Late summer in Texas. A shirtless Mat Best takes a photo of himself gazing out from behind a desert-colored AR-15. He holds the rifle vertically so that it obscures, in a stylized way, half his tattooed chest and ruggedly handsome features. (Sky-blue eyes, Crest-white smile, beard.) If Abercrombie & Fitch did a photo shoot in Fallujah, it would produce something like this. Best’s many fans, female and male, appreciate his photo and let him know in the Instagram comments:
bethel34_27: my future husband. I want him to look like this please. Thanks
morgutia_paul: MAT !! Joined the ARMY and I ship out Sep4th. Any last minute advice?
joeymedill: I’d hold your gun between my legs. I mean doing man stuff like hiking, fishing and beating the s— out of grizzlies! You know man stuff
Along with his photo, Best posts the caption: “Happiness is a warm gun. Bang bang pew pew. #lifeisepic.”
There is a universe of people who post and comment on photos like this, mostly via Instagram. It shares the sunny, curated aesthetic of other, parallel Instagram universes, only its fetish objects aren’t lattes or surfboards but semiautomatic weapons. Its denizens call themselves members of the “tactical community.” Out of context, the words sound kind of New Age and wellness-oriented — follow these tactics for a balanced lifestyle! — but they technically refer to a culture of tricked-out assault rifles and disaster-preparedness drills. Aptly, the community manages to embody both these sensibilities: To scroll through a #tactical feed is to drink in a strange brew of good cheer and violent imagery, of attractive Internet personalities and their guns.
Mat Best is the de facto leader of the movement. A 32-year-old ex-Army Ranger, he’s also the co-founder and public face of Black Rifle Coffee Company, which does gangbusters business selling artisan joe to Second Amendment die-hards. In his brand-ambassadorial capacity, he posts photos and videos of himself, often performing skits, to market an aspirational lifestyle that revolves around firearms, red meat and his hot wife, Noelle. His knowing mockery of such tropes — in one skit, after Noelle rebuffs his sexual advances, a wounded Mat overcompensates by buying an absurd number of guns — saves his work from rah-rah banality. At the same time, he actually does own all those guns. His most popular videos are at once satires and endorsements of macho culture. “Hi, I’m Mat Best,” he says in one of them, leaping down from a pullup bar. “You might know me from videos like, ‘How to Be a Douchebag.’ ” Sometimes he wears a “f— lettuce” tank top. Sometimes he dresses in drag.
Mat and Noelle live on a seven-acre plot in the middle-of-nowhere Hill Country north of San Antonio. The night I arrive, Mat greets me in his driveway, straddling an ATV in gym shorts and cowboy boots. He casually lets me know that there are over 40 guns in the house, some of them loaded. “I’ve seen humanity at its worst,” he explains, growing a little more serious. “I live out here in the boonies a little bit. Maybe some dudes want to roll up because they heard where I live.”
Yet this is not the home of a survivalist. “People mistake the tactical community for the Alabama f—ing militia or whatever,” he says. Next to one AK, sitting all innocent on a leather couch, is Mat’s acoustic guitar. A few yards away is the home-recording setup where he tapes his podcast, “Drinkin’ Bros.” The property itself is in a comfortable gated community that probably doesn’t suffer from a ton of home invasions. “Fun fact,” he tells me, after pouring us two glasses of red wine. “I used to write poetry.”
Best was born in Santa Barbara — he jokes that his father, an ex-Marine, is “the last conservative there, in a s—ty, beatdown house” — and enlisted in the Army in 2004, when he was 17. He served four tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan; then, he says, he redeployed to the Middle East as a private military contractor. Upon his return, he eased his transition to civilian life by starting a handful of firearm-oriented businesses, including a clothing brand called Article 15 and, later, Black Rifle Coffee. Both were aimed at military customers and pushed back against the trope of broken-soldier victimhood. “Whatever f—ing construct of every Hollywood movie about veterans, where they’re sucking down pills, it’s not me,” he says.
Instead, he molded the brands in his playful image. In his hands, a gun was as much a weapon as a man-cave accessory. For example, Best claims to have popularized the nonsense word “pewpew,” turning it into a dominant meme on gun-world social media. (His rivals may dispute this.) “Just kind of a funny noise for shooting a gun. Pewpew!” Now those two syllables are all over the Internet of guns, plastered in hashtag form on T-shirts and beer cozies and other ephemera. Plug it into an Instagram search bar and you will meet an endless parade of mini-Mats, firing off rounds at desert gun ranges and taking pictures of their Glocks next to pieces of bacon.
