Fabian Rodriguez was cradling his new rifle when he stopped at one of the gun-show booths to purchase a $5 chicken fajita MRE.
The “Meal Ready to Eat” is a mainstay for troops on combat missions. But Rodriguez, a 28-year-old San Antonio native who sells auto paint for a living, wasn’t going anywhere that would require one.
“I like them,” he said. “Well, I like watching reviews of them. That’s something people do online, like, open them up and do taste tests.”
Rodriguez, who wears his handlebar mustache slicked into points and never leaves home without his cowboy boots, had come to the gun show to buy his first AR-15, a variant model of the M-16 and M-4 assault rifles that are used by the military, and currently the most popular rifle on the market.
It has been only a few weeks since a 19-year-old was accused of storming into a Florida high school with his AR-15 and shooting 34 people, killing half — the latest in a recent spate of mass shootings by men armed with similar rifles, including a massacre that left 26 dead at a church outside San Antonio last September.
But this is a gun that Rodriguez has wanted for a couple of years now, a gun that he thinks has been unfairly maligned because of a few people’s bad actions, and a gun that he believes is his right to own. He’s here this weekend not because he worries about an imminent ban, but because he just sold his Mustang and finally has the cash.
Rodriguez is among the sprawling population of American gun enthusiasts who own or aspire to own an AR-15, the semiautomatic weapon that the National Rifle Association has designated “America’s rifle.” Some say the weapon can be useful for hunting or home protection. For others, like Rodriguez, the sleek, easy-to-use design and customizable features make the high-powered rifle simply fun to own.
Rodriguez has long been a gun enthusiast. He learned how to shoot when he was in elementary school, and he purchased his first gun at 18.
He also loves the military. Growing up, Rodriguez viewed people serving in the armed forces as superheroes. They were the ultimate good guys in the fight against evil. They were the ones risking their lives abroad to protect American freedoms.
Rodriguez never joined — he’s not much of an athlete, and at the end of the day, it sounded kind of scary.
Instead, he went to trade school to study auto-body repair. He learned more about guns through YouTube, got a job and settled into a responsible life with a gun hobby on the side.
Now it’s Day Two of the monthly gun show at the San Antonio Event Center, and Rodriguez is taking his time.
The expanse of tables before him display AR-15s, AK-47s and every other sort of assault-style rifle; hefty shotguns and sleek, modern hunting rifles; handguns that range from high caliber Smith & Wessons to tiny Derringer guns that fit in the palm of your hand.
He makes his way past boxes of ammunition, T-shirts that say things like “CNN IS FAKE NEWS,” and a $1,900 Magnum Desert Eagle that he immediately recognizes as the gun Angelina Jolie carried in the movie “Tomb Raider.” “That specific one she used in the movie was 50-caliber, which is humongous,” he says.
He finds a strap for his AR, and a quick-disconnect for the strap. He inquires about left-handed adjustments and revisits the table where yesterday he purchased an AR-15 magazine engraved with the “Don’t tread on me” snake logo, just like the one pictured on the worn leather wallet that he is now again removing from his pocket.
“Can I still get that discount if I bought one yesterday?” he asks the vendor.
“Yeah, the two for $35?”
“I remember you,” the vendor adds, as Rodriguez hands him the cash for another magazine, this one engraved with the words, “You can’t protect the First without the Second.”
Good guys with guns
Rodriguez’s mother doesn’t understand this interest of his. So when they spoke on the phone last night, he told her about the gun show, but not about the AR-15, because he knew it would just make her mad.
She doesn’t like guns, doesn’t like the idea of “her little boy” — as Rodriguez is certain she still sees him — spending his money this way.
He has tried to convince her otherwise.
“It’s satisfying,” he says. “It’s a bit expensive. But it’s fun, it’s safe, and you’re not doing something dumb.”
He explains that he likes the way he feels in control of his body when he’s at the shooting range: “It steadies you. It’s calming. Being out there, it’s one of the very few places, I can say, that you can go and see improvement almost immediately.”
But his mother wants to know why he wants to carry a handgun around, why he needs it. She worries about the implications of the view her son shares with the NRA: that good guys with guns are necessary to stop the bad guys with guns.
“ ‘What about those people who go to try to stop [an attack] and get killed?’ ” Rodriguez says his mom asked him again last night. “What if you die?” she wanted to know.
Rodriguez reassured her that few people find themselves in that position, and that one person who did — the former NRA instructor who rushed to confront Devin Patrick Kelley last year as he gunned down dozens in a nearby church — didn’t die.
