Jacksonville, Fla. — An ersatz Moroccan temple might at first glance seem a peculiar stage on which to set an all-American gun show. And yet, upon closer inspection, it proves rather apt. No tale of Arabia is complete without the appearance of a bazaar or a souk, and, give or take, that is precisely what this was. Here, at the Morocco Shrine Auditorium, the hobbyists and the collectors have convened to parade their wares. “Welcome to the gun show,” reads the sign. You ain’t in Manhattan anymore.
In the progressive imagination, American gun shows are uniquely perfidious affairs — nothing more or less than illicit, loophole-ridden rendezvous points at which men with undesirable political opinions enable terrorists and criminals to do damage to the virtuous. In the press and beyond, it is hard to miss the lip-curling sneer that typically accompanies their contemplation. If there is one tradition in the United States that sums up the country’s unique gun culture it is these shows; necessarily, those who dislike that culture will abhor its pageantry.
And yet one cannot help but suspect that those who cast opprobrium on the tradition are missing the point entirely. Upon arriving at the venue, the first two people I see are an elderly white woman, patiently selling tickets at the door, and a middle-aged black lady offering concealed-carry classes to all comers. Are they aware that they are playing parts in a national morality play? It doesn’t seem so.
On the contrary: Inside the hall, civil society flourishes. To the uninitiated, it might seem a touch absurd that a group of ordinary citizens can amass 5,000 weapons within a confined space and attract nothing more sinister than paying customers (in hours at the show, I see no police and no security), but, to those of us who know better, such a spectacle illustrates an important lesson about the nature of people at liberty. On paper, there are enough guns inside the Morocco Shrine to kit out a small army. And yet the only platoons that emerge belong to Burke. Left alone, Americans do not become bandits; they become connoisseurs. Permitted to indulge their interests, they meet minds rather than muster corps. At first glance, the African American in the New York Yankees T-shirt and the good-ol’-boy with the Johnny Rebel hat have nothing at all in common. And then you hear them talk about the value of a good scope and everything falls suddenly into place.
At the tables, bibelots abound. In one corner, an elderly gentleman displays his collection of “relics and curios,” among them a pair of English dueling pistols; an engraved lever-action rifle of the sort that Jesse James might have known; a Jacobite cloak-and-dagger; a Luger in an engraved box. By clear proclamation, nothing is for sale. The owner is here for love, not money.
In another little nook, I am privy to a discussion of muskets. “You call yourself a collector and you don’t have a musket?” as if to own a Brown Bess were the most natural thing in the world. “I’m focusing on black powder at the moment,” comes the nonchalant reply.
Wandering the floor, I am spoiled for choice. I see an assembly of rare Japanese pistols, an array of military gas masks, and an Uzi that was once used by the CIA. I see hollow-point bullets with cheap jewels crammed into their noses. I see customized parts for any gun you could name. And maps! I see enough maps to circumnavigate the world.
I see, in other words, an intriguing cross between the NRA convention and Antiques Roadshow.
Oddly enough, it is the latter vibe that tends to give gun shows a bad name. From time to time, a yellow journalist — from, say, the BBC or ThinkProgress — will walk into one of the more than 5,000 gun shows that are staged in America each year and come out horrified by the historical paraphernalia that he has seen on display. Certainly, it can be a bit jarring to see a three-foot Nazi flag, and it is indeed odd to be in close proximity to petty cash adorned with the face of John Calhoun. But to react with reflexive horror to these things — as journalists invariably do — is to misunderstand entirely what is going on. With the exception of one gentleman — an elderly fellow who, without irony, calls the Civil War the “Northern invasion” — none of the historical exhibitors whom I run into on the floor proclaim anything more sinister than a fascination with antiquity. Invariably, any presentation of enemy regalia is accompanied by a tribute to its American counterpart, be it the Continental or Union armies, the 81st Airborne, or the Marines. That reporters so frequently gaze upon the rarities tables and assume that the offerings are being made in warm-hearted homage tells us nothing good about the state of our political discourse — or, for that matter, about the professional integrity of those who work the firearms beat. Surprise of all surprises, it is possible for a man to be an advocate of the Second Amendment without harboring a secret reverence for Hitler.
Until one goes to a gun show, one cannot truly appreciate just how keenly America has taken to the AR-15. I do not suggest this because one finds AR-15s lying about everywhere at gun shows — indeed, in my three hours of exploring the floor we saw just four ARs for sale — but rather because the gun show is the perfect environment in which those who appreciate the AR platform can band together to push it to its limit.
By virtue of their designs, most firearms are sold “finished” — that is, they are packaged with a grip and a magazine and a barrel and a trigger and a slide, and, well, with anything else that a gun needs to function properly. The AR-15, by contrast, can come in any state of undress. Why? Because the AR-15 is not so much a type of gun as it’s a platform around which guns can be built.
For the purposes of federal law, just one part of the AR-15 — an unfinished, square-ish housing-block called the “lower receiver” — has been designated as the firearm. In order to obtain this part, buyers must undergo an FBI background check (yes, even at a gun show). But once they have done that, they can obtain the rest of the gun elsewhere, no questions asked.
An average AR-15 build includes around 100 parts, almost all of which are customizable in some shape or form. Once a builder has got hold of his lower receiver, he can do pretty much anything he wants with it — including select which caliber round he wants it to fire; decide what length barrel to add and what size magazine to install; and choose what sort of stock, trigger, and rail system he prefers. And, having done this, he can add an almost limitless range of scopes, lights, lasers, and other accessories to suit his purpose.
Naturally, a market has emerged to satisfy this demand — a market that has been filled not only by the usual big-name suspects but also by a panoply of smaller companies, family traders, and individual hobbyists.
By the people, that is, who frequent gun shows.
From these people you can buy almost anything you can imagine. Want a lower receiver with your face etched onto it? No sweat. Want a 30-round magazine decked out like Old Glory? Easy. Want to play mix-and-match as might a child with a bunch of different Lego sets? Quick to arrange. Want a can opener put onto the weapon’s Picatinny rail? Doable, at a price.
And so the old has met the new, and the new has met the old. Whether by accident or by design, the modern gun show has taken the place of a host of American traditions that have been undermined or destroyed by sweeping changes in technology. Thirty years ago, anyone who owned a car could pop the hood and tinker to his heart’s content. Now, engines are sealed and warranties are tight and the tools of the trade are secreted in Munich. In the 1990s, would-be dilettantes could assemble computers for kicks. Now, the closest an American will get to seeing the inside of his iPhone is to accidentally smash open its screen.
Slowly but surely, item by item, industry by industry, the layman’s once-endless dabbling opportunities have been cruelly ripped away. Together, micro-technology and government regulation have conspired to write a death warrant for the good, old-fashioned toolshed. Can it be a great surprise that one of the few products that offer the chance of ground-up customization is rushing off the shelves? Is anyone honestly shocked to learn that men and women alike are giving up their weekends for a chance to use their hands?
The guys at the gun show aren’t. And for just eight dollars a visit to the old lady at the door, they’ll be more than happy to welcome you into their burgeoning, addictive clique.