What I Saw at the Gun Show

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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.

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