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by ROBBY DOUTHITT & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & middle-aged woman holds a small, silver revolver with a look of genuine surprise painted on her face.

"Wow, that's a lot lighter than I thought," she says.

The man selling the revolver nods. "Yeah, those snub-noses are great self-protection guns. But that's just a nice way of saying, 'Those are great get-the-hell-out-of-my-house guns.'"

Welcome to the gun show. Everything's here -- AK-47s, old-school muskets, Dirty Harry handguns -- and all you need is a valid driver's license, a wad of cash and a confident nod. Just don't be a reporter.

Last weekend, The Inlander went to the Spokane Fair and Expo Center to check out the hardware, but we were turned away at the door. Gun show operator Paul Snider said he didn't trust reporters and wouldn't allow photographs under any circumstances. He said he's not afraid to call the police to handle meddling reporters. (He's done it before, he assured us.) However, when we returned later without a photographer, our reporter got in without a problem.

Once inside, you're quickly struck by the diversity of the crowd. Elderly people in wheelchairs were buying handguns while kids no more than 12 sold toy Airsoft guns to other kids at their parents' booths. There were retired Marines who looked like they could snap the neck of a bear, and there were people who looked like they couldn't walk a mile to save their lives. And there was at least one baby-faced teen with a swastika tattoo buying a semi-automatic rifle.

Yet for all their differences, one thing clearly linked them: a love of firearms and the constitutional right to own and sell them. A sense of pride and belonging pervaded the place -- the type of camaraderie felt by people sharing something they cherish, like motorcyclists or runners who nod as they pass one of their own on the road. Strangers are not strangers at gun shows.

"Shooting that first deer...," says one vendor to another. "Is that ever an orgasmic experience!"

"Oh yeah," the other man nods.

"It's a misunderstanding that the only reason people want to own guns is because they want to fire them," says Bill Savage, a vendor selling historical firearms, which are more relic than weapon. "The fact that it shoots is the last thing a collector thinks about."

Adds Stan Papini, who not only buys and sells guns, but also builds his own .45 caliber handguns: "It's a family event, like golf."

Of course, this is only half the story of gun shows. The other half isn't about the good and responsible people. It's about the terrorists, gang members and crooks who see gun shows as an easy way to arm themselves without going through background checks.

Doug Pennington, spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, estimates that there are about 4,000 to 5,000 gun shows every year. Of those, he says, some tend to cater more toward the collector or the hunter. (Spokane's gun show seems to fall into this category.)

"However, there's another side. Down in Texas, Mexican gangs cross the border, and buy guns and ammunition of all calibers only to go back to Mexico to kill each other," Pennington says. "What it comes down to is we have a very large problem with a very simple solution."

The solution, he says, is background checks -- a five-minute "inconvenience" to the buyer while the seller enters information into a computer, checking the buyer's criminal record against an FBI database. Oregon requires background checks, as does California, which also imposes a 10-day waiting period. (Both Barack Obama and John McCain favor background checks.)

"This isn't rocket science. People with criminal backgrounds should not be allowed to buy firearms," Pennington says. "It doesn't hurt business; it keeps guns out of the hands of terrorists and criminals."

One vendor at the Spokane show says he profiles buyers, and if there seems to be something odd about them, he won't sell them any firearms. Pennington, however, thinks that is ridiculous.

"Why are you going to use your intuition when the FBI is readily available?" Pennington asks. "A lot of clean-cut looking people will go to gun shows and put their hands on a stack of Bibles swearing they're good people. But nobody really knows."

Those at the gun show last weekend didn't see themselves as a hotbed of munitions for terrorists. Most were just looking to buy and trade guns as investments, not as weapons. They might buy a rifle now and sell it at a show for a 30 percent profit in five years when it goes out of production. In those five years it may never be fired.

"Look around," Papini says. "Do any of these people actually look threatening?"

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