April 30th 2023 in Tucson, Arizona.
Between 80 and 100 gun dealers, gun makers, and sellers of anything and everything associated with firearms, old and new, laid out their wares inside Tucson’s Expo Centre at the weekend for the Arizona city’s annual Expo Gun Show 2023. Gun enthusiasts turned up in numbers, undeterred by the somewhat incongruous signs on the entrance doors saying “no guns allowed” inside. Which wasn’t exactly true either as several attendees brought weapons to sell, although they were inspected at the entrance for reassurance that they were not loaded or capable of being fired at that instant. And inside, there were, literally, thousands of guns.
I parked my bike by a car with a windscreen heat shield that said on it “Biden Senile Idiot”. There was little overt politics however, save for the Libertarian Party stall opposite the entrance, proffering views that are in many instances too far off the scale for even the current iteration of the Republican Party. It claims, for instance, that Covid vaccines currently being distributed in Arizona are “experimental” and therefore “a crime against humanity . . . to the magnitude that inspired the Nuremberg Trials”.
As we queued to go, the guy in front of me had a pump action shotgun slung over his shoulder with a $450 price tag displayed prominently on it. Not much of a bargain really as they sell online new for $484 (according to TrueGunValue.com). It was a Remington 870 Wingmaster 12G. Chatting to him later inside, I asked had he had any interest from buyers. No was the answer. I checked (not being an expert) that it was a pump action gun. “Sure is,” he replied. “Takes five [cartridges] and if you need more than five, you’re in trouble.”
Most of the gun enthusiasts were middle aged men, though there was a fair smattering of 20 and 30 something men as well, and some women. A lot of the men looked the part — big beards, t-shirts with words like “freedom” and the American flag emblazoned on them. Many appeared to be hunters and, as I have found since Texas and all the way here across New Mexico, everyone was unfailingly polite and courteous.
“Where are you from,” asked Lonnie who manned a stall of attractively laid out holsters I wanted to photograph. He had made them himself. I said I was from Ireland.
“Well that’s OK,” he replied. “I was a cop in Dallas and we had plenty of Irish there.”
Nearby Adrian had an impressive display of what looked like second-hand guns from an earlier era. They were “underfolder rifles”, he said, showing me how the shoulder piece folded forward and tucked up under the rest of the weapon, making it more compact. They were Romanian made and were designed originally for tank crews and paratroopers, he said. His cache came from the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. The United Nations had apparently collected the weapons and stored them for eventual destruction — “but something happened along the way”, as he put it, and they reached the open marked again.
Adrian bought a container load of about 3,000, had them reassembled and made usable again, and was selling them now for $1,249 a piece. “Here in Arizona, people like them as truck guns so if you’re on your ranch and there’s a Coyote, this is real easy to grab,” he explained.
Mike from Arizona Arms was doing well with an AR semi-automatic pistol known as the Radical and which had, in filigree on the barrel, the words Trump and MAGA (the former president’s political slogan — Make America Great Again). The gun on display was a striking gold colour.
“We have ’em in gold, blue, red, purple, green and dark earth — I think that’s about all we have,” said Mike.
Was it a good seller? I asked. “Absolutely,” he said. . . at $1,195 a pop.
The rifle most on display was, by a long measure, the AR15. The AR abbreviation stands for Armalite, the US company that first made the gun in the 1950s, and not assault rifle, as is often stated. Known sometimes as “America’s Rifle” because of its popularity (tens of millions are in circulation) it is hated by gun opponents, not least because it has been used in so many mass shootings. They include the May 2022 murder of 19 students and two teachers at a school in Uvalde, Texas; the murder, in March this year, of three adults and three students in a school in Nashville, Tennessee; and the April shooting dead of five bank employees by a disgruntled member of staff in Louisville, Kentucky.
There were numerous displays of AR rifles — sometimes set out on tables in military precision neat rows, either lying flat or pointing upwards. Lifetime Precision gunmakers of Arizona have their own versions of the AR15 — the LPC-15 and the LPA-15 rifles, selling for, respectively $1,399 and $899. As coincidence would have it, the company’s Lee Dayley has a strong connection to Ireland, having lived in Rathmines, Dublin, from 1989 to 1991. He worked with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on Bushy Park Road in Terenure, proselytizing for them on Grafton Street and outside Trinity College.
