The Gun Show in the Age of Violence

The gun show was small, which was fine with me. We would not have to shuffle-walk through the civic center for long. I left my eyeglasses in the car and wore a military-themed shirt but fooled no one.

Just past the ticket counter, where everyone entered and automatically turned left, was the booth for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. I bent to look at their pamphlet.

“The Southern Soldier fought for a just cause, and the light of their accomplishments can never be dimmed by any revision of History,” it said. “Our ancestors left their homes and families in defense of Constitutional Liberty and States Rights to face overwhelming odds. Many paid the ultimate price. All endured hardships and suffering while maintaining the reputation of the greatest fighting force the world had ever known.”

The man behind the table regarded me with a mix of suspicion and hopefulness. “Did one of your ancestors fight for the Confederacy?” he said.

I did not want to lie, but what was I going to say? My direct ancestors were all Yankees by geography and temperament, a century before there was a republic. I said maybe, but my heart was not in it. The old son of the Confederacy looked dubious but said they all meet at Joe’s Pizza on the second Tuesday of every month, if I wanted to come out. He gave me an application form that asked me to check the fate of my nonexistent Confederate ancestor. The options were: paroled, surrendered, released on oath, discharged, killed, or died. I did not ask about desertion, firing squad for insubordination, or treason.

The show was the same mix of geedunk and deadly engineering I remembered from my last show, 30 years ago. Several dozen vendors sold hats, t-shirts, stickers, patches, hand-painted turkey feathers, odd faces carved in scraps of wood, flashlights you could leave on high-beam for 72 hours, flashlights that would light a lighted room, carabiners, cleaning kits, holsters, sniper scopes, Nazi coins, thousand-dollar bills with Trump’s face on them, knives of every possible shape and size, and Beanie Babies for the kids.

There were the guns, of course—historical lever-action cowboy rifles and cunning derringers, Saturday Night Special revolvers, police-style semi-auto pistols customized for any need, AR knockoffs, Bullpup knockoffs, H&K knockoffs, M4 knockoffs, shotguns cut down to clear rooms. Customers shifted the weight of weapons in their hands, aimed them, breathed their oily smell, and played with their knurled knobs. After a while the people I was with felt it was a glut, a bore, all very normal and banal.

On our way out we stopped at a table near the door, where a guy was selling pot-metal rings with death’s heads on them, and Chinese-made knives he said were better and cheaper than the best American knives. He had worked for years as an IT manager, but it was too much pressure and there were too many gripes. This was his 25th year with a table at the gun show, which he did for fun. He sold nothing from his house in the off-season, and he did not even have a business card. His goods went in a closet after the show. He came only with the goal of making back his entry fee and the cost of his goods. The gun show was all about community, seeing his friends, and educating young people, he said. Some of the kids he first met at the show when they were teens now brought their grandchildren.

“Circle of life,” he said.

The guy at the table next to him also came for the fun of it. He was selling a real Italian stiletto switchblade he enthused over, but the table was covered in other automatic knives. One quick-open knife was engraved, “Broward County Sheriffs FSA Conference 2010.”

“That was the same year as the shooting there,” the guy claimed. “It just gives me chills up my spine to think about it. That’s a very special knife.”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.