It took us only ten seconds to realize that the Crossroads of the West Gun Show was just the excuse we needed to make a road trip to San Francisco.
I tried explaining the reasoning to friends, but usually failed. “We’re visiting the most liberal city in America to attend a gun show,” I would offer, as if the idea was entirely self-explanatory. My friends, conversely, used the exact same sentence as a counter-argument: “You’re going to the most liberal city in America to attend a gun show? Idiot.”
For a little while I gave a litany of reasons to back it up: “Ammo will cost more when Obama’s in office,” or “It’ll be a good conversation starter in Europe,” or, “Have you read The Road? Trust me, we’ll be glad I have a boom-stick.” Ultimately, though, it boils down to the fact that living in a tool shed has endowed me with a keener sense of irony than most people.
Young and I arrived at The Cow Palace shortly after lunch. A bearded man intercepted us en route to the ticket line. “Hello friends,” he said. “Can I interest you in joining the National Rifle Association?”
I shrugged. “Maybe?”
“Well, we have a special offer today. We’re reducing the normal registration fee from $45 to $35, and we’ll throw in a free ticket to the gun show.”
“So really,” I said, working the math out in my head, “I’d be paying twenty-five dollars more than I planned to?” I glanced at Young to confirm the figures. I was right.
“Maybe more than you planned to, but you’d be saving twenty dollars if you ever want to join the NRA.”
“Can you give me a moment while I confer with my associate?” Young and I formed a two-man huddle. “Con,” I said. “That’s four meals I could use. Pro: if I ever run for congress, NRA membership might cancel out my democratic voter registration and my funny spaceman novels.” I bit my lip, trying to strike a balance between the immediate loss of cash against the five percent chance I run out of options and grope for congress. Tough call.
“I’m not sure,” I told the bearded man.
“We also give you a free hat.” He pointed to another bearded man sitting at a booth, sporting a black baseball cap with “NRA” blazed across the front in gold stitching.
My jaw went slack, as I realized the full magnitude of the hat. “It’s… it’s like a red state passport!” A tape reel played in my mind of the innumerable instances when the hat would have rendered me invisible. Mostly trips to small rural towns, where friendly denizens want to know what country I’m from. The pro-gun lettering glinted in the balmy sun, yet my eyes fixed and dilated. “A cloaking device,” I whispered, transfixed. “The State Fair. The Mangum Rattlesnake Derby. Invisible.”
Thus I joined the National Rifle Association.
With my hat and cultural credentials firmly in place, we entered The Cow Palace. Gun shows sort of feel like group yard sales, only with a super-human level of politeness. “Excuse me,” I’d say, edging past a man in Israeli body armor. “Of course, pardon me,” he’d respond. The predominance of good etiquette in the presence of deadly arsenals is astounding to behold. Business transactions take on aura of patriotic reverence. “I’ll buy eight boxes of shotgun shells,” someone might say, and the vendor will get watery-eyed and stammer, “God bless you, sir.” Each ka-ching from the cash register is its own miniature Liberty Bell.
It gives credence to the adage, “an armed society is a polite society,” although the phrase has fallen out of favor since we outlawed dueling. I’ve mentioned the maxim to some of my British friends, who summarily dismiss the notion as ludicrous. This is probably because what amounts to pedestrian decorum in Oxford could potentially be fatal behavior in Kansas, but that’s besides the point. Statistically speaking, the United Kingdom has far fewer homicides per capita than its gun-toting western ally. (America, conversely, has far fewer home burglaries.) They point out that gun ownership does not deter crime. If it did, Texas would be the safest place on earth.
By my reasoning this is not nearly enough evidence to form a well-reasoned decision. For instance, how much of our unusually high murder rate is gang-on-gang warfare? Because, well, good. That shouldn’t be part of the statistic, really. As part of my new NRA membership I’ll be receiving various magazines in the mail, which I assume will provide helpful data to further clarify my position.
Young and I wondered around the gun show, weighing rifles and visiting the various booths. These ranged from the practical (rifle cases) to the eerily weird. For instance, one vendor displayed an extensive collection of World War II action dolls. Little granite-jawed officers in miniature SS uniforms with tiny plastic oozies and bright blue eyes. Surrounded by meticulously crafted trees and pocked-marked buildings, opposite Allied toy forces. I stared at the doll collection for several minutes, trying to reconcile the disparate factors. In that guy’s mind, collecting dolls is completely normal so long as they are holding tiny guns, or are dressed up like Nazis. Which is why the doll booth scared me a lot more than the assault rifle booth.
Eventually I turned my attention to the firearms themselves. I would pick up something vaguely affordable, then strike up conversation about gun laws. It occurred to me that, hailing from Oklahoma, I’ve always more or less assumed gun ownership is not terribly different than, say, obtaining a fishing license. It could be different in coastal states. (Keep in mind that while California debated whether or not to legalize same-sex marriage in the last election, Oklahoma voted to enshrine hunting as a constitutional right. Just in case.)
“So, uh, what exactly is the waiting period in California?” I’d ask. As I peered down a sniper telescope Young would generally emerge from nowhere to contribute some helpful comment.
“Andrew, yer bitch of a wife is at it again.” Then he’d cast a knowing-look at the vendor and say, “the mailman.”
Overall, a stupendous cultural outing. Anyone who wants to compress America into the length of a dentist appointment need only attend a gun show wrapped in a blue state.
Yet when I returned to Los Angeles, people cared little about my hat and doll anecdotes. “Yeah, yeah, NRA, body armor, that’s all great. But did you?” Did I what? “Buy a gun?”
Did I, say, purchase a bolt-action “antique German curio” from a private collector, thereby legally bypassing registration and a ten day waiting period?
I suppose it’s possible.