"This is the Wild West"

At America's largest traveling gun show, ammo's cheap, private sales abound and the Second Amendment comes first

Published September 16, 2012 7:00PM (EDT)

Ammunition for sale at the Crossroads of the West Gun Show         (Reuters/Eric Thayer)
Ammunition for sale at the Crossroads of the West Gun Show (Reuters/Eric Thayer)

Crossroads of the West bills itself as the biggest traveling gun show in America, a bastion for constitutional rights where freedom lovers can exchange weapons, ammunition and ideas. The 35-year-old company promotes events in four states – Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah – and last year’s shows drew more than 407,000 customers at up to $16 bucks a pop. Last weekend, Crossroads occupied the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, and although these expos swing through the area regularly, the parking lot filled up fast.

There’s a seasonal element to the high traffic. Monsoon thunderstorms have cooled the desert lately, and temperatures in the mid-80s draw folks outside before the mercury spikes back into the triple digits. But there’s also a political element. Even by American standards, gun violence has been in the news a lot this year, and this show comes right on the heels of national political conventions where – even if candidates didn’t say much about guns – party platforms revealed two very different interpretations of the Second Amendment. There’s a sense of urgency on the airwaves. Local talk radio pundit Steve Kates hosts the two-hour weekly show "A Call to Rights" on KFNX 1100, the “independent talk” station that broadcasts Don Imus and Mike Savage across the Valley of the Sun. Last Saturday, the show featured Crossroads owner Bomb Templeton as guest numero uno, advising listeners on the impact the November election could have on their constitutional rights. Between Templeton’s appearance, word of mouth, and advertisements plastered in bus stations and on billboards for miles, anyone who likes guns probably knows where to go for competitively priced ammo between football games this weekend.

The main event is staged in the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, an indoor arena that hosts roller derbies, pet adoption fairs, home and garden shows and other events throughout the year. On the way inside, entrants pass a row of ATMs, an NRA information booth where two teenagers lean back in folding chairs, ice cream and Mexican food stands, and two emphatic sandwich boards reminding you to unload your weapons. Early-bird shoppers are already pushing hand carts of ammunition out to their trucks. In the foyer, sitting under a sign that reads “Your Second American Rights Guarantee All the Others,” an elderly gentleman makes sure that people empty their magazines and clips. In the main corridor, Steve Kates sits in the flesh, broadcasting live from an uncovered banquet table where his guest leans into the microphone, proudly sporting an NRA cap. The audio is piped through throughout the main corridor via a P.A. system set up near yet another crowded ATM, for cash is king here at the Crossroads of the West.

Hundreds of tables are arranged swap-meet style on the main arena floor and in two side halls. Despite the singularly focused advertising campaign, there’s a lot more to spend your money on than just guns and ammo. You’ll find surplus military apparel; first aid supplies; kippered beef in delicious flavors like Whiskey BBQ and Dragon Breath; war movies; badger skins; antique and replica uniforms and flags from the Soviet Union, North Vietnam and Nazi Germany; 40-acre plots of secluded, high-elevation ranchland in northern Arizona; knives, brass knuckles and katana swords; cougar skulls; crates of canned meat for your bunker; remote-control helicopters; T-shirts with slogans like “When All Else Fails, Vote From the Rooftops!”; American Indian handicrafts, and fine glassware and jewelry, in the words of Bob Templeton, “for the ladies.”

But the general thrust of the show is home defense.  In the south hall, a vendor challenges you to swing an aluminum baseball bat at his array of heavy-duty defense screens intended to replace unsightly wrought-iron window bars.  You can find traditional gun safes, or cutting-edge gun safes designed for your pickup truck, R.V. or mattress. You won’t be able to defend your home against invasion if you can’t shoot straight, so there are all manner of targets – traditional bull's-eyes or human silhouettes, anatomically labeled targets with distinct kill zones, targets of women in hostage situations, explosive and incendiary targets that will blow up spectacularly when struck, cases of used bowling pins that apparently make fun targets, and moving targets attached to mechanical arms. You’ll also find a hilarious variety of zombie targets, featuring brain-eaters sporting a wide variety of attire. A 46-year-old assembly worker, who like almost everyone I spoke to preferred not to be identified, says, “The zombie stuff is just a fad. The 18-year-olds get it from their video games. But I tell you what, if zombies come, they better stay out of Phoenix.”