In this space, the image of a gun is both full of latent power and abstracted from real-life consequence. Mat uses a fitness analogy to parse the phenomenon. “So people go to CrossFit to get called an athlete, right? Are they athletes?” he says. “Probably not.” Same with his fans. “There are people out there that couldn’t serve for whatever reason, but they want to put on the body armor, they want to run down the range with their AR and do a f—ing transition drill. A little taste of the drug, you know.”
Mat’s macho-patriot credibility comes from his military service, but the most appealing aspects of his online life can in theory be had without going to war. “He can write, he can play music, he’s a good-looking guy, he’s done rap songs, he’s sung ballads, he has a beautiful wife on Instagram,” says TJ Kirgin, another online personality who runs a retailer called Tactical S—. “Who doesn’t like Mat? Everybody wants to be like Mat.”
While there is an understanding in blue America that guns are easy to obtain, there is much less discussion about why people are so interested in obtaining them. In liberal circles, there is a baked-in assumption that the problem of gun violence is political. That the forces standing in the way of “responsible gun ownership” are the National Rifle Association and the reactionary fanatics in its thrall. But this doesn’t account for the earnest positivity of people who view assault weapons as pleasure machines rather than killing machines — men and women whose self-conception is intimately and gleefully wrapped up in their gun ownership. The icons of the tactical community aren’t Alex Jones paranoiacs or Cliven Bundy paramilitary rebels. For Tactical Guy and Tactical Gal, guns are as much about aesthetics as they are about self-defense. They are, more than anything else, a lifestyle choice.
And as with any other lifestyle that finds its primary expression on social media, the Tactical Life has been commodified. Mat Best uses his brand equity to sell coffee products. Other influencers earn money by brandishing tactical paraphernalia in their posts. It’s probably pointless to try to distinguish the artificial from the organic qualities of the movement, since the most “authentic” voices tend to be the most marketable.
If this sort of commercial opportunism makes you uncomfortable at a time when the country is suffering from a never-ending gun violence epidemic — 39,773 gun deaths in 2017, the highest number on record in America — you’re probably not alone. Especially when you consider the kind of guns that dominate the tactical community. Best and his followers aren’t interested in collecting hunting rifles or shotguns, Lord no. There’s even a derogatory term for people who still use those things. They’re called Fudds, as in Elmer. What’s in vogue are semiautos. Sleek high-capacity weapons originally designed for military use and now favored by school shooters. The preferred gun of mass murderers — the AR-15 — is also the preferred gun of the sexy millennials of Instagram.
Best understands this uncomfortable dynamic. He knows all about the two-way street between fame and violent spectacle. About the taste of the drug. And still, he says, give the people what they want. “You’re gonna talk s— on the 24-year-old super-cute female that’s shooting an AR because she’s trying to better herself and learn how to carry a firearm to protect her home,” he says. “If a girl can hold an AR and shoot a 30-round mag full-auto, and wants to show off her six-days-a-week-at-the-gym abs, I think it’s great.”
Last May the Internet exploded when a cheerful-looking 22-year-old named Kaitlin Bennett posted a photo of herself on Kent State University’s campus with a black AR-10 strapped to her back. Bennett was graduating that day and said she was protesting the campus’s gun restrictions. The bewildering imagery — blond locks, white dress, assault weapon — landed with maximum impact. Famously, it was at Kent State that National Guardsmen killed four students during Vietnam War protests. On the left, Bennett became an avatar of ahistorical stupidity and privilege; on the far right, a brave (and photogenic) new face in the struggle against nanny-state tyranny. Bennett did the rounds on Fox News and rocketed to social media stardom as “Kent State Gun Girl.” Within weeks her feeds were promoting a weird mix of sponsored content, gun porn, NRA talking points and kittenish bikini shots.
To the untrained eye, Bennett might seem like a uniquely narcissistic Internet head case. In fact, there are thousands of people in the tactical world who post stuff like this on Instagram every day. Predictably, the most popular content is: women with guns, wearing not much clothing. For example, @buff_cookie is a blonde named Casey Cook with 284,000-plus followers. She’s as apt to appear with her toddler-age daughter as she is spread-eagled at a range, shooting a machine gun. Sometimes she’ll just be hanging out in a thong. “Guns, Buns & Shenaniguns,” reads her profile. Accounts like @machinegungirls and @bunswithgun take the concept to the next level by simply aggregating photos of seminude women holding alarming-looking weapons.
