To Bear or Not To Bear

“It’s hard to think of a major American historical event that a firearm, or many firearms, didn’t play a role in.” An article that ponders America’s obsession with guns…

by: Riley Winchester 

After the automatic glass sliding doors, I’m greeted by a gruff and uninterested, “Got any loaded weapons on you?” Before I can proceed, I must answer the man who is slouched in a chair behind a folding table, not looking up from the magazine he’s reading, white and snarled ponytail draping against his Harley-Davidson graphic tee. 

“No weapons,” I say. 

“Go ahead to her.” The man motions toward an elderly woman sitting on a high stool. 

I notice the sign next to her. $8 General Admission, Active Military and Seniors $1 off. 

I hand over exactly eight dollars in cash and the woman stamps my hand. 

“Enjoy the show,” she says. 

Once inside, it feels as if I’m in a bizarro psychedelic trip. I’ve been through the looking glass, and this is what I see: Sig Sauer rifles, Smith and Wesson rifles, Winchester rifles, Mossberg shotguns, Remington shotguns, Winchester shotguns, Beretta handguns, Smith and Wesson handguns, Walther Arms handguns, revolvers, repeaters, swords, knives, axes, tomahawks, manuals on how to make homemade explosives — an entire 38,000 square-foot showroom filled with weapons of destruction. 

Above it all is a banner hanging from the fiberglass ceiling tiles: THE ORIGINAL GRAND RAPIDS GUN & KNIFE SHOW. 

The Original Grand Rapids Gun & Knife Show runs eight times per calendar year. It’s a hit in Grand Rapids, and when it’s in town you can find the 4 Mile Showplace on 4 Mile Road teeming with cars in the parking lot and eager gun enthusiasts packed into the stuffy, decaying showplace. This, however, is, not an occurrence unique to the Original Grand Rapids Gun & Knife Show.

Every year in the United States, 5,000 gun shows are held. 5,000 shows, which usually go for a weekend, in which tables and tables are covered with guns ready to be purchased by anybody who can pass an FBI background check. This number, with any understanding of the American firearm obsession, should come as no surprise. In fact, according to a study conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, each American gun show ranges from 2,500 to 15,000 attendees. On average, each American gun show can fill a Minor League Baseball stadium, a stadium filled with firearms and firearm procurers. 

The sale or exchange of guns has always permeated the American landscape. Colonizers arming themselves to take the land to which they sailed. Post-Revolutionary War Americans arming themselves in the event they must fight tyranny again. Cowboys, homesteaders, hunters, soldiers. Guns have always been at the forefront of American history. It’s hard to think of a major American historical event that a firearm, or many firearms, didn’t play a role in. For as long as there has been a United States of America, there have been guns, and there have been civilians who own these guns. 

It wasn’t until the 1930s, however, that gun shows became a common meeting ground for gun nuts alike. Many Americans became interested in the idea of collecting guns that were used in American wars, namely World War I. Owning the same guns that were used by American soldiers, then, became a practice in acknowledging one’s country’s history, which, in effect, became a practice in acknowledging one’s own history as feelings of nationalism strengthened in the early twentieth century. And this American association with guns only grew as America entered more wars. 

Following World War II, the National Rifle Association (NRA) published articles in its publication, The American Rifleman, on the importance of collecting weapons entangled in American history. Undergirding these articles was the connection between gun-owning and patriotism, an even more ubiquitous feeling in America following the military victories on both fronts in World War II. Even with modernization, this theme hasn’t changed. Today, on The American Rifleman website, there’s a tab dedicated to “Historical Firearm Features” and the role of firearms in American history, harkening back to the “glory days” and how said glory days were cultivated by men with guns.

But this shilling of firearms hasn’t come without controversy. On November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald, United States Marine veteran, shot and killed president John F. Kennedy with a rifle purchased from an ad in The American Rifleman. The magazine, as a result, demanded for more stringent restrictions on mail-order purchases, and that was it. The articles kept coming and the guns kept selling. The American obsession with guns grew, and so did the gun shows. 

Gun show attendees walk the aisles like grocery shoppers, inspecting every row for something that may catch their eye, something they may need but didn’t know before. There’s a lot of “fingering,” a term I learned at the show which means an attendee picks up a gun, inspects it, and aims it around with no intent to buy. There are many people walking the aisles with rifles slung over their shoulders, and there are others walking the aisles with rifles and signs declaring the price of the gun they’re selling. 

Gun buyer, gun vendor, or only a denigrated fingerer, everybody in the crowd has one thing in common: they’re mesmerized by the guns on display. The attendees all seem to do a choreographed, lethargic shuffle from table to table and inspect the guns on display. With each shuffle, a conversation strikes up between vendor and prospective buyer. A typical conversation goes like this: 

GUN VENDOR: “This is really one of my favorites. It shoots nice and I can get you a good deal on the ammo down here.” 

GUN SHOW ATTENDEE: “Yeah, I’ve owned a couple of these before and I like it. Sold my last one, but I kinda miss it.” 

GUN VENDOR: “Well, hey, no better time than now. 

I even hear one vendor say to a prospective buyer, “I’ll carry it out to your car for you if that’s what you want!” 

