“CHECK & CLEAR ALL GUNS HERE” reads the welcome booth at the Crossroads of the West Gun Show in Del Mar, California. It’s a beautiful Sunday in December, less than two weeks after 14 people were mowed down just 100 miles to the north in San Bernardino. The booth is manned by two security guards in matching khaki uniforms and a Crossroads employee. Their job is to prevent loaded guns from making it into the gun show, but they’re not entirely vigilant about it. There are no metal detectors, pat downs or body scanners — this gun check booth runs on the honor system.
About 15 feet away is the box office, where tickets to the gun show cost $14 (no identification needed). Ticket in hand, the only thing standing between me and an armory’s worth of guns and ammo is 50 feet of pavement and a 20-something blonde woman. She rips my ticket and thanks me through a huge smile.
It’s bewildering. I imagined a gun show would have TSA-level security — perhaps a stern woman would demand my documentation while her colleagues rifle through my bag and wave a wand at my crotch. Instead, the vibe is family-friendly, like a suburban block party.
Couples walk arm-in-arm. Food tents sell tri-tip and artichoke sandwiches and “gourmet” coffee. A group of teenage bros ramble the show floor like they’re at the mall. Merchants hawk model planes and military history books while friends discuss their respective fantasy football teams. A dad pushes a stroller with his left hand while his right caresses a display of AR-15 barrels, and a vendor selling hoverboards jokes they’re “the best way to get away from a gun!”
But for now, there’s no escaping this cache of heavy weaponry. It’s unnerving for a guy like me who gets anxious around guns — whenever I know there’s a gun in the area, I imagine the owner will have a sudden, psychotic break and murder everyone in sight.
Gun owners often have a similar daydream, only their version is a fantasy — and it ends with them exercising their Second Amendment right and dropping that motherfucker dead in his tracks.
“The best gun salesman in the world is Barack Hussein Obama,” Paul Witty, a gun safety instructor, tells me from a booth inside the show.
Just a week ago, the president responded to the terrorist attack in San Bernardino — a mass shooting planned and executed by a radicalized Muslim couple — with an impassioned plea to Congress to enact tighter gun laws. The American public has responded by buying guns in droves.
Gun sales hit a record high in 2015. The government conducted 23.1 million background checks for gun purchases and gun permits, a 10-percent jump from 2014 and the most since the background check system began in 1998. Wall Street rejoiced with the news that December was the best gun sales month ever — all of which was a month before Obama’s tearful pledge to impose gun restrictions by executive order.
Mike Cerda, CEO of San Diego-based gun shop Team Big Shot, tells me he sold more guns yesterday than he has in his past two gun shows combined. Other merchants sold out of inventory altogether, Cerda says. “You and I wouldn’t have even been able to hear one another [yesterday]. That’s how crowded it was,” Randy, 57, explains from across his table of gun clips.
“A LITTLE GUN HISTORY” titles an orange flyer on Witty’s booth. “In 1911, Turkey established gun control. From 1915 to 1917, 1.5 million Armenians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.” The flyer goes on to list similar historical examples: Stalinist Russia, Hitler’s Germany, China under Zedong.
To these guys, every call for gun control is a signal guns must be purchased immediately — before the government bans their sale altogether. The underlying fear is that curbing the right to bear arms is just the first step toward a government-backed genocide.
So when an anti-gun President says he’s willing to circumvent the legislative process to impose restrictions on gun sales … well, that’s a a gun owner’s greatest fear realized. Gun advocates distrust the government, except when it affords them the right to bear arms.
Bob Templeton is the CEO of Crossroads and possibly the least intimidating person I’ve ever met. Soft-spoken, white-haired, wearing a red sweater over a light blue Oxford, he looks like your friend’s urbane grandfather.
Crossroads attracts more than 500,000 attendees across 64 shows per year, making it the largest gun show company in the country, according to Templeton. It’s a family business — Templeton and his wife Lynn have run Crossroads for 40 years, and their daughter Tracy serves as vice president.
“[The business] has changed a lot over the years,” Bob says. “It used to be mostly collectors buying antique guns or ones with historical value, but we don’t have as many as we used to.”
I did notice two booths selling collectible guns: one with Colt .45s that pre-dated the Civil War; the other with antique rifles artfully displayed over a Confederate flag. “Now it’s mostly about personal guns,” Bob adds. “Law enforcement and private ownership of firearms,” which include sniper rifles worth nearly $7,000 and $2,000 floor-standing safes to stash them.
And how has business been?
“Brisk,” Bob says. “People are concerned about the future of gun ownership. … There are people coming into the show for the first time who are starting to realize that as good as our law enforcement folks are, they can’t be in all places at all times. So they’re taking responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their families.”
Speaking of law enforcement, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has a booth here, too. Gun shows are fertile ground for recruiting new officers, the officers explain.
Crossroads doesn’t profit from gun sales directly. Its revenue comes from arranging shows and then renting booth space to gun sellers. Still, an uptick in gun sales means booth space is more valuable, so Crossroads does see a benefit—attendance at this event is 50 percent higher than projected, Bob says.
“It’s the strongest crowd we’ve had since President Obama was re-elected,” he adds, attributing it to the recent fervor around gun control.
Ironic, isn’t it?
“It is,” Bob says, laughing.
Naturally, the National Rifle Association is here. They have a tent in the outdoor picnic area, and everyone underneath is a sunbaked older white man. Almost all of them wear ball caps with military or NRA logos stitched across the front.
Roy, a 57-year-old local, takes a break from arranging NRA literature on a display table to engage me in a conversation about the merits of gun ownership. He holds a pen up to my face, telling me the various ways he can kill me with it. Roy could stick it in my ear, my jugular, my breast plate or that soft spot of flesh between my jaw and skull, he explains while simulating stabbing motions within inches of my face. Hell, Roy could break the plastic brochure holder into a shiv and cut my carotid artery with it until I bleed out, he adds.
“But I’m not crazy,” Roy assures me. He’s just trying to illustrate how anything can be a weapon.
Roy has been a card-carrying NRA member for 45 years — he joined when he was 12, and now spends his free time proselytizing for the organization. But Roy doesn’t agree with everything the NRA does. His beef? They give up too much ground sometimes.
The spike in gun sales has meant more people interested in the NRA, and it all has Roy concerned. Most of these new gun owners won’t bother to get proper training.
“If you go out and buy a car, I want to know you know how to drive it,” he says.
And for just a moment, Roy seems to be making an argument for gun control.
“But a driver’s license is a privilege,” he clarifies. “Gun ownership is a God-given right.”
It’s impossible to argue against that dogma, but then again a gun show is an alternate reality: Pens are just as dangerous as revolvers, Obama drives guns sales, the NRA is too lenient and the argument for gun ownership is bulletproof.