The tactical community has a name for posters like this: Gun Bunnies. They are largely viewed as opportunists who use their sex appeal to rack up followers and are especially disdained by serious female shooters. Still, they represent the id of the community: There is no Tactical Life without sex appeal.
The male version of the gun bunny is the “Tacticool” operator. Some of Mat Best’s critics — yes, there is a whole debate within #tactical about whether he represents the community in a good or bad light — deride him as one. But in general, this is your SEAL Team 6 wannabe with the night-vision goggles, charging at stuff. Someone like @dan_foofighter, who goes by Blackbeard and posts photos of himself aiming Airsoft rifles while dressed in multicam fatigues. In his quest for visibility he’ll hashtag as many words as possible, which makes his posts look like corporate disclaimer agreements that overdosed on Adderall: “#fearthebeard #tactical #tacticalgear #beastmode #multicam #hueys #fearthebeard #ally #selfie …”
Beyond the bunnies and the operators, the tactical world breaks down into a handful of smaller niche categories: competition shooters, “Don’t Tread on Me” 2A defenders, ’Merica-loving irony bros, young bearded dads, legitimate preppers, YouTube stunt shooters, self-defense feminists, conceal-carry exhibitionists (gun in waistband, bellybutton exposed), religious operators (meet @pewpewpreacher), fashionista tactigals.
Among them, the most popular need to be just relatable enough to attract an aspirational following. After Mat Best, one of the most prominent influencers is 35-year-old Vaughn NeVille, a bearded dad who lives in Utah and calls himself The ManSpot. A few years ago, NeVille was a door-to-door home-alarm salesman in the Southeast. On the side, he was cultivating an Instagram presence centered on guns and the great outdoors. He came across the feed of Dan Bilzerian, a Navy SEAL dropout and trustafarian playboy who is seldom photographed without a harem of bikini-clad women. Bilzerian occasionally incorporates guns into his posts, but his Vegas lifestyle doesn’t make him a natural fit with the firearms community. “My thought was,” NeVille says, “what if I created a kind of married Dan Bilzerian?”
The ManSpot was born. NeVille describes ManSpot’s pine-scented aesthetic: He loves his whiskey and cigars but also keeps it “within a family lifestyle.” He’s not a veteran but “serves his country by being as patriotic as he can.” When he got to 60,000 Instagram followers, he recalls, he earned enough in ad revenue — by promoting on-brand companies — to quit his job. Now he’s up to 467,000 followers, employs two full-time videographers and says he pulls in $200,000 a year. “Nothing says Love to the @thewifespot more than tacos. Happy Valentines Day,” he wrote under a recent photo of tacos, a knife, a revolver and an Uzi-like submachine gun. Then he tagged the brands. “@mountainprimal (New shipping prices on meat!)”
The value of branding deals has helped professionalize the space; there are now marketing agencies that specifically cater to tactical influencers. And while a lot of people in the community aren’t using their Instagram feeds to promote products, the stars they follow definitely are. A gold rush is on, and a chunk of it is there for the taking.
A couple of days before my evening with Mat Best, I drive to a brunch place in Frisco, Tex. It’s in an upscale outdoor mini-mall called the Star, built around an unnecessarily luxurious Dallas Cowboys practice facility. Planted near an endless loop of highways, it has that air-conditioned, shorts-and-tucked-polo vibe endemic to wealthy enclaves of the American South.
I’m here to meet Amy Robbins before she takes me target-shooting at the Frisco Gun Club. Robbins grew up in the nearby suburbs and, in her 20s, modeled and worked in talent management. At one point, she was named one of D Magazine’s “10 Most Beautiful” women in Dallas. She ended up co-hosting an NRATV show with tactical star Colion Noir, a young, black personality on the TV network. From there, she leveraged her online persona to create a company called Alexo Athletica. Alexo is like Lululemon, except for women who want to carry concealed weapons while they exercise. The yoga pants come in seven-pocket and nine-pocket varieties, and the tops hang low enough below the waistline to obscure a gun. Alexo’s first line of shorts is currently available for preorder.
