“No loaded guns in the building! No loaded guns in the building! No loaded guns in the building,” the PA announcer demanded with a mildly worrisome amount of exasperation in her voice. “Please.”
Such an announcement would usually induce mortal uneasiness if not outright panic, but this was a gun show at the International Richmond Raceway on the day of the Lord, where thousands of people filtered in at more than 800 tables spanning two warehouses to see the guns, knives, scopes, stocks, holsters, grips, ammunition, commemorative war memorabilia, actual war memorabilia, t-shirts, hats, jewelry, salami, voter-registration tables, lobbying efforts and just about anything else that you could imagine.
Gun shows have a stigma, particularly in the Northeast, as a place where gun nuts congregate to pray at the altar of the NRA and sell guns to psychopaths. This blanket stereotype fell flat after talking to the real human beings who lived, worked and shopped there. The Gun Show was an event not to be missed, an attraction that brought an incredibly diverse array of people that were surprisingly difficult to stereotype.
The term "gun show" itself is misleading, because to say that the gun show sells only guns is to say that Wawa sells only gas. The truth is that the gun show was a modern-day caravan, a traveling trading post, a bizarre bazaar where the multitude of sellers range from international conglomerates offering top-of-the-line weaponry, private citizens with cardboard signs selling spare parts, and everything in between. All sellers converged to offer the consumers, and the audience, everything they could possibly need. Yes, there were gun nuts at the gun show, but there were far more businesspeople trying to make a buck and entrepreneurial carnival barkers that put the “show” in gun show.
There was BullseyeHolsters.com, who would take your pistol and custom-press a holster on the spot with a design of your choosing, ranging from the patriotic (the American Flag), to the divisive (the Confederate Flag), to the point (“Fuck ISIS”).
There was Holsinger’s Deli and Meats, offering a range of free samples of homemade sausages –sweet, spicy and pepper infused – that were available by the foot. While you waited in line you could pick up pigs’ ears and feet (2 for $3 or 10 for $14.50) as chew toys for your dog.
There was Knives by Johnny Z, where the antler-hat toting-company namesake Johnny Z himself explained that the knife I had been holding was “wet cut quarry steel” of the finest quality.
“High carbon steel,” chimed in a man next to Johnny Z who resembled a Duck Dynasty Santa Claus, revealing the gold fillings lining the back of his mouth. “It’s uh, more compact.”
There was the private security system that streamed a live HD feed onto your computer with a camera so powerful it zoomed in past the customers at the table, across the entire warehouse the gun show was located in and the hundreds of tables inside, outside of the first pair of doors, through the entrance lobby, outside the main building doors, across the parking lot of the International Raceway, across the bustling E. Laburnum Avenue to successfully spy on the trees on the other side of the street.
The memorabilia and collector’s offerings were so robust that the stations drew as many history buffs as gun enthusiasts. The collectibles offered a crash course on World War II.
As I made eye contact with one collector, I felt the need to strike up a conversation. I gave a glance to all of the memorabilia. “This is unbelievable,” I said to the collector.
"It's believable,” he said as he looked me dead in the eye. “But thank you,” he said. I suddenly remembered the gaping chasm between playing Call of Duty and answering the call of duty.
Make no mistake – guns are certainly the main attraction. The amount of firearms is staggering, and every table either does its best to stand out or is completely resigned to the fact that it doesn’t stand out at all. Those who successfully differentiate themselves from the crowd market their AR-15 as, “a decapit-AR,” or emblazon the constitution on the AR-15 while discounting the AK-47.
In any case, it is shockingly easy to buy a gun in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Under law, only federally licensed dealers are required to conduct a background check, but private sellers are under no such restrictions. The data on gun show background checks is tricky, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in January.
The Virginia General Assembly passed a firearm-friendly agenda this past legislative session with a level of compromise currently unthinkable on the national level. Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a bill that entered Virginia into concealed-carry reciprocity agreements with nearly all states, reversing an earlier decision by Attorney General Mark Herring to end reciprocity agreements with states that do not meet Virginia’s standard. In exchange, McAuliffe was able to enact tighter restrictions on gun control for domestic violence offenders.
Lee Hansley, who attended the Richmond Gun Show on Sunday, defended the importance of concealed-carry but expressed dismay at the disparity between state issuance of concealed-carry permits.
Hansley, who is from North Carolina but now lives in Orange County, Virginia, said that he felt safer with people who received their concealed carry permits in North Carolina than in Virginia because of the significantly higher level of education North Carolinians need to obtain one. In North Carolina, a resident must complete a safety course, pass a background check and then pass a live test on a firing range before earning the concealed carry permit, a process that took Hansley almost 12 hours in total.
Hansley was perturbed that the level of scrutiny applied to his North Carolina concealed carry permit, which included an 8-hour safety class, was not applied to his Virginia permit.
“The irony that in Virginia, I can go online, watch a video, take a 20-minute quiz, print out this little paper and all of a sudden I’m good to go?” Hansley asked rhetorically. “I haven’t proven I can handle a firearm, but now I can handle one?”
Michelle Correa, also of Orange County and a concealed-carry permit holder, agreed that the Virginia concealed-carry license laws were lax, and both Correa and Hansley expressed concern that the reciprocity agreements meant potentially untrained people in Virginia were allowed concealed carry permits.
“You don’t have to show that you can carry a gun safely,” Correa said of the concealed-carry permit process.
Back inside the gun show, the PA announcer discussed classes on gun rights and advocacy, because "we’re supposedly getting our reciprocity back in July, but … they can just take your rights away in one fell swoop. Take ‘em away." The PA announcer admitted gun rights had been expanded in the Virginia General Assembly session, but went on to encourage people to remain vigilant in case of any more aggressiveness against law-abiding gun owners.
At the Richmond International Raceway, it was all just part of the show.
Contact associate editor Danny Heifetz at firstname.lastname@example.org