But even if Rodriguez did end up in that position — even if he did die, he told her — “Can you think of a more honorable way to do it than trying to save people’s lives?”
In all of his 28 years, Rodriguez has never faced such an opportunity or a need. He never fell victim to a crime or witnessed a shooting. His life has been pretty tame: He got good grades in school, played the tuba, and happens to be a pretty good country western dancer and Scrabble player. He never skipped class and never got in trouble.
He joined the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps as a teen but not the military.
“I mean, I considered it,” he says now, pausing in an aisle lined with bullet keychains and bottle openers, gas masks, and antique foreign military gear, including a couple of helmets emblazoned with the Nazi swastika and a hat and coat purportedly worn by someone in the Soviet KGB.
“It was scary, to a point, I guess,” he says. “But a lot of it too was just that I’m a heavy person and it’s kind of always been like that.”
Instead he displays his loyalties through clothing, such as the T-shirt he’s wearing at the gun show. On the right shoulder: a backward American flag, the same way it’s often depicted on military uniforms, to give the effect of a flag flying in the breeze. On the other: the logo of the veteran-owned, pro-gun apparel brand Grunt Style. On his head, he wears a black baseball cap from the veteran-owned and NRA-aligned Black Rifle Coffee Company. And on his backpack: a flag patch with a blue stripe to show support for law enforcement, and another patch that reads: “Lest we forget.”
One gun, many uses
The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) estimates there have been at least 15 million AR-15s and AR-15-style rifles sold in the United States since 1990, including a dramatic uptick in sales after the assault weapons ban expired in 2004.
The majority of such gun owners — 65 percent — are like Rodriguez in that they have never served in the U.S. military or in law enforcement, and 9 in 10 say their main reason for owning one is for recreational target shooting, according to a 2013 NSSF consumer survey.
The NSSF, an association of gun manufacturers and sellers — which several years ago started calling ARs “modern sporting rifles” — likes to hype the idea of the AR’s versatility as the key to its appeal: a gun for hunting, home security and whatever else you might need.
David Chipman, who used to carry an AR-15 for his job as a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, thinks there’s more to it.
“I would compare it to the same reason Americans might want a muscle car or enjoy a muscle car: It’s American-made, it has outsized power,” said Chipman, who left ATF after a 25-year career and now serves as a senior policy adviser to the gun-control advocacy group Giffords.
There’s a sort of “X-Game-type sensibility” to it, he said, a fixture of “American culture that I see most often with men.”
For those who served in the military, there might be “a connection to owning that which you were issued,” he added. “I think there’s also an element for people who chose not to serve that this somehow allows them to connect with that service without them having to do it — like you can kind of act patriotic without having to do it.”
Rodriguez encounters plenty of skeptics in addition to his mother who ask him why anyone would need so many guns, particularly a semiautomatic rifle like an AR-15 — a gun that can fire 45 high-velocity rounds per minute, bullets that travel so fast that their shock waves mimic an explosion as they enter a body.
His honest answer: He doesn’t need them.
He wants them because he enjoys them, and the Constitution gives him the right to have them.
“I know I don’t need it,” he says of the AR-15. “The revolver, statistically speaking, is more than enough to defend myself.”
But it’s frustrating when people ask him this, because that’s not the point.
The point is that the Second Amendment protects his right to bear arms, whatever and however many he wants, as a guard against tyranny.
“When the Second Amendment was written, you were supposed to be able to fight off the government,” he says. “So with that being said, you should be able to have exactly what the government has.”
Like the NRA, to which he belongs, Rodriguez doesn’t think an assault weapons ban will stop the United States’ crime or violence. But in practice, he believes in some form of gun control. Background checks should be better enforced, he says. People like Parkland High School shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz should not be able to buy a gun.
“I’m a law-abiding, gun-owning citizen,” Rodriguez says. “If there was a procedure that said I have to go to a class and learn, I’m going to do it.”
If the government said he needed to produce a character witness, provide access to his Internet search history or submit to a home visit or a rigorous mental-health evaluation, he’d comply.
“If it takes a little more to have it, that’s fine,” he says.
He just wants to maintain an America where people are able to protect themselves from one another and from their government.
“I would like a well-regulated militia. That would be nice,” he says, cradling his AR-15 diagonally across his body, muzzle down, the way soldiers are trained to do. “Men who get together, train and do things just in case.”
Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.