By Polly Keary, Editor
For at least 15 years, Washington’s second largest gun show has been a monthly feature at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds, drawing thousands over the course of a weekend.
Those crowds have grown to record size in recent weeks, with gun enthusiasts concerned about potential changes in gun laws coming to the event to buy or sell weapons and accessories that many fear may soon be banned.
But one potential change in gun laws, requiring background checks of all who buy weapons at gun shows, won’t impact the show in Monroe. Those crowds have grown to record size in recent weeks, with gun enthusiasts concerned about potential changes in gun laws coming to the event to buy or sell weapons and accessories that many fear may soon be banned.
At the Monroe Gun Show, the controversial “gun show loophole” doesn’t exist, said Philip Shave, member of Washington Arms Collectors, the club that organizes the show, and editor of Gun News Magazine, the club’s publication. Anyone who wishes to buy a gun must first purchase a club membership and pass a Washington State Patrol background check before the sale can take place.
“We say, ‘What gun show loophole?’” Shave said.
But as a visit to the fairgrounds last week revealed, the gun show is less about the actual guns than it is about the culture of the people who enjoy them, a culture that is responding to the heat of debate over gun control by attending gun events in greater numbers than ever.
At 10 a.m. on a drizzly Saturday morning last week, the parking lot was filling rapidly and a long line of people snaked back from the doors to the new events center at the fairgrounds.
“This is a little bigger than usual,” said Shave. “Gun sales have been really intense because of the political debate.”
The Washington Arms Collectors, the organization that hosts the Monroe show, also hosts a monthly show in Puyallup, which last month had the highest attendance ever. And last month the Monroe show drew about 14,000 paying customers, with as many as 7,000 WAC members visiting, as well.
The line to the door moves more slowly than it might at, say, a concert, because of the security measures taken at the show.
As each person approaches the door, a security worker asks if the visitor has any guns.
Guns are allowed, but there are strict rules for how they may be handled.
Near the door, a small, red tube mounted on a post offers gun handlers a safe place to remove ammunition from a loaded weapon. The barrel is placed in the tube while the bullets are ejected, containing any round that should be fired accidentally.
Then the gun’s firing mechanism is disabled by means of zip ties, the same way guns are secured when entered into evidence by police.
All this must be complete by the time the gun handler arrives at the doors into the events center. Anyone who makes it as far as the doors with a gun still loaded is instantly kicked out of the club to which one must belong to buy or sell weapons, and is also refused entry.
Once at the door, members of the Washington Arms Collectors, or WAC, are allowed in free, while those who are not members and not intending to trade in weapons pay $8.
The majority of those attending the show, about two-thirds of all present, are not members. As such, they can’t buy a weapon. However, if a non-member sees a weapon he or she wants to buy, that person can go to the front counter, go through a background check, buy a membership for $35, and then buy the weapon.
There is, as it happens, a lot to buy at the show that doesn’t require a background check. In fact, of the 375 vendor tables or so, most don’t sell guns.
One booth had an array of alarming-looking but mostly harmless weaponry based on fantasy fiction, including knives based on the show Star Trek, and lightweight replicas of medieval arms such a battle mace. Also at the table, incongruously enough, was a selection of teddy bears.
At another booth, a woman who has a second amendment activist website called Guns and Lace sold a calendar of women posing with guns. There was a fair amount of jewelry for sale, including tiny, exquisitely-rendered knifes made of Damascus steel and gold, complete with inch-long sheaths of gold and mammoth ivory.
Everywhere were people offering gun safety training or opportunities to study and take the tests for concealed carry permits in other states. And there were a lot of gun accessories for sale, including clips, holsters, sights and military ammunition boxes.
The artillery was mostly found on tables toward the center of the arena.
There were tables with an array of handguns or rifles, but not all were sold entirely for their utility; John Hilsendeger, a former manager of the event and, like about a third of WAC members, a former law enforcement worker, had with him an array of antique Colt revolvers, including the legendary Peacemaker, staple of Western novels and movies.
There were some truly imposing weapons for sale, as well. One table featured civilian versions of military firearms from around the world, usually in a dull black. Among them was an Israeli Galil, a weapon the dealer said is superior to the American assault rifle next to it on the table. But the assault rifle has doubled in price, while the Galil has remained steady, the dealer said, ascribing it to recent political “craziness.”
There was a shotgun that can hold seven rounds at once, a semi-automatic Uzi, assault rifles with cooling barrels and hollow stocks, and at one table, a massive belt-fed, 50-caliber semi-automatic that rests on two legs and has an attachment on the barrel that arrests a kickback that would otherwise render the weapon nearly unusable.
Prices are high for most of the larger artillery; the Galil was listed at $2,750 and the 50-caliber at $4,500, with the scope costing an extra $700.
The atmosphere at the event is friendly, with vendors and organizers pleasant and accommodating to reporters, but the political tension around guns seems to have imbued the event with a certain level of wariness.
While visiting, a reporter is not without an escort for a moment, and any expressed interest in photography, even that of items such as jewelry, is met with a caution that such a thing would require the presence of a security person.
Photographs of people are strictly prohibited to protect the privacy of club members, said Shave, some of whom are uneasy about others knowing that they own, buy or sell guns.
But many people aren’t there to buy or sell anything at all, said Shave. Rather, they are there to be around others who share their interests, be it collectable old antique pistols, hunting, a shared military or law enforcement history, or just a passion for firearms.
“For many, this is a social event,” he said. “They come for the camaraderie.”