Art and Armor-Piercing Rounds, Family Businesses and Angry Young Men

Circling the perimeter of the gun show are young men with rifles on their backs and handwritten signs on their chests, reports Pat Blanchfield. With photos by Jason Francisco.

If you get lost looking for the gun show, follow the quiet men walking alone with rifles strapped to their backs. Or follow the parents pushing strollers or herding a clutch of roughhousing teens. They’re all going to the same place.

This particular Sunday in March, that’s the Georgia State Farmer's Market Exhibition Hall, some 10 miles from downtown Atlanta and a few minute past Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on I-75. As a former gun enthusiast myself, I’ve come along with a photographer friend, Jason Francisco, to take in the scene.

You can’t carry a loaded weapon inside, but there’s no security check beyond a guard who asks whether we’re armed. We say we’re not, and he waves us in.

A vendor hails us almost immediately. “Hey there! You folks want to buy some ammo?” He’s a middle-aged white guy with the burnt-sienna tan of a surfer and a bleached-blond Guy Fieri haircut. “I got all kinds of exotic loads. This here’s a flechette.” He hands my friend Jason a little steel dart, about half-an-inch long, sharp as a needle at the tip and with aerodynamic vanes on the back. “Fifteen, maybe 20 of those go in one of these 12-gauge shells.” U.S. shotgunners used flechettes in Vietnam to get at Viet Cong hidden behind leaves and brush. But the vendor isn’t selling these for jungle warfare—the angle he’s playing up is that they’re armor-piercing. “Go right through, tear a body up,” he nods enthusiastically.

The show is being put on by a group called GunRunner Shows, which has been producing events since 1988. Their homepage features a banner with a man holding a gun in front of the slogan: I’LL KEEP MY GUNS (in red) YOU KEEP YOUR CHANGE (in blue). The group claims that 275,000 visitors attended their shows last year alone, and today about 200 people are milling around a sea of tables, threading between banners and mannequins clad in body armor and tactical gear. There’s an oddly rhythmic background hum of mechanical noises—clicks, chinks, and ca-chunks–as people test actions, work pumps, and slide magazines in and out of the guns on display.

I ask the ammo vendor how business is doing. “Been really brisk, man, especially since that thing in Connecticut.”

The hot item, he tells me, is Rhodesian jungle rounds, but if we’re in the market for something a bit more extreme, he’s got that too: Dragon’s Breath, or incendiary shells loaded with pyrophoric magnesium chunks and powder. “These’ll eat right through armor, and there are nasty fragments in there, too,” he whispers. I buy two, and he cuts me a deal at six dollars. “Have fun!”

The GunRunners event is less of an industry trade event than a glorified flea market, populated by small businesses and private sellers. The central tables mostly belong to gun stores that also sell their inventories at shows. These vendors, who hold Federal Firearms Licenses (FFLs), were previously prohibited from working gun shows by the 1968 Gun Control Act (GCA), but have been fixtures on the circuit since the Firearm Owners Protection Act (FOPA) of 1986 allowed them to sell their wares at shows provided they perform the same background checks they do in their storefront locations.

Everyone else selling guns at the show—half the sellers here, one vendor estimates—are simply private individuals doing business with one another, cash and carry with no background checks required. Many of these people—collectors, hobbyists, or folks who just want to make a few bucks flipping guns— have paid for tables and will be there all weekend. Some have known each other for years.

But there’s also the steady stream of folks, young men all, whom we saw on the way in. They circulate around the periphery with rifles on their backs and pistols on their hips, wearing handwritten signs like sandwich boards on their chests: “Colt AR – $850 OBO” “This Shotgun $500” “Taurus .40 ASK ME.” These are private sellers, and the emphasis is on “private”: you can walk up to them and buy what they’re carrying, no questions asked, for cash and a handshake. Vendors working tables will also make offers on these weapons—in one of the more surreal moments of the day, I watch a table vendor selling Iron Cross and Dixie flag belt buckles haggle in a thick Georgia accent with a lanky black guy in a camo jacket, baggy jeans, and a sideways baseball hat, making offer after offer for the Kel-Tec 9MM carbine the younger man’s got slung over his shoulder. They don’t make a deal, but their tone is totally amicable, even warm. That instance aside, though, it’s impossible not to notice that most of the other private sellers are distinctively less gregarious. We avoid these lone wolves, for now.

Down the hall, Mike and Monica Lawson sit at the center of a block of table on chairs facing each other a few feet apart. He’s feeding her thread from a spool as she ties it off into knots. Their son, who looks about 10, is playing a handheld videogame while their daughter fiddles with a coloring book. A friend is holding heir youngest child, a 2-and-half-month-old, on his shoulder. “He’ll inherit the family business,” says Mike, “If he wants to.” Mike’s a 40-year-old paramedic and fireman from a town about an hour south of Atlanta, and he’s been going to shows since he was 5.

