Guns for history and protection

February 28, 2013

By his own admission, when 59-year-old Pat Hogan goes to work, he feels like a kid in a candy store.

“Look at the thing! It’s absolutely brand spankin’ new!” Hogan says, marveling at an item in his collection.

Our Guns

A series about why people own guns and their relationship with their firearms. Follow their stories, and join in with your ideas and comments.  

Except it’s not candy. It’s guns.

Hogan owns the Rock Island Auction Company, in Rock Island, Ill., about three hours west of Chicago. He’s one of the largest antique arms dealers in the United States. As part of the series “Our Guns,” WBEZ is profiling local gun owners to hear about their different relationships to guns, and the national gun debate.

Hogan says his relationship is largely about history – lots of it. He shows me around his 50,000 square foot production floor, which he estimates holds 15,000 to 18,000 guns at any one time, being inspected, unloaded, safety checked and tagged for auction.

The floor features towering shelves stacked with military rifles, and long white tables, covered with pistols, muskets – even machine guns, which Hogan is federally licensed to sell to buyers who’ve undergone rigorous background checks.

“No one’s robbin’ a 7-11 with that because how much it cost,” he said, gesturing at a World War II-era machine gun as we tour the production floor. “That’s gotta be in the $30,000 range.”

There are guns so big two people would need to carry them, and other guns small enough to hold in the palm of your hand. There are rusted out guns, carried through war zones, and guns Hogan calls “Beanie Babies,” made just for collecting, not for shooting.

Hogan said he runs into a lot of people who don’t understand this hobby – why somebody would want to own hundreds of guns.

“I kinda laugh at that because they wouldn’t think it’s unusual for somebody to have 200 stamps, or 500 Raggedy Ann dolls,” he said. “This is what it’s all about. This is collecting.”

Hogan says he has a few hundred guns in his personal collection. But he doesn’t use his guns for hunting, and he doesn’t even shoot that much.

For him and a lot of his clients, gun collecting is about owning a piece of history. And it’s also about this almost obsessive appreciation for craftsmanship.

When I drove out to meet Hogan, I was expecting an hour-long interview – two hours, tops. But we strolled through his warehouse for more than six hours while Hogan pointed out shotguns with elaborate engraved scrollwork, or got excited about the slight mechanical differences between two models of Civil War-era pistols. And it seems like every he started to explain his passion for collecting guns, he’d get distracted by another gun, pluck it off the shelf, and swoon.

Some will sell for a few hundred dollars at auction, and some for a few hundred thousand dollars.

Hogan unlocks a door off the main floor and takes me into a room he calls “the vault.”

“See, only certain people have access to this,” he said, unlocking the door to a cement, climate-controlled room. This is where Hogan is legally required to stow the fully-automatic machine guns – as well as some of the most prized items in his collection.

He shows me an ornately engraved pistol – which he describes as a “masterpiece,” wrought by one of the country’s foremost gun engravers. It features a pastoral scene, with a relief-carved Indian brave, inlaid in gold, stalking a deer that’s drinking water from a lake, set in siver.

“You’d be crazy to shoot these,” he said.

Around lunchtime, he’s showing me an infrared scope that fits on an M1 carbine military rifle, when I get a news alert on my phone that brings up another side of guns.

The text says there’s been a shooting at an office park in Phoenix. There was one gunman who shot three victims, one of them dead. (A second victim died later, and the gunman shot himself.)

Just a few minutes after the news breaks, as Hogan and I are overlooking his production floor, I ask for his first reaction.

“I hope they shot the bastard right between the eyes that did the shooting,” he said. “I hope they, they – they killed him.”

Hogan believes shootings like this are about mental illness, or a culture that glorifies violence. He opposes stricter gun control laws, but he said this type of violence isn’t about guns – it’s about the people shooting them.

But he does see this as the reason to give more guns to law-abiding people who aren’t afraid to use them.

“ The message gets out there to people who are gonna commit crimes with guns that, you know what? I pull this gun out, maybe somebody’s gonna shoot me,” Hogan said. “I know that’s the old Wild West kinda mentality. But, you know, to some extent, it worked.”

For Hogan, that’s one more lesson from history.

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