I’m staring at a hot pink AK-47. At least, I think it’s an AK-47. My gun knowledge is woeful but what I’m looking at seems to be a Barbie dream version of the gun I have seen so often on TV. The woman behind the table looks at me and asks if it’s for my mother or my girlfriend. I tell her neither, and she purses her lips and moves on to the next customer – even if I wanted that gun, I’m not sure she would have sold it to me. This is my first interaction at the Firing Pin Enterprizes [sic] Gun Show in Cottonwood, Arizona - things were about to get weird.
Cottonwood is a town of 11,000 in Yavapai County, a community bolstered by the nearby tourism of Sedona and its signature red rock, the real-town proxy to Sedona’s tourist-catered layout. Cottonwood is also home base for the burgeoning Arizona wine industry, with sampling houses lining the main drag. It is a bizarre mix of small town Southwest and West Coast hipness, straddling the worlds between Walmart and small-yield vineyards. But I’m not in town for the wine, or the Tuzigoot National Monument, or the exceptional tex-mex (though it took several margaritas to process what I experienced), but instead to attend my very first gun show.
A gun show is the wild west of firearms retail in America, as most states (Arizona included) do not require background checks to purchase a gun at a show. Only licensed dealers need to track their sales and charge tax, as a big man with a handlebar mustache and wide blue suspenders tells me as I admire his collection of old carbines. At the gun show, anything goes – you can buy, trade, or simply mill around and talk shop with fellow 2nd Amendment-heads, and there are lots of those around. The Cottonwood show boasts 95+ tables, selling everything from original Colts to shiny-new AR-15’s, and each one is three people deep with curious patrons.
I’m intimidated, to say the least.
Upon arrival, before even entering the building, an excessively jocular man asks me how I’m doing. He has the voice of Yosemite Sam and a literal twinkle in his eye. He’s the kind of man who men like me hope to run into at the hardware store, calm and comforting in a former captain of the football team kind of way. We are a minute into conversation before I deflate and realize he’s trying to sell me something. That something is a membership in the NRA – something that he promises is going to improve my life immensely. For $20 I could become a member right then and there, and because the NRA as such a magnanimous bunch, they’ll cover my entry into the show.
I tell him that I don’t own guns and don’t have any plans to purchase any today. He tells me that’s no problem, that surely any red-blooded American would want to defend the 2nd amendment even if they don’t own guns. I wonder how often he donates to churches he doesn’t attend but think better of saying anything. Eventually, I weasel away by saying that if I see anything inside that changes my mind, he’d be the first stop I made on the way out.
A woman with 4-inch acrylic nails with a baby on her hip takes my $6 for entry and rewards me with a wristband that has a pattern on it that I recognize matched the bicep tattoos of many of the gentlemen in attendance today. She asks me if I’m from around here and I smile and say no, like that was new information to her. She tells me I’m gonna love the show.
The small-hangar sized building on the Cottonwood fairground contains three unofficial categories of retailer: antique/collector, hobbyist, self-defence.
The antique/collector tables are by far the most accessible and most common, consisting mostly of old dudes with big beards and strained waistlines looking for a good price or a good swap on guns made before 1950. These guys, and I use the term deliberately as every woman behind a table is a wife looking at her husband with a mixture of boredom and exhaustion, are gun nerds. They remind me of people who frequent comic book stores or build model trains. I watch two men in their sixties get pre-prom giddy when they find a repeating carbine that one of them says would have been the kind used by the Rough Riders. Much is made of the serial number on that particular model. The antique/collector tables also have an affinity for old knives, coins, arrowheads and even a few stamps- philately and hoplophilia can apparently go hand in hand.
The hobbyists tend to be slightly younger, slightly thinner, and are looking at guns and material to take to the range. One retailer even has a clay disk shooter set up, and pulls skeet into a net on request to show how you too could demolish ‘clay pigeons’ in the comfort of your own backyard. The guns they sell are overwhelmingly long rifles and boring-looking police style pistols. I talk to one man who says the first time he hit a clay pigeon he was hooked and has been addicted to shooting ever since. When I ask if it’s an expensive hobby he tells me it’s cheaper than drinking, and then lets out a big belly laugh that I learn is common among gun people, the NRA guy had it too.
The self-defence people run the gamut from young guys in ballcaps to full camo skinheads with neck tattoos to a father-son duo in identical denim cowboy gear plus hat. When I go over to these tables, the retailers seem to be able to smell my ignorance and most look through me like a cloud of pinko dust.
