“The Constitution of most of our states (and of the United States) assert that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father, Virginian, and international baller.
We pull in to a sun baked parking lot full of SUVs with Power Of Pride bumper stickers and bad patriotic vanity plates. The overall atmosphere is not unlike what you might find at a Promise Keepers convention, a strange mix of family-friendly irony and prostelization. Camouflaged ‘tweens play entourage to their obviously ex-military baby boomer fathers, who eye their surroundings like a recon mission. The sense of nationalism is palpable, but no one seems to give a shit that most of the associated materialism found here owes it’s tangibility to Asian factories.
The bizarre grin of police lights surrounding the entrance isn’t exactly the quintessential manifestation of southern hospitality you’d expect at such a provincially signature event, and the paranoia of hungover culture-shock is starting to saturate my mood. Who are these would-be militia men and their big hair groupies and children? As we shuffle past the strangely intrusive inspection of the ticket takers, politely turning down free NRA memberships, a wave of unreasonable panic pools in my suddenly clammy palms, shaking like the moment you realize you’ve lost control of a car on I95.
ABOVE: Sig-Sauer pistols, noted by their blue boxes. Sig-Sauer is based in Reston, VA.
I’m not sure what you would label us. “Southern leftists with a taste for wine and firing shotguns” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue very well, and I’d suggest “Hickster” but we’re not really hicks and neither of us have a fanny pack. Nor are we hippies, though I’m fairly certain that is the derogation behind the tight lips of most attendees and vendors at the Richmond Raceway Complex for the March gun show one Sunday morning. Ian can blend in, with a full beard and a low, southern drawl that’s knowingly being applied with a few extra coats, but I stick out like, well, a long-haired goateed Jew at a gun show. The majority of the attendees are exactly who you would expect to be prowling the fluorescent rows of handguns and weird plastic assault rifles. But even the small contingency of visible minorities strolling the isles is being eyed with less hostility by the Nazi regalia assholes than I am, although I’ve admittedly been giving them the stink-eye for the better part of an hour. At least we have a mutual understanding: they hate my shylock ass as much as I hate them, and we’re both armed.
Months earlier, as November’s chills steadily crept south of the Mason-Dixon line, Preston and I had accidentally acquired an audience at the Campaign for Change headquarters in a dusty old brick building on Marshall street. My “Sportsmen for Obama” button, festooned aside “Obama (gay) Pride” and an Obama/Biden lapel written in Hebrew, had been cause for prompt. Certainly, hunting should be allowed, but the question of handguns and the assault weapon ban had been quickly begged upon realization of our mutual hobby/obsession. Despite being vocal social progressives, who ardently argue Chomsky over Rand, and keep company with the very queers and gonzo crazies who scare the shit out of middle America, we were suddenly an opposed minority amongst those who were volunteering their waking lives to elect a black man president.
ABOVE: Are these assault weapons? Technically, they are pistols, and they’re chambered in one of the weakest rounds available (.22LR). Is the visual impact of a weapon more controversial than it’s capabilities?
Ian tentatively received permission from the floor manager to take pictures, after promising to ask for approval from individual vendors and swearing that he was not part of the leftist media, which is true from our perspective. If the floor manager wanted to prevent anti-gun activists from gaining material, her goals were met, as you will hear no argument for disarmament here.
As I fumble with a voice recorder I am reminded that they already think we are agents of the “Liberal Media Conspiracy,” and to put it the fuck away. No interviews today, not a chance in hell, or zombie-sieged Earth. And for all the hype & preparatory manuals on the apparently impending zombie apocalypse, I’ve only seen one or two zombie-hunter stereotypes here, most notably two young goth-ish types eyeing tactical shotguns.
The vendors here are genuinely afraid, but not of the Armageddon. They are afraid of us. They honestly believe that the liberal lobbyists have acquired the cooperation of the Federal Government and are bent on taking away their guns. They might be right, but not about us. We’re no saboteurs. We believe in keeping our amendments intact, all of them. Their kind is a dime a dozen, especially in the South. Right wing, gun toting, anti-immigration, bigotry tolerant bible thumpers. They might be a deterrent to a forceful revocation of basic human liberty, but they’re not an active, credible threat to the power structure in the eyes of those who maintain it. Now take an anti-war activist with anarchistic tendencies and a propensity to vocalize them, and put a gun in their hands. The sentence you have just read is likely to be a bulleted item in the Homeland Security handbook on domestic terrorist factions, and contemporary leftist rhetoric is a bit too close to the anti-tyrannical spirit of the Second Amendment for institutional comfort, especially in an age where the right to privacy is routinely disregarded.
