Forty-nine-year-old George calls himself “half-hillbilly, half Viking.”
He lives in a suburban ranch home in Lake County, Illinois. It’s not a big piece of land. But on his property, in a shed, he has enough food, water and emergency supplies to last him and his family a few weeks.
To protect all of that stuff, he has a lot of guns.
He said he’s just a country boy. But some people would refer to him as a prepper. That’s part of a growing group of Americans who believe life, as we know it, will end. They worry about a long list of disasters ranging from earthquakes to an economic collapse that would send people scrambling for food, water, gasoline and other essential supplies.
He wouldn’t admit how many guns he has because he worried people might try to rob them and his supply.
That’s why he uses the pseudonym George Drouillard. History buffs might recognize the name. Drouillard was a hunter on the Lewis and Clark expedition.
This George is over six feet tall and blond. He’s broad-shouldered and barrel-chested. He looks like he’s from another era. He’s always wearing an Army-green shirt covered with firearm teaching badges he’s earned over the years.
He’s an imposing figure. But when he holds a shotgun nearly half his size, it’s like just another limb, an extension of his arm.
George worried that society’s anthropomorphized guns. That we’re not blaming or assessing the people holding them. In a family of war veterans, hunters and farmers, guns are thought of as tools, meant to provide food and protection.
George said guns were kept in the house and considered as normal and useful as silverware in the kitchen and tools in his father’s workbench.
He described his upbringing--sort of pioneer living--as having taught him to be self-sufficient, to have the common sense to save for a rainy day and to give back more than he takes.
He has guns for hunting and skeet and trap shooting.
For the past 30 years, guns have been his livelihood. George studied American History and Political Science in college. But after graduating, he started selling sports equipment, including guns.
George doesn’t want to feel like his life is in danger again, and that’s why he’s got guns to protect himself and others.
It’s hard to say how many preppers are out there. They’re a secretive bunch. But according to a National Geographic poll, 28 percent of Americans know someone who thinks life as we know it will come to an end. They worry about disasters ranging from earthquakes to a collapse of the government.
George’s worst-case scenario would be a long-term lack of electricity, a major failure of electrical grid.
“It could turn us from 2013 to 1750 in a matter of minutes or days. Things would get very out of hand in a very very quick way,” George said.
The fear that their stockpiles of food or weapons could be stolen stops preppers from talking. George’s neighbors 25 feet away don’t know he’s a prepper. Even George’s girlfriend thinks his stash is a little goofy.
He has a number of bug-out bags. That’s the equipment gathered by preppers. He has a few of them in his car. These bags vary in size from cross-country backpacks to fanny packs and contain food, water, medical supplies and endless tools.
George always carries stuff like a Leatherman tool. He jokes that even if he were wearing a swimsuit, he’d have it tucked away somewhere.
The idea is to always be prepared, and for George, to be prepared to help others.
“Police and fire department and public works will be spread way too thin in the event of an emergency. They may live 50 miles away and they will stay home and take care of their families. As they should,” George said.
A sense of duty made George sign up for a federally run program that trains people to step in when professional responders are not immediately available.
He belongs to The Community Emergency Response Team.
But that’s not the only group George is involved in.
George and two friends teach others how to prepare. On a wintery evening, 17 people joined them at a public library in Lake Zurich, Illinois. They were your typical suburban residents: engineers, business owners, stay at home moms, accountants, former police and firefighters.
Preppers get together for regular training sessions, including some with their children. After all, the entire family needs to be prepared.
This group discussed ways to communicate if cell towers are down, electricity goes out and wi-fi dies. They'd use HAM radio, smoke signals or even carrier pigeons. They sound rational, engaged and informed.
Someone said that we need guns to protect ourselves during disasters because “People normally, just aren’t nice to each other.”
That’s what Dan Shielding worries about.
Dan drove from downtown Chicago to learn more from George about prepping.
“You see a lot of events that happened in history that are just horrific. There are people who are not nice and people who become desperate and do desperate things,” Dan said.
Prepping was a passing interest, but when his child was born, it became a priority.
He tears up when he hears about a child getting hurt. It makes him think of his own daughter, 2-year-old Xitlali.
Prepping all of a sudden is a necessity because Dan says he wants to make sure that if anything bad happens, his family can have a better chance of coming through unscathed.
Dan thinks the key to this is a gun. And so he’s out to get one.
“If anyone knows anything about prepping, they probably also know we have guns. If you’re going to break into someone’s house, the last person you’d choose would be a prepper,” he said.
Dan and his wife Maribel are selling their one-bedroom loft near Chicago’s Union Station. Dan wants to move to a gun-friendly place. They’re also running out of room.
A large bug-out bag sits near the door. There are also stockpiles of water under the bed. The cupboards are packed with cans.
