San Diego On Saturday, July 7, dozens of people were waiting outside the Crossroads of the West Gun Show at the Del Mar Fair-grounds for the 9:00 a.m. opening. Inside, Crossroads owner Bob Templeton had gathered key vendors to impart important news.
"Make absolutely sure you do the paperwork on every sale," he stressed, pointing out that the media was on the prowl (me and a crew from Channel 51) and that it was necessary to avoid incidents. "Paperwork" means that all guns must be registered in accordance with California law and that there be a ten-day waiting period before the buyer could claim them.
Templeton also told the assembled dealers that the gun- show trade association needed their financial support because two pieces of pending legislation, one state and one federal, would be lethal to the existence of gun shows. He cited AB 295, introduced in the California Assembly by Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro), and in Washington an amendment to the Juvenile Justice Bill, introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey), which passed the Senate and was being considered by the House.
"Even if a gun was sold legally at a gun show," Templeton had earlier told me, "the show promoter could be held responsible for anything that happened down the line with the gun. Ellen Corbett won't even sit down with the gun-show industry about our concerns. She's very intransigent."
Inside the exhibit hall, Escondido gun-shop owner Mike Murphy was setting up his display. He's only had his shop three years and hits the Del Mar show mainly to get the word out about his business to the North County gun aficionados. As to show promoters like Templeton being held liable for criminal use of a firearm purchased at one of the shows, Murphy erupts: "That's bullshit. Think about it. The State of California approved the sale. Why would they hold him responsible when they approved the sale?" (Spokesmen for both Corbett and Lautenberg denied that their respective legislation would hold gun-show promoters liable for a later misuse of a weapon sold at a show.)
Do dealers ever sell guns at the shows under the table, to avoid the paperwork? Murphy shook his head, disgusted. "You'd have to be fucking stupid, excuse my language. It could be a setup. I'm not going to jeopardize my license for a few dollars."
Setups and stings were on the minds of the vendors at the Crossroads show. Several months prior, at the huge Great Western Gun Show at the Los Angeles Fairgrounds in Pomona (probably the biggest gun show in the country) plainclothes agents of the California Department of Justice had pulled off a sting, purchasing a number of illegal weapons and observing some dealers who were skipping the "paperwork." Four arrests were made.
Some at the Del Mar show hinted at entrapment and suggested that the justice department had inflated the numbers to make the sting appear worse than it was. "Gun shows," says Gordon Groomer, 55, of Orange County, "are currently being badly beaten up, being demonized because of the acts of a few people. It's because of the barrage of malarkey being thrown at us by the news media, which is obviously very biased against us. They should leave gun-loving folks alone, because it's the criminals, not us, who are causing the problem."
Groomer tours the California circuit with Crossroads, the only traveling show to hit San Diego. He's on disability and to supplement his income sells guns and operates the safety certification booth at the show. In California, the law requires any first-time handgun buyer (except honorably discharged veterans) to be certified on firearms safety. To this end, the buyer pays $20 either to watch a two-hour video on the topic or to take a l5-minute test. Groomer says that 95 percent opt for the test.
"The news media and extreme left," he continues, "infuriate people by tying the word 'gun' to 'crime,' and I for one am extremely upset. The gun laws are being used to eventually eliminate guns." If shows like Crossroads were to be legislated out of existence, he states, "It will make for an extremely large black market. The black market is already there, and it would expand. Just like when they prohibited alcohol."
Standing before a rack of rifles, Larry Plank of L&G Weaponry proclaimed, "I'm a dealer in the so-called assault weapons. They're still legal, but Gestapo Gray Davis is doing his best to make these things go away."
Plank, who operates from his home/office in Orange County, sells knock-offs of the famed Colt AR-l5, which he puts together himself from parts. His rifles, which sell for $700 and up, are legal in California but may be affected by a bill signed into law on July l9 that expands the definition of "assault rifles."
About 40 percent of his business derives from gun shows and another 40 percent off Internet sales. A weapon sold on the Net must be shipped to a federally licensed dealer near the buyer, who must comply with all the laws of that state.
Plank was at the Great Western show in Pomona at the time of the Department of Justice foray. He did notice a dealer with a "rocket-propelled grenade" but assumed it was inert. "That violates so many laws, the guy would have to be an idiot to bring something like that." (The justice department press release stated that one weapon seized at the show was an "illegal rocket-launcher with projectile.")
The government, Plank is certain, wants to end both gun shows and the Internet sale of firearms. "I don't trust them. I don't trust any of them. They'll take one or two incidents where someone was allegedly doing an illegal transfer and blow it all out of proportion. The news media hypes the piss out of anything that goes wrong. It would be interesting to see if the reporter could come back six or nine months later to see the results of the trial and what really happened."
