What I Saw at the Gun Show

David Koresh and those nice young men from Columbine armed themselves at the traveling ballistics bazaars known as gun shows

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"Hold the guns!" A fat man pleads as he offers a long black cowboy revolver in one hand and a nickel-plated semiautomatic in the other. "Touch 'em! Touch 'em!" A tattooed biker stops and fondles a Beretta 92FS. A bookish gentleman examines an elegantly carved 1862 Peabody buffalo rifle. A leathery grandmother squints down the barrel of a Militech combat shotgun that looks like it was developed by Klingons.

It's a beautiful spring Saturday in California's Central Valley, a perfect day to be out hiking along the American River. Instead, about 200 people are gathered in a dimly lit Quonset hut on the Yolo County Fairgrounds, buying, selling and swapping enough firepower to unseat a Balkan government. Here at the TS Gun Show – a kind of traveling ballistics bazaar – the discriminating buyer can pick up everything from a chrome-plated two-shot derringer small enough to fit on a belt buckle to a nine-pound M-1 rifle made during World War II by International Harvester. Ammunition is stacked in gleaming pyramids on plywood-and-sawhorse tables, and gunpowder is available by the gallon jug. The crisp snapping sound of bolts being worked and guns being dry-fired mingles with the shouts of old friends from the gunshow circuit greeting one another as they unpack their wares.

Gun shows are associated with some of the most horrific tragedies of recent American history. The weapons that serial killer Thomas Dillon used in five murders between 1989 and 1992 were all bought at gun shows. The Uzi carbine that white supremacist Buford Furrow used to shoot up a Jewish day-care center and kill a postal worker in Los Angeles last August reached him through a gun show. Weapons owned by Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh were traced to gun shows. And three of the four firearms used in the Columbine High School massacre were bought at a gun show. Eighteen-year-old Robyn Anderson, who bought two shotguns and a rifle at Denver's Tanner Gun Show on behalf of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, later told the Denver Post that she wished it had been more difficult. "I wouldn't have helped them buy the guns if I had faced a background check," she said.

Small wonder, then, that the country seems ready to rein in gun shows. "We're here now," says Edwin Palero, a double-earringed gun dealer from Antioch, California, "but the ultimate goal of the anti-gunners is to put us out of business." The promoters of this show have already been run out of two California counties; another California show this weekend was shut down by a local ordinance, and more counties in the state are weighing legal options for booting out these firearm swap meets. At the national level, President Clinton and his congressional allies are trying to close what they call "the gun-show loophole" that lets thousands of guns be sold without background checks, registration or any record keeping at all. The heat is on.

Gun shows as arms bazaars are a relatively recent phenomenon. The federal gun law passed after Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were killed in 1968 didn't ban private gun sales between individuals but did require anyone in the business of selling guns to have a federal license and to sell only in a proper store. Dealers could display their goods at gun shows, but nobody was allowed to sell them there. Then, in 1986, Democratic Rep. Harold Volkmer and Republican Sen. James McClure – both recipients of the National Rifle Association's Legion of Honor award – sponsored a bill allowing dealers to actually sell at gun shows, making it easter for people to traffic in arms without the regulations imposed on those "engaged in the business." The bill passed, and President Reagan signed it.

As a result, gun shows suddenly became places where huge numbers of weapons could change hands. While licensed dealers have to conduct business at the shows just as they do in their stores – running background checks before handing over the merchandise – ordinary folks can almost always sell firearms with no restrictions at all. They don't even have to rent a table in many states – they can simply wander the aisles or hang around in the parking lot, offering whatever to whomever, no questions asked. The attraction is obvious, both to law-abiding citizens who don't want to be bothered with paperwork and to the people who wouldn't be able to buy a gun at a store. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms looked at 314 of its recent arrests in which at least one gun came from a show and found that almost half the sales involved felons – who are supposed to be prohibited from buying guns. The problem, the ATF concludes, is that "under current law ... the seller has no idea and is under no obligation to find out whether he or she is selling a firearm to a felon or other prohibited person." The ATF found that more than a third of the guns in its study were later used in crimes.

Gun-control advocates call gun shows "Tupperware parties for criminals," and, like Tupperware parties, gun shows are more than venues to buy merchandise. They are cultural events, too, meeting places for members of American gun culture where the predictable obsessions get aired in a group setting. "If the populace doesn't have the means to coerce the government, then you really don't have any rights," says Michael Lambert, a wiry and intense professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at San Jose State University. Gun culture lives by the domino theory – if the "right" to buy guns without background checks is lost today, the right to own a ten-shot Glock will be lost tomorrow, the right to own hunting rifles the day after that, and so on into unarmed oblivion.

Rights, though, are only one aspect of gun culture. Gun shows are conclaves for a segment of society that NRA president Charlton Heston, in a 1997 speech to the conservative Free Congress Foundation, defined this way: "God-fearing, law-abiding:, Caucasian, middle-class, Protestant ... admitted heterosexual, gun-owning ... NRA-card-carrying ... male working stiff."

This us-against-them resentment -"mainstream America" as Heston put it vs. everybody who isn't white male straight and piously Protestant – palpably seethes at gun shows, Those in Denver and Montana, For examples, have in recent years offered white-supremacist literature, rifle targets emblazoned with cartoon African-Americans anti the likeness of Hillary Clinton and copies of the infamous racist fantasy The Turner Diaries, of which Timothy McVeigh was a fan. Gun shows tend to attract survivalists stocking up on ammunition and C rations, militia types in camo fatigues and scowling skinheads – as well as hunters, target shooters and collectors.