What was the reception like, I asked. “Pretty good, super nice,” he said, adding however that a lot of people were “set in their ways”, a reference I took to mean they were unwilling to change church.
We chatted amiably about biking and what to see in Arizona before I asked him whether he felt there was any conflict between his business and his faith. Was there a conflict between guns and God, I wondered?
“I think that depends on how you utilise [the gun],” he replied. “If it’s defence for your family, it’s ok. If it’s for offensive [purposes], it’s not compatible.”
He also felt there was a problem with how a mass shooting was defined.
“They define mass shootings in a way that makes it look worse than it is,” he suggested. “They define mass shootings as more than three dead.”
He felt mass shootings of students and teachers could be stopped if schools were treated like other government buildings, where security staff manned entrances and people and bags were x-ray screened before being allowed in. “That would fix it,” he said.
Most people he knew bought AR rifles, and his own rival brands, for target practice. “And we in Arizona have a Coyote problem,” he added.
Walking around the display tables, the array of weapons on sale is extraordinary. There’s a huge variety of handguns, for example, including Glocks, a Dublin gangland favourite, hunting shotguns, knuckle dusters, samurai-style swords, pen knives, with a concealed blade (“sometimes you just need to make a point and these Pen Knives can SAVE Your Life! said the sign), gun spare parts and repair tools, military-style clothing and camo gear, and ammunition — mountains of ammo. Steve had a display of knives the like of which I’d never seen before. Joni and James had an impressive display of second hand sights and holsters. Three fellows were making a detailed examination of a vintage (1960s) AR15 SP1 for $3,000 — “I really want one of them,” said the younger of the three.
And there were the inevitable t-shirt and other souvenir offerings, with pro-gun messages, such as “God Family Guns & Freedom”; “In 1776 the British demanded our guns. We shot them”; “The People will Protect the 2nd Amendment” and “The Right to Bear Arms – Your Approval is not Required”.
Don, and heavily bearded elderly man riding a motorised scooter pootled around the aisles holding aloft an AR15 he was selling for $1,000 (“Any offers yet?” I asked as he lapped me. “None,” he replied gloomily). Gun enthusiast and stall holder Coleen lent a splash of colour to the occasion, decking herself in a Stars and Stripes shirt and hat.
Two young men, Kylen and Cody, were buying an AR10, a weapon that began life as a standard issue Nato rifle. Kylen wanted it for hunting. “It’s, like, my fifth [gun],” he said. Why did he have any guns, I wondered. “I work in a park store, on the south side of Tucson, and there’s always people on drugs,” he said. Cody added: “A couple of years ago, they did, like, a survey of south Tucson and it was one of the most dangerous places in America to live,” he said. Neither thought banning guns was a solution. “They’d just come across the border,” said Cody, as Kylen filled out his background check form. Once they had the AR10 (which they did less than 10 minutes later), they were heading out to hunt Mule Deer.
At Distinctive Defence Strategy’s stand, I was looking at a handgun, a Masterpiece Mac II, with what appeared to be a silencer. The owner James Gray bounded over and pointed enthusiastically at various parts of the weapon and said: “This, this, this and the case! Nine millimetres, 32 rounds — $599!” How could I buy, I asked.
“[If] you’re from here, show me your ID. I do a background check, it takes about five minutes, and you walk out with the gun,” he said.
Everyone I asked said much the same. The Firearms Transaction Record form has 36 questions, most of them tick box answerable. Questions include: are you a fugitive from justice? have you ever been adjudicated as a mental defective? are you the subject of a court order. . . restraining you from harassing, stalking, or threatening your child or an intimate partner? etc etc. The applicant answers and, according to stall holders at the gun fair, approval from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) usually comes back in a matter of minutes.
They appear to be sticklers for these sort of regulations here. You have to be 21 years old to buy beer in Arizona. I’m 70 and every single time I buy a beer in a shop, I am asked for my ID.
*Footnote: Police in Cleveland, Texas, are trying to locate a man alleged to have shot dead five of his neighbours, on Friday, after being asked by one of them to stop shooting with his AR15 gun while at his front porch. The man, Francisco Oropeza (38) was reported by US media to be drunk and to have reacted to the request by killing five of 10 people in the neighbouring house, all “execution style”, including an eight-year-old boy. Asked to be quiet, Oropeza allegedly replied before going on his rampage that it was his property and he would do whatever he pleased. Police describe him as “armed and dangerous”.