It was a gun dealer who first told me the reason why the preferred accessory in nearly every frontier portrait—every tintype, ferrotype, or daguerreotype—was a firearm. No 19th Century studio pose was complete without the obligatory Peacemaker, cartridge belt, and/or varmint gun across the lap. It wasn’t necessarily about brandishing, or projecting a threat, the man said. Men held guns in frontier portraits because the gun was likely his most expensive accessory. (For a trail hand on a cattle drive, a fancy repeating rifle like the Winchester carbine cost more than two month’s wages.) With the possible exception of his pocket watch, a firearm was also that individual’s most technologically advanced possession, the cow-town equivalent of an iPad. When you consider the iPad analogy, the level of firearm ownership in American households (according to Gallup, approximately 39 percent; according to the NRA, much higher) becomes more explicable. And the throngs who attend gun shows in the legion halls, hockey barns, and convention centers of America become a lot less fringe, a lot less menacing—at least to me.
I also learned that the people who rent table space at guns shows are not always trying to sell guns. Occasionally they just like to display their collection—or the very finest, rarest examples of their collection. Car aficionados do this all the time; they park their meticulously restored vehicles at a car show, settle into a canvas chair and let the praise wash over them. They’re not entertaining offers, they’re savoring the envy. Trolling for envy is not just a car thing, or a gun thing. It’s a guy thing.
After prowling a few gun shows I also learned that there is a high correlation between gun collectors and history buffs. In fact, the two seem inextricably tied, tied to the rigors of war, and to the technological refinements that war imposed. Mention three names to any gun collector—Sam Colt, Walter Hunt, and Hiram Maxim—and you will not just spark a conversation, but a dissertation on their relative significance to all humankind. (For the record, Samuel Colt first patented a pistol with a revolving cylinder. He later became America’s first practitioner of mass production, besting Henry Ford by half a century. Walter Hunt designed the first lever-action repeating rifle, and Hiram Maxim perfected the belt-fed, self-powered machine gun.)
Because of ATF restrictions, you won’t find anyone collecting belt-fed machine guns—at least, not legally. You will, however, find gun show patrons collecting and/or specializing in nearly every other firearm caliber, style, or sub-category. For instance, I know of dealers who sell, buy, and service only Mausers. Mauser is an unwieldy, cudgel of a carbine of German design that saw combat action throughout the late 19th and 20 centuries in places like Cuba (The Battle of San Juan Hill), South Africa (The Second Boer War—Who knew there were two?) and in World War II. Shotgun “doubles’ is another avid sub-category, comprising the many field guns, goose guns, and defensive “coach guns” that crack open at the breech and disassemble for transport in decorative, velvet-lined cases. Antique French and Italian doubles in decorative cases are highly coveted, and may command five-figure bids in Sotheby’s Arms & Armor auctions. This is also true of antique Colt revolvers—especially the presentation models lovingly engraved by Gustave Young, the Michelangelo of metallurgy.
All of this history-mongering and sub-specialization illustrates an essential point; that there is no single, prevailing gun culture. And it thus follows that there is no single, exemplary demographic among gun owners. This was instructive for me, and this also would constitute a revelation to anyone who watched broadcast news coverage of a truly colossal event like The Great Western Show in Pomona, California. Until its demise in 2000, The Great Western was the largest show of its kind in the world. And because it drew a nationwide constituency, because history buffs, hunters, and (yes) gun aficionados fairly mobbed the 543-acre Fairplex, it became difficult for the press to ignore. Because the show’s 325,000-square feet of indoor exhibit space (all of it leased, all of it packed cheek-to-jowl with vendors, hobbyists, and sundry re-enactors) presented a daunting obstacle for anyone with a camera crew and a deadline, field producers typically chose the easiest, laziest, and most ethically dubious angle on the story.
