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Gun Shows, The good, The bad and the Ugly
Gun shows have been a part of the American social landscape for well over 50 years. They have primarily been a venue for collectors and small dealers to buy, sell and swap guns, knives and accessories from their collections and shop inventory. This is often the venue of dealers whose operations are large enough to go "public" but too small to justify opening a shop in a fixed location. In many cases, larger gun show dealers also operate a small local shop in their hometown. It is uncommon for larger, well established gun retailers to haul their merchandise to gun shows, but it does happen in a few notable cases. Those situations tend to be the larger state level shows that attract large crowds of buyers and dealers.
The typical gun show is held on a non-holiday weekend and will generally follow normal business hours for Saturday, with slightly shorter business hours on Sunday. Innovative show promoters are bringing in shows which will also include Fridays, usually with pretty late hours Friday evening. One such example is the Portland Expo show which is held at the Portland expo convention center several times a year. This show effectively serves three states, although the economies of those states and the current legal situation inhibits a lot of the activity that used to be common at the show. Not all gun shows charge attendees for parking, but the expo show is pretty bad for that. Not only do they charge parking to the attendees, but they also charge it to the vendors. Part of this surcharge goes to pay the extra police who are ordered to attend the show along with numerous federal agents.
Most of the vendors and attendees to modern gun shows don't like to be photographed. The media is generally not allowed inside and it was difficult for even me to get permission to take pictures. That permission based on not being allowed to take pictures of other people, so there is no large panoramic shot of the room. The room is a large expo hall lined with tables like you see covered up in this little section. There are police and security guards everywhere, including many undercover and off duty law enforcement types who never want to be photographed. Many of the attendees are targeted by various law enforcement groups and investigators for civil actions and are equally paranoid. At any given time, large shows like the one at the Expo will have several undercover and off duty law enforcement people in attendance at any given time. Those people tend to be resistant to being photographed. Vendors are equally cautious, often solicited for illegal business several times a day, if not several times per hour. Part of this is due to the minefield of various laws and regulations surrounding guns, ammunition, and even some accessories.
The typical vendor setup like this has all of the more valuable items in glass cases, where the prospective buyer can ask that an item be removed from the case for handling and careful viewing. While most dealers will not put long guns under glass, some do and some do not take offense if you pick one up to check it out. The actual purchase of the gun is usually going to be governed by the same laws as if it were through a shop, thus there would be the same paperwork. The exception is when the person selling is not a licensed firearms dealer and the sale is between two private individuals. The mechanics of this will vary from state to state, but Oregon had recently passed a law forbidding transfers at gun shows without the buyer going through a state background check. Forms and payphones for this are provided at the entrance. Whether or not these background checks are actually performed in all "private party" transfers is a matter of speculation, and is complicated by the fact that the regulation only applies to private transfers at the gun show. Private transfers off property or after hours are another story. Teams of law enforcement personnel and petty criminal informants are constantly trolling for technical violations of law in addition to watchful gun dealers, both legal and illegal, keeping an eye on their competition for the opportunity to point an accusing finger that could get the competitor in trouble. Obviously, this situation leads to a lot of paranoia, but this is tempered by the economic opportunity of the event.
The economic opportunities of these events, along with the experiences of seeing and touching items that are true instruments of history will always bring crowds in. Gun dealers and collectors who are otherwise isolated come out to show their wares and socialize while in a venue where they can often find items they have been searching for years and sell items to someone that has been looking for it for years. It is definitely a realm where one man's junk is another man's treasure, and sometimes one man's treasure becomes another mans treasure, and likewise, some junk gets traded around too. People typically pay around just under $50 per table to attend a show as a vendor, and private parties are encouraged to do so. Dealers typically take sets of multiple tables, often paying more for premium locations or getting discounts for taking multiple tables. The biggest show dealer in Oregon operates out of a relatively small shop in a small town, but when attending the shows will spend over $1500 and take two rows of tables. The average vendor is paying around $500 in total costs to attend the show when they factor in table rent, hotels and parking. By contrast, the attendee pays around $5 to $12 admission and parking. Ammunition wholesalers also attend the shows in force, taking entire aisles for just one ammo dealer and bringing in common caliber ammunition by the truckload. Competition for price on the more common items is fierce, and the buyer can usually get case lot prices on ammo at the larger gun shows cheaper than the net cost of the discount mail order places because the cost of getting in the show as an attendee is cheaper than paying shipping. The larger ammo vendors conveniently make hand trucks available for serious shoppers to haul their ammo out to the parking lot. A few dollars of tip money in the right palm will get them to help you.
Of particular note are the antique collectibles like the ones in this group of tables presided over by a WW2 veteran who attends the shows as much to socialize with other old war heroes as to make a few bucks to supplement his retirement income. Confined to a wheelchair, he still fears too much publicity or government scrutiny and requested that his face not show in the pictures. He primarily deals in older military holsters and field equipment from the Indian Wars through Vietnam. Many of these items would be lost in history if it were not for these militaria collectors. He also displays the odd rifle or pistol that has probably not fired a shot in over 50 years, yet his mood is guarded due to multiple attempts from petty criminal informants, jealous rivals, law enforcement and even news reporters attempting to set him up and expose some sort of illegal deal.