ABOVE: All weapons on this table are available in Tom Clancy’s books.
The dichotomy plays well, as neither of us belong to either camp wholly, and our contingency is larger than either side would believe. As the Obama campaigners had no idea how many of their supporters were shooters, many of the vendors and organizers of gun shows likely think that the only Obama supporters perusing their wares can be clearly identified by the melanin content of their skin. Preston certainly sticks out, but I can hide in plain sight, and I have a severe conversational advantage; I know guns. Models, mechanisms, safeties, ammunitions sights and stocks, I love guns. A love that was given to me inadvertently by my father, when he shared his joy of cameras with me, a joy that I carry close to my heart. Painstakingly maintained, cleaned and oiled machines, intricate and accurate, machines that are loaded, primed and readied, brought to eye level, target acquired, all resulting in the satisfying click when the final stage mechanism, be it trigger or shutter, is pulled. My Canon sits one drawer above my 9mm, and both require a steady hand & a clear view of the field in front of you. They are ridiculously similar disciplines, and the skills required for each are interchangeable; the difference lies in the grip. Either way, you’re shooting.
Table after table of weapons grace the isles with the smell of gun oil & steel in the air. There is every range of weapon here, from cheap knives for a few dollars to .50BMG sniper rifles, the ones Hillary Clinton campaigned against, with five figure price tags. The vendors are happy to let you handle their wares, save the most expensive and rare. We shoulder various carbines and rifles, cheap plastic pistols and pump action shotguns. One table has a full selection of 1911s, a pistol that will soon enter a full century of service, is still considered by many to be the end-all of weapon design, and may be the most American thing in existence. To purchase a gun at a table is simple- tell them which weapon you want. They will take from you two forms of ID-,one photo, one other, that must have matching addresses. They call your ID into the feds, and if your record is clean enough (no felonies, no restraining orders, never plead not guilty due to insanity, never been institutionalized..), you pay and leave with your weapon. Amidst the rows and rows of firearms, in between the tables of federally licensed firearms dealers (FFL, “federal firearms license”), walks the fabled “gun show loophole,” embodied here by an older man with a hat.
The hat proudly displays his service to our country in two foreign wars, and he is carrying a M1 Carbine. This rifle (alongside the 1911) was issued en masse to Americans heading to Europe in the second great war. Sticking out of the top of the carbine is a chopstick with a flag taped to it, which reads “$500.” Fully automatic weapons & short barreled rifles require a much more intrusive background check than FFLs, essentially starting an intimate and life-long relationship with the ATF. In Virginia (and many other states), citizen-to-citizen sales of guns is completely legal without background checks, proofs of citizenship, or even basic photo ID. This is the gun show loophole, inappropriately named because this sale can go on anywhere, not only at a gun show. I can sell my guns to any of my friends, like a bicycle, a banana, or a shirt. Every weapon I have purchased has been with paperwork and all of my firearms are registered in my name, for which many people, most likely the majority of those selling firearms at gunshows privately, consider me a fool, and I often wonder if they’re right.
ABOVE: A plastic / composite weapon, the F2000, is made in Belgium by Fabrique Nationale. This weapon, and others made by Fabrique Nationale, are very popular amongst anti-terrorist teams.
The entire purpose of our right to bear arms is to safeguard against governmental encroachment upon the rest of our constitutionally guaranteed rights, and to maintain a citizen-based (non-governmental) contingency for national defense. It is undeniably there to provide the populace with the means to overthrow the existing institutions of power should they become abusive to freedom.
ABOVE: The Founding Fathers may not have envisioned our current world, our current military, our ability to project foreign power… but how would they feel about gold-plated tiger-striped pistols, chambered in the one of the largest rounds available, made by Israelis?
In the harsh light of the Patriot Act, the majority of the population is simply not willing to risk their freedom to protect their rights, even through discourse perceived as possibly incriminating. If you own a gun and even hypothetically imply a readiness to use it against the government, your life and that of those around you is in serious jeopardy. It’s curious then that of all the fantasies of death and universal destruction we as a species have entertained in the past, we seem to have settled on the one that, while innocent enough as an individual preoccupation, also prepares the enthusiast for revolution. And with unknowable intelligence agencies lumbering in the shadows, potentially recording the details of your life and conversations, waiting for the right moment to snatch you away to dark interrogation rooms where the ultimatum is to become one of them or perish, it’s easy to understand. The zombies aren’t coming, they’re here. And they know that you read this.
All images taken with permission of the Showmasters floor manager & individual sellers.