That’s because in the event of a zombie apocalypse, I can think of no safer place to be than a Crossroads of the West Gun Show in Phoenix. Federally licensed firearms dealers are tabled side by side with private collectors who sell everything from antique revolvers and single bolt rifles to affordably priced AK-47 and AR-15 variants ($650-$1,450 depending on your taste), .50 caliber rifles ($2,795 with fluted barrel and sniper green finish), plus all the magazines (30 round .9 mm clip, $30), sights (your choice of green or red laser dot, $75), and scopes (Raytheon long-range thermal, $8,500).

Customers shuffle from table to table, chatting, negotiating, politely asking for permission to handle a weapon of interest.  Some wear signs taped to their shirts, advertising what they’ve brought to sell or trade. Others carry weapons over their shoulders with sticky notes listing the asking price. Overall, there’s a friendly but profit-oriented vibe not unlike the baseball card conventions I once attended as a kid. Occasionally you’ll hear the metallic Terminator-esque slide of someone testing the action on a weapon, but about once every five minutes you’ll hear the cartoonish crackle of a stun gun. The P.A. announces constitutional law seminars in the foyer near the concession stand. In the main corridor, Steve Kates promises to return after a commercial break. The crowd is mostly white male, but there’s a spattering of diversity, a variety of languages in the air.

The real diversity is in the merchandise itself, a veritable Olympic Games of Weaponry with manufacturers represented from around the world: Taurus handguns (Brazil), Beretta (Italy), Glock (Austria), HK (German), plus several American makes, a variety of AK-47 variants from around the communist and post-communist world, and case after case of Wolf Performance Ammunition to feed those AK-47s, the same brand the U.S. supplied to Afghan security forces in 2006, manufactured in great numbers in Russia and Ukraine, where no doubt at this moment a worker is sealing a fresh case to help replenish these pallets next month when the show returns in November.

“This is the Wild West,” says Thomas Mangan of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives, who works from an office in downtown Phoenix, less than four miles away. “The Southwest is a gun culture. Arizona is a gun culture. There’s a tremendous amount of gun dealers here.”

What makes gun shows such a tricky market for regulators is that often there is very little on the surface to distinguish federal licensed dealers from the private sellers who can sell weapons without a background check. This “Gun Show Loophole” has been a favorite legislative target of gun-control advocates for a decade now, and it’s one of the key provisions in the democratic platform that has so many gun rights advocates riled up. Here at Crossroads, private sellers often have tables stocked with an equally dizzying array of firearms – many new in the box – and the only difference is that their weapons are labeled with handwritten garage sale-style price tags, and that instead of fancy canvas signs they often just post a sheet that reads: PRIVATE SELLER/NO PAPER. With enough cash and a flash of your Arizona ID, you can walk away with as many untraceable firearms as you like.

Customers who put a premium on privacy deliberately seek out these private sellers, and critics don’t like customers who put a premium on privacy, namely convicted felons, drug abusers, the mentally ill, or other “prohibited possessors.” Last year, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an advocacy group co-chaired by New York's Michael Bloomberg, released videos of an undercover sting at a Crossroads show here in Phoenix where investigators were able to buy on several occasions even after baiting vendors with statements like “I probably wouldn’t pass a background check.”

