Costco For Psychos

An anonymous contributor opens up about their trip to an American gun show.

Two of my buddies from work are gun nuts. A few months ago I went out to a shooting range with them just to get out of the house and wound up firing a heavy assault rifle at a standard paper target around forty feet away. My eyes were sharp and my hand was steady. Then yesterday I went with them to a huge gun show about an hour away at an expo center in Pennsylvania.

I went in a spirit of determinedly cheerful open-mindedness but the moment we got out of the car I already felt depressed by the people I saw in the parking lot. Inside it was Costco for psychos. Hundreds of tables of weapons from antique single-shot muskets and bayonets to the kind of laser-sighted lead sprayers we Americans seem to hear about on the news almost every other week. I dutifully followed my friends down each aisle until finally deciding to go on ahead at a more rapid pace. And what did you see, old man? I saw every kind of pistol, revolver, sidearm, handgun, grip, rifle stock, sniper rifle, smoke bomb, bullet, clip, cartridge, magazine, shotgun shell, casing, holster, body armor, crossbow, food ration, first-aid kit.

There was a satisfyingly heavy wooden club I could not resist picking up. It seemed more suited for sneak attack or torture than a fair fight. Holding it I felt the intoxicating power of its cruelty and then a deep revulsion. The people gathered there were not hunters, soldiers, or martial artists. They were frustrated and impotent collectors of crude power symbols like this one.

On a positive note, African-Americans were well represented in both the attendees and the vendors. I saw a group of black men talking to a bug-eyed vendor with a suspiciously throwback haircut. They asked him if he followed football and he beamed with malicious pride and glee as he declared that professional athletes were all overpaid crybabies. For most of the people at the show, the operative fantasy was not launching a race war but surviving a zombie attack with a larder of beef jerky and tasty pickles in jars. Probably one in thirty people there looked like a future mug shot on the evening news. They wore black hoodies and ragged beards and t-shirts with slogans of rage. I was not successful in my effort to blend in. They came in wearing camo and came out carrying ammo, lugging lunch box sized green metal army containers, with broad smiles pasted across their faces. I tried to understand their devotion by analogy with my own fondness for guitars. If guitars were guns then ammo would be the strings, but you won’t find a gearhead anywhere in the world with a garage full of extra guitar strings stacked up to prepare for the apocalypse.

Another positive is that the gun nuts are not global fascists, they are anti-Putin and pro-Ukraine. The majority of them are misguided constitutionalists, law and order types, with a deeply suspicious attitude towards the federal government. There was a guy who I think had script from the Constitution going around his left arm and another man in a peasant blouse and fisherman’s cap who seemed to be cosplaying Trotsky; I didn’t ask. A few vendors were showing some good old-fashioned salesmanship, calling out to passers-by to draw them into conversation. There was also the hollow-faced knife salesman repeatedly flicking a switchblade open and closed in the hopes of drawing in a buyer. There were a few enterprising people who tried to beat the cost of renting a table by walking around with rifles slung on their backs sporting little notes indicating the items being carried were for sale.

To be clear I am still not one hundred percent anti-guns so much as I am a frugal minimalist who often has a hard time seeing any difference between knowledgeable collectors and pathological hoarders. My initial plan for this essay was to tell the broad and ill-informed Manichean world that some people who love guns are incredibly sweet, kind and thoughtful people like my two dear friends who I was accompanying, but after an hour and then another dizzy and faint with hunger in the stadium of death garbage I even started to lose faith in them. I stood there and thought of all the young men who had died in unnecessary wars, and I think now too of all the civilian men and women and children who are brutally and pointlessly killed by evil greedy leaders and their greedy idiot followers.

I woke up yesterday thinking I was a friendly guy who loves everybody and I came home so drained of hope that I wouldn’t have lifted a finger to save another life in peril. That is one of the knots that can never be untied, the emotional encounter with the haters on the right that leaves the left in the non-superior position of haters of the haters.

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