Among the books on the shelf behind Pastor James McAbee’s desk are two Bibles. He quotes scripture from one — those passages that portray God as a warrior — and the other is hollowed out to conceal a pistol. Loaded. Always close at hand.
James McAbee is a man of God and a man of guns. He makes more money from the guns than he does from God. His congregation in the city of Beaumont, Texas, (pop. 100,000) may be small, but its future is guaranteed: When McAbee assumed his duties in the remote southeastern Texas town, his church only had five parishioners. Now, he protects a flock of nearly 100 with his compact 9mm pistol. As a sideline, he also works as a marksmanship coach for the National Rifle Association, America’s most powerful gun lobby.
McAbee believes in the power of words, so he became a preacher. But — as he shows when he picks up the spent cartridges in the church’s parking lot — he also still puts most of his belief in the power of guns. “I can’t bring a knife or a baseball bat to a gunfight,” he says. And he doesn’t think much of turning the other cheek, saying he wouldn’t need to be armed if he were as powerful as Jesus.
But since he’s only a normal pastor in a nation that has more privately owned guns than it has citizens, McAbee prefers to be prepared. Some 300 million revolvers, semi-automatics, rifles and shotguns reside in American nightstands, closets and automobiles. And like no other place in the United States, the gun has gained mythical status in Texas, “the frontier” on the way to Mexico: The last border, farmland, miles of empty prairie to the nearest neighbor, the Wild West full of cattle, cowboys and — therefore naturally — guns.
His Disciples Bring Their Guns to Church
James McAbee loved guns before he loved God. Now he loves both and doesn’t consider that contradictory. He quotes Luke 22:36: “Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.”
McAbee’s parishioners come to church armed, and he personally always has an Austrian Glock .40 caliber on his person or in his car. He says the reason he works for the NRA and is a licensed gun merchant is that he doesn’t earn enough as a pastor, but his job as a marksmanship coach is due to the fact that he has gotten too much publicity lately: The Discovery Channel wanted to do a reality show with this man of God who has taken on the burden of helping law-abiding citizens protect themselves. But then the program’s producers wanted to write a girlfriend into the script. The happily married father of three thought that was going too far and he blew off the show. He has been skeptical of the media ever since, but the temptation to tell his story is even stronger.
Pastor McAbee wasn’t always an upstanding citizen of Beaumont. His mother worked for the police department in South Carolina, raising McAbee and his younger brother as a single mom. Money was scarce. McAbee recalls that everybody was wearing Michael Jordan Nikes and that he turned to dealing drugs, buying a cheap handgun on the streets. “Saturday night specials” they’re called in the U.S. because they’re so inexpensive. He also shot a neighbor in the arm because his buddies called him a “pussy” for being afraid to do it. He spelled out the naughty word, as so many American adults do when there are young children present.
McAbee wasn’t arrested for the shooting, but was picked up for assault when he was 18. He was sent to jail, where he found God.
Since then, McAbee has wanted to help people who are like he had been. He attended a seminary and became a pastor; he preaches in schools and prisons, telling of his salvation, and he got the thing that was most important to him: a pardon from the governor of South Carolina. Convicted felons are barred from ever owning firearms.
David had his Slingshot; McAbee has his 9mm
So the gun-worshiping pastor is now able to teach his own kids how to shoot. He is considering working again for the NRA as an instructor. He says God gave David a slingshot so he could defeat Goliath and therefore triumph over evil. His slingshot is the 9mm.
The evil ones play a large role for those Americans who love guns and insist to the death that they have a right to own them. What if a criminal breaks into my house and threatens my family, or wants to steal my property? These are the central questions that make people seek their security at gun shows — and there’s always one taking place somewhere every weekend.
Like the one in Cedar Park, an hour’s drive from Austin. Usually, concerts or wrestling are on the schedule for the Cedar Park Center. This Saturday, the Austin Gun Show takes place there; the NRA will give away free memberships, gun dealers will exhibit their wares, and photographers aren’t welcome. Such shows are a huge hole in American law because they are essentially unregulated: Anyone can sell virtually anything to anybody.
Anyone buying a gun at one of the larger stands only need show a driver’s license and fill out a few forms — like the young man interested in a semiautomatic assault rifle. Matte black, pure technology, no frills, $500. That’s a bargain. A few days ago one man bought five of them for his sons and grandsons, no weapons permit necessary.
And if even that’s too much bureaucracy for you, you can always turn to the guy walking through the exhibition hall with a rucksack and a sign proclaiming “Smith and Wessons for sale — make me an offer.” T-shirts are being hawked nearby bearing the slogan, “Buy a gun. Annoy a liberal.” Business is booming there as well.
His Son is Eight and Shoots Regularly
A family of eight has arrived. It’s a weekend holiday trip. The youngest of the children isn’t tall enough to even see what’s on the display tables. The eight-year-old son is euphoric. “I’ve got a gun at home, too, and I shoot often.” Not without supervision, his mother hastily adds. All of them are having great fun.
For Ralph Price, guns aren’t fun, but his profession. To obtain some for his office, several hurdles must be cleared. His driver’s license is scanned and compared with the national sex offender database. Visitors have to get past that in order to get their name tag; then the doors an hour outside Dallas open to them.
Price is new in his job as school “police chief,” which was newly created this summer. A police radio crackles in the background, and Price sits in an executive chair that’s far too large for the cramped space of his cubbyhole. The former policeman was hired by the school board to oversee security for 2,000 boys and girls in three school districts — and to prevent lunatics from shooting up the schools. It is impossible for him to do all that single-handedly.
Teachers with Holstered Guns
That’s why many teachers also carry a Glock in the classroom. Not openly, as Price does, but in a holster the location of which isn’t revealed. Where the math or phys ed teachers hide these weapons, and even which of the teachers is armed, remains classified. The bottom line is that a potential shooter shouldn’t know which classrooms to avoid.
