Inspired by his late father's antique pistol, author, urbanite, firearm novice (and skeptic) Eli Gottlieb traveled through Colorado to figure out why guns still hold such fascination.
Advocates for and against gun control are thick on the ground in Colorado, and my whistle-stop tour included several of the more prominent. I drank tea with Arnie Grossman, the Denver author of One Nation Under Guns, a man pained and indignant at what he describes as the "lumbar problem" in Washington, D.C., whose politicians, he says, simply lack the spine to stand up to the NRA. I chatted with Bill Menezes, former editorial director for Colorado Media Matters, an avowedly left-wing media-monitoring service, who described the opinions of the Dave Kopels of the world as merely excerpts from the classic conservative playbook, nothing more, and added, "They have a universal solution to all social issues: more guns." Charlie Meyers, the longtime outdoors columnist for the Denver Post, brought in the sportsman's angle, saying, "Hunters and sportsmen tend to be conservative, but though they strongly support handguns in the bedside drawer for personal protection, they start diverging on the need for assault rifles and an Uzi in the closet."
These contrasting voices were important to shade the portrait of Colorado Gunland that was slowly emerging before my eyes. But it was also crucial, I thought, to see where Gunland met for fun, where Gunland went when it wanted to let down its hair, kick up its heels, and get a little crazy among its own kind. It was important, I decided, to go to the Tanner Gun Show.
The Tanner Gun Show has been held several times a year at the Denver Merchandise Mart since 1964. It's equal parts circus, memory fair (heavy on antique firearms and Wild West kitsch), and gunny fire sale of monster proportions. On the day I attended, the parking lot shimmered with enough pickup trucks to make it look like Contractor's Day at Home Depot, and as I entered the hall I was passed by a grim-faced elderly man in an electric wheelchair who sported an enormous Mohawk. Inside, the vibe was that of old-fashioned fish-fry America, enlivened by the proximity of all the guns and ammo. The buzz was palpable, as was that sense, skillfully stoked by the NRA and present all over Gunland, that the feds were waiting in the wings to crash the party and yank the guns from our hands. "Gun control to me means a tighter grip," read one bumper sticker for sale. "Ted Kennedy's car has killed more people than MY GUN," read another. People circulated excitedly among tables hawking not only firearms but also beef jerky, diet books, religious icons, soaps, knives, and tools.
Most people were there for the hardware, however, and on that front the show did not disappoint. In front of one table stood a machine gun-like monstrosity, the size of an I-beam. Overseeing the gun, which is so powerful it's often bolted to the floor when fired, was an equally gigantic fellow in his early 20s. "Firing this thing is addictive," he told me with a booming laugh. "In fact, I joined the Army so I could shoot it for free." At another table, swarthy, clearly foreign-looking twentysomethings ("We're Israeli," they confessed somewhat apologetically) sold the latest in high-performance sniper scopes. At yet another, a large banner posed the question, "Are you prepared for the dark days ahead?" Beneath it stood a working RPG—a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
I watched a gray-haired grandmotherly type purr over a .357 Magnum, and then, turning to the person next to her, bark in a very ungrandmotherly voice, "Thing'll kick like a sumbitch." I saw young boys fondling rifles with an ardor that, at their age, should have been reserved for girls, and girls cooing over guns in a way that reminded me uncomfortably of young mothers chucking babies under the chin. After circulating for several hours, watching and listening, I left, filled with a feeling I remembered distinctly from the shy reaches of childhood: that if the people around me knew what I was thinking, they would have turned, massed as one, and killed me on the spot.
The next week, I took a "concealed carry" class, which is necessary to obtain a permit allowing you to carry your special friend, loaded, on your person or in your car. The class, held in a cheerless corporate meeting room in a traveler's motel off I-25, was less interesting for its content—the technique, safety, and history of firearms—than for what it told me about the people involved. Gun folk in Colorado may refuse to conform to type individually, but when seen en masse in large venues and classrooms, it's clear they have certain things in common. They're almost universally white, firstly, and the men tend to default to some Front Range version of the Kenny Rogers model, with proudly retro moustaches and beards, unashamed guts, and too-tight jeans. Typically conservative in politics, they're often conservative in dress as well, with the flinty, measuring faces of people long used to squinting at menace, real or imagined.