Among his heroes are men who died fighting racism -- men such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Davis' home library, some 2,000 volumes strong, chronicles their lives as activists. Davis' life, too, is devoted to activism for civil rights. On this day, his freedom march runs right through a gun show in North Kansas City.
He pulls up in front of the KC Market Center in his big black Chevy pickup, which sports Bush-Cheney and John Ashcroft bumper stickers. His Missouri plates are one-of-a-kind, bearing six custom-stamped letters: THE NRA. "When I tried to get these plates ten years ago," says Davis, "I just assumed some good ol' boy would [already] have [them]." Davis steps out, towering six and a half feet above the concrete -- more than seven if you stretch the measuring tape from the gold tips of his cowboy boots to the top of his Chevy 409 baseball cap. His massive chest is wrapped in a canvas Carhart hunting jacket that's covered with sewn-on patches -- Missouri Mountain Man Trappers Association, Pioneer Gun Club and Lawrence brand shotgun shells, declared "the shot of champions." Davis' goatee is scraggly. Chipped plastic-framed glasses slant across his face.
Inside the hall he sheds his coat, revealing a black T-shirt honoring dead NASCAR driver Dale Earnhart. He tacks up an Earnhart poster and begins arranging a booth for his ongoing grassroots campaign -- draping a Western Missouri Shooters Alliance banner across a folding table, laying out stacks of brochures and piles of buttons and, for that added touch, displaying an AK-47.
He beckons gun shoppers to buy into a raffle for a shiny new rifle. "You know what we're gonna do with that dollar?" he asks a customer. "We're gonna stand up for your Second Amendment rights."
Davis has been president of the WMSA for three years, leading its largely white members in defense of their guns. The group, comprising mostly fellow Kansas Citians, actively opposes any gun restrictions offered at the city, county or state levels. One of its main goals is to get a concealed-weapons bill passed that would allow any Missourian who's not a convicted felon or, in Davis' words, "a mental derelict" to tuck a Glock into his shirt. The group isn't affiliated with any political party. But its members hunt for progun candidates and throw money and volunteer hours behind them.
Davis has been with the group for six years. He's been a lifetime member of the NRA for more than twenty years. The right to bear arms is about the only political issue he cares about. That puts him in company not sought by many black men. Among the hundreds of visitors to this gun show, all but two or three are white. Still, Davis seems to know everyone. From the bearded and beer-bellied Ozark Mountain types to the little old lady selling $5 bags of beef jerky -- they all nod and say hello.
Taking a break, Davis walks confidently among the booths and shops the vast array of wares, stopping to admire a steel-and-black M1-A. Production of it and all other semiautomatic rifles for mass sales was banned early in Clinton's presidency, but shows like this one still offer old models for sale. That they're restricted at all riles Davis. The M1-A, used by U.S. soldiers in World War II and in Korea, is his favorite gun. "A lot of the antigunners like to say they support guns for hunters but not semiautomatics because those are only used to kill people," he says. "Well, I like to hunt with them. It's more humane because you can shoot fast. If you don't kill a deer on the first shot, you can shoot again right away and put him out of his pain."
He also wants the right to keep one for personal protection. He notes that the Ku Klux Klan has been building forces near his hometown in north central Missouri, which he still visits regularly. "If they decide they want me to be their next victim," he says, "I want something that shoots fast, something that holds a lot of ammunition."
Davis' dad got him his first gun when Davis was eight years old -- a little .22 single shot. "I used to hunt squirrels with it," he says. Guns were as common as shoes in Dalton, the fraction of a village in Missouri's pecan country where Davis was born 52 years ago. He and his dad hunted just about every weekend, almost always for food. Hunting is still one of his favorite pastimes. And it's better now with his collection of fast-blasting semis and the shoulder-bruising .300 Winchester Magnum he bought special for this fall's elk hunt in Colorado. "I picked it out because when I was a kid, I wanted to be the black Lucas McCain," he says, referring to Chuck Connors' character in The Rifleman. In his personal library, Davis finds black role models who carried firearms, as recorded in Negroes With Guns by Robert Franklin Williams and Last Man Standing, Jack Olsen's book about Black Panther Party leader Geronimo Pratt.
