Gun shows appeal to a wide range of firearm enthusiasts—from hunters and collectors looking for bargains to anti-government militia members preparing for battle against the New World Order. One show organizer characterized attendees as “the same kind of people [you find] at malls” and noted that the shows were a popular destination for local celebrities, from sports heroes to politicians.
An organizer for the North Texas Gun Club lists singer Mel Torme and members of the Dallas Cowboys as visitors to his shows. And gun shows appear to be a favored forum for political candidates in conservative locales. The North Texas Gun Club’s shows have hosted Texas state political opponents Glen Box and Pete Sessions. Earlier this year the New York Times reported that during his failed campaign for the U.S. Senate in Virginia, former Reagan official Jim Miller went to gun shows so often that “his traveling aide [would] monitor the candidate’s purchases to make sure that he…[did]…not violate the Virginia law restricting a buyer to one handgun a month.”
Probably the most famous politician with an affinity for gun shows is presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who prior to the March 1996 Arizona primary attended a Phoenix gun show in black cowboy shirt and hat. Urging his supporters to “take back the nation,” the New York Times reported that he promised fellow gun show participants that he would protect the right to bear arms as part of his “crusade for America.” Buchanan’s comments, accompanied by the image of the presidential candidate holding a rifle over his head, made headlines across America.
And the Infamous
Gun shows hold a particular appeal for the pro-gun fringe. Militia members and other extremists attend shows not only to purchase weapons, but also to distribute anti-government materials and recruit new members.
As noted in Section Two, in 1980 ATF Director G.R. Dickerson warned of the role gun shows had played in supplying weapons to a wide range of criminals—from the Symbionese Liberation Army to would-be presidential assassin Sara Jane Moore. The Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army were also listed as having acquired firearms at gun shows. Two decades later, only the names have changed.
As early as 1993 the FBI, ATF, and Arizona Department of Public Safety were warned that Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh’s activities at a gun show raised suspicions that he might be dangerous and warranted investigation. According to June 1995 Associated Press and Mesa Tribune reports:
The warning stemmed from a Phoenix police detective’s concern when McVeigh demonstrated how a flare gun he was selling could be used to shoot down an `ATF helicopter….’ McVeigh also was selling caps with `ATF’ spelled in simulated bullet holes and was passing out the home address of an FBI sniper who fatally shot the wife of Idaho militant separatist Randy Weaver….
In June 1995, ABC World News Tonight reported that Timothy McVeigh’s Army friend Michael Fortier had allegedly admitted to joining McVeigh and Terry Nichols in a $60,000 robbery of an Arkansas gun collector’s ranch in which 70 shotguns, rifles, and handguns were taken. ABC World News Tonight reported that Fortier had admitted taking many of the weapons to Kingman, Arizona and later selling them at gun shows.
Like his alleged avenger McVeigh, Branch Davidian leader David Koresh frequented gun shows. The St. Petersburg Times reported that Koresh purchased a large quantity of the weapons stockpiled at Mount Carmel (the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas) from Hewitt Handguns, a Texas gun dealership operated by Karen Kilpatrick with Henry McMahon. Koresh had picked up their business card at a Texas gun show. Hewitt Handguns’ licensed place of business was McMahon’s home, and the Times reported that Kilpatrick and McMahon “did business mostly on weekends traveling from gun show to gun show.” According to the Times, from 1990 to 1992, Kilpatrick and McMahon sold Koresh approximately 225 guns and 100,000 rounds of ammunition. The article noted, “Until someone told federal agents they were arming a cult leader, they reported these sales to nobody. By law, they were not required to do so.”
In the St. Petersburg Times article, Karen Kilpatrick said that “she thought Koresh was buying military-style assault rifles as an investment, knowing their value would increase if gun control laws made them harder to get. After all, he also collected Corvettes, Harleys, boats and guitars.”
In testimony before the 1995 House Judiciary Committee during hearings investigating federal actions at Waco, author Dick Reavis asserted that Koresh was not only a buyer at gun shows—but a seller. Reavis testified:
[I]n late 1991 he [Koresh] began buying guns and studying armaments. In the process, he learned that fortunes can by made by vendors at weekend gun shows. Within a few months, Koresh and a handful of associates were not only buying but also selling goods at the shows—ammunition vests, or `mag bags,’ gas masks and Meals-Ready-to-Eat, or packaged military rations. They did it for fun, to learn, and to make a profit.
While McVeigh and Koresh may be two of the best known gun show customers, there are other lesser known but equally discomforting attendees. According to the January 23, 1995 issue of National Review, convicted serial killer Thomas Dillon began his murderous career by killing more than 500 dogs and cats, then moved on to humans—allegedly killing at least five men. In 1989 he announced to a friend that he had quit killing animals and began inviting the friend to attend gun shows with him. “On their long drives,” the friend explained, “they would talk about guns, hunting—and serial murders.” The friend eventually decided to call the police. The article reported:
When a prosecutor seeking to deny him bond named him in court as a suspect in the serial killings, another witness stepped forward with a Swedish Mauser he had bought from Dillon at a gun show on April 5,  the day the second fisherman was killed [by Dillon]; ballistics tests [showed the Mauser had been used in the murder and] nailed Dillon, and he eventually pleaded guilty to five murders.
