OFFBEAT OREGON HISTORY: A weekly newspaper column that has evolved into a suite of public-history resources, including:

  • ... a podcast
  • ... a daily RSS feed
  • ... a social-media community
  • ... talks and lectures
  • ... a browsable Web archive (185 columns, at last count)

It's accessed through an anchor page, linked here.



WICKED PORTLAND: A book about the late-1800s underworld of Portland, Oregon, including ...

  • Rascally politicians
  • Saloons and gambling dens
  • Naughty ladies of every description
  • Shanghai artists and their victims (and would-be victims)
  • Corrupt cops and mayors
  • The world's dumbest-ever drug smugglers

Published by The History Press in June 2012. Here's a link to the "lost chapter" (cut from the book for lack of space); the main web site for the book is here.



AMERICA'S MOST HATED HERO: My current book project, to be released on August 4, 2014 (the 100-year anniversary of the German invasion of Belgium). Tells the story of how Herbert C. Hoover created the Commission for Relief in Belgium, which was the only thing standing between 9 million people and starvation for the duration of the war.

The details (so far) are here.



MISCELLANEOUS WRITINGS: Some published, some not, accessed through a table of contents, here.

The airplane pictured above, by the way, is the one featured in this story, which is one of the best things I've ever written. Do check it out.



ABOUT ME: Everything you need to know, and a bunch of extra stuff you don't, about Yours Truly.



When did the gun fetishists take over the NRA?

Once upon a time, the National Rifle Association was full of sober, responsible adults. Well, not any more.

nous sommes tous japonais
By Finn J.D. John

“I’m the NRA,” the ad proclaims, above a photograph of the one and only Roy Rogers — the Singing Cowboy. He’s in a plaid shirt and cowboy hat, holding a very nice 12-gauge shotgun. The year is 1983.

I should be the NRA too, you know. I grew up deep in the woods of western Oregon, a few miles out of a tiny logging town where it seemed like everybody drove an F-150. Usually there would be a .30-30 in a gun rack in the back window, along with a fishing pole and maybe a riata if it was rodeo season.

Well, Roy Rogers was before my time. But my favorite author, as a young lad, was Jim Kjelgaard. My childhood fantasies were of wilderness survival. In Boy Scouts summer camp, one of my favorite activities was target shooting on the rifle range.  In fact, it still is.

I was a member of the NRA once. When you became a member at the rifle range, you were automatically signed up. But that was long ago — the 1980s, in fact. It was a time when the NRA was (mostly) a sober, responsible organization overseen by grown-ups — clear-headed, serious 55-year-old World War II veterans with pre-’64 Winchester Model 70s in calibers like .270 and .30-06. Guys who smiled modestly over paper targets printed with half-inch groups they’d shot at 100 yards from a benchrest, saying something like, “Well, I guess she’s ready for another elk season.” Guys who’d jump on you with both feet if you walked up to the firing line with the action closed on your .30-30. Guys who saw a rifle as a tool, not a fashion accessory. Guys who were not afraid to put the “gun fetishists” in their place when necessary.

The guys I’m calling “gun fetishists,” the young men with a taste for flashy weapons, have always been part of the scene, but until recently the older fellows sort of rode herd on them. Their interest is understandable. There really is something especially cool about military weapons — which is why they’re used in almost every action movie. When’s the last time you saw a hardcore action hero kicking down the door with a bolt-action hunting rifle at the ready?

There was a sense, too, that the fetishists would outgrow it. Sure, 19-year-old man, you love your Bushmaster .223 now, but when you’re 35 and settled down with a family, you’ll trade it for a pre-’64 Winchester .270 and it’ll be your turn to ride herd on the next generation of 19-year-olds with flashy Army guns.

But that’s not what happened, is it?

The old guys are gone now. And the NRA they’ve left us now seems to be fully controlled by the gun fetishists.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not for a minute suggesting that it’s not OK to have and enjoy military-style guns. I’ve done my time at the rifle range behind a Vietnam-era Colt AR-15, and it’s the most pleasant and accurate rifle I’ve ever used. But when I was there shooting it, there were a couple old gentlemen there who made sure I knew the range policy of loading just one bullet at a time. They knew young bucks like me had a tendency to want to shove 20-round clips into their rifles and just sit there squirting bullets down the range. That wasn’t polite, it wasn’t safe and it wouldn’t be tolerated.

I understood, and I was grateful for their oversight.

Well — that was 20 years ago. Today, those guys are gone. And the NRA — which for better or worse is the voice of the gun community — seems to have completely forgotten them.

Wayne LaPierre’s performance in the wake of the Sandy Hook murders was what brought this home to me. Fiercely denouncing calls for even the most milquetoast-ish gun-law changes (such as background checks), he claimed that the video games that 80 percent of young American men play and enjoy were to blame, and called for the arming of school janitors and other officials. As a shooting-sports person vigorously schooled in accident prevention by those old guys I mentioned, I was shocked at this. A bunch of untrained or poorly trained school janitors packing loaded automatics around while they work, surrounded by children — that was a solution?

I kept my mouth shut. But I wasn’t impressed. And I’m betting those old guys at the rifle range wouldn’t have been, either.

Then, this week, the NRA released a statement that made me hope, for a moment, that the old guys were back. You no doubt know the situation. A bunch of cocky, entitled fetishists had taken to descending upon innocent restaurateurs, bristling with paramilitary rifles, in a show of “support” for their Constitutional right to scare the hell out of people in public places. Soon newspapers and TV reports were full of pictures of downy-faced lads in caftan-like T-shirts with their hardware hanging off them like Christmas ornaments. It was embarrassing, and the NRA said so.

I knew the fetishists would howl about this, and they did. I think that’s part of why they’ve been so successful in taking over the movement. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, you know.

I should not have been surprised when the NRA backed down, but I was. They threw some poor intern under the bus, claimed it had been somebody’s personal opinion, and that they fully supported Open Carry Texas’s patently unsafe, unneighborly and disorderly activities.

So what? Well, here’s the thing. Now that my son is old enough to join me, I’d like to join my local rifle range again and get back into competitive target shooting. But in order to do so, I have to rejoin the NRA; dues are part of membership there. And I won’t do it.

The NRA is no longer behaving like a force for responsible, safe gun ownership. It’s behaving like a force for petulance, entitlement and anarchy. It’s working hard to convince the average American voter that gun owners are mostly dangerous crackpots who shouldn’t even be trusted with sharpened pencils. And if they keep this up, sooner or later they’ll make their point.

That’s especially true if the current run of mentally unhinged young men in fetish gear with paramilitary weapons murdering people keeps up. Every time that happens and the NRA’s only response is to blame other people, we get closer to the day when a majority of Americans, disgusted with the whole mess, simply repeals the Second Amendment, outlaws the NRA and sends the National Guard out to collect guns.

So my question for the NRA is, are you even slightly interested in being part of the solution? Because you totally could be. You could, for instance, propose a voluntary program in which people earn certification with a training and safety class and thorough background check and get a wallet card; gun sellers who sell firearms to certified buyers would then be protected from liability if that buyer used the gun to commit a crime.

Most American gun owners would support something like that. The old guys with the pre-’64 Winchester .270s would have supported it. Would you? And if not, why not?

But then, perhaps it's already too late.

Afterword: I just finished writing this piece and went to pull up Facebook. It instantly became clear that it had happened again. This time, the shooting was in Troutdale, a suburb of Portland, very close to home.

Time is running out. Something must be done. And something will be done, by someone. The question is ... who?