Updated: Feb 21
Written by Elias McClellan
Fiona Quinn and I had a conversation about how your antagonist/protagonist can score a gun. That got me to thinking about how writers (movies and books) score guns for their characters against real-world experience. Many recent films skip this step as if the gun fairy just leaves AR15s under the badman’s pillow. I get it, details are a pain, but at least put some thought into it. The difficulty in scoring weapons is a central, (and hilarious) theme in Iain Levison’s How to Rob an Armored Car.
To qualify, we’re talking about someone obtaining a weapon who cannot/does not want to answer questions, submit to a background check, or otherwise be a standup citizen.
For years, Hollywood (and authors) promoted three sources for less than legal guns. Among the oldest is the illegal-guns store, where the hero/villain can get anything they want at a discount, no questions asked. In Commando Schwarzenegger knocks over an illegal gun store with honest-to-god SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) on wall pegs. More subdued, Richard Stark’s The Score places the illegal gun store in a toyshop run by a creep no one would buy toys from.
Another old standby is the “gun man.” Like Grubhub but for guns, the gun man brings the guns to you. The gun man in Martin Scorsese’ Taxi Driver also sold pills, ‘shrooms, and, apparently, Cadillacs. Eddie Coyle was the gun man (and Grubhub man) in George Higgins’ master-class of crime fiction.
Recent books/movies have the valiant hero/big bad buying from Doug the drug dealer, (not his actual name). D.J. Caruso used this trope to comedic effect in The Salton Sea. Paul Schrader cut it closer to the bone in Light Sleeper, adding tense realism. More on that in a minute.
The closest thing to an illegal gun store is the old-school hockshop where an unscrupulous pawnbroker bought guns regardless of origin, sold without questions, ideally before police dropped the latest stolen merchandise list on the counter. Prosecutions and technology caught up to the underworld. These days, Pauli, the pawnbroker, has to run every firearm that crosses the door through federal and local police database. Pauli is not going to risk his FFL, (federal firearms license) or a solid ten-year bit to buy a stolen gun or sell a gun to an ineligible buyer.
Ironically, the gunman is not that far-fetched. There is an entire world of illegal guns on the internet. While Silkroad has been in the news (and shutdown) it is far from the only outlet. Maybe your character is desperate but willing to wait for 2-day delivery. As the son of a badman, I’d use sticks, stones, and harsh language before I’d buy a gun from those hustlers.
The dopeman is NOT selling guns to your characters. The street-corner guys bump and hustle to score their own weapons for self-defense. They have no intention of arming someone who may turnaround and jack them. However, if your character has a habit, his/her dealer, who he/she has a relationship with, probably “knows a guy.” Seriously, watch Schrader’s movie. It’s dicey, and it’s scary, and it’s 50/50 between getting a gun and getting ripped off or getting arrested. That street life is not for the meek and mild, yo.
So where does your character get a gun? Here’s a couple of real-life examples.
For years there was North Houston bar, where the owner (we’ll call him “Not Bill”) served booze 7/11, 365. To cover his overhead and a part-time employee in tough times, Not Bill also bought stolen merchandise at pennies on the dollar. I know this because Not Bill would lay off his stolen merchandise to my stepdad, who owned an auto repair shop just south of Not Bill’s bar.
In addition to Not Bill’s guns, the old man also received guns in exchange for car repairs and sometimes from the thieves themselves—along with freight, booze, and swinging beef. The old man sold it all at 60¢ on the dollar. Except the guns which he marked up. A new, $75 (1987 money) Davis .380 sold for $150, a Smith and Wesson .357 that sold for $250 went for three bills or more. Call it standard practice: crap to high quality, nothing is cheap, and you never know what will be available when your character buys. Safe to say a SAM system will not be on the table.
Hollywood occasionally gets it right. For reference, see Queen Latifah’s first attempt to buy a gun in Set it Off or Willem Dafoe in (the previous note) Light Sleeper. Both are desperate, both are prone to what’s available.
But your protag doesn’t know an original-gangster-turned-auto-shop owner, doesn’t have a habit, or family in “the business” so what now?
They could go to their local, Not Bill. Bars are bars and bartenders get “stuff.” Of course, the bartender who trades in pills, pistols, and prostitutes also dodges the cops. Most won’t sell to somebody who just walked through the door.
Almost all 50 states have some form of gun show. No, the folks with the tables aren’t selling guns no-questions-asked. Like Pauli, they ask questions and register every sale with the feds. But there are folks walking around with guns slung over their shoulder, looking to sell pistols, shotguns, or assault rifles that they REALLY regret buying now that they’ve been laid off, are facing eviction, or need a new transmission for their pickup. Careful conversation is necessary. There are age/race/gender biases, but person-to-person or “parking-lot sales” happen all the time.
A former neighbor went to sell a hunting rifle. In the show, he met another guy looking to sell a SPAS 12 (combat-grade shotgun). They couldn’t agree on price and the SPAS 12 walked away. The neighbor did, however, buy a “clean” CZ 75, (supposedly unregistered Czech .9mm pistol) from another guy who overheard the conversation. When I asked how he knew the CZ guy (or for that matter the SPAS guy) wasn’t a cop, the neighbor cited damaged hands and dirty fingernails. He also said the CZ guy had desperate eyes common to addicts. Having known enough undercover cops with habits, I’m dubious, but I wouldn’t buy a CZ of any provenance, either.
Then there are the women who do not look like the wives or girlfriends of the men they are buying weapons for (Steve McQueen used this occurrence to great effect in Widows). That is how teens Harris and Klebold scored their weapons. Since Columbine, Federal prosecution and prominent warnings have reduced these incidences, but they still occur.
Then there are swap meets. Usually well-away from metropolitan sectors, they look like flea markets. Mostly it’s home-canned preserves, heirloom seeds, and solar panels. There is also a strong prepper element at swap meets and you can score a gun along with your beef-jerky and water purification filters if you establish a relationship. Again, there are age/race/gender barriers and pickings are even more limited.
No matter the source, your character has to know guns, or at least, the basic difference between decent and trash. There are no refunds. Your character should be able to identify a broken torsion spring (easily replaced) from a broken firing pin (gunsmith time). My old man was a war veteran and career criminal, yet he got taken on a rifle with a bad barrel, then he sold it on to someone else (I’m sure there’s a lesson there, somewhere). Corrosion is the most common enemy. Houston is a swamp and people stick their guns under the bed or in the trunk of the car and are shocked to find them locked up with rust after a couple months of inattention.
Now, guns are just the beginning. Once your protagonist/antagonist has found a weapon, checked out their weapon, and scored their weapon without getting jacked, busted, or shot, it’s time to accessorize. I’m thinking of a garter holster, but I don’t want to shave my legs. Cheek-holster it is.
Elias McClellan is an accountant for a state agency never to be named but aspires to commi—write, write crime. You can find him on Twitter at @TuttleNTexas. But why would you want to do that?