Welcome to a New World (Disorder): A Visit to a Gun Show
by Mark Pitcavage
Last Updated July 30, 1996.
My mind is bent more on avoiding the potholes in the road than what awaits me at the PRO gun show, since if I fail to avoid them my subcompact car--and its driver--might never be seen again. The ground is wet and puddly, so there is no telling how deep the potholes are.
The holes are simply part and parcel of the last leg of the journey to the Franklin County Fairgrounds, in Hilliard, Ohio, where a PRO gun show is being held. Hilliard is a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, and PRO gun shows are generally held in Central Ohio. Some dealers travel with it, while others only get a table when it shows up in their neighborhood. Occasionally there are other gun shows in the area, but the PRO shows are regular, usually one a month. They are known for being rather political.
The weather is cold and cloudy, typical Central Ohio fall weather. The people walking to and from the three fairgrounds buildings hosting the gun show shiver in their windbreakers and jackets. Around the buildings are the pickup trucks and cars of exhibitors and attendees. Many are festooned with bumper stickers: "You Can Have My Gun When You Pry it From My Cold, Dead Body"; "Buchanan for President"; "Impeach Clinton." The fairgrounds buildings themselves have a number of warnings posted, most having to do with door sharks, those individuals who like to show up at gun shows early and try to buy guns from people as they arrive, in order to get a jump on the process. Door sharks, the warnings inform the reader, will be summarily ejected. At some gun shows, there are people who show up and operate out of their cars, to avoid having to pay exhibitors' fees, but I don't see any of them here. Like door sharks, they are frowned upon.
I enter the closest building. Compared to the weather outside, it is warm and inviting. Two men sit at a table next to the door, one of them extremely overweight. They make sure people "check" their guns at the door. This does not mean handing them over, but rather insuring that they are not loaded. When I indicate I have no guns, they lose all interest in me, waving me down to the women at the end of the table, who accept my five dollar entrance fee and stamp my hand. There is no charge for women or children.
This is a reasonably large gun show, considerably bigger than non-PRO events. In just this one building there are dozens of tables. Exhibitors chat with attendees, while kids run about, although the warning signs suggest they should be supervised. Though there is some variety, the people you see tend to be so similar in many respects that they form a recognizable "type": moderate pot-bellies hidden beneath red or blue plaid shirts, blue jeans, a beard grizzled with grey, a gimme cap. A few people walk around in camouflage, but not very many. There are plenty of women, none of them unaccompanied. Almost everybody is white. It is unusual to see blacks at these gun shows. Throughout the afternoon I see only one black exhibitor, a woman selling, of all things, cologne, and a group of four young black men. Even when J. J. Johnson, a local militia leader who is black, is referred to, he is referred to as "that black guy."
Overwhelmingly, and hardly surprisingly, what one finds at a gun show are guns. Antique guns, guns that are simply old, pistols, rifles, shotguns, military rifles, domestic and foreign. Next to a extremely expensive imported military-style weapon, looking as if it belonged in the movie Aliens with its exotic grip and molding, one might find an old wartime Garand. The gun exhibitors can be divided into three broad categories, though of course none of these groups are firm. Some exhibitors concentrate on collectible weapons, while others simply have used guns. One of the latter might simply have on display a row of well-worn bolt-action rifles, years old. The third category--and the largest--specialize in what appear to be new weapons. Buying a gun at a gun show has become increasingly popular, because there is no waiting period involved if you buy a gun from a private "collector." Signs ask people not to dry-fire the guns in the building; a sound idea, I think.
Along with the guns are the firearm accessories, which are extremely varied. Ammunition and holsters, gun parts and reloading equipment, ammo cases, clips, scopes, range finders--practically anything you can associate with a gun can be found here. Sometimes vendors themselves send representatives to exhibit their wares. Guns are hardly the only weapons shown, though they dominate. Hundreds of knives, from hunting and scaling knives to blades clearly used on two-legged animals, are available for purchase. Here and there lies a wicked looking crossbow. There is less sporting equipment than one might suspect might be at a gun show. Many of these people aren't hunters.