Robbins, 35, is tall and lithe; she arrives at the restaurant decked head-to-toe in Alexo, plus a concealed Glock G43 subcompact 9mm pistol. She and her amiable husband, Drew, who has joined her, are aware that the mission of Alexo will sound insane to most people. She herself would have found it insane a few years ago. “Why do you carry a gun with you everywhere you go?” she used to ask her NRATV colleagues. “Nothing’s ever happened. We’re safe. You live in a safe environment.” Then she started training for a marathon and got it. “I had a few incidents where I’d be running really early in the morning or at nighttime, and I would have people either follow me, slow down, roll their window down, make comments,” she says, trailing off. She obtained a conceal-carry permit, but there was nothing in the athleisure market with pockets suited for handguns. Meanwhile, the existing tactical wear options were ugly. She saw an opportunity.
“I knew there were a lot of women that were like me,” Robbins says. “All my Highland Park soccer moms all have their license to carry. Most of them put their Sigs” — Sig Sauer semiautomatic pistols — “in their Chanel bags and they run out the door and they’re wearing Lululemon. And I’m like, ‘Ladies, if you had the place to put it on your body, and it still looked as nice as your Lulu, would you wear it?’ And they were like, ‘Absolutely. As long as it makes my butt look good, absolutely.’ ”
Alexo’s Internet presence would be explicitly feminine, while rejecting a raunchy aesthetic. “Sex sells, that’s nothing new in advertising,” she says, before throwing shade on the gun bunnies. “Most of the girls in the gun industry who are all T&A have bought their followers.” At the range, Robbins films a video of herself promoting a magazine loader sent to her by a company called Elite Tactical Systems. “Hey, ladies and gentlemen!” she says. “I’m back at the range, finally getting some trigger time with my Glock 43, and you all know how much I hate loading my magazines. So the ETS mag loader has saved me a ton of manicures.”
Alexo hit an ideological sweet spot. Robbins could claim the mantle of feminist empowerment without alienating conservatives. “We literally launched right at the height of the #MeToo movement. It’s like, thank you. We knew these statistics, we know this stuff has been happening,” she says. “To me, gun rights are women’s rights. What better way to say, ‘Yes, we are equals,’ than to actually put yourself on an equal playing field with a man who might be a threat in your life.”
Last year, Tomi Lahren, the right-wing provocateur, posted an Instagram photo of herself in Alexo. “Ladies, chances are your assailant is gonna be bigger, stronger and faster and that’s why you have @alexoathletica for your gun, your mace, or even your phone.” 151,565 likes. Alexo sold out its inventory. Several months later, when a college student named Mollie Tibbetts was killed, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant, Robbins wrote about it on Alexo’s Instagram page. “THIS is why we exist,” she wrote. “Mollie went out for a run and never returned. Are you prepared to defend yourself on your run? What do you carry with you? Whatever it is #carrywithconfidence @sigsauerinc.”
Alexo is an outlier in that it’s marketed to women, but it’s consistent with other products in the tactical space, which seem at best unnecessary and at worst a disaster waiting to happen. The most outrageous company is probably Tactical Baby Gear. It sells camo-colored backpacks, harnesses and other accessories for parents who carry guns and infants at the same time. If you go to its Instagram account, you’ll see lots of photos like this: a dad wearing an over-the-shoulder TBG diaper bag, gazing lovingly at an infant dressed in an American flag onesie, all while holding a rifle in the air. (About 5,800 American children are wounded by guns every year; 1,300 are killed.)
To an extent, there seems to be value in putting the word “Tactical” in front of your company’s name. On a dummy Instagram feed I created — all tactical, all the time — I have encountered these products and services: Tactical Keychains, Tactical Pterodactyl Knives, Tactical Photographer, Tactical Distributors, Tactical Tailor, Tactical Outfitters, Tactical Walls. And that doesn’t include the actual gun retailers. In 2007, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, there were 10 registered gun sellers in the country with “Tactical” in their names. By 2017, there were 128.
What explains the surge? A company like Alexo offers a clue. While Robbins has positioned her clothing as an elegant antidote to the bunnies and operators that dominate the space, she has in fact gotten closer than anyone to the heart of the tactical mission: to make gun ownership seem both sexy and urgent. To make it seem like it just might save your life.
In 1980, over half the men in the country owned a gun. Since then, the percentage has been in free fall — down to around 35 percent today. The 1980s represented a period of great stagnation for the firearms industry. A lot of gun owners were hunters, and they were dying out. Young people, meanwhile, weren’t entering the market.
