I’ve never been very clear on the notion of “gun culture” that seems to have exploded as a term of art since roughly the 1980s. Perhaps that’s simply when I became increasingly aware of it — hard to say. One seems to hear the term frequently, often in the same breath with, “gun shows.”
“Gun nut’ floats around out there, too, as, it seems, a sort of boogeyman. There are of course firearms fetishists. But then again, I’m not so sure what danger lies in a fellow who admires an antique Navy .36 any more than that afoot with a collector of, say, Pogs, or bits of string. I mean, what gives with “Bronys,” right? Semi-eccentric overenthusiastic hobbyists are hardly unique to the firearms-owning community.
The whole subject seems a bit ephemeral, at least when one hears TV people using the words. Perhaps they themselves are uncertain. However, they do seem pretty sure that “gun shows” are an evil part of “gun culture” because “gun nuts” attend them and can “evade” federal purchase regulations. Those fiends. So this at least seems clear: A gun show is where I can get a better understanding of “gun culture” and, more importantly, discover if I’m part of this evil culture.
Notwithstanding a lifetime of close contact with firearms, I’d never been to a gun show. At gun shows, it turns out, desperados and lawbreakers are in cahoots to exploit a gray area in federal firearms regulation — this is TV reporter me — by engaging in private sales without any background check. At a gun show, then, I’ll get to see real gun-culture semi-demi-criminals in action, flaunting the loophole like Old West cattlemen contemptuously flaunted water and grazing rights.
Like I said, I’ve never attended a gun show, so I’m not sure exactly what to expect. Most firearms owners seem more or less like me … reasonably rational, orderly citizens. There’s a specialty exhibit, people go to look, to buy and to trade; that’s the same as a boat show, basically. Yet on the other hand TV people have left the impression of a druidical gathering of wild-eyed “Deliverance” types, fondling their firearms and chanting vaguely aggressive anti-government tee-shirt slogan soundbites about “gun rats” while loop-holing out armories to “gun nuts.” Apparently, everyone is engaged in an overt conspiracy to deal armaments “on the sly” to bad people so that the guv’mint don’t know. That’d be rather a different crowd from the salt-of-the-earth yeomanry.
I was more than a little mystified — until I walked in the door. Well, more like I found a place to park a mile away, schlepped through the lots, stood in line, paid ten bucks, cash and then walked in the door, past a clearing barrel and a nice lady who clearly could care less if I was armed but cared if I’d paid the ten bucks, by which time I knew which of my expectational sets was correct: It was Just Like Every Outdoor Show, With Firearms.
And it was packed. Boy howdy. Shoulder to shoulder. Rockin-R Bar in Bozeman on the Saturday night of the rodeo-level packed. It was the most packed place I have ever been. That whole huge place was full to the last square inch with rows of seller’s tables and booths and buyers in lines six people-wide snaking throughout. It was a wonder there was any movement at all, but since there was it was like a tide — and one was simply slowly swept along.
“Gun show” did not describe it. It bore a striking resemblance to many Asian markets I have been in, with the variety and the crowding and the mix of low and high quality goods. There were plenty of firearms, seemingly at least one of every weapon ever produced. But there was so much else: a lot of military surplus; edged weapons, instruments and fancy wall hangers; War Between the States junk and/or art; leather goods; flags; and best of all oodles of stickers of all kinds, shapes and suasions, funny and otherwise, a particular weakness of mine. No bat on a stick, fortunately.
The actual firearms vendors seemed to fall into three categories — regular retailers, small-time dealers and proud collectors, these latter being almost all military with a highly selective, though often extensive, set of wares. I gathered that the collector group were mostly showing off to like-minded others with the maybe occasional trade. Out West it’d be sage glory instead of military, serious wheelguns and saddle carbines and long rifles, but the same thing.
The collector guys had the largest variety of weapons, mostly issue weapons from some world army once upon a time. The retailers and dealers were about what you’d expect — retailers with scads of new pieces, some in surprising colors these days, dealer’s dealing used, mostly. Handguns, long arms, carbines, all kinds, all finishes, all lawful makes and models. It seemed very unlikely anybody had a contraband machine gun out back to trade on the black market; these were shopkeepers, not desperados. I caught a hint of “carnie” from some of the vendors and assumed they were a sort of travelling band; the gun show is on the road from stop to stop and they tally along, mostly.
I actually tried to buy a nice little ankle piece I found; don’t see many .25 autos anymore.
Unfortunately I did not have a Virginia driver’s license — I could produce a valid Montana driver’s license, a valid Montana concealed permit and a valid Virginia concealed permit: however, no Virginia license, no sale. The guy was apologetic but, as he said, “the rules are the rules.” I get that: As I wrote, shopkeepers.
The attendees looked to me basically a cross section of the local demographics, thoroughly representative of the population as a whole, by appearance. Both genders, all ages, a lot of obvious families. I was glad to see that people would bring their kids there; responsible firearms ownership is the only firearms ownership model we can all agree on and it must be learned somewhere. It is not about the weapon — it is about citizenship.
However I can’t say as I quizzed anybody about their politics or their view of their citizenship, nor that anybody quizzed me. Such as wore their opinions in print on their clothing appeared an average range of such things, Trump to Rainbow Coalition to NASA, AC/DC, Nike and Save the Chesapeake. There were maybe a slightly higher fraction of camouflage and/or American flag-themed hats than one might ordinarily expect from a similarly sized random sample. I had my Marine Corps-issued desert boonie hat in my hand, myself.
Nobody was wild-eyed. There was no Reverend Jim-type, Einstein-haired, unkempt-beard prophet in sidewalk slappers with a sandwich board on a soapbox wearing a dirty gray robe, clutching his oversized Bible in one hand and an AK-47 in the other and shouting about how God gave him his Second Amendment rights. I spoke with a bunch of people, in the vein of plain polite chat among strangers, all very courteous. No vendor or attendee clasped me to his breast to deliver his fervid and deep thoughts on firearms legislation. We discussed the items for sale, in the language of ordinary business transactions and, with other aficionados, with appreciation. It was cheerful and pleasant, not doom and gloom.
It was a large and compact but very orderly crowd. Nobody was waving their weapons about. I saw many weapons handled and not one mishandled. I had the sense that if anybody acted the fool, the 20 serious adults tidally trapped right next to such fool would take care of any problem quickly and discreetly. Maybe they did, but I doubt it. It wasn’t that kind of crowd.
Basically, it was a trip to the mall at Christmas, with weapons for sale and a lot more hip stickers and no Starbucks. I checked it all out thoroughly and even bought some stickers, for which I had to ride the tide completely around the place three times. Maybe better than a mall these days, since no mass shooting is ever going to happen in a place like that or probably in any place any one of the attendees is ever located. It wasn’t really a victim-type crowd.
Gun culture? I don’t even know what that is, or means. If a gun show is gun culture at its hairiest, as TV people seem to have it, attended by gun nuts and other assorted weirdos intent on somehow surreptitiously scamming “background checks,” as if they mattered — then I guess I belong to the most evil gun culture imaginable. I admit it: I liked the gun show — cool stuff, if you like that stuff and I do; and normal people. What’s not to like? If that’s gun culture, if that is what TV people mean by the term — dude, I’m all in.
Geez; those guys are on to something. I mentioned the ten bucks a head, cash, right?
James “Buster” Raymond is a graduate of the Naval Academy, a former Marine Officer and an attorney. A native of Montana, he recently departed his beloved Big Sky country and relocated with his family to the Tidewater region of Virginia. The exact location remains unknown.