Though there are so many of them, the guns are really the least interesting aspects of gun shows. After all, a gun is a gun; only the shape really varies. The human elements are far more curious. One might twist the NRA slogan to say, "Guns don't fascinate people, people fascinate people." Still, the people who attend gun shows are, by and large, not particularly effusive people. They tend to be taciturn and short of speech.
One pleasant exception is the local NRA representative, who also publishes a small gun magazine for the Central Ohio area. Looking a little bit like Santa Claus, he fits the general profile, but is considerably more gregarious. This befits his role here as publicist, both for the NRA and his own publication. As I engage him in conversation, he expresses some opinions that surprise me. For instance, he isn't very happy about the way the NRA is run as a top-down organization. It is not a grass-roots organization and is not very responsive to the wishes of its members, he says. The agenda of the NRA might not be the agenda of many of its members. He's also not very crazy about the militia movement, and chooses not to cover them in his magazine. You get the impression when talking to him that there is a point beyond which he will not go, and the militia movement is that point. Still, his friendly manner does not conceal the fact that he is a Second Amendment extremist. He is a considerable step beyond those who just want a rifle to go deer hunting each fall.
The militia people also have a spot, though in a different building. The only flyer at the table announcing meetings is from Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is situated, but the booth operators nevertheless seem to be associated with J. J. Johnson, who operates in Franklin County. Johnson and his wife Helen publish a rambling newsletter called E Pluribus Unum. He is not at the booth himself; often these days he is off at speaking engagements. As an African-American militia member, he is in considerable demand both by militia groups wanting to demonstrate their tolerance and mainstream media wondering why the heck he is in the militia. He was at the Congressional militia hearings during the summer and has appeared on several television shows. In a recent issue of the magazine Media Bypass, he issued a call for blacks to join the militias, suggesting that the movement was not racist, that in fact no one could point to a black person denied entrance into a militia group. That this is somewhat like suggesting that no one can point to a Jewish person denied entrance into Aryan Nations seems not to have occurred to him.
Actually, though, racism at the gun show is more implicit than explicit. Certainly many attendees are not racist at all. The militia table does not exhibit any racist material, though one can buy videos featuring John Trochmann, a Montana militia leader with a checkered racist past. Other exhibitors show less reluctance to wear their commitments on their sleeve. Several Nazi flags are in evidence at the gun show, and though most are displayed as militaria, one has to wonder who--other than Marge Schott--might want to buy a Nazi flag. There are some more obvious examples of bigotry. A grim-looking vendor near the front of one of the fairgrounds buildings sits behind piles of material that he is selling which include copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. At another table one can purchase the infamous Turner Diaries, which merely labeling "racist" seems not to do them justice. And several exhibitors have copies of the weekly newspaper, The Spotlight, published by the blatantly anti-Semitic organization The Liberty Lobby, which also helped to fund the Institute for Historical Review, a group that denies the Holocaust ever happened.
The largest booth with political material is run by someone who does not appear to belong to any particular organization, but simply sells such material for a profit. He has dozens of videotapes from the neo-militia movement, ranging from Mark Koernke to Jack McLamb (head of "Policemen Against the New World Order"), and plenty of books and pamphlets. Want to start your own militia group? Here is a pamphlet with some (not so) helpful hints on how to do it. Curious as to why you don't really owe any income tax? You can plunk down some money to find the information "they" have been trying to hide from you. Much of the material, not surprisingly, is Second Amendment stuff, but by no means all. The stock runs from the merely libertarian to the outright paranoid. One of the more colorful examples of the latter is the short book America Under Siege: A Lesson in Treason, Treachery and Conspiracy!, by someone with the pseudonym of M. W. Jefferson. This book argues the "case" for a U.N. takeover of the United States with an energy so vigorous that one is almost inclined to forgive the author for his absolute absence of facts. The style alone makes it highly entertaining, as this sample paragraph should show:
This is a representative example. Other books available include Freedom on the Altar, by William Norman Grigg, which asks the question, "Is the United Nations the institution upon which the future depends, or an instrument of socialist tyranny?" The answer apparently is the latter alternative. Next to the Grigg book is The United Nations Conspiracy by Robert W. Lee. Nearby are Gary Allen's Say "No!" to the New World Order and William F. Jasper's Global Tyranny...Step by Step.