More and more schools in Texas are resorting to these drastic measures. “We want to be prepared,” Price says. He doesn’t worry that the teachers will react inappropriately in an emergency. They have all been through training courses and been psychologically screened. The training program is voluntary but found many takers. “We’re in Texas, after all,” Price notes. The reason a police patrol car sits in the school parking lot was the massacre in a Connecticut grade school in late 2012, when a former Sandy Hook student killed 27 people, then himself. The drama shocked American society, but the number of shooting rampages in United States schools and universities continues to climb. Just this week there was another shootout at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
For many, the solution to this problem is simple: More guns. Large signs in Argyle schools advise visitors that teachers there are armed. The idea of the school-as-fortress is not new. In a small northwestern Texas school district, Superintendent David Thweatt has had a “protection plan” in place since 2007. All 125 of his students, from kindergarten through high school, are located in the same building. The school is so small that oversight is easy. Anyone driving too far down the road to the school ends up on an unpaved dirt road that covers their car with red dust.
Nerve is a Fickle Thing
The seclusion is one of Thweatt’s main arguments when he talks of his armed staff. He notes that the school is 18 miles from the nearest police center, and they would need 20 minutes to get to it. He says that’s far too long a time if there is an armed lunatic in the halls.
Thweatt and his armed teachers could save many children in that time — or possibly shoot them themselves. Nerves are a fickle thing in emergency situations. But that’s a risk Thweatt and Price are willing to take. They think any court of law would find them innocent in the event such a tragedy ever occurred. Thweatt says they would rather take the responsibility on themselves. He declines to reveal how many of his teachers are armed. Outside it’s nearly 100F, and Thweatt is wearing a gray suit. Concealing his pistol presents no problem. There are many styles of holster — for women, even as part of their lingerie.
This Texas journey is dotted with signposts of security and fear. A partially real, partially imaginary fear has gripped many Americans. Fear of terrorism, crazed gunmen, next door neighbors and anything different. Fear is overcome by security, and guns give many a sense of security.
A few days later in San Antonio, a group of some 30 members of the “Open Carry Texas” group — almost exclusively women — hold a demonstration. One of them is Ashley, nine months pregnant. Her rifle’s sling crosses over her swollen belly. Long guns may be openly carried in Texas, from shotguns to AR-15 assault rifles, one of the most popular semiautomatic weapons. Pistols, on the other hand, have to be concealed when in public, and require the owner to have a license for them. Ashley finds that unfair. Like the other 19,000 OCT members, she advocates for the right of all guns to be subject to open carry rules. OCT has recently attained official lobby group status. That gives them more pull with politicians. Marching through greater San Antonio carrying their shotguns and AR-15s at right shoulder arms certainly draws attention to themselves.
“Why can’t I carry my pistol out in the open?” Emily Grisham asks. Her husband founded OCT after he had a run-in with police and they confiscated his gun while he was out hiking. They’ve been advocating for people to be allowed to own and sell guns without regulation, license or background check. To that end, the Grishams organize regular meetings, draft legislation and appear armed in public.
Sarah, a 22-year-old psychology student, wears golden earrings shaped like guns and carries a hunting rifle slung over her shoulder. “I want to protect my kids,” she says. Her six-year-old stepdaughter already owns a .22 caliber weapon. Her three-year-old sister will soon be introduced to firearms. What could possibly go wrong?
Sarah is convinced that education is the key. She personally keeps her pistol at her bedside, fully loaded and unsecured. Otherwise it would make no sense if you ever had to defend yourself. Passing drivers blow their horns in support and call out encouragingly to them.
It all terminates at the Alamo. Here, in 1836, the final battle for Texas independence from Mexico was fought. The historic setting is a fitting backdrop for a souvenir photo of mother and daughter.
Pigs by the Dozen
Guns are ingrained in the DNA of many Americans ever since the founding of their nation. They’re not considered a defect in their national identity, but rather the mainstay of it.
In Bay City, an hour or so away from Houston, the excesses of that identity seem far removed as a helicopter lifts off easily and floats over the fields. It has no doors; they would just get in the way. John and Matt have met up with Jake from Montana; they’re all hunters, and this flight is to be the ultimate hunting experience. Assault rifles protrude from the helicopter, and the hunters strain to see through the trees and scrub — then, finally, movement. The helicopter’s noise has managed to flush a number of wild boars out into the open. A sharp turn, then 15 or 20 quick shots. The AR-15 is a rapid fire weapon, so marksmanship isn’t required.
Pilot John Dumont advises they aim for the middle of the body. “The bastard,” Matt hollers as a boar he had hit struggles to its feet once again. Another quick turn, in with a fresh magazine, and keep shooting. That one is down; it’s enough to make it the ultimate hunting experience.
Wild boar hunting from a helicopter. Each hunter paid about $1,000 an hour and they think it was worth it. They took two hours and tallied up a dozen boars.
The “Helibacon” company advertises it as an unforgettable experience and a service to the ranchers. The company has been in business since 2013 in this town of 18,000. The super-abundant wild pigs have no natural enemies, and they seriously damage or destroy crops.
Why not combine good deeds with a little fun? Business is great, and it’s not just men signing on. Dumont says they’ve gotten more women than they expected. One couple made the trip a part of their honeymoon.
The meat from the boars isn’t edible, however, because it has been spoiled by too much adrenalin pumped through by the helicopter pursuit. Because hunters Matt and John can’t stand to see the animals suffer, they make one more low-level pass and kill those that weren’t killed on the first pass.
Matt says one has to respect the animals as he kneels with his companions for a souvenir snapshot behind one of the dead boars.
Then the helicopter lifts off once more, after all the guns have been reloaded.
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