‘Why are gun shows so white?’ and other thoughts after attending a gun show
OPINION: After attending an event sponsored by one of the country’s largest gun show organizers, white America’s fascination with firearms is suddenly much clearer.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio
As the founder of the field and one of America’s leading wypipologists, my research has taken me into spaces that people who keep a backup supply of hot sauce would find difficult to navigate. I have attended Confederate reenactments, monster truck rallies, Republican conventions and at least two Klan rallies (Technically, it was three, but I was arrested at the third, and the Klan didn’t show up).
What Jane Goodall is to chimpanzees, I am to white people.
Because of my numerous excursions into the world of whiteness, I was not troubled when I covered a gun show sponsored by RK Shows, one of the “largest Gun and Knife show promoters in the US.” (sic…or maybe not. For all I know, “gun” is a proper noun.) I have been to gun shows before. I think of these expeditions into the Caucasian underworld the same way I imagine that Jacque Cousteau thought of the ocean or Neil Armstrong thought of the moon. The deep sea and deep space are a lot like whiteness—it’s all around us, seldom explored, and pretty dark. Also, it can kill you.
So, on Saturday, June 11, I put on the protective gear (shorts, a T-shirt and a pair of nondescript running shoes) for my gun show safari.
Here’s what I learned.
1. Why are gun shows so white?
Again, this is not my first rodeo (Yes, I have attended actual rodeos). I noticed this phenomenon at the last gun show I visited in Birmingham, Ala. While Birmingham is one of the five Blackest cities in America, it’s still in Alabama, so I didn’t think it was strange that the patrons were overwhelmingly white. But I’m starting to notice a trend.
I specifically chose this particular event because it was held in Peach County, Ga., where the Census Bureau says the white population (44.7 percent) is nearly identical to the Black population (44.4 percent). Warner Robins, the nearest city, is 40.3 percent Black and 44.4 percent white. Nearby Macon is twice as large and is majority Black. However, about 80 to 90 percent of the people at the gun show were white.
In 2017, Pew Research found that about 1-in-3 African-American households had a gun owner, compared to about half of white households, which is not a huge disparity. Furthermore, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Firearm Industry Trade Association reported that Black gun ownership surged since the pandemic’s beginning, growing faster than white firearm ownership. So what gives?
“I think it’s just where good ol’ boys like to buy their guns,” explained one vendor who asked to be identified only as Joe. “You get better deals and [you can find] stuff that you can’t find at a gun store. Plus, it’s like a family event.”
That explains it.
2. The “gun show loophole” isn’t as ubiquitous as you think.
Since Nov. 30, 1998, purchasing a firearm in the United States meant the buyer must submit a background check in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
But not really.
According to gun violence watchdog Everytown, 29 states allow personal firearm transactions, transfers or gun show purchases without the required background check. Termed the “gun show loophole,” vendors who insist they are occasional sellers or claim they are selling from their “personal collection,” are not required to have a federal firearm license. If that loophole seems small, nearly 1 out of 4 gun owners report buying their most recent gun without a background check. However, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms doesn’t have a specific definition for how many firearms can be sold before the seller is considered a “firearms dealer.” However, at the show I attended, nearly every vendor had a laptop ready to perform a background check.
“When you talk about the larger shows, you ain’t gonna make no money with just a few shotguns,” explained a vendor from North Georgia Pawn and Gun. “Most of the vendors are licensed dealers who have stores.”
3. Loopholes aren’t just for guns.
Aside from the powerful weapons that are available at gun shows, vendors offer a variety of tools specifically designed to kill people. Attendees can purchase swords, blades, brass knuckles, brass knuckles with blades and even sword-tipped guns (technically, they’re called bayonets)—all of which are illegal in certain states. And if you’re concerned about illegality, don’t worry; vendors are more than willing to help you skirt the law.
For instance, armor-piercing bullets are illegal for civilian use, which is why ammunition dealers at gun shows advertise legal “green-tip” ammo that complies with ATF law, even though it is specifically made to pierce armor. Depending on which state you live in, you might not be able to buy a pistol-grip rifle. But if you go to a gun show, you can buy a bundle that includes a rifle, a perfectly fitting pistol grip and even a magazine that holds up to 100 rounds. Don’t spend your energy and risk jail time sawing off the barrel of your shotgun. Just ask your favorite gun show dealer for a Mossberg Shockwave, whose barrel is a half-inch longer than an illegal sawed-off version. I bet they’ll have one.
It might sound loopy, but it makes a great big hole.
4. The AR is the star.
Without question, the AR-15 is the star of every gun show. I would even venture to say that a third of all the guns for sale were AR-15s. And, contrary to popular belief, this particular assault weapon comes in an assortment of flavors. There are short-barrelled ARs, pistol-grip ARs the size of a large handgun, and huge, intimidating AR-15 rifles.
