I have not seen the television show that vonCube so ably describes in Doomsday Preppers.
I have, however, recently come into contact with several people who might be described as Preppers. One of them I have become friends with, and am proud to say that because he is, in my experience, a very good man (hi there Gun Mentor!). I've listened to several folks talk about Prepping, and I've run across Prepper videos by the score on YouTube as well as read postings on various forums as I delve somewhat cautiously into the new (for me) realm of firearm ownership and culture.
I am fascinated by this.
Let me be clear: I am not here to tell you that what these folks believe is wrong. I'm not here to tell you that what they're doing doesn't make sense. I'm not even here to tell you that I think I'll do better in any situation than these people will. I'm just here to tell you what, from my perspective, it has been like to learn about this particular culture.
I grew up in the 1980s. I came to full sentience just in time to be told by Bloom County and Doonesbury about the dangers of nuclear war, and if that wasn't enough, my school held Discussions on The Day After and Threads and When the Wind Blows just to make the point. There was a non-zero chance that the World Would End, and that it would end not only in my lifetime but in the immediate future.
There were groups then who advocated many of the same mantras of 'be prepared' and 'better safe than sorry' that today's Preppers do. They were tagged 'survivalists' for their stated goal of surviving whatever nature or man could throw at them - which was code for 'I'm not giving up just because you idiots drop the bomb.'
The problem was that there was a high overlap with groups that were in fact truly crazy, and had responded to the pressures of modern American life by building compounds, finding Jesus hated black people, withdrawing from civil society and living in buried school buses. Waco, Texas got 'hung' on the survivalists; the John Birch society became a shorthand for 'batshit insane.' 'Survivalists' and 'militias' became known as the reason it wasn't safe to wander the deep woods in some parts of the U.S., especially if you weren't white.
Preppers are a different story in many ways, and similar in others. Like the '80s survivalists, the Preppers are worried about something the rest of us take for granted won't happen - namely a breakdown in society and the technological underpinnings of American life. Why will this happen? There are many reasons, and many code words. The code words are 'Grid Down Event' and 'SHTF', 'Without Rule of Law' and the like. Some of these are pretty reasonable - looked at in a particular way, yep, the United States has a very very high minimum functionality requirement for its infrastructure and its economy to maintain what we have come to call The American Way of Life. That's not the real problem - what's the real problem, many Preppers have decided, is that Americans are not capable of handling a disruption in that way of life with anything like aplomb or productive responses, and thus the first rule of surviving one of these events will be Every Man For Himself.
This, of course, is indeed their prerogative. After all, the Boy Scouts - whose charter activities most folks would heartily approve of such as woodcraft, camping, and yes, survival - have given us the motto Be Prepared. Why not? Preppers have videos on YouTube offering each other and the curious advice on many, many means of being prepared for this event - techniques for stockpiling and storing food, for example. Which canned food types and brands survive longest, and what sort of rotation makes sense for consuming your stockpiled goods (you don't put them in a closet forever, obviously - no, you just get yourself a multi-month or multi-year 'cushion' of your normal stable goods consumption, and then rotate them in as you eat the oldest ones). There are videos offering advice on what books to acquire to ensure you can learn emergency medicine, how to raise food crops, how to recognize edible wild plants, how to build your own tools and how to use those tools to build pretty much whatever you might need to survive.
Even the most adamant Preppers seem to be way, way more rational than the '80s survivalists. As one very hardcore Prepper explains on YouTube (with much dismissive profanity for those who disagree) - he's not planning for the SHTF. He is preparing for it. He uses the following metaphor - you don't put on a seat belt because you're planning to have an accident. You put on a seat belt to prepare for one, because there is a possibility one will occur.
How come I care, then?
I have started doing something defensive when I'm around Gun Mentor. He will, when he begins to discuss politics, fairly quickly start talking about the danger signs he sees in current events and recent history - danger signs that lead him to believe that self-reliance will, with a relatively high probability, be very important in the near future. I have started referring to this as 'The Zombie Apocalypse' rather than grid down event or similar term. I admit (and I hope he reads this) that I do this partially to rob the prediction of some of its power when we are discussing it, and of course partially because the Zombie Apocalypse is way more fun to Prep for (hell, it's Zombies. Crowbars are the least of it!).
I'm a pretty depressed person. Unlike Gun Mentor, I have great difficulty functioning in my day to day life. One of the reasons this is true is because I am unable to avoid self-evaluation and obsessive finding of failure and fault with my life. I am unable to just let the world go on around me, because I cannot avoid thinking about all the things that are very, very wrong with it and how much of a failure I am that I haven't managed to make any of them better (I didn't say I wasn't arrogant, either). As soon as I let myself think about this stuff, just like when I was an early teenager in the 1980s, I fall into the pit. If there's going to be a nuclear war or the grid is going to go down or there is going to be a Zombie Apocalypse, what the hell good is anything I do? I don't have a wife, or even a girlfriend, to say nothing of children. I wrote a story once that pretty much lays out my thought processes when it comes to the End of the World. The level of suck that it entails is one that I can't think about even at the level of 'there's a 5% chance this will happen' because the suck is so bad, so pervasive, that even the 5% expected utility of the suck is enough to catapult me deep beneath the floorboards into despair.
So I call it the Zombie Apocalypse. Which works fine until you read headlines like this one - I mean, hell, Miami? You just know the Zombie Apocalypse is gonna start someplace like that. Keep an eye out.
