This story comes from Texas monthlyarchives. We’ve left it as it was originally published, with no updates, to keep the history clear.
In states in the South, Midwest, and Southwest where gun laws are the most lenient, gun shows form a continuous circuit of weekend fairs. Advertised as portable museums, they function as hardware flea markets. The guiding principle is to exchange firearms and accessories for cash, by hand. Billed as “the world’s largest,” the Summer Houston Gun Show last August loaded 1,700 tables with an arsenal that would be the envy of some governments. On sale are shotguns of all kinds, Magnum revolvers, automatic and single-shot pistols, sealed cases of ammunition and large bins of spare parts. Outnumbered by old flintlocks were obsolete or surplus weapons from recent American wars – M-1 Garands, .30 caliber carbines, even Browning automatic rifles, M-14s and M-16s first used in Viet Name. Dozens of Luger pistols, a soapstone bust of Hitler for $35, Goebbels’ propaganda journal, a full Luftwaffe uniform, countless Iron Crosses, and Wehrmacht helmets with earflaps were also readily available. More surprising than the Nazi craze was the mercenary vogue (a table held pamphlets with titles like “Opportunities for Americans in the Rhodesian Army”), although I later learned that most “mercenaries” who were leaning on Soldier of fortune magazine are either armchair romantic adventurers or total frauds. I paid a dollar for a poster in which a sneering sea captain wearing the stars and stripes and a bloody saber accepted a lei and paperwork labeled “petroleum lease” and “unlimited mining rights” from a Polynesian girl in the topless, while a barefoot peasant in a sombrero knelt in surrender nearby. The exhibitor who sold me this poster was blind in one eye. Something hard, sharp and explosive had rearranged that side of his face.
The sales pitches were varied. A jovial, red-faced man shouted and shook a cylindrical rattle (patent pending) that he swore sounded like the clash of deer antlers. Others sat with their arms crossed and stared impassively at the navigators. A man in a jumpsuit who was buying a shotgun for his teenage son asked, “Do I have to fill out one of those government forms?” The exhibitor shook his head and gave the man change for his hundred dollar bill. “There you go, my son,” said the buyer. “Explode.”
Some of the exhibits were aimed at gun collectors, but others were obviously not. Priced as low as $25, prone to shattering if too many rounds are discharged into their chambers, some of the handguns on display are being dubbed “Saturday Night Specials” – the euphemism for murder weapons from street – so important in today’s gun control debate. Genuine gun collectors were easy to spot; they busied themselves with serial numbers, inspecting scratches with bore lights, marveling at minor manufacturing variations, and doing good business. “I would like seventeen hundred,” said the owner of a former Colt. His client replied, “I have a nicer one than this, and I’m asking for fifteen.”
True collectors came to Houston primarily to trade with each other. Most of their dealings took place Friday night, before the gun show opened to the public. Affluent collectors typically have federal licenses ranging from Collector’s Class, which simply allows them to transact across state lines, to Class III, which allows them to own and traffic in machine guns. , silencers and explosive devices that ordinary citizens are denied. Any federal firearms license means that the government is satisfied that the dealer has a good reputation in the community and a genuine business interest in the firearms. Yet the federal license can become a liability in the gun show business, as it forces dealers to transact only on their business premises. Inside the AstroHall, they could only take orders to fill later. Their unlicensed colleagues could sell all the weapons they owned as soon as the customer took his wallet. Federal law regulates retail sales of rifles, shotguns, and conventional handguns, but sales of used firearms by individuals are not subject to any legal control, nor are second-hand furniture.
Federal agents and some local detectives hold gun shows because it’s almost certain there will be several cars in the parking lot with trunks full of stolen or otherwise illegal guns, but the most commonly arrested offender is the authorized dealer who couldn’t resist the sight of someone’s money. Collectors complain that being licensed exposes them to entrapment by the police and puts them at a disadvantage compared to less law-abiding competitors. One licensed collector regarded most of his fellow AstroHall exhibitors with a mixture of amusement and contempt. “It’s a low and wide market with a high and narrow pyramid of quality people,” he told me. “Honestly, I’d love to take some of the yo-yos out of it.” But he defended his own position on this market: “The morality of a gun deal is determined by who makes the sale. Any money looking for a gun will find it.
The collector had the bespoke khakis, the jogging shoes and the confidence of the academic he might have become had he not interrupted his postgraduate studies to make the most of his family fortune. He asked me not to use his name or even his hometown; he feared burglars. His collection of weapons is stored in an armored safe. “I own next to nothing but five-screw Smiths and Wessons which I have never fired,” he said, “and never will because it would blow up their value. My guns are an investment – a more solid investment, I might add, than stocks and bonds.
He later admitted that his attraction to guns operated on a deeper level than that. As a child, he ran home panicked and bleeding after a playmate accidentally shot him in the liver. I asked if this affected his attitude towards guns. “It affected my choice of who I played with,” he exclaimed, frowning. “I did a lot of introspection to find out why I’m so fascinated by these things. I’ve read everyone from Conrad to Lorenz on the subject. Certainly, they are instruments of death, but also of power. I’ve spent years talking to people and have come to the conclusion that power is at the heart of it all. He brandishes a fist. “The power of direct physical threat. Have you ever fired a machine gun? It’s a strong feeling.
The average Houston gun show customer was probably a factory worker who wanted to waste nothing more than time on his day off, but the weird always eclipses the ordinary. A figure dragged a fresh leg wrapped in clear view. I followed another youngster who was wearing cowboy boots, jeans and suspenders, and a high-crowned flop hat. He was very fat and all his attempts at conversation turned into a shy smile. Most of the time he just said what he wanted and then handed over the money. Soon the barrel of a revolver was shoved into the fly of his jeans. Another dangled from the holster under his armpit; he carried a shotgun on his other shoulder like an axe. And that was when the show was just beginning.
Some law enforcement officials argue that because few gun show salespeople accept checks, save cash register receipts, or require their customers to complete federal retail affidavits, the guns that they sell are impossible to trace. Gun shows become prime markets for the guy who needs a gun to hold up the Seven-Eleven or do a little number on the old lady. Stick around until Sunday, Houston insiders told me. More than $2 million would then have changed hands, but prices would drop as the closing approached, as would sellers’ standards. Then the real ghosts would come out.
Still, I wasn’t afraid of some maniac jamming a loaded magazine into an exhibitor’s M-16 and lashing out on the crowd. After a while, the sight of so many guns loses its shock value; they look like a child’s toys. The gunmen with cold steel shoved into their groins were just pretending. Here, for a fancy afternoon, they could pack up their guns and strut around without fear of a bust or another badass calling their bluff.
But just outside was the murderous reality. People who know the streets of Houston are made nervous by the sound of short-barreled guns. On a concrete ramp, I saw two teenagers laughing and playing with a Derringer capsule gun. In their line of sight, a Houston police officer was filling out an infraction report in the front seat of his patrol car. He tolerated several outbursts, then scowled at the boys. “Hey! Do you mind pointing that thing any other way?”