Foreign gun manufacturers like Glock and Beretta saw a way out. In the early ’80s, most of the country’s police officers were still using revolvers, like the iconic Smith & Wesson .38 special. They were classic but slow to reload, and carried only five or six bullets in their chamber. Glock persuaded much of the law enforcement industry to replace its revolvers with more-powerful, polymer-framed, higher-capacity pistols. One by one, urban police departments phased out revolvers for semiautos. In 1993, when the New York Police Department finally transitioned to Glocks, it was one of the last major cities to do so.
Around the same time, Beretta persuaded the U.S. Army to make the M9 pistol its official sidearm weapon. The fact that police officers and soldiers were using such weapons made them iconic, redefining the notion of a tough-guy gun. Company executives conceded — or boasted — that they’d had their eyes on the civilian market all along. In 2005, the traditionalists at Smith & Wesson introduced a Glock-style pistol called the M&P. The letters stood for military and police.
It took longer for manufacturers to successfully market military-style rifles to the public. For one, weapons like the AR-15 were designed for use in the Vietnam War, a branding liability into the 1980s. Two, they seemed pointless. For hunting, they were inappropriate. For self-defense, completely unwieldy. They also didn’t fit the prevailing masculine archetype of gun ownership. ARs were cheap, lightweight and customizable, making their surreal potency seem ill-gotten. Owning one was like trading in your Harley for a chintzy 100cc Honda. “Even some of the gun writers, the people who write in these fanzines, were writing, ‘There’s no place for these things,’ ” says Tom Diaz, a prominent chronicler of the gun industry. “These were people writing for the NRA.” Before TJ Kirgin earned fame as the Tactical S— guy, his buddies derided him as a “gear queer.”
Thanks to an all-American mix of corporate rebranding, government deregulation, paranoia and pop-culture hero worship, that began to change. The 1980s and ’90s brought the parallel rise of violent narco-traffickers, anti-government paramilitary groups and survivalists, all of whom were in the market for assault weapons. After 9/11, law enforcement responded in kind, resulting in the gradual militarization of police departments. The proliferation of civilian-owned AR-15s and AK-47s also helped give rise to a number of school shootings, which at the time were still uncommon. It was only after they occurred that many Americans learned the rifles used in them were available for purchase.
In 1994, Congress passed a ban on the sale of assault weapons. Unfortunately nobody could agree on the definition of an assault weapon. Some said it referred to all military-style rifles; others claimed it referred only to those highly regulated weapons that could toggle between semiautomatic (one shot per trigger pull) and fully automatic (continuous burst) fire. The ban, full of loopholes and exemptions, was close to pointless and, if anything, motivated manufacturers to create new models functionally identical to those that had been banned. The one useful thing the bill did was restrict magazines capable of holding 10 or more bullets. That provision expired, along with the full ban, in 2004.
Four years later, Barack Obama was elected, leading to an unprecedented rise in domestic gun production. After the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in 2012, the administration proposed a number of gun control measures. That, Kirgin says, “drove a huge part of the civilian population to wake up and join the tactical lifestyle.” During the George W. Bush administration, the gun industry was producing about 1.5 million rifles a year. During the Obama administration, that number rose to nearly 4 million. And of those rifles being sold to civilians, an estimated 61 percent were AR-15s. “America’s rifle,” the NRA began to call it.
Sales were bolstered by advertising campaigns from gun companies and lobbying groups that exploited consumer fear: of terrorists, of undocumented immigrants, of government regulation. Kirgin himself, a former police officer in Ferguson, Mo., started his retail business out of the back of a storefront in the days after the 2014 protests and riots that inflamed the city in response to an officer’s shooting of an unarmed black man. In 1999, Pew Research Center asked gun owners why they carried. Forty-nine percent said hunting, 26 percent said protection. In 2017, Pew asked again. This time, 67 percent said protection, 38 percent said hunting.
The other major catalyzing events were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Year after year, soldiers began to return home. And even when they remained abroad, they were visible. “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were covered 24 hours a day on social media,” Kirgin says. “The veteran heroes in these firefights lived these lives, lived in danger, did it for us. Anytime you have idolatry, you have mimicry.” At the same time that gun lobbies began spinning AR-15s as “modern sporting rifles” in Washington, the gun manufacturers they represented explicitly marketed semiautomatic weapons as replica war machines, with tag lines like, “as close as you can get without enlisting.”
