by Mike Corrigan

Even before I entered the Spokane County Fair & amp; Expo Center, mine eyes beheld the glory of people coming and going with firearms -- rifles, shotguns, what-have-you -- slung over their shoulders, tucked under their arms and otherwise festooned to their persons, an arresting sight to an admitted city slicker within the relatively gun-less city limits. It's all perfectly legal, of course (as are gun-totin' gun racks in pickup trucks), but not the kind of thing you encounter every day. I laughed, partly at the sight of them and partly at myself for being so initially wigged out.

I was at a freaking gun show, after all.

On the shore of this sea of guns, one encounters the "gun check," where incoming weapons are fitted with a trigger tie and checked to confirm that they are unloaded. Concealed weapons are a no-no.

"We don't want someone coming in here with a loaded pistol and have them trying out a holster or something and have something happen," explains Spokane Gun Show promoter Paul Snider. "We don't want that. And our insurance company sure doesn't want that."

This guy knows what flies at a gun show and what doesn't. He's hosted more than 550 of them.

"I used to do 35 a year, but that just got to be too much," he says. "Gun shows are extremely popular in the West, especially in conservative areas. Though in liberal areas, they take quite a pounding."

Snider is a gun collector and a dealer at the shows. When he buys, it's usually in the form of an entire collection from a private seller, which typically leaves him with a few guns he really wants and a lot of extra pieces.

"You usually get a better deal when you buy a whole collection. And I just sell off the ones that I don't need."

Snider's specialty is Old West collectibles.

"Anything that John Wayne used," he laughs, "I like."

I've personally struggled with the gun issue for years. And while some gun people still make me nervous as hell, I've reached my own detente with the blue-steel babies. I grew up with them, after all. And I've had fun firing them: shotguns, .30 caliber rifles, .22s, and yes, my trusty Crossman 760 Powermaster air rifle. I even got to fire (shamed into firing, really) a hand-sized cannon, my uncle's shiny .44 Magnum, the recoil of which nearly pulverized my skinny teenaged arm.

I also have a fascination with guns that completely transcends their grim purpose. I appreciate them as art, as engineering, as sleek forms that neatly follow function, with precision mechanisms that load, hold, fire and eject tiny projectile-tipped explosives.

And I think the world would be a much better place without them, particularly in the case of handguns, which are designed for the sole purpose of blowing holes in people. Yet I'm enough of a realist to recognize a world without guns probably isn't in the cards. And so I support the ownership of handguns by qualified, even-tempered individuals, which means I also support a reasonable amount of regulation. Shouldn't handgun ownership be at least as regulated as automobile ownership? While I've heard the argument that automobiles actually kill many more people each year in this country than do handguns (which is true), the thing is, automobiles are not created for the sole purpose of blowing holes in people. In the interest of public safety, are background checks and gun registration too much to ask?

Yet there is a rather easy way to get around all that regulatory claptrap. It's called a gun show. At a gun show (as through a classified ad or a person-to-person exchange), unlicensed individuals can buy and sell handguns with no background checks, no paperwork, nothing.

"That's referred to as a loophole," says Snider. "Anybody that's a licensed dealer has to go through the checking and the paperwork. An unlicensed dealer can sell anything they want in their own state."

Doesn't that seem a little backwards? Shouldn't the rules be at least as strict for a private, unlicensed seller as they are for an established, licensed gun store owner?

"Well, it makes sense if you think about it," Snider explains. "Look at it this way, I may sell five to 10 guns a year, but a dealer can sell 500, 1,000 or as many as he can."

At the Spokane Gun Show, I found dealers and non-dealers alike hawking all manner of firearms. There were guns and ammo up the wazoo. I was seduced by a cute stainless steel Walther PPK/S -- yes, the very gun carried by Ian Fleming's famous British superspy. It was $439 cash money or $452 on a credit card. I also spied several units of the bad boy at the center of the current assault rifle controversy, the AK-47. At only $424, it seemed like a bargain, especially considering (as I was reminded by the dealer) that these represent some of the last to be imported before the assault weapon ban was enacted -- when they're gone, boy, they're gone. Yet these Romanian-made models looked pretty rough around the edges to my admittedly untrained eyes. Nothing like that sexy Walther.

But guns weren't the only things at the gun show. There were also a lot of coin dealers on hand (an odd thing amid all that ordnance), as well as dealers pushing knives, spotting scopes, war memorabilia, Western art, classy "bullet hole" stickers for your car, Bin Laden and Hussein targets and gobs of politically incorrect, funny-if-they-weren't-so-hateful bumper stickers ("PETA -- People Eating Tasty Animals") and T-shirts ("Christian American Heterosexual Pro-Gun Conservative. Any Questions?").

You know, I would have some questions for anyone who would actually wear something like that. Fortunately, for the sake of my arteries, the weirdest clothing I saw being worn was a handmade sign advertising a .40-caliber Glock taped to a show attendee's back. When I first saw it, I thought it was a "kick me" joke, rather than a sincere effort to unload a heater.

Well good luck, buddy. America may be gun-crazy, but who am I to play psychiatrist?

Publication date: 6/17/04

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