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

June 8, 2000 8:00 AM ET

"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.

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