Pictures at a (Gun) Exhibition

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CARTERSVILLE, Ga. -- The mood outside the Clarence Brown Conference Center really cannot be considered anything other than festive. Throngs of friends and neighbors clump together, some of them still wearing their Sunday best, laughing and chit-chatting in the parking lot. Entire families -- mothers, fathers, sons and daughters -- trickle in and out of the building. Some of the kids skip their way merrily towards the front entrance. Everyone there, it seems, has a smile on their face.

It’s Super Bowl Sunday -- just a few hours before kickoff – but the place is jam-packed with visitors and patrons. While football fever grips the rest of the country, the people of this small, mountainous northwest Georgia community are caught up in an entirely different kind of frenzy; one fueled not by a love of pigskin, but a love of cold steel and buckshot.

This afternoon, the guns outnumbered people 3-to-1. In one room, there is more firepower than the combined munitions of the entire county’s police forces. Rugers, Colts, Glocks, Bushmasters and Berretas; AR-15s, P229s, M9s, SR-566s and SIG50s; pistols, revolvers, shotguns and rifles -- both bolt-action and semi-automatic. There are even some vendors just selling parts of guns, like handles and barrels.

White folks are everywhere. There aren’t many African-Americans. Virtually zero Hispanics bothered to come. A majority of the attendees skew towards middle-aged and older, but there are more than a few young dead-eyes and aspiring marksmen.

Numerous warnings are posted on the glass doors of the building, among them, signage that says children aren’t allowed into the show without adult supervision. Despite the policy, it remains clear the show is marketed as something of a family event, with numerous displays and exhibits selling BB guns, pink “My First Rifles” and homemade jewelry crafted out of bullet fragments. Just a few feet away from a table of assault rifles, one seller is handing out bubble gum and lollipops to the exhibit’s youngest patrons.
Only a keen eyed visitor would spot the Youth Handgun Safety Act notices, which spells out the criminal penalties for sellers violating the Gun Control Act of 1968. “A knowing violation of the prohibition against selling, delivering, or otherwise transferring a handgun to a person under the age of 18 is, under certain circumstances, punishable by up to 10 years in prison,” the pamphlets reads. A small stack of them are on an unmanned table, alongside several copies of paperwork used by dealers at the event to weed out potential straw purchases.

Photo by James Swift

Just feet away, two young girls -- certainly elementary school students -- wade past the choked and clogged walkways between tables, each of them gleefully toting rifles that are twice their heights. Grinning from ear to ear, and hardly able to walk without wobbling over, they soon fade into the convention’s sea of humanity as their father, marching behind them, chirps, “Just don’t shoot anybody.”

Of course, firearms aren’t the only thing on sale at the event. Merchants hawk weaponry of all kinds, from throwing stars to stun guns, and plenty of gun culture paraphernalia. One exhibitor sells exploding skeet shoot targets, while seemingly every other table offers cut-out “zombie” themed shooting practice boards.

Outside the main sales hall, bulletproof vest vendors and concealed-weapons-carry proponents hobnob over chips and soda. A popular topic of discussion among a particularly chatty twosome involves the appearance of the Sandy Hook children’s choir at the Super Bowl. According to one, the decision was some sort of furtive attempt to sell the nation on further gun restriction legislation. Another is outraged over Georgia laws forbidding firearms in places of worship. Another example of the government forcing itself upon religion, he believes.

Then there is the dealer selling T-shirts with illustrations of George Washington printed on them, with lettering underneath championing him as “the first white president” of the United States. At the opposite end of the room, one seller, who is opposed to letting visitors photograph his wares, placed a piece of cardboard with a message attacking Vice President Joe Biden next to his inventory.

Photo by James Swift

Deeper inside, is the vendor selling Nazi paraphernalia -- an array of Third Reich daggers and various Wehrmacht trinkets -- while another sells Ku Klux Klan memorabilia. Sandwiched between a couple of .22 Mag cartridges, one lucky attendee may find that KKK-branded pocket knife he or she has always dreamed of.

A deep undercurrent of political resentment isn’t just palpable at the event, it is proudly on display, with numerous vendors sporting T-shirts with unmistakable ideological leanings. Despite literally wearing the message upon their chests, several vendors refuse to be photographed while donning their own merchandise.

“Two things every American should know how to use,” reads one T-shirt for sale. Underneath the text are images of a handgun and a Bible, both of which were dyed red, white and blue. “Neither of which are taught in schools,” the lettering below the objects read.

A young boy, with a fat, cherubic face, soon gallops past the display.

No one in the vicinity seems to notice him. Nor did anyone seem to notice the rifle he had slung over his shoulder.

Photo by Mike Saechang | Flickr.com

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