Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Great American Gun Show

Ammo, politics, and crazy merch---this writer loved it all.
gun show

After returning to Ohio after nine years away in the Marines, I found myself with a weekend of free time. So I decided to check out an event I had frequented as a young man: a gun show.

Sometimes called gun and knife shows, I was introduced to them by my grandfather in the early 2000s in a small Ohio town called Circleville. It was at that show that I purchased a Russian-made surplus Mosin-Nagant M44 carbine battle rifle for only $100 out the door. Complete with a folding bayonet and the Soviet hammer and sickle stamped on the barrel, the rifle was in unused condition (but made in 1946) and coated from steel butt plate to front sight in an oil-based rust preventative product called cosmoline. Cosmoline is sticky and has the consistency of wax, so for several hours with rags and gun oil I happily toiled to shine it up and ready it for the first firing. I still love shooting it. Every shot of Russian surplus 7.62x54R ammunition produces a 12-inch flame and sounds like a mini-cannon going off.

Despite the recent media focus on gun control and gun violence, gun shows—which number about 5,000 annually—have been in the sights of Congress for closure for quite some time. Between 2001 and 2013 seven unsuccessful attempts were made to close what is known as the “gun show loophole.” Federal law requires background checks for businesses who hold a Federal Firearm License (FFL) to sell firearms. However, per the 1986 Firearms Owners Protection Act, private sellers are defined as those who don’t generate their primary income through gun sales. These transactions do not require a federal background check (though 11 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws requiring a background check for all sales, including private ones). A gun can be transferred through trade, by barter, or cash, all common sights at the shows.

So what is it like to go to one of these shows?

The show I attended on December 22 was held at the Clark County Fairgrounds in Springfield, Ohio. Thirty-eight miles west of Columbus along Interstate 70 in flat farm country, I made the trek on a stereotypically cold and grey Ohio winter day. Pulling into the lot for parking around 12:30 p.m., one out of every two vehicles was an American-made truck, varying in degrees of dilapidation. Scanning my surroundings there were numerous warehouses, one labeled arts and crafts, one a youth center, and a mercantile. To my six ‘o’clock were several hundred yards of open air animal stables covered by a 30 foot tall galvanized steel roof. Devoid of livestock at the moment, I could only imagine how many farming kids paraded their prized animals during the fair days.  

As I was shuffling my cell phone and wallet and placing my loaded Walther PPS conceal carry pistol into my center console a fully packed minivan disembarked next to me. Two adult men were driver and passenger with four young men in tow, varying in age from ten to about eighteen years old. The driver promptly opened the tailgate to his van and removed a .50 caliber sniper rifle which was almost as tall as one of the younger men. The other man produced an AR-15 rifle from a black carry case. No cause for alarm, what might cause city slickers and urbanites a panic attack is just standard fare at a gun show.

The fee to enter was nine dollars cash, and for vendors each exhibit table was priced at sixty dollars. Prior to entering a large sign hanging above the entrance directed patrons that loaded weapons were not allowed into the show and no pictures were permitted either. A table before the entrance was manned by a worker who visually inspected each weapon’s chamber and then placed a plastic zip tie through the bolt or action and fastened it in place, rendering the weapon incapable of being loaded or fired. The show was split between two rectangular rooms conjoined by a small hallway, the first about 100 by 50 yards, the second 150 by 50 yards, with vendor tables being arranged in parallel to the longer side of the rooms.   

Although each table and vendor are unique, you can classify each table generally between guns, ammunition, accessories, privateers and collectors, and small businesses. For the gun tables the largest presence are actual gun dealers that set up shop at the shows. One vendor had five tables, the first two completely covered by handguns laying directly on top of their carrying cases or boxes, all new. Each gun had a security wire running through the trigger guard which was then plugged into a larger system to alert the seller if someone tried to walk off with a gun, unlike at traditional gun stores where weapons are either held lock and key underneath a glass case or behind the counter in a rifle rack. I requested to inspect a Taurus Public Defender, a revolver that can shoot both .410 shotgun or 45 Colt rounds. On sale for $359 plus tax. The other tables were new rifles sitting atop their boxes with several more beneath each one. I spot a few Kel-Tec Sub 2000s, a lightweight rifle that can fold in half for storage chambered in 9mm that accepts Glock handgun magazines, some American-made AK-47s from Century Arms, and of course, AR-15s. At the end of this vendor’s table was a German MG34 machine gun, on “sale” for $9,000 and 1300 rounds of belted ammunition but only of course to a holder of a FFL. Capable of firing at 850 rounds per minute, you could get about a minute and a half of fun before you needed more ammo.

