Issue June 30, 2009

Bearing witness, bearing arms

Gun-toting churchgoers defy criticism of controversial open carry event

As our car pulls into the vast, sun-baked parking lot of Valley Station’s New Bethel Church, I am shocked to discover the absence of gun-toting rednecks, unwashed hippie pacifists and Louisville Metro Police riot tanks. There is only a trifecta of volunteer sheriff’s deputies, a handful of parked cars and an odd sense of peace and quiet.

Sure, we’ve arrived early[1], but this so-called “open carry,” church-sponsored gun-safety event was heavily advertised as The Next Frontline in the ongoing media meta-narrative known as “The Culture Wars” — a frontline in which actual firearms were guaranteed to be wielded by bona fide Kentucky hillbillies. Even that great, dying beast, The New York Times, ran a cover story on the service that was bumped only by the death of Michael Jackson.

So where are they, these legions of right-wing extremists chomping at the bit to shed the blood of their left-wing counterparts? Where are the news choppers? The SWAT teams? Bill O’Reilly?

Something is definitely not adding up.

Inside the air-conditioned church, Charlotte, a super-hospitable church employee who applies a green “Responsible Gun Owner” sticker to my chest, greets us. “Thank you all so much for coming out today!” she says, her face beaming. “Welcome to our church!”

After wandering around a bit and getting a drink from the water fountain — above which hung a giant Eddie Eagle firearm-safety poster, advising me to “Stop! Don’t Touch. Leave the Area. Tell an Adult.” — I find a spot in the back of the cavernous room.

“Howdy,” says Gene, an elderly man who has been a member of the church for 35 years. When asked about his thoughts on the controversy surrounding this evening’s festivities, he shrugs his shoulders: “Nowadays, maybe [guns] can come in handy, I don’t know. I only had a BB gun when I was a kid, and when I was in the Air Force I had a rifle.”

Picking up his cane, Gene adds, “This is my gun now.”

Shortly thereafter, New Bethel’s “media liaison,” David Lowley, speaks of his experience in the military as an analogy to gun ownership in general.

“We just don’t give you a gun and say ‘go be a soldier,’” he says. “Even though it’s your God-given right to own one, and you can buy one, it doesn’t mean you are educated on how to actually use one properly, which is what today is all about.”

Lowley doesn’t see it as any different from a church sponsoring, say, a bingo night, a biker rally or a sporting event.

“Sure, some people have [looked at the Gospels] and questioned this,” he says, “but this is just a building. The church is the people. And it all comes back to individual responsibility.”

With just 10 minutes until game time, my friend and I take a seat with the common folk in the center aisle. People are filing in steadily, and the gun raffle is already under way, the main prize a smart-looking .22 Ruger. Twin LCD projectors splash a digitized American flag onto the wall, flanking a giant wooden cross in the center. Blue-shirted church staffers run about, making sure everything’s in its right place. Then the Rev. Ken Pagano appears out of nowhere and talks to the teenage couple sitting next to us. He informs them, “We do shotgun weddings, so keep us in mind,” and then takes the stage.

The service itself is something of a letdown, in a way.

Technically, everything goes off as effortlessly as a bullet through a smoothbore barrel, but it is the complete opposite of what the mercurial level of national press suggested it might be.

In many respects it is not unlike the Two Minutes’ Hate depicted in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” wherein the masses are fed rhetorical red meat via gigantic telescreens for the purposes of riling their emotions to the point of fervor — except tonight’s program runs just over 90 minutes, is devoid of hate and everybody is really, really nice.

It does have the trappings of propaganda, however, if only from an outsider’s perspective. Patriotic songs are sung, God and Country routinely invoked, and the numerous YouTube videos shown, which largely dominate the program’s curriculum, consist of (among others): A 1969 Red Skeleton skit defending the “Under God” line in the Pledge of Allegiance[2]; a couple of snarky, Second Amendment-friendly Penn & Teller polemics; a news report about a Texas woman who helplessly watched as her entire family and a diner full of patrons were slaughtered by a gun-wielding madman simply because she didn’t have a firearm of her own; and, finally, ending with Lee Greenwood’s magnum opus “Proud to be An American.”

Throughout the proceedings it occurs to me how naïve I was to think someone like Pagano — who conducts each of the night’s segments with the care and precision of an expert maestro — would allow the media firestorm he spent the past week fighting to actually engulf his home turf.

That’s because Pagano is a master of his craft; during the service he acknowledges the handful of reporters seated front and center.

“[Members of the media] have been very gracious to me,” he says, thanking them and encouraging the audience to give them a round of applause. “But if I had been as sloppy with the facts as [them], I wouldn’t have gotten my doctoral dissertation.”

When the raffle drawing for a brand-new pistol commences, the winner is Gene, who forfeits the prize that eventually goes to a sheriff’s deputy.

Afterward, we are dismissed by section to enjoy complimentary hot dogs and Louisville “Pure Tap!” bottled water. En route, I chat with Metro Councilman Doug Hawkins, R-25, who also briefly spoke at the lectern and sat in the front row with the media. While he did not bring a gun tonight, Hawkins “Thought it was great. Super. It’s my pre-July Fourth celebration and I was so proud to have it in my district.”

Pagano has retreated to the frigid environs of the church cafeteria, where Charlotte is eating with a group of kids. More or less, Pagano looks like a man who has been explaining himself to strangers in front of cameras for the past week — exhausted, yet satisfied. He expresses great pleasure that the event “was more in line with what we had originally expected.”

“I would like to do it again,” he adds. “But I don’t know. I think it should be done again, that it needs to be done again, but I don’t know if I’ll be the one to do it.”

Out in the parking lot, as people devour their hot dogs, Matthew Stevens carries his 18-month-old daughter to his SUV. Wearing a cowboy hat, a pink button-down shirt and a Baby Eagle 9mm, Stevens opens the rear hatch and proceeds to change her diaper.

“I liked the service,” he says. “I thought it was well balanced between the fact that this is a church and a patriotic event.”

Originally from Texas, Stevens says, “I’ve had loaded guns in my bedroom since I was 8.” He’s currently studying to be a preacher at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “It’s funny. I told a group previously that I wanted to do something like this service about two months ago, before I had even heard about it.”

After speaking with members of local militia The Ohio Valley Freedom Fighters and getting some good-natured ribbing about my liberal press credentials, my friend and I decide it’s time to leave. On our way out, the mantra that Pagano had utilized over and over — “this is not a political event” — becomes something of a joke when, right as we are about to head out, Hawkins stops us.

“Come out and show your support,” he says, handing us a leaflet for next week’s July Fourth “Tea Party” in Frankfort. “Thank you!”

But in this day and age, it’s all in how you advertise it.

Visit leoweekly.com/news for an excerpt from Paul’s Epistle to the Smith&Wessonians, recently discovered in the Dead Aim Scrolls.

[1] Sans gun, too. My companion, Kevin, who owns a plethora of vintage firearms, decided to leave his guns at home, fearing they would somehow be confiscated.

[2] Pagano then invites everyone to sing The Pledge, after which someone from the back shouts, “And we’ll fight for it!” amid a round of “Yeahs!” and “Amens!”