Bloomberg and his coalition rely heavily on a statistic that 40 percent of all weapons sales are private transactions, but the best available estimates show that gun show exchanges account for only 3 to 8 percent of those. Yet gun shows are the place where private transactions are most visible, so they make an easy target for advocates who want to spotlight the lack of regulation in the informal market. Even though that statistic is based on 1999 figures, the old data underscores the larger issue that there really isn’t that much information available about how guns move from hand to hand – let alone across state and national borders. Despite the vast firepower on display here at Crossroads, the shows are largely unregulated, private events. Aside from a couple of coppish-looking guards strolling around, it’s open season. The ATF and other agencies are only allowed to conduct undercover investigative operations here when they have credible intelligence directed at a specific individual – not patrol the site at random. The goal is to prevent profiling, but the result is that it makes it incredibly difficult to find illegal traffickers.

Officer Carrick Cook of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, which has jurisdiction over the fairgrounds and has an office just down the street, says his agency doesn’t worry. “It’s so open, you’re not hiding anything,” he says. “Everybody’s just there to trade and sell guns. There’s always ghost buyers and straw buyers. Obviously that’s super illegal, but just because they’re going to a gun show doesn’t mean they're doing something illegal. These don’t particularly scare us.”

Gun shows may not scare state and local law enforcement in Arizona, but one thing about the guns in Arizona is that they don’t stay here. In 2010, one ATF official put a fine point on the issue: “A good time to catch firearms smugglers is right after a U.S. gun show in Arizona or Texas.” Research and basic economics suggest that guns tend to flow from places with loose gun laws to places with more stringent gun laws. In the case of Arizona, that means weapons have a stubborn tendency to be recovered from crime scenes in California or Mexico. “Trucks come north with drugs,” says the ATF's Mangan, “and they have to go back with something. Empty trucks don’t make money.”

A major concern is straw purchases, in which a legal buyer purchases weapons on behalf of someone else – a federal offense that rarely results in serious federal time. Too often, those straw purchases end up across the border. In a Phoenix area sting early last year, more than 700 guns were seized and 34 men were indicted in a large trafficking bust that uncovered AK-47s headed to Mexico just days after their purchase – 12 hidden in an oven and nine others stowed away in a vehicle bumper.  Since the Obama administration pushed for a Rifle Reporting Rule earlier this year requiring dealers to report multiple sales of high-powered rifles, those large purchases have slowed, but that doesn’t mean those transactions aren’t going on – just not in large numbers. Authorities refer to it as “ant trafficking,” guns moving in smaller quantities, and they point to a rise in female straw buyers who earn a couple hundred dollars per weapon. Local college students have even been known to enact straw purchases for quick cash.

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says there’s actually two issues at play here: New laws are languishing in Congress while existing laws are being ignored or poorly enforced.

“The gun lobby will say it’s just a question of enforcing existing laws,” says Gross, “but there’s an existing law that says a convicted felon can’t buy a gun.”

Gross and the Brady Campaign advocate for expanded background checks for all private sales, citing a survey that shows 74 percent of NRA members are in favor of background checks. “The overwhelming majority of Americans are in support of what makes sense here, but the dots have not been connected to the American public.”

In the meantime, the Brady Campaign argues that the gun lobby has essentially neutered the ATF, limiting their ability to use digital registration and tracing --- which gun advocates fear would lead to the worst of all outcomes: a federal firearms database. While the debate rages on, recent ATF data points to a 17-month period where more than 25,000 guns were illegally trafficked through gun shows – including 22,500 through unlicensed sellers.

“It’s incredibly hard to stop these unless you have agents standing next to the sale that’s occurring,” said the ATF's Mangan. He estimates that the ATF has undercover operations at 60-65 percent of local gun shows – including today’s show – but he’s quick to point out that the ATF is only there to prevent the illegal movement of weapons, not to harass the majority of people conducting legal business. He says he leaves the legislation up to policymakers. “It’s difficult to enact laws. It takes time. You wish it would happen quicker. Here in the Southwest, an effective firearms trafficking statue would be very helpful.”