Anyway. My point is that the Preppers fascinate me for a couple of reasons. One, I vaguely remember when I had that sense that I had enough control over the world (or at least my place in it) that I could prepare to survive this kind of thing. I remember that self-confidence - I dunno if it was of youth, or just of my less-depressed self - that I would be one of the ones who Got Through It, whatever It Was.
Not anymore. If I let myself think too hard about the Zombie Apocalypse, I end up in The Penguin Game again, wondering where the nearest tall building is and why I should even bother to wait.
So for me, it's a dangerous sort of balancing act. I respect their drive and need to believe that they have that much control over their fates. I'm certainly not saying they don't; I'm jealous of that self-confidence. But on the other hand, I have to separate myself from it, not because I think they shouldn't (well, I lie - I do think they shouldn't but not individually - wait, that's complicated, more later) but for my own self-preservation now.
This moves me over to the second main thing about the Prepper movement. Not all of it, mind you, but a big part of it. It's something very simple and very American. Namely, if you go search 'Prepper' on YouTube, you'll find an awful lot of them talking basically about weapons (firearms) and their collection of firearms and ammunition. There are video catalogues of Prepper arsenals on YouTube - perfectly legal, I hasten to point out; this is America - which look like people preparing to fight the Los Zetas Cartel for possession of their front yard. People with ten AR-15 rifle variants, half a dozen shotguns, half a dozen long guns, and a handful of pistols explaining how they keep these weapons in ready condition, where they keep them, how they store the ammunition.
I recently bought my first firearm larger than a .22 Long Rifle. It's a World War II Battle Rifle. Yes, in the event of the Zombie Apocalypse, this weapon would in fact be Useful For Home Defense (although not as much for carrying, really). I just took delivery of a few hundred rounds of .30-06 Springfield from Greek surplus stocks (me doing my bit for Greek current accounts!) and a couple of thousand rounds of .22 LR because, well, it was cheap and I expect to be starting my nephews in on .22 riflery soon. But I have these guns for a different reason, I think: I want to shoot them. I want to go to the rifle range and learn the intricacies of making them perform properly and well. I want to treat it like golf - learn how to beat myself, to do better.
Gun Mentor would tell me that this use is perfectly appropriate and, he would point out, it is not at all incompatible with the other purpose of having firearms - that of Being Ready.
This is true. But I don't presently possess any firearms because it wouldn't be legal. I don't have my rifle. It lives elsewhere, with someone who is licensed to own it. I do not break any laws when I fire it, because they are with me and I am in a state which permits the transport of this rifle for the purpose of shooting it at the range, which is what I'm doing, by its owner - which presently, legally, is not me.
My point is that I don't have firearms that would be available to me in the case of emergency, of SHTF, of the Zombie Apocalypse.
And I'm pretty much 95% okay with that. Probably because I live in New York City, where I strongly believe people shouldn't have firearms (well, at least to carry).
But back to the Preppers. They are a much more diverse group than those 1980s types. There are liberal preppers. Libertarian preppers. Conservative preppers. White preppers. Black preppers. Hispanic preppers. Asian preppers. Rich preppers. Poor preppers. All sorts, just like America.
What they're doing is, in many cases, quite sensible.
But I can't help feeling that it's a bit like hoarding lifejackets on an ocean liner. If something happens, and the crew needs the passengers to all pull together to save the ship, what happens if half the passengers have already taken to the water because they were so locked into the survival plan that they didn't even have to think?
What if the ship could have been saved?
What if the SHTF locally, and preppers activate their emergency defense plans, and the government uses their response to do exactly what many of them fear - take away their guns? I'm sure the responsible ones wouldn't break out the caches unless they know for a fact that things were bad and weren't going to get better - but will they all be that restrained?
What happens when those who are just a little overeager, or those who have read the Prisoner's Dilemma, decide that 'going first' is an advantage?
I don't know.
In the meantime, I have my mind changed about gun ownership in small and large ways as I go. I am glad to have met people like Gun Mentor, who think about these things and do so in just as rational and analytic a manner as I think I do on the other side, because that's how good debates happen, and that's how good law and systems have a chance to be made - people who disagree finding the convex hull of regulation and process that allow them all to coexist.
I don't think I'm going to convince people like the YouTube preppers that I'm right about guns. I don't think that's my job, nor my responsibility. What I do think is that it is my responsibility to know what other Americans think about these things so that they are not just 'opponents' to me; not just 'political enemies' or even just 'the other guys.' They're Americans, and they're my countrymen and women, and they care.
Are they all what I would consider sane?
No. But then, neither am I.
Somehow, I do believe - even in this time of uncertainty and horrific news cycles - that there is a way through this, and that humanity and even America will survive and prevail. Do I know how? Nope. But nor do I know what we will face in the days, months, years and decades ahead. And you know what? I think most of them would agree with me. We just disagree on what we should do about it now, in case things don't turn out well.
Could I be wrong? Sure I could.
But I find that for me, telling myself that the world will go on is a much more powerful driver for me to act in a manner which contributes to the chances that I am correct.
Of course, one of the problems of the Prepper movement is that it has made the shooting hobby awful damn expensive for people like me who just want to shoot guns at paper. :-) Have you priced ammunition recently? Holy heck.
Update: I have been pointed to a discussion of Prepping on metafilter which is pretty interesting, especially the comment that points to. It is purportedly the experience of someone who is from Sarajevo, who lived through the recent war there. It describes what happened to people, including people who were basically Preppers there before the siege, and it's sobering.