As he does for hunting, Davis still holds an affinity for his hometown. Dalton is an hour northwest of Columbia. Davis and his wife, Linda, return just about every other Sunday to attend church. "Here in Dalton," he says as he eases his pickup onto a dirt road near the edge of town, "the people are close to the land. They're very loyal to Dalton. It's almost like if you say something bad about Dalton, you're saying something about someone's wife. The things we live for in life -- the principles, ideals and morals -- come from Dalton."
As he slips past the town limit and the green sign reading "Pop. 38," his memories come alive. "That's the school where all the white kids went," he says, pointing to a decrepit white building with a short bell tower. When he lived here, he says, there were about 100 residents, most of whom were black. In its heyday, Dalton boasted 250 people.
Now it looks like a ghost town. The storefronts that remain on Main Street lean at odd angles. "That empty lot over there is where the house I was born in used to be," Davis says. He points out a stately brick building on a hill. It used to be the high school for all the black kids in the region. They were shipped in from towns as distant as Marshall and Moberly, each more than 25 miles away. "There's always been busing," Davis says. "There's busing now for desegregation and there was busing then for segregation."
Blacks were first brought to the region by slave owners from the east. Some of Davis' ancestors were the property of Sterling Price, the Missouri governor and Confederate general who led his troops to defeat in the Battle of Westport at what is now Loose Park. Most present-day residents of Dalton are related to Davis in some way. He has cousins scattered all over the Missouri countryside.
Dalton is more a makeshift retirement community than a town. Between the ramshackle buildings are mobile homes occupied by Dalton natives who, like Davis, made careers in big cities -- Columbia, Jefferson City, St. Louis and Kansas City -- and have come home to retire.
Davis plans to join them. Retirement is ten years away, but Davis can't wait to get away from Kansas City's east side and back to Dalton for good. "It'd be all right for me to live in the country," he says. "I don't need nothing to do. Hell, I could spend all day listening to the crickets rub their hind legs together."
Linda hopes to talk him out of it. "I don't really want to stay here," she says. "I like the country, but this is a little too country."
They got married last year, on the Saturday before Memorial Day -- when Dalton holds its annual festival. "That's so he can remember the anniversary," Linda says.
Before he'd say "I do," Davis made Linda join the NRA and the WMSA. "I wanted to have God in our relationship, and it's the same thing with the NRA," he says. "There are some guys I know whose wives won't let them bring their guns in the house. I'm like, 'Hell, I'd be getting rid of her.'"
Linda doesn't mind. "I'm like, 'Okay.' I'll support him in anything," she says. Davis was a great catch: "He has a lot of old ways we bump heads on because he's so country. But I like how Gary is his own man. He doesn't let other people influence him. He's hardworking and he's good to my kids and grandkids." When Linda's employer moved to Blue Springs, Davis supported Linda's choice to start a day care business at home instead of moving along. "That means a lot to me," she says.
She sits beside him in church. Of the dozen or so people in the sanctuary, all but a couple are Davis' relatives. His aunt, who is more than ninety years old, helps lead the singing. The hymns are slow, soulful and just a little out of tune. The pastor, the Reverend Earl Howell, takes the pulpit and preaches about what might happen if walls could talk. "What would they say about you?" he bellows. Davis sits tall, nods at the high points and says, "Mmm hmm."
Afterward he shakes hands with Howell. "I signed him up for the NRA," he says.
Supporting gun rights is the least Davis expects from a minister. That's a big reason why he drives more than three hours to worship. The city's been his home for most of his life, but its antigun preachers offer nothing for him. "You won't find me in Emanuel Cleaver's church," he says.
Every weekday morning at a little after 5, Davis fires up a city bus and begins driving back and forth between the city's east and west sides. He roams the 39 route, from 40th and Topping to the KU Med Center on State Line Road. His bus is a moving community center, where regulars seem to board not so much for a ride as for a quick visit. Sitting in the same seats every day, they share news from the neighborhood and track the sagas of their hardworking lives. Davis plays the good host, opening the door with "Hey, baby" or "Hey, momma" to the women and "What's up, daddy?" to the men. He's been driving for nearly three decades.