The concession stand is at the end of the first aisle. As I walked the aisle, I noticed several attendees forking away at dehydrated hot dogs on paper plates. I didn’t think much of it, though, as I was mostly engrossed in the guns. At the concession stand, I order a water and see a roller of shriveled hot dogs. 

“What’s the deal with the hot dogs?” I say to the cashier. 

She looks at the hot dogs burning on the roller. “Ran out of buns this morning. Way more people than we expected.” 

In 2018, Time Magazine partnered with French photographer JR for the story “Guns in America.” “Guns in America” is an avant-garde, interactive piece of investigative journalism that tells the perspective of two hundred forty-five Americans on the topic of guns in America. ER surgeons, veterans, attorneys, rappers, activists, students, gun store owners, politicians, pastors, and many more provide audio interviews on their experiences and opinions toward guns. To listen to the individuals interviewed, you’re presented an interactive image of a room packed with interviewees clustered together. Hover your cursor over an individual, their name, age, occupation, and place of residence appears. If you click, their story will play. 

The image is appropriately organized. The more someone is anti-gun, the further they are to the left of the image; the more someone is pro-gun, the further they are to the right of the image. The props are strategic, too. On the left, people hold candle vigils and signs calling for an end to gun violence and ownership. On the right, people brandish firearms and wear body armor. 

Ultimately, I listened to about forty interviews, split evenly between the left and right, and the verdict on guns in America was clear: there is no verdict on guns in America. 

For a country home to more guns than humans (three hundred ninety-four million guns to three hundred thirty million humans as I write this), it may come as a surprise, to an outsider, how polarizing the issue is. But the ideological chasm in “Guns in America” explains this perfectly. Those who hate guns really hate them and do their best to avoid them. Those who love guns really love them and do their best to obtain as many as possible. Some — like those who align themselves with Brady United, Everytown, and Amnesty International — all but want to take every American gun and launch it into the sun. And some — like those who align themselves with the Second Amendment, NRA, and gun shows — all but want every American born carrying a firearm. This may seem reductionist (as I intended), but ask someone who’s firmly planted on one side about the other side’s beliefs. It’s a touchy issue, to say the least. Log on to any social media platform after a mainstream attack of gun violence, and you’re sure to be inundated by tendentious takes from both sides.  

I certainly wouldn’t say I ideologically identify with my fellow aisle-roamers at the gun show, but I do understand what brings them here. I cringe at the Fuck Biden stickers, at the Let’s Go Brandon flags, at the Liberals, I Dare You to Take It patches because, despite claiming to be an apathetic centrist, I find myself identifying more with the political Left. But as I’ve been here, I’ve picked up some guns — rifles, shotguns, revolvers — and even though the guns aren’t loaded and it’s the equivalent of holding a heavy hunk of metal, there’s a strange feeling of empowerment when you hold a gun in your hands. When your finger graces the cold curve of the trigger. When you feel the metallic ridges of the handguard. When you eye down the sights of a revolver and briefly imagine yourself as a gunslinging bandit in the American West. I’m getting carried away.

Is this an American feeling? Is this a male feeling? An American male feeling? I’m not sure, but what I do know is, it feels damn good to hold a gun. It’s damn terrifying, too, to think of all the destruction and pain and violence one can cause with a gun in their hands. 

In the seventh or eighth aisle, I discover the true gun collector dominion. One table is stocked with flamethrowers ready to purchase (because you can technically say they’re environmental tools). The next table has old war relics. There’s a FightLite MCR 5.56 belt fed full auto suppressed machine gun next to a Vietnam-era helmet with the words BORN TO KILL written on it — pulled straight from Full Metal Jacket (1987). Next to it, there’s a Browning 1919 A4 .308 belt-fed full auto machine gun, encircled by rounds of .308 ammo, and a traditional WWI helmet. Both guns have signs in front of them instructing attendees to not touch without permission, driving away any fingerers and leaving the guns only to earnest collectors. 

It’s in this aisle I notice something I hadn’t before. There are children here. A lot of them. There are two young boys walking alongside what seems to be their father. They’re commenting on the size of the display machine guns. There are babies being pushed in strollers. There’s a young boy walking the aisle, unsupervised, speaking to vendors. The vendors entertain the boy, detailing the specifications of their guns on display to the child, whose eyes barely reach the table in which the guns sit. There is, I notice, a glimmer of camaraderie in vendors’ eyes when they speak to the boy. They see themselves reflecting off the child’s fascination, they see a young gun-nut who’s raised in the same culture they were. 

Go to Google and type in “gun violence”, there’s a good chance it auto-fills with “gun violence in America”. With recent mass shootings — like Uvalde, Oxford, Parkland, Vegas, and Sandy Hook — there’s no denying that gun violence permeates American culture. Even sadder so, eighty percent of the shootings I just listed occurred at American schools full of children. In fact, in America, in 2020, four thousand three hundred fifty-seven children were killed as a result of gun violence. Our neighbors to the north, Canada, had only forty-eight children killed by guns (jarring that I say only forty-eight!). Four thousand three hundred fifty-seven American children. Right about the attendance of the average American gun show. 