If political tracts don't interest you, perhaps you might like a bumper sticker for your car or truck. The vendor offers a wide assortment, from a simple "Clinton Sucks" to "First Hillary, Then Gennifer, Now Us." As you might suspect, they are all of a piece. Though one bumper sticker proclaims that "An Armed Society is a Polite Society," the other stickers give the lie to that hope. These are angry statements. Some are disturbingly misogynistic. "Wife and Dog Missing," reads one. "Reward for Dog." Another says, "I just got a gun for my wife. It's the best trade I ever made." Another bumper sticker which puts firearms over the female sex is one that declares, "My Wife Yes. My Dog Maybe. My Gun Never."
You can also get patriot music, most notably the works of Carl Klang, whose songs include "Watch out for Martial Law." It's actually a catchy tune. Some might prefer to buy one of the many videos offered for sale. One that catches my eye is Rock and Roll #3: Sexy Girls, Sexy Guns. In this video, according to its box, are "fourteen of the Sexiest Southern California beauties, scantily clad in string bikinis, firing some of the sexiest full auto machine guns ever produced." I am somewhat nonplused, and wonder what attraction near-naked women firing guns might hold for people, but since this is number three in a series it apparently sells well.
The booth also offers literature. One eye-catching novel features a photograph of a heavily equipped military figure, complete with gas mask and rifle, poking at a shapely but prostrate (and very scantily clad, might I add) Justice. What patriot's juices wouldn't get flowing with that? More common than novels are "practical" manuals that teach you the elements of sniping, landmines, booby traps, bombs and explosives, "dirty tricks," surveillance, creating false identities, and other dangerous practices. Seeing such books brings to my mind the unwelcome fact that Nichols and McVeigh of Oklahoma City infamy were regulars at gun shows. It makes you look at the people around you with a little more suspicion. Is there another McVeigh hidden here?
Leaving the tracts booth, I walk to another of the fairgrounds buildings. In this one I spy a representative of APRA, the American Pistol and Rifle Association, headquartered in Benton, Tennessee. A particularly forbidding looking gentleman operates this booth, perhaps appropriately. This organization is a gun-owners group that is, if one can believe it, to the right of the NRA. The NRA, after all, despite the increasingly erratic actions of leader Wayne La Pierre, disassociated itself from the neo-militia movement. But the APRA embraces the so-called "patriot" movement, which includes not only the militia types but also tax protestors, "sovereign citizens" (who believe they are not citizens of the United States but only of their state), and common law court activists. The APRA believes in a conspiracy by "tyrants" to subvert liberty and, like many such groups, subscribes to the New World Order conspiracies.
Reading all the literature can make anybody thirsty or hungry. Probably wisely, alcohol is not permitted on the fairgrounds, but the gun show has a couple of little food sheds. A buck and a half gets me a hot dog, and two dollars more an order of fries. Stiff prices, perhaps, but the funds probably go towards stopping the New World Order. I notice many have wisely brought their own food. I finish the hot dog, but the fries have seen better days. I dump them in a garbage can near the exit. This perhaps is a sign for me to depart. I recall having passed a Big Boy's on the way to the fairgrounds. Alas, the calls of my stomach win out over my interest in the PRO Gun Show. So I take my leave, for the time being. The patriot movement, I am sure, will survive without me.