The Lawsons don’t sell guns, bur rather offer survival gear—scalpels, bandages packets of QuikClot, MREs, and so on. They see their business as helping everyday people out. Mike is dismissive of corporate websites that sell pre-packaged survival kits. “They’re just interested in ripping folks off. We offer preparedness items à la carte, so you can customize.” If you do want to go the pre-packaged route, Native Way sells little lunch-box kits, which include alcohol swabs, gauze, and a pocket New Testament, the last of which Mike insists he doesn’t charge for, and which serve a crucial purpose. “Survival is 90 percent mental, and I can’t think of a better book to read if you knew you were going to die.”

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Across the room from the Lawsons, jewelry designer Angie Whitaker is selling art. She’s ingeniously beaded spent casings of a dozen different calibers into leather bracelets and necklaces, earrings too, and the brass looks lovely in arrangements of turquoise, shell, and silver. Angie flashes a winning smile as she sums up her aesthetic in a honeyed drawl—“It’s very Western, very Native, and all Second Amendment.”

The warmth shown by Angie and the Lawsons is hardly an anomaly—there are plenty of affable folks selling guns, too. A vendor notes our interest in a vintage Walther P38 and moves it into better light for Jason to photograph. “We got a whole bunch of World War II pieces up at the shop,” he says. “You’re welcome to come by and take photos if that’s your thing, you don’t need to buy nothing.” The label on the gun reads Nazi Officer Used.

Across the aisle, we meet a couple up from Florida. He’s a podiatrist and she’s an anesthesiologist, and along with selling a stack of extended magazines they’re hoping to get rid of an AK and a few other guns to pay for their trip and then some. The husband is wearing an Israeli Defense Forces baseball hat, and he and Jason exchange shaloms. When Jason shares that his own Jewish upbringing was distinctively anti-firearms, the man nods his head knowingly. “My sister is the exact same way. I want to strangle her sometimes. We had family in Auschwitz—I’m a child of survivors. But like I tell her,” he says, tapping his hand meaningfully on a M1A, “Hitler would’ve thought twice about coming for us Jews if he had known there was one of these sleeping in every house. And that’s why anyone who comes for my guns today better not mind getting some holes put in them, either.” His wife nods enthusiastically. “If anyone tries to hurt our children they’re going to get some holes put in them,” she adds.

Most of the vendors are warm, even homey—the sense of community is palpable. “The organizers are real nice to us, really encourage us families,” Mike Lawson tells us. “Gave us some extra table space and waived the fee—a real blessing.” Person after person bemoans runaway price inflation. Michael Giugliano, one of the smaller FFLs on the premises, gestures towards one of the larger outfits and snorts. “Those guys can cut a few special bargains, but their overall markup is ridiculous. They drive up prices for everybody else in the business—I can’t afford to restock at today’s rates.” When I tell the Florida anesthesiologist that she and her husband could easily get away with charging two or three times more for the PMAG extended clips on their table, she shakes her head.

“People will pay crazy prices these days, yes, but that’s not what we’re about. It wouldn’t be right to charge that.”

Some indicate that their sense of community responsibility extends to more than pricing, too. “I pay $1,500 a year in licensing, and I eat the background check fee, too. But that’s fine,” Michael says, “because we’re the guys trying to do the right thing here. But these days there are more private sellers than I’ve ever seen.”

Unlike the FFLs, who are obliged to do background checks as a matter of course, and unlike the private vendors at the tables, many of whom are old hands on the circuit and all of whom have at least gone through the formality of renting a space, these men come and go as quietly and anonymously as the guns they carry, a silent, steady churn of bodies and iron.

One private seller in particular catches our attention, and then we catch his. He’s skulking off in a corner by the entrance, an AR strapped to a shoulder and a crudely scrawled “For Sale” sign hanging around his neck. It may be how his dirty jeans and crumpled shirt clash with his overly coiffed hair, or it might be the strange way he keeps darting his head back and forth while scanning the crowd, but something isn’t right and when he sees us he starts getting loud and pointing.

“Camera! He’s got a camera!” he seethes. “He can’t take a photo of me!”

Within seconds the security guard is upon us, hand on his hip right above his gun.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he demands. “You can’t take pictures here.”

But we can. We have permission from the show organizers, and we’ve been talking to people and taking pictures for hours. We’re in a public venue on state land. We’re not doing an exposé, but even if we were, isn’t the First Amendment just as important as the Second?

I want to say all of this, but behind the guard I see the private seller clenching the barrel of his AR, white-knuckled and wild-eyed, and I find that I can’t say a word. Jason apologizes, and we tell the guard it’s OK, we’re sorry, we were just leaving.

And we leave, without ever getting a chance to ask everybody what they’re so afraid of.

Jason Francisco is an acclaimed photographer, essayist and critic. He is the author of "Far from Zion: Jews, Diaspora, Memory" (Stanford University Press, 2006), and "The Steerage and Alfred Stieglitz," (University of California Press, 2012), as well as numerous essays, reviews, and artist’s books. He teaches at Emory University and Stanford University.