Off the Shelf: When April got her gun

I promised I would bring the gun. I would buy it in New York, where I was going to see my publisher. It should have been the easiest thing in the world.

I wasn't planning to draw down on a murder suspect. This was for an author photo to appear on the jacket of my novel "Judas Horse," the latest in my series of mysteries about FBI Special Agent Ana Grey.

How better for a crime writer to appear than armed and dangerous? So before I left Los Angeles, I secured a leather shoulder holster on loan from a law enforcement friend. We met in a parking lot where he showed me how to put it on. "Don't put it in your carry-on," he cautioned. "They'll see it on the X-ray and wonder, Here's the holster, so where is the gun?"

The scheme was to buy a toy 9-millimeter Glock, the service weapon carried by the FBI. They make great fakes, don't they? Don't people rob banks every day with toy guns?

It was a beautiful night, so I walked down Broadway, from the upper 70s to the superstore Toys R Us on 42nd Street. When I asked the uniformed toy concierge where the guns were, she looked astounded, as if she hadn't heard that question in 20 years.

"You can't buy a toy gun in the boroughs of New York," she said, then added: "You could go to New Jersey."

I left the store feeling ridiculous. I'd been gone from the city too long. Nobody had told me about the imitation pistol section of the Administrative Code prohibiting the sale of toy guns. Now what? I had a photo shoot scheduled for the following day.

How about a prop? As a TV writer-producer, I had sat through enough production meetings to know that stage weaponry is a small industry. Here I was right on Broadway, where characters die from theatrical blanks almost as quickly as their plays.

So the following morning, after a feverish search on the Internet, I discovered the Centre Firearms Co. They stocked prop Glocks, but as I learned, you can't just walk in and rent one. The Administrative Code is so airtight that you need a letter of intent stating exactly what you plan to use the prop for.

This meant a letter from my publisher, followed by a dash to an address in the west 30s that turned out to be the Empire State Building. After stumbling through lobbies and doorways, I found a horrifying freight elevator that took me to an office with a massive steel door, where I was buzzed into a long, shadowy room filled with racks of dusty weapons. Rifles, muskets, M-16s. Beyond it lay another chamber, half-dark, filled with more. A depressed-looking man stood behind the counter.

He scrutinized the letter and filled out an elaborate form, warning that I must keep it with me when carrying the gun, in case I was stopped. Stopped? At a police roadblock. Or a metal detector. He offered me two choices of weapon: a prop cut out of a block of wood for $35 a week or an actual Glock (disabled for firing) that cost $10 more. You could not tell the difference, so I took the block of wood.

From the number of weapons, I imagined he must run a brisk business. He went into a languorous rant about the state of theatrical firearms. Wouldn't you know it, the fake gun business -- along with everything else -- has been degraded by computer technology. Movie studios no longer rent guns, they just use computer-generated images, with firing effects.

"Ah, let the next generation deal with it," he said.

After all this stress, I needed a swim. I was about to enter the Jewish Community Center when I realized that:

(A) I was carrying a gun.

(B) They had a metal detector and a security guard.

(C) This was a Jewish facility on high alert!

Form or no form, I saw complications in my future, so I quietly backed away.

It was pouring rain when I arrived at the photographer's studio in Lower Manhattan, lugging a huge suitcase and, of course, the weapon in its holster. As the photo session progressed, we both kept saying "I can't wait until we get to the gun!" like kids looking forward to the marshmallow filling.

We had fun playing make-believe, and we tried for an ironic spin, but ultimately, my feelings -- I am a strong proponent of gun control and judicious about the use of firearms in my novels -- must have seeped through. After looking at the images, my publisher decided not to use those with the Glock. But it didn't matter; I had delivered.

Isn't that what authors do?

Smith is the author of four mysteries, three of which revolve around the character of Ana Grey.

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