As I orbit the show I start to notice a few disturbing trends, initially, I write off as the product of liberal brainwashing (I’m trying to understand here, not judge), but eventually become impossible to ignore. One such trend being the large number of Nazi-issued guns available (the Luger being the most prevalent) and the inordinate number of Third Reich badges, uniforms and insignia. There’s a poster of Hitler on one stall that reads “When I come back, I won’t make the same mistake twice.” When I ask the stall owner why he has it, without blinking he tells me that Hitler was a strong leader like we need now. Another stall owner, much less alarmingly, tells me that he retails the Third Reich stuff because collectors go nuts for it, and that it’s no different from collecting any other type of military history.
In my time at the show, I saw one stall selling old sheriff badges and another selling a Confederate uniform. That was as close to other military history as I got.
This whole Nazi-preoccupation seemed incongruous with, at the very least, the woman who had taken my money for entry, who was black and was swaddling a mixed baby. She was the only black person in the entire building. In fairness, I didn’t see anyone buy or even seriously look at any of the Nazi goods, but their presence cast a creepy pall over the whole collector ethos of the event.
There are also a lot of signs and bumper stickers available for sale that say things like “The reason men prefer guns to women is that you can buy a silencer for your gun.” or “Women are like guns, both are dangerous in the wrong hands.” The whole air of casual misogyny is not improved by the forlorn look of the wives here, most of whom wait a distance from any retail table while their husbands poke around. Couples here tend to walk single file and don’t say much to each other.
There are, of course, exceptions. I see many women enthusiastically looking at and purchasing guns. In fact, the representative of the Arizona Citizens Defence League that I speak to is a woman. She’s from California initially and speaks of it like she was lucky to get out. She goes over the AzCDL’s platform with me (if it infringes upon anyone’s freedom to own a gun and do whatever they want with that gun then it’s bad), gave me instructions on how to contact my congressperson (she said congressman) to demand more gun rights and then asked me to sign up (again $20, must be an agreed upon sum with gun advocacy people). The worst part of all of this was that she was totally nice, seemed pretty sane and reminded me a bit of my aunt. When she can’t get me to sign up she thanks me very graciously for my time and shoves a small pile of literature in my hand before reminding me that freedom starts with protecting the constitution.
The literature ticks all my prejudice boxes that the lady did not. It details how former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is the head of a vast conspiracy to remove guns from the people so the government can take over. It celebrates the work of the AzCDL to table legislation that does not require people to remove their guns in government buildings, with an eye towards extending this to all buildings. They successfully blocked bills that would have taken guns away from those diagnosed with a mental illness and those convicted of domestic assault. It romanticizes the time when every Arizonan would walk around with a gun on their hip, unregistered. The front page of the Arizona Republic two days later would be an infographic detailing the hundreds of gun homicides in 2016 – I figure the irony was probably lost.
The pamphlet is the last nail in my gun show coffin. I’m worn out by the Ted Nugent posters, and the constitution on everything and the general uncanniness of the friendliest people in the world selling me things designed to kill other people.
When I finally extricate myself from the maelstrom of root-tooting good ole boyhood, I pass the NRA guy again. He sees my empty hands and says, “Guess you didn’t change your mind.” Prophetic. But as I cross the parking lot, trying to figure out whether I had really given this show a fair chance, whether this was all just a straw man I pretended had some hope of convincing me otherwise, I’m approached by yet another bearded septuagenarian, who asks to buy my bracelet off me for a dollar. He says he just likes to go in and look and he thinks $6 is too much for what they put on this year. I give him my bracelet and tell him to keep his dollar. He shakes my hand and says it’s nice to meet a decent person, that he hopes I had a good day.
As he walks away, I look down the parking lot and see a truck at the end. It has a big TRUMP flag attached to the roof and a doll in a cage on the bed. On closer inspection, the doll was Hillary Clinton, in handcuffs, in a cage. The spray-painted sign beneath reads, “Incarceration 2016”.
Well into my second margarita, I realize there are things about this country and its people I will never understand. That I cannot bring myself to agree with the Gun Show or the people in it. But when that man and I shook hands, that was all okay. We didn’t need to bring that into it, we are not just our political difference. Sometimes an old man wants cheap entry to the gun show, and as a red-blooded human, you are required to oblige him.