Thanks in part to the comic genius of Will Ferrell, one of today's more common jokes encourages us to roll up our sleeves, flex our biceps and invite a usually uncomfortable observer to the "gun show."
This weekend is no joke, however. On this weekend, I suppose, it's what I am: a slightly uncomfortable observer to the gun show.
Despite my unfamiliarity with events such as this past weekend's Lower Michigan Gun Collectors Gun and Knife Show, I am certainly no stranger to firearms. Growing up in rusty blue Michigan - home of Ted Nugent and the notorious Michigan Militia - guns, hunting, and the purportedly holy right to a concealed weapon are a fact of life. A certain outdoorsman and very good friend of mine maintained an active interest in firearms throughout high school, and my senior year I purchased a Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun.
Still, I had never been to a true gun show, and when I heard that the Michigan Gun Collectors show was hitting the road and coming to the Deltaplex in Grand Rapids, I eagerly locked and loaded. I wanted to put aside my own political beliefs and let the predominantly white Christian Republican men fire away.
I wanted, in other words, to know whether or not anyone of this powerful demographic found it funny that Mitt Romney circa-1994 backed both the Brady Bill and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, or that Rudy Giuliani once likened the National Rifle Association to an organization of "extremists."
Mostly, though, I wanted to know what the formidable army of Michigan NRAers thought of the presidential candidates thus far. In an electoral season already marked by rampant accusations of Kerryesque flip-flopping, this historically unforgiving confederation of nearly 3 million official members and countless more supporters may well play an even greater role in 2008 than it has in the past.
That's what I wanted.
What I ended up getting is a different story.
It's hard to imagine that in a convention center full of guns, knives, ammunition and enough Second Amendment rhetoric to start an uprising, a single digital camera would present the most cause for alarm.
And yet that's the impression I got as my camera was confiscated and its pictures were deleted by event security.
"We just don't want to be misconstrued," the man said as he zipped my camera into a plastic bag and stashed it away.
Not much to misconstrue about that.
I didn't get much more cooperation from the vendors or buyers themselves, either. After a half an hour of mostly frustrated questioning all I had managed to learn was that gun enthusiasts generally don't talk to the media, and that they certainly don't like talking politics.
Thus the apparent unpopularity of the few candidate booths present at the show. After taking my camera, deleting what few photos I had already managed to take and warmly inviting me to enjoy the rest of the show, the security man pointed me in the direction of the Ron Paul and Mitt Romney booths in the back of the convention center.
The Ron Paul encampment - four or five volunteers who collectively formed the gun show's only semblance of diversity - was remarkably efficient given its limited means. What looked like handmade brochures and a hastily-constructed banner proclaimed Paul's pro-gun credentials, and the volunteers were eager to talk, excited and even zealous about their candidate. They noted that Paul has a "perfect voting record on supporting the 2nd Amendment." Indeed, Ron Paul has been called "a leader in the fight to defend and restore the Second Amendment" by Larry Pratt, executive director of the Gun Owners of America (GOA). Paul himself has stated on his website that some of his Republican opponents' views on gun control are "more in line with Teddy Kennedy than our Founding Fathers."
In a telling moment, an older man wearing Fred Thompson paraphernalia approached the Ron Paul table, picked up some fliers and spoke with the enemy at length about the Texas congressman's credentials - and Thompson's frustrating inaction.
"I hate to say it," the Thompson supporter confided, "but I'm here in support of the silent man. He's not really saying much."
The man left with a Ron Paul DVD and campaign literature, perhaps not surprising given the fact that Fred Thompson has resorted to asking for applause at certain campaign events.
The Romney camp, by contrast, showed all the signs of a campaign on its way with its impressive propaganda machine and clean-cut college volunteers, yet no one seemed interested.
I hadn't even introduced myself when the two college boys interrupted me.
"Sorry," they said. "We're not allowed to talk to reporters."
"No questions at all?" I asked. "None?" I offered to quote them anonymously, then I offered to not quote them at all, just eager to hear what they had to say.
"Sorry. We don't make the rules," they said, and directed me to Romney's website.
Perhaps the Romney volunteers (or their superiors) aren't eager to talk about a candidate that was described by the GOA's Pratt as "kind of like the thief who sticks a gun in your ribs and demands $100, but then gives you $25 back to 'soften' the blow." Romney, who has actively pursued support of the gun lobby in this campaign, acknowledged this year he did not join the NRA until August 2006.
Having exhausted my welcome at the Romney table, I began making my way toward the exit, eager to reclaim my camera and perhaps interview some incoming gun enthusiasts at the entrance. It didn't fly. There again, I found myself unofficially blacklisted, purposely evaded as I pulled out my notepad. One man made a less-than-courteous gesture in my direction.
I wasn't about to argue though.
This crowd was packing heat.
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