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Living with Guns


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.

Second Amendment, Constitution of the United States


Americans and our guns may be inseparable. In thirty states it is legal to carry a concealed handgun with a permit. All sorts of people carry. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, for instance, where Archipelago is based, it is lawful to carry a permitted concealed weapon into a community recreation center. Although citizens of Virginia often oppose the regulation locally, particularly in urban areas, only the state legislature, not town or city councils, can make it unlawful.

Last November 2 was Election Day in the Commonwealth. In Charlottesville, two citizens decided to affirm their Second Amendment right and test community reaction to the sight of a shotgun carried openly into a polling place. One  citizen was Joan Schatzman, who has written for this journal, who borrowed a shotgun, carried it in the prescribed manner, and walked into several polling places around town. Her accomplice was George Loper, our town archivist, who photographed the caper. Here is Loper’s story:


In May 2004, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law erasing any local ordinances prohibiting the carrying of guns, concealed or in the open, in public places, including City Council chambers, recreation centers and polling places.

There are laws against distributing literature too close to the door of your polling place. And that there are laws against bringing alcohol into a polling place. There are laws against smoking in polling places. There are laws against carrying a concealed weapon into a place that serves alcohol for on-premises consumption? There are laws which prohibit exhibiting campaign material such as a political button supporting a particular candidate], so as not to influence any person from casting their vote. But there are no laws with respect to carrying concealed or unconcealed weapons into polling places in the state of Virginia.

Well, not all polling places. Virginia does have some restrictions with regard to bringing weapons onto school property and into a place of worship. And, Universities and colleges typically have policies about bringing weapons onto campus. But these are exceptions.

It used to be that guns, both unconcealed and concealed (with a permit), were allowed into the Virginia State Capitol, where in at least one case, shots were fired. And, in October 2002, the Virginia House of Delegates defeated a proposal "to ban all guns except police weapons in the state Capitol and General Assembly office building in Richmond."

However, last March, a "joint committee of delegates and senators passed a rule requiring [individuals] to hold a concealed gun permit to bring in a firearm, even if they plan to carry it openly," leading a member of the Virginia Citizens Defense League to whether this might lead the Virginia General Assembly to allow localities to impose new restrictions on packing heat and to complain, "It's do as we say, not do as we do."

"Members of the same group caused a stir in Northern Virginia last year, when police were called out several times after members wore their guns openly to restaurants, including Starbucks and Champs. Carrying a gun openly is legal in Virginia, however, and each instance was resolved in their favor."

With this in mind, I thought it might be interesting to engage Joan Schatzman in a piece of performance art, to learn how folks might respond to an open shotgun carried into a local polling place.

Back in November 2001, a resident new to Virginia was surprised in Nelson County to witness a gun at the polls. At Charlottesville Recreation Center (a former Armory Building), folks hardly batted an eye.1


Across this country, our civic debate about guns is generally formed as the right to carry versus gun control. But in those terms, the National Rifle Association controls the territory. It has the money, the membership, a huge database, and very effective lobbyists to get what it wants. The Virginia gun law, for example, which forbids local regulation, was pushed by the N.R.A. The N.R.A. is the Commonwealth’s most generous corporate political donor, and gives only to the Republican Party. The Republican Party, as it happens, holds the majority in both the Senate and House of Delegates, though the Democratic candidate, our lieutenant-governor, Tim Kaine, won the governorship in the election. The polling places into which Joan Schatzman carried the (broken) shotgun voted heavily Democratic.

On the other hand, last month in Richmond – was Loper prescient? – a Delegate caused headlines when he accidentally discharged a gun in his legislative office.

RICHMOND, Jan. 26 -- Del. John S. "Jack" Reid had gone through this morning routine dozens of times. He'd reach into his pocket, pull out his small semiautomatic .380 handgun, release the clip and store the weapon safely in the desk drawer of his office on the seventh floor of the Virginia General Assembly Building.

But something went wrong Thursday. Reid's pistol, which he said he carries for protection, fired as he popped the clip from the handle, sending a single bullet into the cushion of a bulletproof vest that was hanging from the back of his closed office door. . . . 2


Del. Reid belongs to the N.R.A. Nationally, pressing its agenda among both parties, the N.R.A. rules the U.S. Congress (where some prominent Democrats are also members), and any number of state legislatures. It has very good friends of the highest rank in the White House and the Justice Department.

In any room, the man with the gun dominates the conversation.

Yet, the N.R. A. is not the only defender of, or partaker in, a citizen’s right to bear arms, particularly for hunting. Living in Alaska in the late 1970s, I was taught to shoot both long gun (though, by happenstance, not a shotgun), and pistol, and when I lived in a small bush community, being an unattached woman, I thought it prudent to keep my rifle, a lever-action .22 Remington, by the door. I got rid of the gun when I left Alaska.

And I was in the Charlottesville Recreation Center, my polling place, when Joan Schatzman carried a shotgun into the room.3 Loper was correct: nobody batted an eye. (We are very nice people and don’t like to fuss.)

We are told, and perhaps we feel, that “everything has changed” in America since 9/11. Does it mean that more people now carry guns, or that they approve of the possibility of carrying guns, or that they imagine – contrary to what they’ve always thought – that they might even need to learn how to shoot a gun?

Since the London bombings, on July 8, 2005, have more Britons decided they ought to be a gun-toting nation? In Spain, after the Atocha bombings of March 11, 2005, did Madrileños seek to bear arms? How does America look now from Europe?

(How do we look, now, to ourselves?)

We began this occasional series before the September attacks, before the United States retaliated against Afghanistan, before Bush invaded Iraq. By then, the question of how we live with guns seemed almost trivial, as we struggled to learn as much as possible about the altered state of our national security. But the question doesn’t go away, and isn’t, we think, entirely separate from the long war this president says we had better learn to live with. So Archipelago will continue to seek out writers of various backgrounds to contribute to this edgy conversation. Our premise is, in this nation, we live with guns. They aren’t going to go away. How did this happen? Can their use be moderated; should it be? For the sake of peace among ourselves, what are we willing to give up?

And then, what about the war?

Katherine McNamara


End Cap



1 George Loper, “Packing Heat at Charlottesville Recreation Centerback to text

2 Chris L. Jenkins and Rosalind S.  Heiderman, Gun-Toting Delegate Misfires at Va. Capitol,Washington Post, Friday, January 27, 2006 back to text

3 George Loper, “Joan Schatzman Affirms Her Second Amendment Rights,” photos, back to text


Second Amendment Annotations

Brady Center for Gun Control

NRA Rules for Gun Safety

Index to Coverage of Gun Issues,

Joan Schatzman, “The Peace March in New York During the Republican National Convention,” Archipelago, Vol 8, No. 3, Autumn 2004


In this Series:

The Fight for Kansas: The Letters of John and Cecelia Sherman,  by Mary-Sherman Willis

Why They Shot Us,” by Marilyn A. Johnson

John Dee and Jack Carmen,” by Alex Keegan



Write to us:

Letters to the Editor



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