In California, the show atmosphere is a bit more tame than in Montana or Colorado. The crowd looks just about divided between Central Valley farmers and Sacramento desk jockeys. While in Montana it is common to see men swapping submachine guns and assault rifles in the parking lot, here they can't do that; huge state-mandated placards warn against it.

But even at this show, ninety minutes from San Francisco, a table offers bumper stickers that read WELCOME TO AMERICA: SPEAK ENGLISH OR GET THE HELL OUT and that feature a picture of robed Ku Klux Klansmen with the caption THE ORIGINAL BOYZ IN THE HOOD. Another table sells sniper autobiographies, manuals on building silencers and the book Can You Survive? Guidelines for Resistance to Tyranny for You and Your Family, with a blood-dripping commie sickle slicing through the United States.

Another element of gun culture is the sensual side to guns, which gun activists don't talk much about. "Touch the guns!" the fat man urges. The Smith & Wesson model 4566TSW .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol is a beautifully made object that fills the hand with its meaty grip. Its stainless-steel finish glows with understated, elegant power. Pull back the slide and it makes a satisfyingly cinematic slick-click. It's an attractive thing to hold, the way a Leica camera is – heavy, solid and finely machined.

Lots of gun-show shoppers are also hobby-hardware types who groove on weaponry the way others cherish stereo equipment or computers. Guns offer enough permutations of features and design to keep aficionados reading, writing and arguing indefinitely. And guns are associated with some of the most colorful moments of history, which brings in a large body of enthusiasts like the black-powder-musket folks you see at Civil War reenactments or the elderly gent here with the Peabody buffalo gun.

But unlike a Leica or an iMac, the items at this show are also lethal, and that packs its own morbid fascination. It's been argued that after the wheel and the printing press, the gun is the most significant invention in history, because it upsets the Darwinian odds – the weakest can annihilate the fittest by gently curling the index finger around a sliver of metal. Strap on a gun, and the meek shall inherit the earth. Heft this Smith & Wesson and you can sense the devolutionary power it imparts.

Since the law was passed in 1986 that gave rise to retail gun shows, about 175 companies and individuals have gone into the business, staging more than 4,400 events a year. An average of 2,500 to 5,000 people show up for each, paying from five dollars to fifty dollars to get in. The promoters also collect from the dealers who rent tables and from food concessionaires. Sallie Nordyke, the salty fifty-five-year-old co-owner of TS Gun Shows, won't say how much money she takes in at a typical show, but she already has sixteen such shows scheduled this year, at fairgrounds all over the state. And she's only one of several promoters in California.

Nordyke's event, with about fifty tables, is among the smallest. The biggest – the Great Western – fields 5,500 tables and will be held twice this year at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Venues range from the conference rooms of swank hotels, as in Denver, to the field houses of college campuses, as in Missoula, Montana. Today's gun show in Woodland, California, is sharing the Yolo County Fairgrounds with the Society for Creative Anachronism, a national organization of enthusiasts of the Middle Ages, who have gathered in huge numbers to dress in flowing gowns and suits of armor, whack each other with broadswords, play lutes and bow elaborately to one another in passing. The medievalists greatly outnumber the gun freaks this weekend; their gaily painted tents surround the field house and make the gun show feel like it's under siege from the Hohenstaufens.

The gun show is lucky to be here at all. A few years ago, Santa Clara County banned the sale of guns on county property, and though a federal court ruled that the ban was a violation of free speech, the door was left open for other local governments to regulate gun shows. Last fall, Los Angeles County told the Great Western show that its exhibitors couldn't sell guns on the fairgrounds in Pomona after a sting operation turned up huge numbers of gun-sale violations at its spring event. Great Western sued in federal court on the grounds that state law, which allows these fairs, supercedes county law. Great Western got an injunction against the county but decided to hold its future shows in the gun-friendly climate of Las Vegas anyway. Then California's Alameda and Sonoma counties banned the possession of guns on county property, which includes their fairgrounds. Legal Community Against violence, a nonprofit lawyers' group that helps communities draft gun control laws, says that several more California counties are considering similar moves.

President Clinton wants the House of Representatives to OK a bill – already approved by the Senate – that would, among other things, require all gun-show sales to pass through licensed dealers who would have to conduct the normal background checks. Congressional Republicans object to aspects of the bill and have stalled it in a conference committee since August. Still, even they say they agree in principle that anything-goes gun shows are a bad idea, and the days of these freewheeling bazaars appear to be numbered. "In all candor," Clinton said recently, "I think that taking a little time and a little inconvenience to save a lot of lives is a good deal for America."

California already regulates gun shows much as Clinton would have the feds regulate them everywhere. Weapons purchased at California shows must be picked up at a licensed store after a ten-day waiting period and a background check on the buyer. (Maryland requires background checks on all sales of handguns and assault rifles at gun shows, too, but lets rifles and shotguns be sold and traded without restriction.) The dealers at the TS Gun Show say they operate profitably under the state's regulations.

"We can live with these rules," says Sallie Nordyke. "The question is whether we can stop it at this point." She sighs as though she's made the speech a million times to a growing army of simpletons. She theatrically counts off on her fingers: "Now it's background checks. Next is licenses, photo IDs, whatnot, coming in your house for your serial numbers..." As she sees it, gun rights are on a slippery slope.

Just as California has led the way in surf tunes, emissions controls and bottled water, the state may now be showing the path back from the white-guy anger that characterized the Nineties and that finds open expression at gun shows. There are still lots of weapons for sale here in Woodland, and a whiff of the racist resentment you find elsewhere, but with background checks and a ten-day wait, no felon who just had a fight with his boss can leave this bazaar newly armed.

From The Archives Issue 842: June 8, 2000