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There are two kinds of people: those who aren’t freaked out by gun shows and those who are.
There was plenty to feed the latter’s fears at the Dulles Expo Center over the weekend, as a recurring and very popular attraction called the Nation’s Gun Show came through. There were, for example, racks of bumper stickers that gave equal time to gun-loving messages (“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try a Bigger Gun”) and dumbass ones (“No Fat Chicks”).
There were white men wearing T-shirts designed to provoke (“Christian. American. Heterosexual. Pro Gun. Conservative. Any Questions?”). And white men who still haven’t gotten over the Civil War and want everybody to know it. “If the South had these guns, it wouldn’t have been no fight,” Petersburg, Va.– based exhibitor and gun dealer Jake Hranowskyj told me, pointing at his table of pricey and pristine vintage Colts. “We would have won in a year.”
There were books bashing Abraham Lincoln (“Honest Abe Wasn’t Honest”) beside those praising Sen. Joseph McCarthy. There was a large painted portrait of Hitler, just across the aisle from a table of Nazi flags, along with a variety of swastika-laden tchotchkes. All for sale.
And, oh yes, there was plenty of what most freaks out those freaked out by gun shows: guns. Or, more accurately: guns! Row after row, rack after rack of ’em. There were high-dollar, war-ready guns such as the Colt Commando—“It’s an M-16,” said the vendor, after announcing its $222,000 price—and teeny-tiny, fistfight-stopper single-shooters that would probably fit in a wallet. And every size and type of hunting gun that ever felled an animal.
There were even faux firearms for the next generation of ammophiles, such as pellet guns shaped like assault weapons and rubber-band shooters cut to look like lethal weaponry: “Handguns, $12.95! M-16s, $14.95! The Uzis are nice!” the rubber-band man barked at passers-by, while offering kids a chance to shoot at a cutout of Osama bin Laden.
But these days, like it or not, it’s the unfreaked, who, well, run the show. And they know it.
“The mood is changing about guns,” said Steven Elliott, promoter of the Nation’s Gun Show. “You can see that everywhere. You see it with what’s happening in Congress, with the repeal of the D.C. [handgun] ban and the Senate’s vote [on immunizing firearms manufacturers from product-liability lawsuits], and you see it here. People who say anti-gun things don’t do too well.”
That’s why Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, after getting pancaked by gun-crowd favorite John Warner in the state’s 1996 race for U.S. senator, formed a gun club, Sportsmen for Warner, complete with bumper stickers in camouflage colors, before running for governor in 2001. He’s now accepted by the gun crowd and considered a likely candidate for national office. And why Tim Kaine, who is now running to replace Warner as a Democrat against a gun-crowd favorite, Republican Jerry Kilgore, had staffers outside the Expo Center handing out literature stamped “Sportsmen for Kaine,” also in camouflage colors.
Elliott runs C&E Gun Shows, a company in Blacksburg, Va., that has been holding these events around the country for 25 years. Until last summer, however, the company had never held one in the D.C. area. Virginia has long been one of the most pro-gun states in the union, but Northern Virginia bucked the rest of the state when it came to firearms. Regulations in Fairfax County, the very county where the National Rifle Association’s headquarters are located, required a waiting period of up to three days for handgun permits, making such a show economically unfeasible.
“We couldn’t do OK having a show with just long guns,” said Elliott. “But we worked to get the law changed.”
As soon as the permitting law was altered by the Virginia legislature—as of last July purchasers must register their firearms with the Fairfax County sheriff’s office only after the sale—Elliott figured the Northern Virginia market was starved for gun shows. And he found out how right he was.
“The line was out the door, around the building,” he said of his first show in Fairfax last year, the first such gun sale in the county in decades. The sheriff’s office reported to Elliott that more than 1,300 purchasers, many of whom had bought more than one firearm, registered with the county after his show.
And the Fairfax stop immediately became the biggest and most lucrative of the more than 40 events put on each year by C&E. Last weekend’s show drew more than 8,000 attendees, at $10 a pop. The 1,000 vendor tables were sold out well in advance.
Donald Jewell was among the vendors, with a row of tables in a prime spot just inside the entrance to the Expo Center. Jewell isn’t the sort of individual the anti-gun crowd conjures when they think of the gun crowd. He’s a psychologist with an office on Connecticut Avenue in the District. He’s a classical and jazz guitarist who played with Charlie Byrd. He thinks nothing good about the current presidential administration. His car doesn’t have a “No Fat Chicks” bumper sticker.
But he loves guns as much as anybody in the room.
“I tell my wife that a gun is the best toy a man can get,” said Jewell, who specializes in antique weaponry. “You buy it, shoot it for a year, then sell it and make a 10 to 20 percent profit. The entire Industrial Revolution was spawned by guns. The tooling that went into making guns made everything else in this country. People appreciate that.”
Until and unless the congressional repeal of D.C. gun controls goes through, it is unlawful in the city to own any handgun manufactured after 1898, and all shotguns and ammunition must be registered with city police and kept unloaded. For civilians, any shooting must be done outside the city’s borders. Vendors at the Nation’s Gun Show were legally prohibited from selling most guns or ammo to D.C. residents.
Jewell, who grew up in Petworth but now keeps homes in Edgewater, Md., and Broad Run, Va., said he’s put off by the wacko element at the gun shows, just as he is by the anti-gun crowd’s gun-control arguments. He finds the firearms code in his old hometown, most of which was put in place in the mid-’70s and is regarded as the most restrictive in the nation, particularly pointless and ineffective.
“I consider my guns objects of art, and for insurance purposes, that’s what many of them are,” he said; he is the proud possessor of a pistol that he would later describe as “the only gun Mark Twain ever owned.” “But if I get caught with them in my trunk on the way to work, I’m going to jail. That’s ridiculous. I hope they do change the law.”
Theodore Pappas, a Northwest D.C. native (his father was legendary guitar teacher Sophocles Pappas) now living in Northern Virginia, voiced similar disdain for the District’s gun laws while stopping by Jewell’s booth.
“I think in this country a woman should have the right to choose to have an abortion and an assault weapon,” Pappas said.
Elliott said he expected that D.C.’s pro-gun population would eventually rise up and, with the help of the national gun lobby, get at least its gun rights restored.
“Our country was founded and freed on guns, and people are sick of having their freedoms trampled on,” he said. “People in D.C. deserve to have the right to protect themselves as much as people everywhere else. I mean, you can’t even vote there! That’s crazy. Why in America would anybody put up with that? Between voting and guns, I really don’t know why anybody would want to live in D.C.”—Dave McKenna
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.