didn’t understand. 

LSD Fact #3: LSD sucks you into whirlwinds of poignant interaction, and when it shoots you back out, you find yourself a layer deeper into the funhouse. 

Reggie the Butcher led us to a corner rack bearing thick hats and vests made of bear and coyote fur. A deep-wrinkled woman with braids and a deep-wrinkled cowboy worked the table, littered with Native American memorabilia. The woman started knocking a steel carabiner into jagged flint, shooting sparks to ignite carbonized cotton and cultivating a flame with what looked like a shrunken tumbleweed. In thirty seconds she had a small fire. Then she handed me the tools. 

Anxiety flooded me. I had to act. I perceived my distant monkey hands jamming steel to flint, feeling like a real man, cutting my pinkie in the process. A spark caught the carbonized cotton, and I blew it until a flame burgeoned. I rejoiced, envisioning Tom Hanks dancing on an island. 

But to these folks, this wasn’t some performance trick. They used this stuff, in rugged wilderness, hunting for food and clothing as our ancestors did before modern conveniences rendered such actions “unnecessary”. Their wisdom exuded wave-like through them. I felt very stupid. In the wilderness with a rifle, I’ll at best get a lucky shot. Then I’m sitting with a dead animal, clueless how to cut the meat. I make burgers with packaged beef I buy from Walmart. In the spectrum of human history, there’s something kind of pathetic about this. These apocalyptic days, with the end feeling like a real possibility, these folks are significantly more prepared than my Walmart-shopping ass. 

Reggie the Butcher and Espenser practice these trades, not because they have to, but because they respect them. When they hunt, they use everything — they cure hides, preserve skulls, and cook organs alongside foraged herbs into mouth-watering dishes for community dinners. So Reggie bought one of these fire-starter kits, and one future night in the unforgiving backcountry, it might save his ass. 

In that moment, however, I was too overwhelmed to form coherent thoughts, cause the old cowboy’s wrinkled face was now three inches from my own, and he was speaking with gruff intensity about the bison of Yellowstone and tourists who pet them and get massacred. He had tremendous respect for bison. He pulled out a huge map of Wyoming and pointed aggressively to towns, recommending back roads and naming mountain passes. I’d lost all reference points, and my confusion grew when he started talking about the Roman Empire, and about Jesus, and about warding off bear attacks. He demonstrated how to communicate submissiveness to a grizzly — arms tight to the side, head down. He spoke of a friend who was fly fishing when a black bear charged the river, and he was full on growling while acting out the bear’s attempt to drown the fisherman until the fisherman stabbed the bear in the diaphragm (the cowboy grabbed a massive blade from the table) and slashed away (the cowboy twisted the knife and gurgled). My peripherals caught glimpse of Espenser, who said, “You get him in the diaphragm and he can’t breathe!” Except it wasn’t Espenser. It was a 6’5 portly old man in a bowler hat, and he and the cowboy started one-upping each other’s bear attack stories, volume of voice increasing exponentially. 

LSD Fact #4: LSD brings uncontrollable laughter, especially when it’s very inappropriate for the situation.

I used all my facial muscles to repress my hysterics. Bowler hat man bragged his entire Naval unit once got kicked out of San Diego — “The whole city!” — and the cowboy spoke of a friend who said racist things to a Mexican guy, then fought the Mexican guy, then got a chunk of his face eaten off by the Mexican guy. When the cowboy dipped to the bathroom, bowler hat man told me that since his Navy days, his dream had been to stay in San Diego’s fancy Hotel Del Coronado. He stared into the distance, nodded, and said, “Last month, I finally did.” I suddenly wanted to hug him. “Nice talking to you,” he said, and as he left, I saw Reggie the Butcher and Espenser laughing at me four gun-filled tables away. 

LSD Fact #5: LSD blows the lid off one’s conception of possibilities, often through revelations of absurdity. 

