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What Exactly Goes on at a Gun Show in the US?

Walking down the aisles at the 40,000 sq feet venue seemed banal, highlighting the insignificance of the human existence.

People at the gun show in Texas. Credit: Sukhada Tadke

People at the gun show in Texas. Credit: Sukhada Tatke

Pasadena, Texas: Sitting in a far corner of a large room, a grey haired man shifts in his chair till he finds the right position. He then starts fiddling with his spectacles. Once they are comfortably perched on his nose, he marvels at the object in his hand, stroking it as though it were a lover. One masterly stroke later, he cranks it open. Through a magnifying glass, aided by a torch light, he peers into the interiors of the antique handgun he has been caressing.
A small table separates him from his interlocutor: a tall man wearing a cowboy hat, ill-fitting jeans and t-shirt, with a distinctive leather suitcase. With one hand, he pulls up his pants; with another, he holds a piece of paper and reads aloud a diary entry from 1944. At the end of his discourse, he looks at the man still handling the precious pistol, a Luger P08 Parabellum and says, “You see, it really did belong to an army general from the Schutzstaffel (SS).” SS was a major paramilitary organisation under Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany.

The seated man looks away from his object of affection, shifting his focus to the pages of a tome called The Blue Book of Gun Values – Accurate Firearms Values Since 1981.

If the deal was struck between the seller and the potential buyer, I wouldn’t know because I got distracted by two boys, no more than 11 years old, running excitedly towards a man resting a rifle against his shoulder, pointing it to the ground. “Papa, you won’t believe what we just saw. Two single barrel guns just merged into a double barrel gun. It’s huge and so cool,” one of them said. The man, without looking up from the hole through which he was peering at a made-up target, called on proudly to his children: “Good going, kids. Enjoy yourselves.”

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Since moving to Texas more than two years ago, my husband and I have been introduced to the mysterious world of guns. Almost every day, on the news, we’d hear or see discussions on the need for greater gun control. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 30,000 gun-related deaths and 80,000 non-fatal injuries occur annually in the US. A study published in the American Journal of Medicine last year showed that Americans were ten times more likely to die as a result of a firearm compared with residents of 22 other high-income countries. More than 80% of firearm deaths in all these countries occur in the US.

Gun ownership in the country is as casual as owning any other material object. Harvard and Northeastern universities carried out a comprehensive study in 2015 and found that the total number of guns owned in the US had increased by about 73 million between 1994 and 2015. There were an estimated 265 million guns being owned by people across the country.

In Texas especially, gun control laws are among the least restrictive. Here, there is no legal requirement for gun registration, or need for a permit to buy and own firearms including rifles, shotguns and handguns. Recently, a new law allowed students to carry concealed weapons on college campuses. With firearms as symbols of freedom and liberty in the US, the gun industry is a multibillion dollar one. To best understand how this gun culture plays out, we decided to visit a gun show- an event where promoters rent large venues to display and sell firearms and related paraphernalia. Approximately, 5,000 gun shows take place in the US annually.

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On a recent hot Sunday morning, we made our way to Pasadena, a small city in Texas, about 30 miles from where we live in Houston. We knew we were close when all the signboards began to lead to the Pasadena Convention Centre.

At the entrance, a National Rifles Association booth greeted us with an offer: if we took their annual membership, we’d get free entry. We paid $9 each instead, and entered.

Setting foot inside, I was reminded of large exhibition venues in India, given the sheer size and crowds of people. Walking down the aisles at the 40,000 square feet venue, flanked by armaments, was like being in an Ionesco play: this extraordinary situation was rendered banal, highlighting the insignificance of the human existence.

More than 50 large tables flaunted the choicest of firearms: assault rifles, hunting rifles, revolvers, Second World War rifles with bayonets, high calibre sniper rifles. Also on display were Confederate flags waiting to be sold, as well as badges with the famous ‘blood drop cross’, a symbol of the Ku Klux Klan. No gun show is complete, I learnt, without gun cleaning supplies, stocked bags of ammunition, bullet jewellery, gun bags and war games for kids.

A Polish AK47 then caught my eye; it was for $600 but I would get a discount if I paid in cash, I was told.

At another booth, a dealer held a large black gun. “Try it.” he said. “It’s a high standard 10 police gun.” Why is it sold to civilians? “People like this stuff,” he said. It was for $1,500, but the man was ready to sell it to us for $1,200.

Halfway through my journey into the rabbit hole, I let my eyes wander to a table of antique firearms. These weapons – handguns with mother-of-pearl and ivory handles — could easily replace decorative artefacts in a fancy living room. At this table, there were also black foldable, seemingly innocuous knives. “Only $5,” said the seller. “If for some reason you don’t have your weapon on you, this can be used in case of an emergency. It fits in your wallet.”

What kind of emergency calls for carrying a weapon at all times? Without asking him, we moved along towards an old couple selling a panoply of colourful knives, swords, bayonets and daggers. They specialised in making customised products and vouched one wouldn’t find two of the same kind. Pointing at a fine-looking handgun whose grip was made of mother-of-pearl, engraved in small motifs and patterns, the woman said: “We are knives specialists but we have this one-of-a-kind gun for $5,000.” Would we need any paperwork for a background check? “None at all. Give us the money, leave with the gun,” said the man.

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That’s where the private sale or gun show “loophole” kicks in, a term used to describe the absence of background checks in the gun business universe. Federally licensed dealers at gun shows or stores are proscribed from selling arms without running a background check through the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System, after the potential buyer has filled a form. It might sound like a complicated and long-drawn process, but if you are not a drug addict or convicted for felony, you can walk out with your weapon in less than ten minutes.

Unlicensed dealers are not governed by this rule: they can rent a table and make private dealings where weapons are freely bartered for money. Gun control lobbyists have been fighting tooth-and-nail to for the evisceration of this loophole, but the fight hasn’t yet yielded fruit. A Democrat recently reintroduced the Gun Show Loophole Closing Act in the US House of Representatives.

Proponents of the Second Amendment of the US constitution which gives citizens the right to bear arms, view the loophole as nothing more than a political hot potato. “So many shootings take place where the killers buy guns legally, from licensed dealers. Weapons don’t take lives, people do,” the knives seller said.

Sukhada Tatke is a freelance journalist based in Houston, Texas.