NOT FOR SALE: There are an estimated 100 million AK-47 Kalashnikov-style assault rifles in the world, but I couldn’t find one to buy in Santa Barbara this week.

California has strict controls on these semi-automatics, weapons of choice for revolutionaries, Mexican drug cartels, hunters, Third World armies, thugs, terrorists, and just plain folks who want to go target shooting. Or, of course, for “protection.”

Not that I had any intention of buying one. But when you have a weapon that’s obsessed the American gun-buying world, I’m interested. An estimated 155 million people own guns in the U.S.A. (population approximately 312 million).

Barney Brantingham

Mikhail Kalashnikov, who invented the AK-47 back during World War II, now 93, says he’s sad, given the butchery that’s issued from the muzzle. He says he never made a dime from the invention. At the same time, he was quoted as saying, “If someone asks me how I can sleep at night knowing that my arms have killed millions of people, I respond that I have no trouble sleeping; my conscience is clean. I constructed arms to defend my country.

“I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work — for example a lawn mower.” Still, the AK-47 is known as “the gun that changed the world,” and that’s the title of his book.

The original AK-47, first adopted by the Soviet army in 1947 after Kalashnikov spent years working on it, has gone through all kinds of redesign around the world and is made in countless countries, legally and illegally. It’s simple to build and operate, and it’s cheap. According to reports, it sold for 15 cows in Kenya in 1986, the price dropping to four cows in 2005.

Estonia bans carrying a knockoff AK-47 while drunk, which led to a Russian’s crack that if that were the law in his country, no one would be hunting.

Kalashnikov’s family was deported to Siberia in one of Stalin’s agricultural collectivization manias, which led to the deaths of 14.5 million people. The young man, one of 19 children, was conscripted into the Red Army in 1938, and while recovering from wounds after the Germans invaded, he decided to improve on small-arms weapons.

My late friend Bob kept an AK-47 type along with an arsenal of other weapons in his San Roque apartment. “He was very proud of it,” a friend told me. As far as I could tell, Bob’s entire political philosophy focused on keeping guns legal, all guns. Bob, who died a few years ago, was solidly Republican, nonviolent, and liked to go up in the hills and shoot at bottles or whatever. But if his rifle were made illegal and someone came to confiscate it (every gun owner’s paranoid fear), “He’d have to pry it from my cold, dead fingers,” as the saying goes. Where that rifle is now I have no idea — maybe down the block.

The Nicolas Cage film Lord of War has some interesting dialog: “Of all the weapons in the vast Soviet arsenal, nothing was more profitable than [the AK-47 and its spin-offs]. It’s the world’s most popular assault rifle. A weapon all fighters love. An elegantly simple amalgamation of forged steel and plywood. It doesn’t break, jam, or overheat. It’ll shoot when it’s covered with mud or filled with sand. It’s so easy, even a child can use it, and they do.

“The Soviets put the gun on a coin. Mozambique put it on their flag. Since the end of the Cold War, the Kalashnikov has been the Russians’ greatest export. After that comes vodka, caviar, and suicidal novelists. One thing is for sure, no one was lining up to buy their cars.”

Sue and I have not had good experiences with guns. A pistol was shoved in her face by robbers when she was working at a State Street jewelry store many years ago. My introduction to the wonderful world of guns came when Uncle Sam invited me into his army and shoved an M1 in my hands. One fun night, the sergeant invited us to crawl through a field under strands of barbed wire while someone fired a machine gun over our heads. I hoped they weren’t firing real bullets.

It would have been fine with me if they’d just warned us to keep our heads down whenever someone was shooting at us and let us stay in our bunks. I gave my M1 back after two years and haven’t picked a gun up since, not even an AK-47.


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