“Check this out,” Espenser said. He showed me a big orange shotgun shell. “It’s called Dragon’s Breath, and it shoots flames out of your shotgun.”

I envisioned a barren landscape where a muzzled badass blasted fire in slo-mo, torching the horde of zombies sprinting all 28 Days Later... toward him.

Reggie the Butcher said, “Let’s set up the fire pit at my place, climb to the roof, and blast the logs for a bonfire.” I was all for it, but Espenser wisely suggested we wait before firing in the middle of suburbia.

LSD Fact #6: One statement can set off a chain of thought that spans multitudes and occurs in an instant. 

One mentality that doesn’t make the news is that of approaching guns with respect and care. This mentality recognizes their incredible power and learns to wield them for use in dire circumstances. Cause let’s face it — the U.S.A. ain’t the safest land, and our history of gun-fueled murders dates back to the Native genocide those white Europeans enacted to claim this land in the first place. 

Specifically, the U.S. is one of six nations that make up over half of global gun deaths per year — given Mexico and Venezuela are two of the others, it’s not an ideal group to be a part of. This raises key questions: How directly are these gun deaths related to guns themselves? Would banning guns — or at least making them harder to obtain — lower that rate? Maybe. But people get what they want in Capitalism Land. So to gun advocates, issues of mass shootings and murder are of a different nature. It’s the person, not the gun, that’s the problem. 

This leads us into the mental health debate. It’s no secret we’re a depressed nation, hooked on shitty foods, TV binging, and pharmaceuticals. It turns out that way more of these U.S. guns deaths come via suicide than at the hand of another. 

Might our widespread lack of purpose have some bearing on violent outbursts? With alt-right terrorism rising, it appears many are finding purpose — or the illusion of it — through violent outbursts. Alt-right gun culture is like Fight Club: a bunch of lost men channeling their aggression in terribly destructive ways because they have no role models to steer them otherwise. It’s tribalism to the T. You don’t ask questions in Project Mayhem. 

So what about psychedelics? Substances like psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and MDMA are being heavily researched in mental health capacities. And they’re showing incredible results. Psychedelics aren’t a panacea, but they can help with depression, PTSD, and possibly destructive tribalism (via broadening the mind, healing trauma causing tribalism in the first place, etc.). For anyone who’s taken a big dose of mushrooms, it’s inconceivable to consider grabing a gun and shooting another human. 

So there’s guns, and gun culture, and hunting, and masculinity, and school shootings, and depression, and psychedelics, and bears, and Native Americans, and the NRA, and tribalism, and AT&T, and it’s all interconnected in some way that’s impossible to see cause we’re so wrapped up inside it all and bouncing between the oscillating poles, and if any truth is to be found amidst it, it’s somewhere in that murky water between, which suddenly felt murkier than ever before, and the only chance it might become clear was in the presence of absolute calm, which is about the exact opposite of 2019 U.S.A. 

LSD Fact #7: When the comedown sets in, there’s often a sense of something precious lost.

I spoke with a little old goateed man whose table showed the oldest pistol I’d ever seen. He spoke longingly of how gun shows used to be. 

“There warn’t a price tag in sight,” he bemoaned. “You showed your guns, and you traded them, cause you loved guns.” He stared sadly at the wall, which rippled with time’s passing. 

I told my pals what he said, feeling longing in my heart. Espenser replied, “Yeah, but I bet back then you couldn’t shoot flames out of your shotgun.”

Reggie the Butcher drove us down wild roads toward a Berthoud dispensary for a joint. We paused at Longmont’s graffiti-covered sugar mill, crumbling like abandoned ruins. We considered exploring but figured we’d probably get shot. I got to thinking about how ways of living become lost in time, and how the most intensely politicized debates look back only to fuel agendas, never to see what forgotten wisdom we might rediscover. 

Guns aren’t leaving anytime soon. This world is fucking insane. I’m going to become more comfortable using a gun.