News crews invariably reverted to racial profiling. They would select the thuggiest vato they could find—someone with the obligatory shaved head, the waistband of his board shorts hitched well below his ass-crack, someone with neck tattoos and perhaps a tear tat garnishing the corner of an eye. And this could-be miscreant, this walking racial stereotype became the gun show’s ambassador to the world. Behold the presumptive gang-banger, seeking his next drive-by gat. Thanks for that report, Wendy. Let’s throw it over to Biff for a look at your weekend commute…
Granted, there is often a cholo contingent patronizing gun shows; persons who may or may not be Hispanic, persons who may or may not be gang-affiliated, and (in my experience) individuals who have a very predictable affinity for semi-automatic handguns. That doesn’t mean they are bad people with felonious motives. Like you, like me, and like the bearded guy who wears the scratchy wool uniform of the 1st Maryland Volunteer Infantry, they are all equal in the eyes of the law, and all are protected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Every gun show constituent—king, commoner, decorated war hero—is huddled together under the great marquee tent that comprises the American gun culture.
Perhaps a genteel marquee tent is not the first image that you might associate with firearms culture. Perhaps you harbor images of a far bleaker and more randomly violent Dystopia, the New York of Escape from New York, perhaps, or that nitro-fueled outback that Mel Gibson had to navigate in the Mad Max movies. If I say gun and you think criminal, or if I say gun collector and you think survivalist whack-job, then you have been successfully inculcated by our hypothetical Wendy, by a media that doesn’t shoot, doesn’t hunt, and who isn’t personally acquainted with anyone who does. And this highly insular, reactive mind-set makes it easier to for journalists to promulgate what I call the Merchants of Death narrative. The MOD narrative presumes that all firearms are instruments of urban mayhem, and all gun dealers are Merchants of Death.
I learned at the gun shows that the MOD narrative is about 97 percent myth. There are certainly exceptions that prove the rule; sting arrests made by ATF agents; unsanctioned sales, unsavory dealers, and, in Denver, Colorado, in November, 1998, the single most notorious transaction ever conducted at an American gun show. That was the grim occasion in which a proxy buyer named Robyn Anderson purchased three guns (two shotguns and a TEC-9, which is a very tacky version of a SWAT team assault weapon) as a favor to her prom date, Dylan Klebold, and his buddy, Eric Harris. The following April, Harris and Klebold utilized two of those guns in the Columbine massacre. As soon as police and federal agents tracked the boy’s weapons to the source, it signaled the death knell for hundreds of arena guns shows, including America’s largest, The Great Western.
By scuttling The Great Western Show, the Los Angeles County supervisors effectively curtailed any unsanctioned sales and gat acquisitions by unsavory-looking miscreants. If there were any would-be Harris’s or Klebolds amid the throngs, they would need to seek out a new mode of supply. So on that point (and it is not a trivial one), the public interest was served. But banning a show of that magnitude, one that filled a succession of airplane hangars, also marginalized an entire universe of legitimate sportsmen, scrupulous dealers, and conscientious citizens who honor the rule of law.
Of course, residents of Los Angeles County who want to purchase a firearm can always patronize a gun store, or a mega-retailer like Bass Pro Shops. If you want immerse yourself in military history, if you want to wax nostalgic about the Second Battle of Manasas (Who knew there were two?), you can always join a re-enactor society, or log onto a Civil War chat room. (There are dozens of them.) People who covet the most prized and collectible arms—Italian doubles, Colt revolvers—can always buy folio-sized coffee table books by R.L. Wilson, lavishly illustrated volumes that comprise a publishing sub-category known within the trade as “gun porn.”
But gun-collecting, gun-browsing, and firearms culture is a highly tactile, social endeavor. There is nothing tactile or remotely social about paging through a gun porn folio. And there is a kind of transactional sterility to an urban gun store that you don’t generally find at a gun show. Aimless browsing, for instance, is highly discouraged. Whip out reporter’s notepad in a gun store and you will likely be rousted and shown the door. A retail gun dealer is only too happy to describe calibers, features, muzzle velocity, and state and local firearms ordinances. He or she will dutifully submit your Form 4473 for the required NCIS criminal background check. But no storefront retailer will indulge your personal penchant for Boer War tactics and strategy. And no clerk at the Bass Pro Shop will ever report for work in a Confederate infantry uniform, complete with bed roll and field pack, ready to re-enact at the drop of a powder horn.