Meanwhile, the special-ops aesthetic went mainstream. The apparel company 5.11 Tactical, originally created to outfit military contractors and FBI agents with functional trousers, started doing a massive civilian business. People were now keen on wearing chunky combat boots and many-pocketed vests. “9/11 got everybody thinking about terrorism and everyday preparedness,” says Tom Davin, an ex-Marine who until recently was the company’s CEO. “From a media perspective, ‘Black Hawk Down’ came out in 2002, the first of the real modern military movies that got everybody thinking, ‘Wow, it’s cool to be a special-ops guy.’ ” Now, every military movie looks like that. And it’s not for nothing that Call of Duty is the fourth-highest-selling video game franchise ever. “When I was in college, I wanted to be a Top Gun pilot,” Davin says. “Kids I meet today, they want to be on ‘American Ninja Warrior’ and then go on to be a Navy SEAL.”
Part of what made the dynamic work is that people don’t actually have to go to war anymore. “Generations of American youth, even if they weren’t drafted, knew military service as a possibility,” says Diaz, who served in the Air and Army National Guards. “A whole class of young men, and to some extent young women, somehow have to feel like they are still warriors.” Some of them seem to sublimate that guilt and restlessness into feats of extreme athleticism. Visit the 5.11 Tactical Instagram page and half the people there are doing CrossFit competitions, pulling themselves up on ropes and wading through muck. Others go full tactical, stocking up and playing war. While hunting rifles were designed to last forever, semiautomatic weapons come in infinitely varied and customizable models, encouraging users to amass their own arsenals. (Three percent of Americans possess about half the guns in the country.)
The last piece to this puzzle involves some choice rebranding. In 2008, Phillip Peterson wrote a book called the “Gun Digest Buyer’s Guide to Assault Weapons.” Two years later, Gun Digest released a new edition of the same book, with a different name: “Gun Digest Buyer’s Guide to Tactical Rifles.” That’s not by accident. The word “assault” won’t help you sell diaper bags. Tactical, though: Who doesn’t want to be tactical? “We make products that everybody can wear if they have that always-be-ready mind-set,” Tom Davin explains. “Hoping things go well, knowing that things may not.”
There is an Iowa-based gun retailer called Brownells. It was founded in 1939 as a specialty parts store for people interested in tinkering with their shotguns and revolvers. Thanks to the rise of customizable tactical weaponry, their brand of gun enthusiasm has gone mainstream, and last summer, Brownells organized a “convoy” of PR events across the country with a number of influencers. Among them: Ava Flanell, who hosts a podcast called “Gun Funny” and runs a shooting range in Colorado Springs; Aaron Krieger and Shawn Herrin, who host “We Like Shooting,” another popular podcast; and Rachel Bodron, who works full time as a Hooters bartender in Georgia and goes by RapidFire Rachel.
The convoy begins in Florida and trundles west, stopping for promotional pit stops at a beer brewery, a NASCAR track and other on-brand venues. In late July, the gang pulls into a place in Utah that specializes in customizable Jeeps, and sets up shop in the parking lot. Brownells brings beers and cranks classic rock. Flanell and the “We Like Shooting” guys are there. When I arrive, everyone is obsessing over a limited-edition Jeep designed to look like a Call of Duty vehicle. Mounted on its hood is a replica of a Browning .50-caliber machine gun — the kind that vacuums and spits out sheets of golden bullets — plus, for good measure, a bunch of inert rocket launchers.
After the Brownells “family” climbs into the Jeep and takes a big smiley photo, I grab a beer and sit down at a picnic table with Krieger, a 44-year-old Obama voter and graphic designer who writes children’s books on the side. His wife, a social worker, dislikes guns intensely. Krieger rolls his eyes at macho operators, comparing them to people who dress up for comics conventions. “It’s tactical cosplay,” he says. Flanell, 32, sits down and chimes in. “They’re tools basically,” she says. Yet both of them are unapologetic defenders of the lifestyle. “I mean, listen, I have all the tactical gear,” Krieger says. “I have the vest. I have the plate armor. I have soft armor. I have helmets,” he continues. “If someone were to look at my gun collection, they’d be like, ‘Oh, you are trying to start a war.’ ”
Basically, Krieger thinks most of the criticism tactical folks get is the result of a category error. “I always get that one question, ‘Why does anyone need an AR?’ I say, ‘Because they’re fun.’ ” In other words, nobody needs them. They just want them. They’re a hobby. Problem is, he says, people don’t see that. “A lot of the time, you’ll see this in politics: ‘We’re not here to take your hunting rifles away. We just want to stop these scary black guns.’ ” He argues that the caliber of bullet typically used in scary black guns is pretty small and not really that scary. Instead of penalizing people who kill animals for no reason, the government wants to penalize easygoing guys like him who enjoy playing operator dress-up and blasting at random stuff.