He's serious about his job, but he's not afraid to have a little fun. Near 39th and Troost, a couple of teens in baggy jeans get on and stall near the token taker, which won't accept a dollar bill. "Hurry up, bitch, it's cold!" says the one behind, near the still-open door. "It be like Alaska and shit."
Davis can't resist: "Well, maybe if you pulled your pants up, you wouldn't be so cold."
"Say what? Yo, why don't you buy me some britches?"
Davis laughs. "It sounds like you need to get yourself a job."
At Prospect the pair hop off, and the working women in the front rows shake their heads. "They must be twins," one says.
"They the same kind of stupid," Davis says. He watches them dart across the street and slap hands with a couple of kids guarding an empty lot. "Now, that's their job -- standing out there on 39th and Prospect. And if they work out there long enough, you can bet their britches will get shot all the way off."
Most of his riders are working folk. He knows many by name. They're on every day at the same time. Over the years he's built a deep rapport with some of them.
With the bus idling at the east end of the line, Davis chats up Jamie Woods, who mentions she went to Central High School.
"Did you know my brother, Myron Davis?"
"He got killed, didn't he?" she asks.
"That's him." He leans forward and points to a button on his lapel -- a photo of his brother and nephew. He's worn the pin ever since Myron got shot in a robbery on December 22, 1991.
"Right before Christmas," Woods says. "I know that would really hurt."
"I tell you, when he got killed it was the most devastating thing that happened to me in my life," he says. "When that happened, I tell you, I can understand when a woman's been raped saying she feels like she's been violated. I felt violated when that happened. Like my whole family had been violated."
Yet he's never felt justice was served for the crime. Today, the man Davis believes killed his brother walks the streets. Though caught shortly after the murder with a gun that produced shell casings exactly matching those at the scene, the suspect was released on bond. Within weeks, he robbed and shot another man, who survived. By March 1992, the man killed again. He plea bargained and got seven years for that crime -- and avoided trial for the slaying of Davis' brother.
Woods is appalled by the story. "It's just another nigger killed," she says.
"Mmm hmm," Davis replies. "If my brother was white, that man'd still be in jail."
Crime is a common subject on Davis' bus. For people riding through the city's East and Central police patrol divisions, which are mired in the densest crime statistics, it seems a reasonable topic. Davis often tells people to look out for their tails. Like the woman who gets on every morning at Gillham Park. She's always out before the sun comes up, so one day Davis asked whether she walked across the park to get to her stop. She told him she did. So he told her that a few years back there was a murdering rapist who preyed on women in the park. "If you don't get yourself a gun, you should at least get yourself a knife," he told her.
"I was surprised," he says today. "She came back a few days later with a knife almost as big as this bus."
Sometimes passengers see his coat -- the one covered in NRA and gun-related patches -- and ask him questions. Sometimes they give him the opportunity to evangelize. A few years back, when he drove the Prospect route, he persuaded a man to join the NRA. He often meets women who own guns but aren't sure they'll be able to use them should danger arise. Davis leads them to the WMSA's pistol safety and protection courses.
Living in the inner city, Davis has changed the reasons for his activism to reflect the times. Nowadays, he perceives that his personal freedom and civil rights are threatened not so much by white men in hoods and robes as by people in his own neighborhood. "As if the Ku Klux Klan and skinheads were not enough, there was the other KKK, the 'Kool Kolored Kats,' gang members who prey on their own community," he once told the Kansas City Call.
"The only people that I dislike are criminals," he says as he navigates the streets. "I don't care what color they are. I dislike criminals, thugs. They're out here preying on people, and they have the mentality that they can take whatever belongs to you, including your life, if they desire. As far as I'm concerned, they can go to hell."
Few of his neighbors would disagree. But many take issue with Davis' proposed solution: Allow the law-abiding majority of inner-city residents to arm themselves against the troublesome few who terrorize their streets. This is especially true among the politicians who represent Davis' part of town. For years he has campaigned for gun rights and wound up arguing with such leaders as Kansas City Councilman Alvin Brooks. There's one tussle both men remember regarding semiautomatic guns. Davis invoked the memory of a white couple beaten to death in their home a few years back by a gang of youths. "That's a horrible way to die," Davis says. "I told Alvin Brooks, I said, 'I wish that old guy had an AR-15 with a thirty-round magazine, and he could have shot every mother's son that came in there.' And Mr. Brooks said something to the effect of, 'Well, that would have been more deaths.' Well, I don't give a damn. That guy and his wife would still be living and all those thugs would be dead."