The other vendors selling guns were usually collectors with one or two tables, the standard display being about five or six used guns either laid out on a mat or in a simple wooden gun rack clamped securely to the table, some paramilitary weapons like the SKS, others older like double barreled shotguns, a bin of miscellaneous collector items such as knives or patches, and a few ammunition magazines of varying caliber. When I started going to the shows in the early 2000s they were still under the shadow of the 1994 assault weapon’s ban, which lasted for ten years, expiring without renewal in 2004. Imported assault rifles ran in the thousands of dollars and high capacity magazines, generally anything capable of holding over ten rounds, were banned. To score a thirty round magazine in the early 2000s was like finding a rare 1970s muscle car in an abandoned barn. Not so today, for sale on numerous tables were AR-15 drum magazines capable of holding 100 rounds, and thirty round MAGPUL magazines for the AK-47 were only 15 bucks. I bought three. One collector had amassed about a dozen muskets from the late 1800s, many over four feet long, the barrels had a patina of rust and the wooden stocks were darkened and smooth from years of handling. Known as Pre-98s, they existed before serial numbers were stamped on weapons and each one had the makers name engraved. One piece from Cincinnati was tagged for $1700 but the collector said he’d let it go for $1,000. I passed.

The clientele of the shows are fairly easy to describe. Out of hundreds of attendees, I counted three African-American men, about five females, and the rest where white men, half of whom were bearded or wearing either civilian hunting or military camouflage. Eavesdropping is easy in the narrow confines between tables. Many patrons who toted a weapon for trade or barter could be heard explaining to a total stranger the make of the gun, how it shoots, the new sights, the two stage trigger, what they’ll take for it, and of course, the occasional ranting about the Democrats, liberals, Obama, Second Amendment rights, and the coming revolution. A standard technique is to put a wooden or metal rod in the barrel of the rifle as it is slung on the shoulder, barrel up, and attach a small paper sign to the rod to function as a walking advertisement for the gun and the price the owner is asking.

Ammunition sales were booming as usual, raking in cash from dozens of clamoring customers. Hard-to-find calibers can sometimes be found at the shows, especially for paramilitary weapons. Surplus vendors arranged large plastic bins of camouflage clothing, canteen pouches, parkas, boots, and blankets. One even possessed military booklet manuals for first aid, booby traps, and improvised munitions. I even spotted a service manual for the famous Thompson submachine gun sitting next to copies of Serpent’s Walk. A coin collector was selling US silver dollars from the 1880s for 38 bucks.

The oddball small business tables pushing wares and merch reflected the customers’ tastes. One table was selling bumper stickers, printed in Dixie by proud Americans, one for two bucks, three for five bucks. Some memorable mottos: “If You Want Gun Control Move to Chicago” and “Go Green-Recycle-Reload Your Own Ammo.” Several knife sharpening blacksmith’s were grinding away, and one woman was selling female focused clothing with a twisted Oprah like phrase: “Coffee, Jesus, and Pepper Spray.” JJ’s Café was up and running as well at the far end of the larger hall, the menu organized by the type of meat in the sandwich: beef, chicken, pork, or fish. And if you want vegetarian, well grilled cheese was your only option, although I was pleasantly surprised to see an overweight gun collector break out a homemade iceberg lettuce salad, only to bury it in an avalanche of ranch dressing.

With my ammunition, high capacity magazines, and a new holster for my “truck gun,” a Springfield XDM .40, I headed for the doors around 2 p.m. Just outside several vendors were taking a smoke break, complaining they should be allowed to light up indoors, cursing the damned liberals who have made too many rules and are stealing our freedom. I love gun shows.

Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.