Firing Back | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Firing Back 

Two Libertarians talk aobut guns and why they like them.

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By Joy Bergmann

"Three pieces of sheer engineering greatness," says Matt Beauchamp, cleaning his semiautomatic nine-millimeter Berretta. He's just fired off half of a $10 box of ammo inside the cinder-block firing range at Illinois Gun Works, located just west of Chicago in Elmwood Park.

Beauchamp, a trader at the Mercantile Exchange, was 27 before he shot a gun. "My dad was an eye doctor. So the old 'you're gonna put your eye out with that' echoed pretty loudly at home." But his political education began much earlier. "I was raised Republican...but I disagreed with a lot of what they had to say about drugs, gambling, prostitution. I hate people telling me what to do--that's what makes me angry." He says he's been a Libertarian since grade school but didn't realize it until the early 90s, when he picked up a copy of Reason magazine. "I was like, 'Oh my God, this is everything I believe.'"

Now the 29-year-old Beauchamp is chairman of the Libertarian Party of Chicago; last year he ran for Congress against Jesse Jackson Jr. A savvy campaigner, Beauchamp cajoled Jackson at the Gay Pride Parade into promising to debate him (the debate never happened) and started a cable-access talk show, Angry Young Man, which continues to air in Chicago. He lost the election--big-time--but vows to return, "probably in 2002, to unseat some decrepit, sleazy alderman like Bernie Hansen." He's fueled by his enthusiasm for the Libertarian doctrine, which extols individual liberty and personal responsibility--and supports the right to own firearms without governmental interference or overregulation.

"You don't have to own one," he says. "Just understand my right to do so." Asked about Columbine High, Beauchamp replies, "You can't regulate stupidity." There are already 23,000 gun-related laws on the books, he says, and the homicidal teenagers violated dozens of them. He says his own research into the 1997 school shooting in Pearl, Mississippi, revealed a little-reported act of armed heroism. "The assistant principal ran out to his car, got his own gun, and held the young gunman at bay until police arrived 11 minutes later. Who knows how many lives he saved? I mean, who's everybody waiting around for? The cops. Who have what? Guns."

According to More Guns, Less Crime, a book by University of Chicago professor John R. Lott Jr., waiting periods, gun buybacks, and background checks yield virtually no benefit in crime reduction; allowing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns is the most cost-effective way to reduce violent crime. When citizens are licensed to pack heat, argues Beauchamp, "They provide a halo effect for people who aren't carrying--but might be. Criminals say, 'Hey, we go where we know there aren't guns.' Criminals don't have a complete disregard for their own self-preservation. They prey on the weak and the known-to-be unarmed."

Given these findings, Beauchamp is particularly pissed off about the city's gun laws and "asinine" lawsuit against suburban gun shops. Last March he and a buddy, John Birch (yes, that's his real name), organized a "Chicago Rally for Citizen Safety" at Daley Plaza to spotlight the rapid erosion of Second Amendment rights and to honor "citizen heroes" like 81-year-old Bruno Kosinski, who shot two muggers last December after being robbed and threatened with murder near his Ukrainian Village home. Kosinski wasn't prosecuted, but he could have been: according to Jennifer Hoyle, public information officer for the city's Law Department, carrying a concealed gun is a felony anywhere in Illinois. Only long-barrel rifles or shotguns are legal in Chicago homes or places of business, and they must be registered with the police department. Handguns are banned inside the city limits unless they were registered with the city before 1982 and are currently owned by the person who registered them.

Beauchamp and Birch have decided to start their own grassroots movement for educated gun ownership by offering free introductory seminars at Illinois Gun Works, a defendant in the Chicago suit. Birch, a 45-year-old retired army counterintelligence officer and NRA-certified instructor, starts the hour with an unconventional primer (detailed on his Web site, www.concealcarry.org). He reveals that he carries his Glock 27 concealed in Chicago. "Better to be judged by twelve than carried out by six," he says. The Second Amendment, he says, "wasn't about self-defense. It's for overthrowing the government." He explains that a person is justified in using lethal force "to prevent your own imminent death or great bodily harm to you...or to another...[or] to prevent the commission of an in-progress forcible felony. You may not shoot someone to protect property! Do not shoot someone outside your house and then drag them into your house." Later he adds, "The first rule of a gunfight is not to get into one. If you're in your home or business, you don't have to run away. But if you're in the street, you must first attempt to retreat."

Birch then tells his wide-eyed listeners what to do if they shoot an offender: Call the police, giving only oblique, situational descriptions. Consider rendering first aid to the wounded, "'cause it looks good later." Get an attorney. Do not speak to the press. Do not express remorse--your rationale is that you had no choice. Finally, seek personal medical intervention for your own psychological trauma. Yet Birch doesn't speak from experience. "I've never killed anyone." He stresses that carrying a concealed firearm is a felony and provides advice on how to handle police if caught red-handed: Pack an expensive, desirable gun. Attempt low-key negotiations ("Is there some way we could settle this right here and now?"). And--useful in any outcome--carry an ATM card.

With these points covered, Birch turns the class over to his assistant, Julie Thompson, a 44-year-old retired air force officer and computer consultant from Chicago. Thompson talks about proper gun handling, showing the students how to determine their "sight eye" and load the guns available at the workshop (most of them owned by the instructors and the rest of them $12 rentals). She provides perfunctory safety tips, apologizing for the brevity of her presentation and encouraging all potential owners to seek further NRA instruction. She then models correct shooting posture, showing how to absorb recoil shocks, leaning back on a pair of sassy three-inch mules.

The students--six artsy Chicagoans and a woman from Wheaton--strap on safety goggles and ear protectors and head for the range. Beauchamp and Birch stand shoulder to shoulder with the troops, supervising as each student unloads six rounds, prompted by Thompson's commands on a bullhorn. A diminutive young man fires off his clip with deadeye aim. Birch pats him on the back. "Hey, we got a young Wyatt Earp here." Later the student drags on a cigarette and sighs, "I relieved a lot of stress."

Jayne, a 26-year-old public relations administrator from Wicker Park, has a more pressing motivation. "I don't have any confidence in the Chicago police," she says. "People have to take matters into their own hands." She speaks from experience: in the last year, she says, she's been assaulted by bottle-throwing preteens, seen a friend shot in front of her building, been terrorized by Latin Kings in her alleyway, and awakened to find "two crackheads going through my apartment." She says she's gotten little support from police when they've responded to her 911 calls. An athlete trained in self-defense, Jayne bristles at the suggestion that she move out. "I don't want to leave my neighborhood. I don't want them to win." She hasn't yet decided whether to arm herself, but she intends to be prepared. "I want to feel confident....I know I have to take the responsibility for gun ownership....Cops and criminals have the guns, and that doesn't make for a very safe city."

Kim, a magenta-haired young woman in capri pants, says she signed up expecting a little target shooting. "I didn't know we'd be talking about killing people for an hour." She uses a rifle to fire at a paper plate before firing a handgun at a paper target of a human form. She finds the switch disturbing. "I would much rather shoot at the paper plate than at a person."

The men appear to have fewer qualms. Surrounded by the sulfur stink of gunpowder, they huddle, compare bullet patterns, and line up for more. Brass bullet-casings clink as they hit the concrete floor, gently punctuating the ear-shattering shots. After about 45 minutes of practice, everyone packs it in and heads to Poor Phil's Shell Bar for a drink. Beauchamp smiles. "A perfect Libertarian outing."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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