Brooks still will have none of it. "That's just barbaric!" he barks into his cell phone when reminded of the exchange. "It's the dark ages. It's senseless, inhumane thinking."
Brooks recalls that Davis once told him that Richard Nixon had trusted him with assault rifles when he was a kid in Vietnam but that Bill Clinton couldn't trust him as a grown man with the same rifles here. "I said, 'You're damn right! He shouldn't trust you with guns. He shouldn't trust me with guns,'" Brooks says.
Brooks, old enough to be Davis' dad, knew Davis as a teenager. After leaving Dalton for the big city, Davis' family settled in Brooks' neighborhood. The men don't dislike each other, but it's unlikely they'll ever see eye to eye on this issue. Where Davis believes that criminals, not guns, should be held accountable for crime, Brooks believes the weapons are part and parcel of a violent world. "Violence begets violence," he says. "It's become a part of our culture. It's as American as apple pie."
He leans his opinion on a slew of statistics: More than 30,000 Americans die each year from firearms; two out of three murders involve guns, and more than half involve handguns; firearm homicide is the leading cause of death among black males ages 15 to 34. In Kansas City, Missouri, 141 people were killed with guns last year, according to police records. Guns were used in more than 1,500 robberies and nearly 2,000 aggravated assaults in the city.
Davis would use the same statistics to argue guns are needed to deter crime, but Brooks won't buy it. "If that was the case," Brooks responds, "with as many guns as we have, and we have more guns than the criminals do, we wouldn't have any crime. You think criminals are scared because we have guns?" According to a national police survey, nearly two million Americans own firearms. According to the FBI, barely 200 justifiable handgun-related homicides occur in an average year.
Yet Davis is puzzled why a man like Brooks, who is African-American, would support gun control. He points out that the first gun control laws were aimed at blacks in the Jim Crow South. "That's why I don't understand why any black or Jewish person can support gun control legislation -- or Indian, because that's what kept blacks in segregation and Indians on the reservation," he says.
To that, Brooks replies: "If African-Americans in the North and South would have responded to racism with guns, the progress we made would not have been made. That's a weak argument."
It's a few ticks before sunrise on a Wednesday, and the chartered bus to Jefferson City is about half full. Davis walks up the aisle past his fellow travelers, most of whom are white members of the WMSA or Missouri's 51st Militia. Today Davis is a rider, not a driver, but he takes the driver's mic and addresses the passengers: "Okay, guys, we've got a concealed-weapons bill in Jeff City, and we're calling for them to kill it because it's not a good bill. A lot of us wouldn't be able to qualify. It's an elitist bill. We didn't come this far to go halfway."
He takes a seat in a middle row, and the bus lurches onto I-70. TV screens flicker above the passengers' heads, and on pops a selection from a rider's personal video collection: Machine Gun Magic. "I might be a little older now, but not much has changed," the narrator says. "I still enjoy machine guns. I know thousands of others out there do too. What you're about to see is the fun, the history and some straight talk about one of the most misunderstood pieces of engineering in America."
Davis has fired a few machine guns himself. In Vietnam in 1968 and '69, he had the pleasure of working some M-16s and .50 Brownings. "They were fun to shoot," he recalls. One time, his Navy unit fired on a shoreline for hours on end. The guns got so hot, the sailors had to pour cold water on the barrels. But war and killing took a toll on Davis. "That was the only time I smoked marijuana," he says. "You needed to just to calm your nerves."
Though Davis joined the NRA just a few years after leaving the war, his activism didn't fire up until the early '90s, when Clinton pushed a ban on assault rifles. "That kind of pissed me off," Davis says. "I saw our freedoms being eroded. They were trying to do the same thing in this country they did in Great Britain and Australia -- a complete ban."
He was ashamed to just sit around reading the NRA's American Rifleman magazine; he wanted to get involved. So six years ago he joined the WMSA. The group boasts close to 2,000 members, most of whom live around Kansas City. He started out by working tables at gun shows. He was better at that than anyone else. "He's a natural salesman," says Kevin Jamison, a Grandview attorney and board member for the group. "He can talk people into or out of anything."
