An Attempt To Understand America By Going To A Gun Show

Colorado can be an interesting place to live. At times, it seems to operate on a system of binary cultures. To some, we are the land of disillusioned gray haired hippies, holdovers from the sixties that still sell natural gemstones on Pearl Street. Others focus on the deep seated right wing ideology of Colorado Springs, and the pervasive gun culture that remains entrenched in our everyday discussions. As macabre is may seem, and despite the recent efforts of our state government, many see us as the massacre state. We are the wild and crazy middle child of America, defined through bloodshot eyes and blood stained past.

This is a label I’ve struggled to understand through the years, having lived comfortably in an enclave of fixed gear bicycles and endless tattoo sleeves. It is a space that is very much removed from the American gun culture. That isn’t to say that I’m immune to the political discourse surrounding the issue. In four years of living in Denver, I have witnessed firsthand two public shootings.

While these experiences have no doubt come to shape my views of gun control reform, I’m cautious in employing them in an attempt to define gun culture as a whole. As Colorado continues to position itself as ground zero in the ongoing debate, I remain ignorant of a culture that, by and large, remains closed to the rest of society. It is a brotherhood of sorts, a fraternity of firearms, which has successfully maintained a political and social presence for several decades. If one were to begin to try and understand the underlying implications of gun control in America, the easiest and most direct route might well be the Tanner Gun show. With over 700 tables of high powered assault rifles, handguns, magazines, butterfly knives, and the occasional baked good, it is the perfect place to take in America’s obsession with firearms.

However, the gun show emerged from our local consciousness onto the national stage in 1999. It was at this time that two 18 years old, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, purchased several firearms which would go on to be used at the Columbine High School massacre. In the process, these two shifted a national focus to the nature in which these gun shows operate. More importantly, it moved gun shows, and specifically the Tanner Gun show, into a sphere of rhetorical debate. Overnight, the trade show became a gun control battleground. Having nothing better to do on a recent warm Sunday afternoon, I drove down to the Denver Merchandise Mart to take it in for myself. I wanted, if nothing else, to see this phenomenon firsthand in an attempt to understand it from perspective removed from judgment. I did this with the belief that one day, we will all have to try to understand one another just a little bit better than we are now.

I dressed conservatively in an attempt to fit in. It was ironic, as I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and I perhaps believed that my boot-cut Levis would shield me from unwanted political debate. The idea was quickly dashed when I first encountered the fliers warning against the illegal sale of firearms from the parking lot. I may have gone home right then, if I hadn’t been encouraged to come inside by the security staff patrolling the area outside of the hotel lobby.

In fact, most people I encountered were terribly nice, the kind of warm and honest geniality that one almost doesn’t trust entirely. Having explained my position to the ticket takers at the door, I was let inside the convention center for half price, with the agreement that I wouldn’t take any pictures of what I saw inside.

There were no weapons laid out on the first table I saw. Instead, I found highly polished bits of turquoise and small bits of silver jewelry. From the earliest onset, one can see how these individuals view themselves within the framework of American history. This is Colorado, after all, and we are quick to embrace the ghosts of the old West.

Beyond these specters of the American cowboy, I saw an vast sea of elongated card tables, each covered with handguns, ammunition, butterfly knives, and brass knuckles. Many were draped with banners depicting various forms of Libertarian rhetoric. Old men with receding hairlines casually strolled by wearing t-shits quoting Wayne LaPierre, and smiling ladies sold old glossy photos of John Wayne in Western wear. Off in the corner, a group which claimed not to be a militia recruited teenagers of both genders for pseudo-military exercises, citing the ongoing “culture war” and the necessity for preparedness. They would smile as they came over to show me how to properly hold and AR-15 assault rifle, clearly picking up that I had no idea what I was doing.

The sobering moment, if there was one, came at a table adorned with large plastic bags of spent ammunition. Each was labeled in a series of unfamiliar acronyms. After politely inquiring as to what they were, I was informed that each was conflict specific, and that some people liked to collect shells from various wars around the globe. I picked up a small bag, labeled “German, WWII,” and I felt a tremendous sadness in the weight of it all, speculating on where the other half of these bullets might have ended up.
I recognize that this does not reflect gun culture in America as a whole, but couldn’t help but feel the irony in the suggested violence of these small objects.

Despite coming close to purchasing a vintage 1851 Colt revolver, I ultimately decided on a picture of Val Kilmer, dressed as Doc Holliday, and signed in silver ink: “I’ll be Your Huckleberry, Val Kilmer, DOC.” It was, without question, the most unintimidating piece in the entire room. It was also the most satisfying purchase I had made in the last three months. Everyone loves that movie, and Kilmer is badass.

It is in gestures such as these that individuals like myself, whom may feign ignorance in the face of a culture they do not understand, in turn celebrate various aspects of America’s troubled and violent past. The ghosts of the cowboys continue to haunt the state of Colorado in ways that words cannot adequately describe. While we struggle to navigate the complexities of the modern world, we still continue to romanticize the complicated violent legacies of our past. While I may not understand this perspective completely, I think that’s alright.

Given that we operate in a system of multiple subcultures, we are allowed to have different perspectives or definitions of what we consider freedom. In these varying perspectives, one opens the door to the possibility of multiple “truths” that may exist simultaneously, varying from one individual to another, and defined by our surrounding environment. While we may not understand the significance of gun culture in modern America, it has become an aspect impossible to ignore, let alone reconcile. Ultimately, regardless of how we interact with one another, the world remains how we choose to see it as individuals. TC mark

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