Critics of the gun shows focus more on the activities of the private collectors than on the licensed dealer. The latter have a recorded inventory, easy to track, and a lot to lose. The private citizen who rents a table and sells at these shows could deal under the table, or as critics suggest, "out in the parking lot." Barring a sting, no one is the wiser. The number of guns sold by private citizens at these shows has been estimated as high as 50 percent of the total.
Luis Tolley, of Handgun Control Inc. in Los Angeles, says: "A private citizen who's an unlicensed gun dealer can go to gun shows in Arizona [where there are fewer restrictions], buy the popular guns, then take them to a gun show [in California] and sell them to buyers who can't legally buy at a gun shop. That's where the profits are. These handful of unscrupulous people make it very easy for criminals to get guns." Tolley did acknowledge the "benign side" of the equation, that the great majority of sales by private citizens at gun shows were done by legitimate collectors.
Bob Templeton, 60, is the owner of Crossroads. For the past two years, he says, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department has maintained a significant presence at his Del Mar shows, and he welcomes it. He smiles and says that the first year they showed up, they manned some towers at the racetrack so as to monitor any gun violations in the parking lot. Templeton points out that he and his trade association support a pending California bill that would permanently fund the U.S. Department of Justice to do stings at gun shows.
Crossroads of the West is a family business, based in Salt Lake City; at the vendors' registration table, free copies of The Book of Mormon are available to anyone interested. "We're in San Diego five times a year. Our next show is October 9. We also do shows in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah, about 50 a year in all. There are 250 to 300 vendors at a show, and 600 to l000 tables." According to Templeton, only about 35 of the 250 or so vendors will be selling firearms, and about half of those would be private citizens. Everyone else is offering accessories like holsters, scopes, and clothing. Because of the mounting restrictions in California, the number of gun vendors at shows has declined in recent years. "Their places are taken by people selling T-shirts," says Templeton.
His Del Mar event is attended by around l0,000 people over the gun-show weekend. "A lot of people in San Diego like guns. Part of it is the military aspect of the town. You'll see the Marines and Navy people in here, dads and sons, and women as well. A cross-section of people. We're sensitive to the needs of the community. We're part of a community too, in Utah. We insist that no one under l8 come to a show unescorted. They can't buy guns legally. We're concerned about that. We make sure our dealers are in compliance. I can't remember that we've had any guns [sold at one of these shows] reported being used in a crime in the 25 years I've been in the business." Only once in the past two years, he says, was a vendor arrested at his event, an out-of-state dealer who got caught selling an assault rifle he didn't know was illegal in California.
Templeton explains that both out-of-state licensed dealers and private citizens must, in California, go through an on-site "transfer dealer" when they sell a shooting iron at a show. A transfer or local dealer is federally licensed; he fills out the paperwork (for a fee of about $25) and holds the gun for the ten-day period until the buyer comes to pick it up.
Detractors of the shows point out that because such shows bring together like-minded people -- some interested in buying and others in selling -- the potential for mischief remains. "We do, in fact, bring together like-minded people," Templeton responds. "I think that's what bothers those people who are enemies of the Second Amendment. It is indeed a town meeting of the people who believe in the Constitutional right to keep and bear arms. That's important to remember. It's not just about buying and selling guns and ammunition. It's about the freedom to get together to exchange ideas. It's about the First Amendment as well as the Second Amendment."
Ken Baker of San Diego is one of those who enjoys that aspect of gun shows. Under a large, hand-lettered sign -- CHEAP GUNS $10 -- he was laying out four or five old Mausers, German-made rifles from the World Wars, and a few handguns, all from his private collection. In the past four years he's been a seller at the Del Mar show five times. The Mausers he priced at $75 and $150, a Sauer .357 Magnum at $200, and a "Saturday night special"-type handgun at $10. He'd purchased the rifles at a police auction in San Diego, kept the best of the lot, and took the rest to shows.
His first time at a show he'd sold 40 of the rifles in under two hours, including some to other dealers who proceeded to resell them at twice the price. With just a few pieces left, he knew he wasn't going to earn much at the recent show, but he doesn't come just to make money.
"It's a hobby. It's fun. I enjoy it. You get to meet others who enjoy the sport as well, and you get to go around and shop." Baker acknowledged there may be a few problems at times with illegal activities at the show, "but not any more than would happen at some guy's garage down the street. By putting more restrictions on gun shows, all these transactions will be pushed underground. Illegal stuff is less likely to happen here than at gas stations or somebody's backyard, because of all the plainclothes cops walking around."
Later, Bob Templeton came by and made Baker take down his CHEAP GUNS $10 banner, explaining that such signs projected the very image that gun shows were trying to overcome.