Jamison recalls how Davis sold raffle tickets for an assault weapon to ATF guys in a booth near theirs ("and that was right after Waco," Davis says). Another time a fellow member was having trouble getting training manuals from the NRA. Davis made a couple of calls and, in a snap, the manuals arrived.
The other members marvel at his effectiveness. Asked how he does it, he shrugs: "I know how to talk to white people."
Davis quickly rose to the board of directors and became the group's gun show coordinator. He was elected vice president in 1997. Halfway through his term, the president resigned over policy differences, and Davis took the helm.
The WMSA is one of the most respected gun advocacy groups in the state. "You can call anyone in the NRA and they'll tell you about the WMSA," Davis says. "If you have gun problems in western Missouri, the NRA will refer you to us."
"The Western Missouri Shooters Alliance is a terrific grassroots group, one we work very closely with in Missouri," says Glen Caroline, director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action's grassroots division.
The group runs the NRA's Crime Strike program in Missouri, testifying in front of parole boards against the release of violent offenders. The group also offers a personal-protection pistol training program. But what the WMSA does best is lobby for gun rights. Davis brags that for as long as the organization has existed, not a single antigun bill has survived under the dome in Jefferson City. The group works hard to get progun people into office by offering the maximum campaign contribution and as many man hours as they need. "We don't care which party you belong to," he says. "It's where you stand on the Second Amendment. That's what's important to us."
One of the organization's main goals is to make it legal for anyone to carry a concealed weapon. That's why members are against the legislation introduced by state Representative Wayne Crump, a Democrat from Potosi. The bill would allow gun permits only for people who complete special training, pass a test and, worst of all, demonstrate some kind of need. "The sheriff would be giving out the permits," Davis warns. "So if he doesn't like the color of your skin or your sexual orientation -- or just plain doesn't like you -- he doesn't have to give one to you."
The best bill was the one the WMSA helped get on the ballot in 1999: Proposition B. This would have allowed just about anyone with a clean record to carry a hidden gun. Governor Mel Carnahan campaigned mightily against it, and despite overwhelming support from the state's rural counties, it fell.
For his part, as president of the WMSA, Davis reached out to minority groups without much luck. The best he could get out of Freedom Incorporated, the city's long-standing black political organization, was a neutral position on the ballot measure. And he tried to enlist Kansas City's Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation to support the cause. "It was around the time of Matthew Shepard, and we thought they would be a natural group," he says, recalling the 1998 beating death of a gay man in Wyoming. "But they were a little gun-shy. They didn't come out in support. I was surprised."
Jane Ralph, who was GLAAD's educational services manager at the time, says Davis' overture was rebuffed because the group isn't a political organization. "It's not something we would do anyway," she says.
Davis says that not everyone in the WMSA supported the recruiting of GLAAD. "We caught some flak for that: approaching the gays and lesbians," he says. "It was from a small minority of our members. And some of them quit. But we thought it was the right thing to do."
"The shooting community these days is very much 'If you come out and shoot with us and play by rules and are safe and considerate, you're one of us and nothing else really matters,'" Jamison says. "The stereotype is a bunch of racist rednecks -- something like the supporting roles in Deliverance. There are guys out there like that. These rednecks just generally are not representative of the gun culture. Every family's got black sheep, I suppose."
Now, lacking a victory from voters, Davis and his cohorts must ask their elected leaders to pass the conceal-and-carry bill they want -- thus, this trip to Jefferson City. It's the annual Roundup in the Rotunda, where all the different progun groups show their numbers, cheer legislators who support their cause and politely try to pursuade those who don't.
Davis' elected representatives are among those who don't. "Since I live in the black community," he says, "my senator and representative are on the wrong side. They always vote antigun. So as far as I'm concerned they're worthless."
Applause echoes into the upper reaches of the statehouse dome. Standing before the 300-strong throng of gun activists is a line of state representatives who support the cause. The pols are from all corners of the state, including a few from around Kansas City. Those are the ones Davis is most proud of. Though he couldn't vote for them because he doesn't live in their districts, they're his reps. He helped them get elected.
