-Zak Weisfeld (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Jacob Building is not a graceful structure; it squats, a hulking, 50's Parthenon, on a hill overlooking a dun-colored pond at the edge of Chilhowee Park in Knoxville, Tennessee. Supporting the vaguely Deco portico are painted brick columns plastered with orange signs. The unreassuring signs read, "NO loaded weapons allowed." And while loaded weapons may be verboten the unloaded kind are more than welcome. Guns are here in their myriad of forms and in a quantity that could be a tad unsettling to the uninitiated. But hey, this is Mike Holloway's Gun Show and if you can't take the heat, as they say...
And make no mistake, this is the kitchen. Judging from the bumper stickers in the parking lot, which range from the common NRA badge and the more inspiring, "They Can Have My Gun When They Pry It From My Cold Dead Fingers," to Sierra Club and "Love Your Mother," Mike Holloway's Gun Show crowd pretty much runs the gamut of gun owners - as good a place as any to gauge the state of the gun in our trigger-happy republic.
Not surprisingly, guns are everywhere inside the Jacob Building, lots of guns. There are cheap Chinese rifles stacked on boxes, antique revolvers laid out along shelves, there are guns in holsters, jammed into waistbands and slung from shoulders, the sheer quantity of guns seems, initially, both terrifying and absurd.
On the surface the Gun Show is the kind of nightmare that drives liberals into screaming, cold sweat wakefulness - it is the fevered vision of an army of beer-gutted, rebel flag flying, fundamentalist Christians wading through an acre of guns and anti-government literature. The only thing necessary to complete the horror would be a voting booth at the back and next to it Ralph Nader chained, naked and gibbering, in a cage.
It is a vision not wholly lacking in truth. The crowd at the gun show is largely male, almost entirely white, and judging by the people I talked to, Christian. Big bellies are the accessory of choice for today's fashionable gun owner, and parked at the side of the Jacob Building is a pick-up truck suffering from a rash of confederate flag bumper stickers and one which reads, "Don't Blame Me I Voted for Jefferson Davis."
Beneath the buzzing fluorescent lights people browse along tables that would make a Mujehadeen blush, haggle over wares and search for that one particular item - a confederate bayonet, a pearl handled revolver or a flash suppresser that will complete one aspect of their collection.
Says gun owner John Doe II, "Personally, I go to the Gun Show because I'm a collector. I enjoy guns and shooting for sport and I go for that reason. "
Another shopper is James Bond, a fireman from Knoxville and one of the few African-Americans in attendance. "No," says Bond, "I don't have a gun for protection. I just like to shoot. It's fun. I was just kind of looking, comparing prices, to see if anything had gone up...or was going down."
Yet, these same people, Sunday shoppers engaged in the perfectly legal purchase of firearms and accessories exhibit the kind of paranoia one would expect from a radical student groups in Bhutan. Of the people interviewed for this article not one would give his real name.
The refusal to be named is generally given with a smile and a nudge-nudge; the wariness has more the flavor of braggadocio than of fear. Standing on the sidewalk above a parking lot filled with the cars of hundreds of other gun owners, outside a building piled to the rafters with guns, it is hard to take their apprehension of an immanent government crackdown too seriously. Paranoia seems a way of displaying that rebellious streak of which Americans are so proud. But on this pleasant Sunday afternoon the rebels seem more like dieters filling out fake names to get a free sample at the food court - the hint of danger in the air makes the shopping experience that much more exhilarating.
"Yeah," says Bill Johnson the First, his baseball cap pushed back on his head and two long cardboard boxes under his arm, "I just got a couple SKS's - a Russian made military kind of rifle. I bought them today because of gun laws. I think they're one of the main things that makes people buy guns. People think they won't be able to get them for too much longer so they get them while they can."
Buying a gun in the mid-90's has become an act of perfect consumption. It allows the consumer to reach a state of gratification, rebelliousness and patriotism simultaneously and without conflict. No other shopping decision carries nearly as much spiritual weight. And all this, all this righteous indignation can be yours for under $100 dollars.
All of which explains the existence of the other economy of the gun show, the economy of fear. It explains why the vigorously paranoid spiel of men like M.W. Jefferson (also not his real name) falls on such receptive ears. Jefferson is selling a book, America in Peril, which explains how the One World Order conspiracy is destroying our once great nation.
At the other end of the building a man is selling copies of the constitution (which he got for free from the Federal Government) and describing in detail how the One World Order conspiracy is actually the final version of plot hatched by Jews in ancient Babylon. He wants to know if I've taken Jesus as my personal savior. Nearby are tables selling Bo Gritz videos. Elsewhere there are stalls where one can buy books with titles like: "The Art of Revenge," "Sniper," "Assassination Techniques," and "Full Auto: Converting Your AR-15 ." The Gun Show trades heavily in information as well as rifles and surprisingly it is the information that is the more unsettling.
As if to confirm my misgivings I discover that loaded weapons aren't the only thing not allowed into Mike Holloway's Gun Show. The other, as I find out from Mike Holloway, is reporters.
Mike Holloway, the organizer of the Gun Show, is a solid looking middle-aged man of Napoleanic stature. He wears glasses, a pressed khaki shirt and olive green pants - a kind of paramilitary leisure suit. I meet Mike by the ticket window. Mike shakes my hand like he means it. And then he kicks me out.
"There's been a lot of bad press from liberals,"
says Mike, explaining why he won't talk to me and why
he won't let me interview anyone or take any pictures
inside the Gun Show. Judging, however, by the action
at the ticket windows and the size of the crowd inside
Mike doesn't feel he needs any more publicity.
"What will you do," I ask, "if I go back in?"
"Then I'll have to ask you to leave," Mike says with a flatness that makes me wonder what "ask" is a euphemism for. "People are bat shy around reporters, nobody wants to talk to you people." (it appears "gun shy" is the old, non-pc term in the gun world, no longer in use because of its pejorative implication for firearms). With Mike glaring at me and a security guard bulging behind him I depart.
Now, while I've certainly been kicked out of better places than a Gun Show, driving away I found myself increasingly disturbed by the gesture. The issue of guns and gun control are too important, too central to American culture, to be kept hidden in the Deco pillbox of the Jacob Building by paranoid shopkeepers like Mike Holloway. Gun owners' fears of an increasingly intrusive and paternalistic Federal Government are not without warrant. At the same time, despite gun owners' best intentions, guns in this country have allowed us to amply express a national murderousness that defies belief. With more than 15,000 people killed by guns (or, as the NRA might prefer - people killed by people wielding guns) last year in this country one must wonder at what point the government's paternalism becomes justified.
Whatever the answer, Mike Holloway's Gun Show is illuminating. It is also one of the few places (though I fear they're becoming more common) where one can walk in with a SPAS-12 semi-automatic shotgun but not a notepad and paper. These are the kind of ironies that have come to surround the issues of guns and gun control in this country and at Mike Holloway's Gun Show these abstractions come to vigorous, oiled, metallic, bargain-basement-priced life.
The Journal of Substance, Wit,and Dangerous Masturbatory Habits