Eventually, Krieger’s co-host Herrin and a Brownells fan in a neckerchief come to our table. Someone brings up mass shootings, leading the crew to lament the disproportionate attention they garner. Krieger points out that such events represent roughly 1 percent of all gun-related deaths each year, and that the coverage they get only motivates copycats. At the same time, the group doesn’t necessarily seem interested in addressing the problem. Several days earlier, after we did a few laps at Talladega Superspeedway, RapidFire Rachel told me she thought the NRA didn’t fight hard enough to block the slate of modest gun laws Florida passed last March after the Parkland high school massacre, including its ban on gun sales to people under the age of 21. A law that could save lives could also inhibit the cultivation of their pastime. That’s not a trade-off they’re willing to make.
I ask them how they feel when a mass shooter is dressed like one of their Instagram friends. “It affects me in the same way as when I see a drunk driver kill a family in a collision late at night,” Herrin says. “If they have a Toyota and I have a Toyota, that’s awful. So I hate to see it in the same way I hate to see other people use things that I use for fun and hobbies and personal enrichment to do bad things.”
Here, I have to object. There aren’t — well, maybe except for the Call of Duty Jeep — cars explicitly designed to look like killing machines. Mass shooters, on the other hand, are often dressed to look as violent and militaristic as possible.
Krieger, speaking bluntly, offers a matter-of-fact take. “Well, that gear lends itself to carrying more ammo and stuff,” he says. “It’s like, if you’re going to paint, you’re going to want the right clothes, or if you’re a carpenter you’re going to want kneepads, you know, because you’re going to be on your knees, putting up floors. You’re going to want to wear something comfortable to do the job that you want done.”
Ava Flanell’s father goes by Dragonman, but his real name is Mel Bernstein. He’s a gonzo weapons dealer who calls himself the most armed man in America. In 2012, a reality TV crew came to Colorado to film a show about him and the family gun farm. Dragonman was made for the format: a Brooklyn Jew turned heartland tough; an unreconstructed gun enthusiast with an outer-borough chip on his shoulder. Flanell was living in New York City, where she had attended Fordham University and worked for the Yankees.
The television shoot resulted in a horrific tragedy. For the opening credits sequence, a production crew set up pyrotechnic devices to create a smoke display for the family to walk through. The rockets malfunctioned. One of them passed through Ava’s mother, Terry, at 150 mph, killing her instantly. Dragonman remarried and continued to cultivate his armory; Ava distanced herself from her father.
When I ask what she took away from her mother’s death, she says something I find surprising. “If anything, it opened my eyes that things you don’t think can happen to you are very possible,” she says. “My parents are 14 years apart. We always thought we’d lose him first. You think you’re invincible, that bad things only happen to people you don’t even know.” But then it happens. “You realize you’re not invincible. Bad things can happen to you.” Ava reconciled with her father, trained herself into a skilled target shooter and opened up Elite Firearms & Training, not far from the Dragonman compound.
Now, not untenderly, she calls him a Fudd. An old-timer inoculated from the demands of the 24/7 Tactical Life. “That’s the one thing,” she complains, laughing. “When you go to the range, it’s really tough to just go and enjoy it. Having a social media presence, you always need to create new content. When you go to the range, you have to take pictures. You can’t just go to the range with no makeup on, throw your hair up, let’s train.”
Back at the picnic table, a guy in a cap walks up to Ava. “I hate to butt in, but I wanted to shake your hand,” he says. “My name is Spencer. I met you on Instagram and you followed me, like, right after I created my account, so I wanted to say hi.” His handle is @mountainpew. Last I checked, he had posted a photo of his Smith & Wesson M&P next to a doughnut.
Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer in New York.
Correction: This article originally stated that the four students killed at Kent State were protesting the Vietnam War. However, not all of the students killed were protesters. Clarification: The article has been updated to better describe why AR-15s were not favored by hunters.