Think of the last movie you watched. Did someone die in it? Better yet, was there someone killed in this movie you’re thinking of? There’s a very good chance both of these happened, and an even better chance the cause was a gun. 

There have been studies, debates, op-eds, think pieces, everything of the sort on gun violence and media, yet there’s been no conclusive evidence on either side. There’s no doubt the ubiquity of guns and gun violence in media fetishizes the use of guns, but has it truly led to more gun violence? Tough to say. 

A 2020 article from Scientific American states gun violence statistics decrease when violent movies are released to theaters — their reason being violent gunmen are too busy shoving popcorn into their mouths and taking in the film to engage in gun violence (this makes me think of The Dark Knight Rises [2012] and Aurora, Colorado). While a 2021 article from Ohio State University states there is a direct correlation between media gun violence and real-life instances of gun violence. It seems the goalposts can move in any direction one wishes. 

The last movie I watched was the original Predator (1987). This movie, more so than most, smacks of guns, machismo, and muscle. One scene that sticks out to me starts with (then future governor of Minnesota) Jesse “The Body” Ventura patrolling the jungle, in search of the Predator. He dons a minigun — a gun that can shoot literally thousands of rounds per minute — against his right hip, and taunts the invisible enemy with, “Come on in. Old Painless is waiting.” He’s become so attached to his killing machine he’s even named it. Ventura’s character, Blain, is quickly struck down by the jungle predator, his powerful machine gun rendered useless in combat with an extraterrestrial hunter. In response to Blain’s death, his friend, Mac, played by Bill Duke, screams something that’s debated online. Some say he screams, “Sergeant!” Some say he screams, “Contact!” Others say, citing the script, he screams, “Show time!” But I don’t think it matters what he screams. What matters, and what’s not debated, is the unrelenting carnage he besieges on the jungle in response to his friend’s death. 

Mac blindly fires into the jungle brush, and his teammates are quick to join the action. Billy, Poncho, Dillon, and Dutch fire into the jungle as a response to Mac’s frenzy. They need not know why Mac is blindly destroying the jungle, now with Blain’s Old Painless in his hands. All that matters is their team is shooting, so let’s get in on the action. 

The scene goes on for over a minute of screen time. Over sixty seconds of muscled, gritty men firing blindly at a target they can’t see, firing blindly because it’s the only response they know. To put it bluntly, it’s a very badass scene. It’s one of the most viewed Predator clips on YouTube, with over twelve million views. One of the top comments on the video even claims it’s the most testosterone-filled gunfire in cinema history. 

When the ammunition runs dry, everybody stops firing. Everybody, that is, except Mac. He keeps his finger on the trigger of Old Painless and the barrels turn and turn, firing not bullets but only his directionless rage. Finally, Mac releases the trigger. The team is stuck, motionless, breathless, flies in amber, taking in the scene.  

“What happened?” Dutch says. 

“I saw it,” Mac says, still in shock.

“Saw what?” Dutch replies. 

I’ve reached the last aisle. I’ve now walked all 38,000 square feet of the gun show. I’ve seen every gun, blade, bullet, book, and piece of merchandise the Original Grand Rapids Gun & Knife Show has to offer. I hover around the entrance, taking the scene in. There seems to be more people and fewer guns than when I entered. For every person, there are about twenty guns and a vendor ready to arm them. I look to my right and jam my hand under a hand sanitizer machine. As I wash ethanol over my hands, a man bumps into me. 

“Sorry, dude.” He turns and puts his hand out in neutrality. 

“No worries,” I say. I finish cleaning my hands and unenthusiastically raise one to acknowledge his neutrality. 

This is not the crowd to be adversarial to. At any moment today I could have been wiped clean before I knew it, a pervading thought that has followed me since my hand was stamped hours ago. 

On my walk to the car, I notice crowds merging toward the entrance and cars circling the parking lot for a spot. It’s slightly past midday; the rush is about to begin. An obnoxiously large truck is parked next to me. The rear window is covered with stickers, all supporting the Second Amendment and other similar political beliefs. That must be dangerous, I think to myself, contemplating the lack of visibility. 

There’s no knowing how many people leave the Original Grand Rapids Gun & Knife Show owning a new gun, but I leave with only a tepid bottle of Dasani and hand-sanitizer-coated hands. It’s open for four more hours today and all day tomorrow. It will happen again in a little over a month. In that time, who knows what gun violence and political vitriol awaits. But the show will happen again, and again, and again. 


Riley Winchester’s writing has appeared in Ligeia Magazine, Miracle Monocle, Sheepshead Review, Ellipsis Zine, Beyond Words, Pure Slush’s “Lifespan” Anthology, and other publications. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Header image: French artist JR’s cover for Time Magazine 

One reply on “To Bear or Not To Bear”
  1. says: Bill

    Excellent piece. Two points about things you mentioned, one directly, the other indirectly. There’s not even the remotest chance that Oswald killed Kennedy. And, in opposition to a common misunderstanding, the Second Amendment doesn’t give individuals the right to bear arms. Reading the Amendment will clear that up for someone who claims that it does.

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