Fear and loathing at the Tanner Gun Show

Years ago, I had an editor who used to say that there are two types of Americans: those who get nervous at the sight of a gun, and those who get guns when they’re nervous.

Given the headlines this month, folks in the latter camp feel they have good reason to take up arms.

“What with the police killings, the election, the terror – it’s making everyone want protection,” said Sam George, a gun salesman with Greeley’s Ellis Armory.

“Fear’s in the air right now,” added gun vendor Evelyn Sacks of Palmer Lake. “That’s why people so many people are here. Everyone’s on high alert.”

Gun sales are typically slow in summer months. But dealers at Denver’s Tanner Gun Show say that’s not the case this year, with shootings by and against police officers making daily headlines. Crowds packed into Colorado’s oldest and largest gun emporium this weekend for the firearms and ammo they said they need to put themselves at ease.

Aside from exchanges about ear protection and magazine capacity, the chatter Sunday morning was about the rampage in Baton Rouge. Patrons and dealers kept checking their smart phones for news about the ambush that left three police officers dead and three others wounded. Some in the crowd were eager to know the race of the shooter.

“I’m curious. Was he, you know, colored?” asked a gun-buyer who would only give me his first name, Tom.

Carrying a Babies”R”Us bag full of bullets in one hand and a pocket copy of the Constitution in the other, Tom flipped to the Second Amendment to make his point: Gun rights are imperiled in an era when, he said, “apparently only black lives matter.”

“Check the news in an hour or so,” he told me, referring to the Baton Rouge shooting. “Betcha that guy’s colored. Betcha he figures his life matters and ours don’t.”

A few tables away, gun dealer Gilbert Friedman spoke of a “national war on police officers.”

“They’re under siege,” he said. “They feel they have no respect.”

Friedman ranted about President Barack Obama, whom he referred to, with a knowing wink, as “The Inciter.” I asked what, exactly, Obama has incited.

“How? Really? Are you kidding?” Friedman answered, poking at my notebook as a way of urging me to pay closer attention. He insisted that Obama is keeping company with members of the Black Panthers, whom, as Friedman asserted, had tea last week at the White House.

Indeed, for many in Sunday’s crowd, race seemed like a preoccupation.

Aside from Friedman, two other gun enthusiasts I interviewed mentioned concerns about the Black Panthers. A motorcycle and an RV in the parking lot bore Confederate flags stickers. One shopper wore a t-shirt reading, “The natives are getting restless.” And, as some people told me, there had been a run earlier in the weekend on “Black Guns Matter” t-shirts.

“There should be no Black Lives Matter. There’s no room for that right now,” Sacks said.. “Personally, I don’t see a basis, a foundation for this group. And it’s not just me, I think this whole community is fed up with them saying all lives don’t matter. Martin Luther (sic) wouldn’t even be happy with this movement.”

“We need someone like Donald Trump, “ Sacks added. “We need someone with the strength to crack down.”

Passions seemed less high for Trump, though, than they were against Hillary Clinton. Dozens of Tanner venders sold anti-Clinton shirts, hats and stickers along side their inventories of firearms and knives.

“They think she’s going to the get the U.N. here and shut everybody off,” George told me.

The Libertarian Party set up camp at Tanner in hopes of winning votes among the gun crowd.

“People are on edge. They’re looking for an alternative,” said state party outreach director Marie Cochran. “It used to be that people cast their votes for the lesser of two evils. But this year, they can’t decide which of the candidates is less evil.”

Several tables at the gun show catered to women, whom dealers say make up the fastest-growing segment of new gun buyers. As a member of the female persuasion, I was a target of several vendors seeking to entice me with specially designed purses and workout wear that make packing heat somehow less conspicuous. One dealer tried to hawk me a pink handgun by promising that my background check would “take less time than it does to load Pokemon Go” on the iPhone I was carrying.

As it turned out, he didn’t have my number.

Just as I was about to leave the gun show, Constitution-thumper Tom found me again in the crowd to, as he put it, “ask the reporter a question.”

“Did you realize that Black Lives Matter and Bureau of Land Management start with the same letters?” he wanted to know.

No, I told him. I hadn’t.

“Well, think about it. We’re under siege by BLM taking our land just like we’re under siege by these protestors killing our police force,” he explained. “Both terror groups. B-L-M. That has to be more than a coincidence. You know…?”

I’m sorry, I told Tom. Our interview was over.

But he still followed.

“Hey, reporter. Reporter lady,” he called after me. “I see you didn’t buy anything. You really oughta get a gun.”

 

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