Despite all the gun lobby's political wins of the last 10 years – including a 2010 Arizona law permitting  the concealed carry of weapons without a permit or background check -- there is still an undercurrent of fear among gun owners here, a sense that this free market might soon resemble neighboring California where every transaction – including private sellers – has to go with a federally licensed dealer.  Today, a body armor vendor plays into those fears by posting large pink signs that portend an imminent federal ban on body armor. Lying atop the many flak jackets are laminated news clippings and editorials suggesting the end is near for civilian body armor. Thankfully, he’s having a blowout sale, including vests in sizes ranging from small child ($299) to obese adult ($699).

Fears of constantly changing legislation is one reason why many gun owners here seem to be astonishingly well versed in the state’s gun laws. Alan Korwin is a one-stop shop for all the information you need about where, how and when you can bear arms in the state of Arizona and around the nation.  He posts up near the entrance standing behind colorful stacks of books about gun laws. Since writing his first book on gun laws in 1988, Korwin has become the largest publisher and distributor of gun law books in America. His catalog includes a variety of legal guides, survival manuals, tactical books and other literature and DVDs about weapons and gun culture. Titles include "After You Shoot," which advises home defenders on how to react in the event of a home invasion so they don’t incriminate themselves. "My Parents Open Carry" is an illustrated children’s book that explains why good parents carry firearms. For those who unfortunately find themselves in gun-free zones, there’s "Flashlight Fighting," which teaches you how to whoop someone’s ass with a pocket flashlight.

Dan Gross of the Brady Campaign might characterize people who buy these kinds of books as the “1 percent of the public that is misaligned with the mainstream,” but Korwin’s a very capable advocate for his views. In the wake of last year’s Tucson shooting that nearly killed Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Korwin appeared on CNN and ably debated Eliot Spitzer on proposed equipment bans. He’s funny, articulate, and friendly enough that you forget he’s the kind of guy who knows the lines of sight in his house and whether certain walls and surfaces in his home are thick enough to stop a bullet.

Folks flock to his booth to ask questions, and Korwin gladly dispenses common-sense advice. A young woman asks whether her expired medical marijuana card would keep her from passing a background check, and he refreshes her on the federal drug statutes as they relate to firearms. A recent empty nester is eager to get back into guns after his kids have left the house, and Alan provides him with an update on the most recent gun laws. One middle-aged woman is a first-time gun show attendee who had a great time recently at the shooting range. She wants to know where to start. “It’s like shopping for shoes,” Korwin advises. “You wouldn’t have the same pair of shoes for every occasion.”  He advises her to begin with a .22 caliber revolver – something with inexpensive ammo that will be fun to shoot at target practice and give her a chance to learn the fundamentals of gun safety.

That’s at least one point of comfort for people freaked out by the notion of gun shows: At least on the surface, at least today, safety is the watchword at Crossroads. Vendors and buyers proceed with the cautious assumption that every gun is loaded. The majority of weapons are displayed without magazines, and most of them have zip-ties to secure their slides and triggers. Banana clips might be stacked as high as actual bananas at the grocery store, but they are all empty. Many guns and accessories are also bolted or otherwise tethered to the table the way those digital cameras and fancy electronics are at Target or Wal-Mart on the off chance that someone would be stupid enough to try to steal something from a gun show. Despite the abundance of precaution, Korwin has seen people so stricken with “hoplophobia” – a neologism coined to describe the fear of weapons – that they have gotten physically ill.

“Education is lacking,” he says. “We see kids graduating high school who don’t even know the three branches of government, let alone their constitutional rights and the social utility of guns. It’s about educating kids. These days they are trained assassins. Look what they see in TV and movies. They line up to see massacres, and then we are surprised when we get massacres.”

Korwin scoffs at the idea that an increase in background checks – at guns shows or anywhere else – would do anything to solve the problem. “Criminals have been arming themselves since Cain picked up a rock. We should thinking about education before we think about the encumbrance of private transactions. Let’s introduce background checks at the gun shows they don’t have in Chicago!” he jokes, referencing the city’s ongoing struggle with gun violence on the South Side despite its stringent laws. “Look around. What you see here is a diverse, wonderful,  family-friendly American gathering.”

