Never mind the shuttered windows and the criss-cross metal grill behind the glass of its front door, Freedom Firearms in Battle Creek, Michigan, is a gun shop where everyone knows your name. Grandpas take turns in the firing range out back next to mums with their six-year-olds.
Like Courtney Hayes, 29, a diminutive single mother, whose recent purchase of an equally petite revolver was driven by the same impulse that brings so many others into the shop: a desire to have the firepower to defend herself and both of her boys – nine-year-old Jadin and his little brother, Holden, just turned six – in case the worst should ever happen.
If the floor, with its counters crammed with handguns, from semi-automatic Glocks from Austria to American-made Kimbers, some in shades of blue and pink for female shooters, and its racks bristling with sporting rifles, is especially busy now, it is not just because of people fearing for their safety in Battle Creek. It’s also has to do with a certain Democrat candidate for president.
“If Hillary Clinton gets elected it’s going to be all hands on deck and its going to be a crazy day,” says Jared Fulton, who founded Freedom Firearms with his brother, Joel, in 2002, shortly after Michigan passed a new “concealed-carry” law allowing any adult to carry weapons on their person as long as they’re out of sight. “It’s going to be several crazy days, in fact.”
Two things tend to impact traffic at their business, which plays the starring role in a new Channel 4 documentary, Gun Shop, to be aired in Britain on 3 November just five days before America votes: election campaigns, which inevitably pit gun-rights advocates against those asking for stricter gun-control laws, and, secondly, tragedies in the news, especially mass shootings. Recent cases of police shootings of African-Americans have also boosted trade, including from among black members of the community nervous of encountering white police officers.
Few of these events were more troubling to Ms Hayes than the rampage last February of an Uber driver in Kalamazoo, a mere 20 minutes to the west. Over five hours one evening, he killed six people and wounded two others before being apprehended; half the victims came from Battle Creek.
“It was so close to home, you never know these days,” Ms Hayes said in an interview in her tidy detached home last week, admitting that what happened in Kalamazoo was a “huge part” of why she went looking for a weapon at Freedom Firearms. It’s also why she decided to take both her boys along with her, even to the firing range at the back where Jadin competed with his mother to see who could hit the bullseye more often. (He turned out to be the better shot.)
Ms Hayes, who is training to be a nurse, keeps her gun in a bedside table with a false top the boys don’t know can be opened. She has sat them down and drilled them on what to do if a gunman invades the home, including shooting him themselves in the event that she goes down.
Buying a gun implies a willingness to use it – to kill another human being. “If it came down to it, with my kids, I wouldn’t hesitate one bit,” Ms Hayes insisted. “If it was just me, I might hesitate. Do I really need to pull the trigger to kill? That’s a little intimidating, but my kids need their mum.”
She admitted that innocence is a victim of her decision to involve the two children in her preparations. “I do see that and it saddens me. I didn’t have to worry about that growing up, my parents didn’t have to worry about that. But again, it’s just me and the boys, so I would rather them know what to do instead of losing their lives.”
For Mr Fulton, it is giving customers the protection they think they need – and having the facilities to train them how to use guns safely – that persuades him that whatever the image gun shops may have, his business offers the community an important service.
“Our goal is to change hearts and minds when it comes to the benefits of firearms and to educate everybody,” he said, speaking to The Independent in a classroom also at the back of the shop reserved for the one-day courses that are mandatory if you want the state to issue you a ‘conceal-carry’ permit. “Are we a force for the good? Yes, I do believe so,” he added.
It is a stance that the head of the police department in Battle Creek, known as the Cereal Capital of America with both Kellogg and Post calling it home, would mostly acknowledge.
“I welcome the opportunity to have gun stores in our community,” police chief Jim Blocker said in an interview. “We feel like violence is all around us, so I do understand purchasing a firearm, to want to have the capacity to protect your family.” Though he added: “I wonder, do they have the capability in that high-stressed scenario accurately put rounds where they need to go?”
Chief Blocker, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, has views on strengthening some of the regulations governing gun ownership, but is no choirboy for the gun-control lobby. “Here in America we significantly believe that if it is something that you really want to do, then you should have the right to do so, so long as it doesn’t do harm to others,” he offered. “That’s just an American tradition and only a step away really from what was a British tradition.”
Back at the shop, the Fulton brothers were digesting a text message from one of their wholesalers saying it was seeing a run on ammunition linked to fears of Ms Clinton being elected and moving to overturn the second amendment to the constitution that guarantees the right to bear arms (something she insists she has no intention of doing). In just a few hours, the supplier had sold 40,000 boxes of bullets – that’s more than a million rounds.
It might seem reasonable to ask if they wouldn’t want Ms Clinton to win on 8 November, given the impact that would have on their tills. “Man, you don’t want to tell me to vote my wallet, because it’s going to be the liberal democrat every single time,” Joel Fulton responds with a wheezy laugh. “I’d put a Democrat in the White House every single time.”
But that, of course, is not what either he or his brother will do, because defending the second amendment and leaving their customers free to buy whatever gun they fancy whenever they want – assuming they intend to use them responsibility – trumps all, including profit.
“I would give up everything that I have right now if it meant helping to ensure the longevity of the freedoms that I have and maybe to get some of our freedoms back that we have lost,” Jared responded. “I would give it all up in a heart-beat for that.”
The only person more conflicted than the Fulton brothers may be Joel’s son, Dave, 25. An employee at the shop for six years, he was once a Bernie Sanders supporter but feels unable to switch allegiance to Ms Clinton, believing she would indeed move to dismantle the second amendment. So he will be joining the family club – and vote for Mr Trump.
‘The Gun Shop’ airs on Channel 4 on 3 November at 9pm
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