Dan learned something about self-reliance as a boy scout in Wisconsin. He came to Chicago after graduating from Johns Hopkins University and has been running a business out of his loft nearly 10 years.
Back then, it seemed like a good idea for a single man looking for a woman to marry to have a bachelor pad in the city, close to nightlife.
At six feet, four inches tall, this former competitive swimmer never really worried about safety in the city. A few years ago, when a guy on the street asked if he wanted to buy a gun, he didn't even flinch.
But, now, he worries about being so close to Willis Tower. A terrorist attack, after all, is a real possibility and it’s one he doesn't take lightly.
Dan's prepared for many possible bad scenarios: crippling snow storms, inflation, an increasingly authoritarian government.
His wife Maribel says he worries too much. She’d always known him to be organized, but it surprised her to see him counting cans in the cupboards and telling her he’d been buying water and storing it under the bed.
“Okaaaaaaaaaaay,” Maribel said she recalls thinking.
She appreciates his concern but also wonders if prepping puts a target on her family’s back.
Maribel knows there are not a lot of people like Dan and in the case of an emergency, worries people will come and take their stuff.
“That would put us more in danger. I don’t know, It’s something that maybe he should consider,” Maribel said.
Like most things, Dan has. His prepping activity has ramped up in the past few months. It’s the safety of his family that has him wanting a gun, needing a gun, he says. But he wants to buy a good, reliable firearm that he thinks would cost between $400 and $1,000.
He took a couple of classes and got his Firearms Owners ID Card to get ready to buy. But when he started adding the costs of classes, licenses and other fees, it became too expensive, especially with a new baby. Recently, though, he started thinking it was time.
Dan thinks the window for owning a gun is closing because of local and federal laws. Like many preppers, he worries the government will take away the right to bear arms.
According to Dan, that’s the only way he could protect his family if someone came into their home.
Maribel said she doesn’t mind the thought of a gun locked in a safe in the house. That’s Dan’s plan. Problem is; If he could, in the city of Chicago, Dan would carry a gun at all times.
She doesn’t agree with that. She looks down and pulls her sweater over her hands. Her black hair covers her eyes.
While sitting on the couch one evening, Xitlali playing on her IPad between them, Maribel questions Dan about how safe he’ll be with the gun.
She wondered if he’d have a greater temptation to pull a gun on someone. If merely bumping into someone would be perceived as an aggressive move that Dan would respond to by pulling out his gun.
He looked taken aback.
Dan said he’s very serious about handling a gun safely.
“Having a gun is a humongous responsibility. You’re taught not to even put your finger on the trigger unless you’re willing to destroy something. They drill that into your brain. Handle this thing as if it’s always loaded,” Dan said.
He looked worried that he’s upset Maribel.
“I would be sending myself to prison if I did that. That’s definitely not something I want to do,” Dan said.
Shopping for a gun
He's dropping off Xitlali at her grandmother’s before heading to the gun store and range to try some on for size. Dan’s been to one in Lyons before. He likes their selection of guns.
He’s made a new spreadsheet that’s got every single statistic and specification of the guns he’d like to own. He’s also interested in reasonably priced ammo.
Preppers go through a lot of ammo because many practice shooting at least once a week. They also see ammo as an investment. They believe people will need ammo if there’s a catastrophe.
When he arrived at the gun shop on this Friday morning, it’s packed. There are people of all ages, all ethnicities. There was an hour-long wait for the range.
The owner said business had never been better.
Before he started shooting, Dan looked at the different guns. His large hands shook a little.
But after about 40 rounds on the range, he became a pro. One of the range workers commented on his precision.
Dan’s still looking for the perfect handgun, so he drives to another store in Lombard, Illinois.
He pulled out his excel sheet with all of the specs he wanted to compare. Dan told the store employee that he’s looking for a small gun, preferably a 9MM because it’s the cheapest in terms of self-defense ammo.
“I’m going to be practicing a lot so I’ll be using a lot of ammo,” he said.
The salesman explained that each gun has different characteristics. The way it fits in hand, weight and how much it recoils. The guy renting the guns warns about the drawbacks to smaller, less visible guns. They aren’t as accurate.
Dan picked out a Beretta Nano 9MM.
In the past, he's gotten a casing stuck between his temple and his eye protection.
He was okay with the Beretta. It’s not too comfortable in his hand, he said.
In the end, he didn't buy any gun. He wanted to compare some of specs he’s written in his excel sheets. But he was practically giddy when we leave the range. Dan claims to not be emotional, that he was just thinking methodically about what’s best for him, for his family.
This might be the gun he passes along to his daughter. He wants her to be armed at all times as well, when she grows up.
He said he’s going to buy a gun in the next few weeks.
“I will be acting as a good husband and good father and it will be a great feeling when I get the gun,” he said.
Because despite all of his preparedness, Dan still worries about the possibility of his family being victims and he wants to be the one defending their lives.