I spoke with one father-son duo that has been frequenting these shows for years. “Why has this country not been invaded?” asks the father, a 52-year-old Phoenix man who preferred not to be identified. “Because for 236 years we’ve been making guns. You want to come in, come on in; you’re going to get some hot lead.” Like many people I’ve spoken with today, he has an elaborate plan for how to defend himself in the event of a home invasion. “Always, always bring your cellphone into the bedroom,” he advises. “The way outdoor cables are arranged these days, they can cut your phone and your power. So you get behind the mattress because bullets are going to have to go through the mattress. You dial 911, lay the phone on the bed, and you yell, ‘I’m armed!’”

For the man’s son, a 29-year old construction worker in Phoenix, these shows are  just a matter of having fun and getting good deals. He comes to these shows five or six times a year to trade weapons. Usually he’ll hold onto a gun for a few months, maybe a year and a half, and then resell or trade for a new one. Today he’s sold two AR-15s. “We’re not hurting anyone here,” he says. “It’s a hobby. It’s income for some of the older folks. There’s no felons here. In California, they take away your constitutional rights, and then when you get your income tax back, you get an IOU.”

His statement is a testament to just how intertwined gun policies have become in broader political debates.  Right now Steve Kates is interviewing his next guest about the perils of runaway inflation. Not 20 feet away, a vendor is selling gold coins and bars as yet another way to protect your savings – and your family. For some here at the show, guns are a similar hedge against the future risk of micro (home invasion) or macro (economic collapse) events.  It’s a form of hard currency that will allow you to protect and provide for your family. In a time of income inequality, it’s a new kind of great equalizer. The wealthy elite might have helicopters, but the armed masses have .50 caliber rifles that can take down those aircraft with a well-placed armor-piercing round. 

So is there any way forward, policy-wise? Is the Gun Show Loophole a lost cause? One obstacle for gun-control advocates is that a number of the most deadly recent shooters acquired their weapons through legal channels, giving fuel to those who say the best way forward is to adequately fund and update the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and enforcing requirements that we update the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (which everyone believes suffers from gaping holes in mental illness reporting).  Yet even stringent checks wouldn’t prevent the handful of transactions I see in the parking lot near the end of the day. In an era where Internet transactions make it even easier for willing sellers and buyers to find each other, increased enforcement of face-to-face transactions at gun shows feels like a questionable use of already scarce resources.

“The Internet sale of guns is a whole 'nother ball game,” says the ATF’s Mangan. “Frankly, we don’t have the resources to look at that kind of Internet sales and trafficking and fraud. We do more with less. But we could do more with more. Give us more, we’ll do more.”

Until then, the gun culture in states like Arizona is only growing stronger. Saturday night after the gun show, I head over to the Scottsdale Gun Club – the largest public indoor range in America – to compare prices. A few weeks ago a member fatally shot himself here – the second such suicide since 2007 – but that’s done little to deter membership or enthusiasm. Tonight the range is full of members popping off rounds. The introductory pistol course is booked until November. Other classes are booking up fast: Urban Survival, Handgun Disarming and Retention, Defensive Shotgun, Family Firearms Safety, and Ladies of Liberty – a special class for women. For the pair of young couples walking out the door tonight, it’s more than self-defense; it’s a double date.

Sunday morning, despite the opening of the NFL season, the hall is filling up again. It’s obvious that plenty of these folks see gun ownership as more than just a right, but a duty. They believe they are not only keeping their families safer, they are keeping our streets and our country safer. It might seem like an uneasy life, always looking for the next threat. They would say the same about my unarmed life, which leaves me open to being a victim at all times. Sunday afternoon, as the show is winding down, I ask Korwin to explain what I still can’t seem to grasp: How is this show a wholesome, wonderful, American gathering?

“If you have to ask, you’re never going to get it,” he says, surveying the masses. “These people, they get it.”

By Chris Feliciano Arnold

Chris Feliciano Arnold has written journalism, essays, and fiction for Playboy, The Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books and other magazines and websites.

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