One of the most under-discussed things about assault weapons is that many of the AR-type weapons used in mass shootings are technically not AR-15s. Most of this particular lightweight semiautomatic rifle’s sales are knockoffs of the original patent that Colt Manufacturing owns. Although Colt has held the patent for the ArmaLite Rifle-15 (which occupies the space between the M-14 and the M16 military rifles) since 1959, the gun has been produced by everyone from tiny mom-and-pop outfits to large weapons manufacturers since the patent expired in 1977.
4. It’s very American.
Gun shows are nothing if not patriotic. I have no idea what these people are going to do with these firearm stashes because these red-blooded, God-fearing trigger pullers love to talk about how much they love their fellow “Mur’cunns.” Who else would want a star-spangled revolver?
You might refer to the white people with nationalistic tendencies as “white nationalists,” but I prefer to call them patriots.
5. It’s not just white; it’s pro-white.
Pardon the pun but if you are Black, prepare to be triggered.
The amount of white supremacist iconography and memorabilia available for sale at these events is astounding. If you’re in the market for a slightly used Confederate flag or a “Don’t Tread On Me” T-shirt, you don’t have to wait on a shipment from Etsy; just plop down the $12 entry fee to your local convention center and you have an all-access pass to the most racist flea market ever. Perhaps my favorite piece of Caucasian Cap’ya Alpha paraphernalia is the stuff with the Spartan helmet and the phrase “Molon Labe” (translated as “come and take it”) emblazoned on it. Sparta’s King Leonidas supposedly uttered the term before the Battle of Thermopylae after Persian ruler Xerxes demanded that the Spartan warriors lay down their weapons…
Just before the Spartans got their clocks cleaned.
6. Killing doesn’t cost much.
Killing people is surprisingly cheap.
One vendor had an entire table set aside for $99 guns. And while the average retail price for an AR-15 hovers around $800 to $1,000, gun shows regularly sell AR-type weapons for around $300. On Saturday, I could have plunked down $400 for an AR that shoots .22 caliber bullets or, for $200 more, I could purchase one that shoots bullets that “will leave a larger bullet wound.”
7. …Or maybe Donald Trump is the star.
Gun shows also serve as unofficial GOP pep rallies.
Since my first gun show in 2014, I noticed that you could tell who the GOP had in their crosshairs by the signage at gun shows. Back then, gun show attendees coalesced around their mutual hate for Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and, of course, Black Lives Matter. But things have changed since the good old days when gun show patrons could purchase shooting targets with Barack Obama’s face on the bullseye (although you still can).
While there’s still plenty of hate for Joe Biden, the Squad and Muslims, Donald Trump has become the official mascot of gun owners everywhere. Suppose you’re not keen on representing the side that got mollywhopped during the fight for slavery. In that case, your local firearms show still offers the opportunity to get all your MAGA memorabilia done in one stop. Get your cousin Jeb a “Let’s Go Brandon” flag. There are also “F**k Biden” stickers for the more obscene truck-driving cousin/girlfriend in your life.
8. There’s also a lot of paranoia.
One of the major themes at gun shows is the idea that jack-booted thugs are coming to confiscate your guns. Vendors profit off this paranoia by offering ways to hide your guns, undetectable firearms and even kits so you can build your own.
Aside from hocking hate for “big government,” they also sell fear. If you listen to anyone at a gun show, your ammunition doesn’t have enough “stopping power,” your magazine doesn’t hold enough bullets and you don’t own enough firearms for when the “s**t hits the fan.” Or maybe you own five big guns, but do you have a laser sight for when an intruder comes at night? Instead of reloading, you’re probably going to need some extra magazines. If you don’t know how to handle all that, you should enroll in this tactical training class, where you can learn how to kill people more efficiently for a mere $259 per class.
I’m sure there’s a signup sheet.
10. It’s kind of scary.
Don’t be fooled that the average gun show attendee is a hillbilly or someone whose neck might be slightly redder than normal. Nope, there were all kinds of white people—from boat shoe wearers to skateboarders. And some of them were not just casual shoppers. I saw a son helping his father fill a 70-gallon plastic tub with ammunition. I spoke with a husband clearly on his way to the golf course purchasing a two-shot Derringer for his wife. Because of gun shows, I now assume every white person is armed.
Oh, I’m not guessing. A white, male, evangelical Republican is statistically more likely to own a gun than not, according to Public Religion Research Institute.
In 2019, more than 8,700 people were serving time in a federal or state prison for committing a crime with a gun they purchased without a background check. More than 2,000 of those people purchased their firearms at a gun show.
Molon Labe, indeed.
Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2022.
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