Still, guys like this are the ones to see if you have a particular old military gun and want all of the period correct "kit" to go with it. Many of the antique leather items are even better than new production because they were tanned using processes that were very good for preserving the leather, but not so great for the environment. His collection includes even the most rare variants of holsters used by the US military in WW2. Samples of these are often bought by moviemakers and re-enactors who require the highest standards of historical accuracy in their performances. The old sloppy standards of historical accuracy of war films in the 1970s and 1980s simply don't get by the sophisticated audiences of the 21st century.
Some other interesting items that can be seen at the gun shows are true replica guns and deactivated guns that are often in configurations that would not be available as shooters. This rare Czech assault rifle variant is not readily available in the US as a shooter at any price, and while not likely to sell, makes a good conversation piece for this dealer to keep people at his table where they will become more likely to develop a fondness and likelihood of purchasing something else like one of his semi-auto only AK-47 type rifles.
There is definitely a psychology that plays a role in how gun show prices factor into a deal. There are regular dealers, large collectors and related businesses selling stuff off the tables. Almost everyone prefers cash deals, most accept items in barter, and roughly a fourth of them are set up to take credit cards. Generally, you will not get far at a gun show with a checkbook. American Express is equally shunned by gun show vendors because that company has a nasty reputation of facilitating chargebacks against merchants. With those factors in mind, cash is king, but there are some other valid trade mediums. Obviously, lots of people are at the shows to buy and sell guns, so most guns can be considered a fairly liquid currency within a range of value established in the various recognized pricing guides that are similar to the pricing guides used by coin dealers. This is of course subject to no small amount of haggling on what shape the gun is in and current market conditions. With that in mind, many other items are also tradable, and many dealers do as much as 75% of their business volume in barter of one sort or another. Many of the small dealers also own coin and pawn shops and readily trade in precious metals, although the best way to avoid getting screwed on a gold or silver based deal is to stick to the bullion grade stuff instead of haggling condition and markets with a professional dealer.
While the barter is generally limited to firearms, coins, knives and related items, I have also seen exotic dancers at the San Francisco Cow Palace show giving away and trading coupons and passes to their club for show attendees. In fact, this element is becoming a welcome addition to a lot of shows. Attractive women find a unique environment at the gun shows, in part because of some laws passed by the Clinton administration in 1994. One non-expiring part of the 1994 crime bill was a prohibition on legal gun ownership by people who have been convicted of any crime of domestic abuse (even a misdemeanor) or have been the subject of any restraining order. Figuring correctly that the average gun nut guy does not want to smack his wife or girlfriend and be barred from gun ownership, a lot of women consider the male firearms enthusiast to be a pretty safe bet against domestic abuse. Given that factor, and in a bad economy these are the guys with money to throw around on discretionary purchases, girls do come out to the shows more than in the past. Some of the larger enterprising dealers decorate their sections with one or two attractive female short term employees, but it often can be a bored daughter or niece of the vendor who is just there to keep an eye on the merchandise. In either event, I have observed this as a shift in the demographics of gun show attendees over the last twenty years from what used to be almost exclusively a male activity to now include a growing number of females.
Prices at gun shows are getting to be all over the map, with a lot of the most savvy buyers tracking their price comparisons to the various Internet dealers and Shotgun News, a lot of shows are looking "expensive" by comparison, although it is not difficult to look around the vendors at the average gun show to find prices that will be lower than local retail shops. That is not to say, you will find some of everything in price points at a gun show, with the best deals often being snapped up by savvy shoppers while the ripoff deals sitting on the tables of dealers who either have no clue to the real market, or those who are looking for a sucker. This can be the case with brand new merchandise, but is more common with used or rare collector items.
Suffice to say, the savvy sellers adjust their prices frequently to the market supply and demand, but there are many who simply price things based on their own stubborn ignorance. For every nice used Glock for $300, there is some joker still trying to get $3,000 for his "preban" Colt AR15 weeks and months after the sunset of the Clinton era ban. For every spare M16 magazine for $10 each, there is someone else trying to get $85 for a rusted in the original wrap USGI M14 magazine that looks suspiciously like a Browning BAR magazine, and the seller has a sign on his table that says all sales are final.
There are plenty of genuinely good deals to be had at the gun shows not only from vendors, but from people who are walking the aisles. These people are usually private collectors who take guns and related items to the gun shows in order to make trades and sales under more favorable terms than what are normally available to them when there is not a show going on in the area. For example, local gun shops and pawn shops in the Northwestern US will rarely pay more than $300 for a used Glock pistol of any type, but in a person to person transaction or even a small dealer at a show is likely to pay $350 to $450 for the same gun depending on the variant, condition and accessories that are included. There can also be an implied "value" in the transaction being done privately without maintaining a permanent record of the sale, but this is a two way risk since it also usually gives up the ability of the buyer to reliably determine if the gun has been stolen or used in a crime and he cannot easily refer the police to who he obtained the gun from. Such situations can range from minor inconvenience to
More to be added later