"Connie's one of our girls," he says of Connie Cierpiot, a Republican from Independence. And Davis claps loudly when Susan Phillips takes the stage. She's a Republican from north of the river, and she took some heat during her campaign because she was a member of the WMSA. "My opponent made that the one and only issue," she says. "I would knock on doors and they would say, 'Are you the gun lady?' and finally I just started saying, 'Yes, I am.'"
Facing this challenge, Davis and his WMSA clan kicked into high gear, offering money and volunteer assistance, helping Phillips to win the election. "In defense of the Second Amendment, do I look like a wacko?" asks the conservatively dressed Phillips.
A procession of activists takes center stage. One touts his book, From My Cold, Dead Fingers. Another sings "You Can Take My Gun From My Cold, Dead Hand." Some, like Neal Knox, are national names whom the WMSA and other groups here paid to come out and speak. Knox has lobbied for gun rights since the mid-'60s. He served a stint as the executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, and he now runs the Firearms Coalition, a lobbying group based in Virginia.
"Gary is a fine, fine man," Knox says. "Lord knows I wish I had a bunch of him all over the country. He is solid on this issue. He understands that here he is a black man in the black community where everyone is accusing him of being a turncoat. He's defending their rights."
Knox recalls once referring a New York Times reporter to Davis, as a source for a piece on gun rights activists. "When [the reporter] came back I said, 'I bet that rattled your cage, blew your skirts up when you saw big old Gary Davis,'" he says.
"A black guy," adds Davis, laughing.
They both talk about how they thought the Times article was fair -- something they claim to not always see in the media. (Davis calls his morning paper The Red Star.) "Typically, if he had been talking to Kevin [Jamison] or he had been talking to me," Knox says to Davis, "he might not have played it as evenly. He treated you fair. That's why you're so durn important."
Davis concurs. "Let's say if it was a white person, they'd say he's a right-wing, redneck racist. If I speak up, they can't say that. They just have to swallow it."
Near the end of the morning's proceedings, Jamison takes the podium. He warns of attacks against the Second Amendment on a number of fronts and then calls on his fellow activists to take their message to the powers that be. "Over at the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance table," he tells them, "you'll find some blaze-orange walnuts. Take a couple of them. Take three. Take them to your legislator and to your senator. Take one to our governor's office -- and TELL THEM THE GUN NUTS ARE HERE!" The crowd goes wild.
Nuts in hand, Davis steps into the office of Democratic Senator Mary Groves Bland. He lays them on the desk in front of the secretary. She picks one up, careful to touch them with only her long fingernails. "What is this?" she asks.
"I want you to give those to the senator," he says. "Tell her one of her constituents stopped by to tell her to support gun rights."
Later, Bland says she never saw the nuts. But she's adamant in her opposition to guns. "I think they only encourage more violence than what there already is," she says. "Statistics show that people say they have guns for protecting their property and their loved ones but that's not what they're used for. They usually go to hurt the family."
She says even though a Davis or two might call or stop by, the majority of the people in her district are in favor of gun control. "Guns have been part of the violence in our community," she says.
Though she doesn't recall meeting Davis, she's heard all his arguments from other gun activists, and she has answers to them all. Addressing the argument of protection against crime, she asks: "How do you distinguish a law-abiding citizen from a criminal? I think that's ludicrous. Now you're saying because they get guns, we citizens have also got to get guns. We need to make guns not available for criminals." Addressing the notion that gun control was an integral part of racial oppression, she says: "That's another time and another place. When we were a rural nation surrounded by wilderness, guns were appropriate. But times have changed. Things have changed. We must have a changed attitude before we can make things right."
To Davis it's all a bunch of politically motivated baloney. "A progun politician?" he asks. "There's no such creature in my district. Because if they want their support of the political machine, they can't be pro Second Amendment in the black community."
But he knows if you poke at that machine a little bit, its relentless campaign against guns begins to soften. He recalls two or three occasions when Democrats from deep in the heart of Kansas City and St. Louis -- as well as leaders from various socially minded organizations -- have admitted that they own guns. "They've told me they would support gun rights but they'd lose their funding if they did," he says, adding, "If it comes down to being a victim or protecting yourself, most people are like me. They're going to protect themselves."
And he's going to keep fighting to make sure they can.