At the Crossroads of the West Gun Show, which claims to draw 401,000 customers every year, children under age 12 get in free.
"It's a family event,” says Tracy Olcott with a welcoming smile. Olcott's father founded Crossroads of the West more than 30 years ago. Now a young mother herself, Olcott is happy to talk about the gun show, but she does so in a somewhat guarded manner, carefully choosing each word.
"There are families out here selling guns, ammo, books, accessories, toys for kids,” she says, "and, of course, there are the collectors fulfilling their interests.”
Weeks before the Virginia Tech shootings—before gun lovers and gun-shop owners decided it would be best to stop talking to the media—I took a trip to the gun show at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. I expected to come across—and hopefully talk to—both responsible gun owners and gun nuts.
As I walk in, I'm asked by two bulky officers under a sign that says, "NO LOADED GUNS PAST THIS POINT,” to leave my bullets at the gate. There's a plastic jar of bullets on the table in front of the guards, so I ask one of the cops if he collects much ammo.
"At least one visitor enters with a loaded weapon,” he says, "usually by mistake because they forget to unload.” I tell them I don't have any guns or ammo and pass by, wondering how many gun lovers have forgotten this time around.
Inside, two boys run by with Airsoft rifles they picked up from a vendor table. Airsoft manufactures everything from AK-47 sniper rifles to M16 assault rifles and other modern BB guns made of plastic, wood and metal. The toys are perfect replicas, so authentic they make the real guns look like toys. The reality/play line is blurred, and the boys act like well-equipped and confident soldiers. They dodge and fire, pretending to shoot each other between refrigerator-sized gun safes and the first set of tables to offer something called "collectibles.”
The vendors at the collectibles tables make it clear that the items they're selling are memorabilia or historical artifacts. All the vendors I talk to repeat the same line: "We sell collectibles.” Some of these so-called collectibles include images of Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemimah eating BBQ chicken with captions reading, "Sure, we're cuckoo, but we're happy,” and "Coon chicken.”
Collectors can buy old metal recruiting signs with the image of a young woman—sort of a cross between Rosie the Riveter and Lucille Ball—with the words, "Gee!! I wish I were a man. I'd join the Navy.”
The vendors also make available "No Colored Allowed” antique brass door signs, and collectors can pick up confederate flag flasks, old bullets, pelts, stuffed raccoons and boar heads.
A few minutes in, I meet a dealer who refers to himself as a historian. He looks like he's been sitting in a chair reading Guns & Ammo for four days straight; he's grubby and a little greasy, too. He's selling Nazi pins, SS badges and yellow Stars of David, or what he calls "German Militaria.”
"Does anybody give you shit about selling this stuff?” I ask.
"I jump right down their throats,” he says. "The Japanese killed more people than the Nazis did. Russia was second, and then the Germans.”
"Hitler was stupid,” he continues. "He should have used the Jews to fight his war against the Russians. No communism for us to deal with.”
A few tables over from the historian, you can purchase ball caps with "ACLU” circled and crossed out. At another table you can buy a book called, Don't Get Mad, Get Even: The Art of Revengemanship, and right next to that are stickers that say, "A Woman's Place Is in the House but Not the White House.”
Later, I asked Olcott about some of the items, mainly the Nazi pins.
"Anything that glorifies Nazism,” she says sternly, "any neo-Nazi stuff is not allowed.” She wants everyone to know that propagating hate is unacceptable at the gun show.
The pavilion is noisy between the zapping of what sounds like a Tazer, the ka ka ka of the air guns and all the voices talking up the goods. There's a smell of patriotism and hot dogs wafting among heightened testosterone.
A guy dressed as a Samurai walks by, followed by a cowboy wearing a belt buckle that says, "World's Largest Nuts Shown Below.” Rows upon rows of rifles and handguns are spread out across tables throughout the building, everything from pump-action rifles with pistol grips to guns the size of your palm.
Hand cannons are available, too, such as a $1,029 Smith and Wesson 460 magnum with an 8 3⁄8-inch barrel that seems to give every gunslinger passing by a hard-on.
"I wouldn't want to be on the business end of it,” says the vendor.
He lifts his Daytona cap to show where a bullet grazed his head. "I was shot by a cop 28 years ago,” he says.
The dealer is selling a pink .22 Crickett Youth Gun that looks like a Barbie accessory. It catches the eye of one gentleman browser. "Hey, maybe my daughter would like to have one of those,” he says.
I ask the dealer which is his biggest pistol. He says the most powerful handgun is really a flare gun because "you can put a shotgun shell in it.” I smile because he chuckles, but the thought of his experiments with flare guns and shotgun shells is frightening.
I walk over to look at T-shirts and find one with "My Rifle: The Creed of a U.S. Marine” printed on front: "This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I master my life. My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus I will learn it as a brother. We will become part of each other.”
To become a Marine, you have to go to boot camp and endure intense training before heading off to war with a weapon. A regular citizen who wants to purchase a handgun at a gun show must be 21 and take a test to receive the Handgun Safety Certificate then wait 10 days for a background check. Basically, if you're a convicted felon, you're out—no guns for you. But there are ways to get around the rules—the Columbine kids had their older friend purchase rifles for them, and the Virginia Tech shooter just lied on the application about his mental history.
Before leaving, I ask the gun-show test administrator if I should study to get the required certificate.
"If you can read and comprehend things, you can pass,” he says. Then he asks, "You can understand me, right?”
"Yeah,” I say.
"Then you'll pass.”