Saturday afternoon at the gun show

On Saturday afternoon we pulled into Cow Palace, a crumbling 70-year-old sports arena just over the San Francisco County line in Daly City. The first thing we saw was a bumper sticker with an Obama logo and "Got a Birth Certificate?" branded on top of it.

It was a small preview of what was in store for us at the Crossroads of the West Gun Show.

With gun legislation back up for debate in America for the first time in 20 years, this particular outing seemed fitting Saturday afternoon entertainment. I had dragged LP along for the trip. She did not entirely share this sentiment. But among many other great qualities my wife has, she is a very good sport.

My first thought upon entering the large hall and walking around a bit was that it was underwhelming. I have no interest in or knowledge of guns and had paid $12 to come and walk around a hall dedicated to this very thing.

There was no hi-tech whizbang or glorious presentation. It was just a big room with a lot of guns and gun-related things in it. But with patience, we found that the charms of this event opened up to us. 

Several easily differentiated groups of people were in attendance. Some of them made sense to me. The hardcore hunters, those I got. Recreationally killing animals is not my thing, but I eat meat and can't judge. A place like this is a hunter's nirvana: blades, army fatigues, sturdy bags, camping equipment, rifles as far as the eye can see.

The Tea Party-libertarian-slightly paranoid-crank crowd - older, paler, sagging, terrifyingly crotchety - was out in force. But even though I wouldn't see eye-to-eye with them, I can still identify the (woefully misinformed) fear-the-government, misread-the-second-amendment, constitutionalist sentiment that drives them out to an event like this.

It was the adrenaline-yoked young men, the possibly gang-affiliated, and the families out shopping - kids in tow - that wore on me.

To the eye, there wasn't too much difference between the people I could see here and the people I'd see down at Walmart. This was a Rick Santorum, Ron Paul kind of crowd.

There was much right of centre political rhetoric on display that confirmed this. Most of it was silly, a little of it was troubling.

Several vendors sold zero-dollar notes with Barack Obama's face on them. Good for a giggle if you're that way inclined, maybe. I was disquieted by how these same vendors all sold pro-Jan Brewer trinkets, celebrating the Arizona governor and architect of racist and restrictive immigration legislation. The mass of bumper stickers of the "I Don't Call 911" and "A Gun Owning Society is a Polite Society" ilk was a bit ignorant for me. But most off-putting was the stall operator loudly discussing with a friend about how great it would be if Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were on a plane together and it crashed, killing them both.

I had imagined that I could flit about as an observer without unveiling myself as a liberal gun-novice, but this was harder than I imagined. One stall featured the "World's Smallest Political Quiz" alongside reams of radical political reading material (THE NEW WORLD ORDER IS HERE AND IT HAS A NAME). I stopped for a peek and a laugh and a nice old woman dragooned me into doing the test. The first five questions centred on personal liberties. I didn't embarrass myself totally. The economic portion set me apart; the woman's eyebrows were raised as I registered negative responses to privatising Social Security, replacing government welfare with charity and cutting government spending by 50 per cent or more.

At the end of the test the woman put her arm around me and drawled, "Oh, a little variety is a good thing." Individual test results were displayed on a large graph where your personal and economic issues score were mapped against the other. My result was displayed by a lonely green sticker way out in liberal left field, set apart by an ocean of white space from the dozens of overlapping entries crowding into the libertarian section.  

I walked past a booth gathering signatures for a petition against California Senator Dianne Feinstein's proposed assault weapons ban, an odd undertaking since the bill was introduced two months ago and is effectively dead in the water. A woman called out to me, "Have you signed yet, sir?" The key word here I felt, was yet.

"No," I said.

She reached her clipboard out to me. "Well, can you do that now?"


"Why not?"

"I thought Feinstein's bill was a great idea," I said. I couldn't help myself. I should've just said I didn't sign petitions and be done with it. The woman looked at me with a mix of confusion and pure scorn that caught me off guard.

I was a red herring every time I stopped to browse or chat with a vendor. I picked up a strange-looking plastic instrument at one display and accidentally touched a button. Two prongs flew out of the little tool and smacked me in the chest. I dropped it on the ground promptly, making a bit of a scene. It turned out to be a gun stand for hunting.

Later, I became curious about two buxom young ladies selling something called the SuperTool. I inquired as to what this "super" tool was.

"Well, you know the bullet button on your gun?"

I felt sheepish. "I don't own a gun." The conversation lost altitude swiftly. I still don't know what this thing did.  

We lasted an hour and a half. After a while the displays of assault rifles, handguns, antique swords, stun guns, beef jerky, targets, political propaganda and army fatigues all blended together.  

I've talked about guns enough on this blog to know that two reactions are going to come out of this.

This is either colourful fuel to add to the fire of why you think guns are an unequivocal poison in American society, or an affront and a categorical misunderstanding of America's unique gun culture. 

Going to this gun show was excellent people-watching and good blog fodder, but it was also like walking in on a friend staggering drunk in the early afternoon who you knew already had a drinking problem.

With toothless, watered-down gun control legislation before the House of Representatives this week, which in itself has little chance of passing, this gun show was like a mini-personal tipping point.

What's wrong with these people? What do they think they're arming themselves against?

On our way out to the car, four dude-bros stood gathered outside a van debating gun preferences. A challenge was laid out from one friend to another, "What are you going to do with that one when you're out of bullets and fighting mano-a-mano?"

Guns in America are a destructive cultural genie that isn't going back in the bottle even with new gun laws. But to anyone who will write back to this that gun control wouldn't stop gun crime, you're missing the point and hurting your country.

(Not to forget stories like this last week that pop up all too frequently, where a four-year old grabbed his uncle's gun and accidentally shot his aunt dead.) 

The facts are staggering. Fifty years ago in America there was a gun for every two people. Now there's almost one per person. America has 5 per cent of the world's population but almost half of the civilian-owned guns. Guns are 10 times more likely to be used in a crime than in self-defence. Among developed countries, there are acres of air between America's gun homicide rate and the rest of the developed world.

The vast majority of homicides involve guns and about 70 per cent of those convicted had a previous arrest.

Common sense dictates, everywhere in the world but America, that if you're mentally ill or have a criminal record, you shouldn't own a gun; and for all people, there's no reason (albeit hunting or self-defence) to own gruesome weapons capable of firing hundreds of bullets in short succession.

Putting these laws in place won't entirely stop the problem, but it will start to stop the problem. Arguing for the former as a reason to not even try is self-defeating. But then you can't treat the patient if they're the only one who doesn't know they're sick.

Gun control might not have stopped Adam Lanza or James Holmes, but both people are evidence of a broad national sickness with many historical, economic and social causes. Adequate gun control is but one piece of treating this and a damn fine place to start.

(Once this has been dealt with, move on to gun safety and education, addressing mental health problems and dealing punitively with gun crimes.)

If you want to face this problem by putting your fingers in your ears and holding on to a complete misreading of the second clause in a 200-plus-years-old document that you swear should still by-the-letter govern a country of 300 million people, than all I have to say is... the joke is on you?   

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