The Militia Movement
In the 1990s, festering anti-government hysteria received validation from the National Rifle Association. The NRA bombarded gun owners with direct mail calling federal law enforcement personnel “jackbooted thugs” and warning readers that it was only a matter of time before President Clinton “pushes legislation that takes away from our freedoms and creates a police state.” Its magazines, the American Rifleman and the American Hunter, ran a series of inflammatory articles. “The Final War Has Begun” purported to reveal a secret document confirming a wide-ranging conspiracy to disarm America. “Confiscate, Disarm, Destroy” warned that “a national snitch system to pit neighbor against neighbor in a taxpayer-funded war of hearsay, rumor and suspicion against gun owners like you” was imminent. The cover story “Stop the Rape of Liberty” raged, “American liberty is being raped. The very essence of freedom is being ravaged by political opportunists who bear no conviction, who sustain no tradition, and who display no understanding of the Bill of Rights….This desecration has occurred only because gun owners have allowed it. Too many gun owners have been too willing to stand by, to surrender, to compromise, while their enemy’s honey-tongued double-talk disguises the real seduction at work.” The cover illustration showed a politician attempting to rape a desperately struggling Statue of Liberty.
With the NRA providing the motive, gun shows offered the means for disaffected gun owners to get involved with the militia movement. Author William Pierce has observed that “gun shows provide a natural recruiting environment. Many more are being held now than ever before, and many more people are attending them.” Pierce’s opinion carries more weight than most. He is the author of the infamous Turner Diaries, the racist, anti-government screed described as the Bible of the militia movement and believed to have inspired Timothy McVeigh’s alleged bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
As anti-government activity by militias and other extremists has grown, so has the awareness that gun shows are not only a key source for firearms and other material, but are a town square where extremists can gather information, make contacts, and mingle with the like-minded. Gun shows are often nothing less than Tupperware® parties for criminals.
The importance of gun shows to the militia movement can be seen in the Free Militia’s Field Manual: Principles Justifying the Arming and Organizing of a Militia. In a section on “Secrecy and Security in the Free Militia,” readers are warned that “gun show” is one of the 21 “topics and words you should stay away from when talking openly in public or on the phone.”
As Morris Dees, chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center and a leading expert on extremist groups, points out in his 1996 book (with James Corcoran)Gathering Storm, militia leaders use gun shows to disseminate their anti-government strategy. Dees also notes that in its efforts to take its anti-government and anti-law enforcement message to Middle America, the National Rifle Association utilized gun shows as a key communications conduit. Dees writes that “amid tables laden with Ruger Mini-14 semiautomatic rifles, Mossberg shotguns, and Beretta 9mm pistols, and piled high with holsters, military ponchos, and camouflage uniforms, they peddle the idea of militias as a defense against a tyrannical government….” Dees says that “early calls to action were posted at gun stores and handed out at gun shows that brought together those who had tired of the paintball war games of the 1980s, and others who just loved guns, where paramilitary fanatics like Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols sold weapons, racist propaganda, and militia manuals.”
In the December 1995 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Dan S.—an undercover investigative journalist who had been an infiltrator in the extremist movement for 12 years—spoke about the common themes used to bring new members into the militia movement:
One thing we would preach continually at tax protest meetings was to stockpile weapons, ammunition and food. We would tell people that, as the protests grew, it would bring the collapse of the government, and that blacks and Jews and Hispanics and everyone else were going to riot and come after them, and they would have to defend their families and communities from this horde. That’s when everyone in the movement began stocking up on guns, preparing for the downfall of the country.
According to the article, many of these groups stockpiled weapons they obtained at gun shows:
Another gateway into the militia subculture, which leaped into the spotlight after the Oklahoma City bombing, was the nation’s vast meshwork of gun shows with its thriving commerce in weapons, paramilitary paraphernalia and anti-government invective. `Gun shows are huge in the movement,’ Dan acknowledged. `They’re very popular in the heartland, and you can’t go into one without getting the literature. They’re a key dissemination point.’
And sometimes militia sympathizers find validation and reinforcement in the views expressed by the politicians who attend gun shows. As reported in the New York Times, at the February 1996 Phoenix, Arizona gun show Pat Buchanan “drew a parallel between his enthusiastic and heavily armed audience and the minutemen at Lexington and Concord.” Buchanan warned, “What were the British coming for? The British were coming to capture the arsenal of the colonists, because before they could repress the colonists, they had to capture all their weapons and guns, and then they could put them under the boot of the British crown.” Such rhetoric clearly echoes the beliefs held by many militia members and sympathizers that a well-armed populace is all that protects America from take-over by a sinister New World Order.
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