Testing Minnesota's gun show loophole

How easy is it to buy a firearm in the Twin Cities?

"When you have a lot of people who are not allowed to buy 'em—felons, domestic abusers, and the mentally ill, and so forth—it makes 'em that much more tempting," explains the merchant.

There was an incident last year, he continues, in which a "gangbanger or something" managed to lift a 9 millimeter, but the shoplifter was arrested 40 minutes later on his drive home.

"This place is crawling with cops, y'see," the dealer says. "Word gets out quick."

Nick Vlcek

The room smells like dusty leather and suspicion. Upon discovering that he's conversing with a reporter, the vendor declines to provide his name. Gun enthusiasts are a notoriously guarded lot, but these days, they feel almost cornered. Over at the NRA booth, near the entrance, a gray-bearded recruiter makes his pitch.

"Twenty-five bucks gets you a full year's membership," he tells anyone who'll listen, offering to throw in a free T-shirt and hat.

On the wall behind him hang a half-dozen anti-Obama bumper stickers. One features a beaming Obama next to a caption: "#1 Gun Salesman of the Year."

"Y'know something else?" the pitchman says. "Obama's the number-one NRA recruiter of the year, too!"

The NRA's ranks have grown nearly 30 percent since Obama's arrival on the scene two years ago, from 3.5 million members to 4.5 million. There's a fear among firearms enthusiasts that a Democratically controlled Congress and White House will pry the guns from their fingers—cold, dead, or otherwise.

Over at a literature table, dozens of books offer a history of killing machines from the 18th century to the present. Nazi-themed tomes, for whatever reason, seem particularly popular. The red-and-yellow covers of The SS: The Blood Soaked Soil and The Battles of the Waffan SS scream out from the pile.

It wasn't just books. In the opposite corner of the gym was an absurd juxtaposition: MasterCard, Visa, and American Express logos inform purchasers of payment options regarding a black-and-white portrait of Adolf Hitler and accompanying cloth-stitched swastika.

On an adjacent table lies a black, slightly cracked German Luger, manufactured in 1942, valued at $1,295. A red swastika-emblazoned armband is unfurled beneath the Luger.

"That's not for sale," says the vendor. "It's just a replica. If this were real, it'd go for $700 minimum!"

In that case, why have it on display?

"It catches people's eyes," he says. "Especially those from the class of '45."

The proprietor's name is Tim. A willowy 56-year-old part-time photographer, Tim hardly looks threatening. His gun-infused childhood on the North Shore spurred a lifelong love of gun shooting, collecting, and selling.

Which isn't to say he lacks a political bent. He carries in his backpack a copy of the U.S. Constitution, which he produces unprompted mid-conversation, and at one point quotes comics writer Alan Moore saying, "People shouldn't be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people."

He seems to catch himself there and changes the subject. With no other customers demanding his attention, Tim segues into a brief tutorial on gun dealers' responsibilities.

Before any transaction is finalized, all licensed vendors must place a call to the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System, an all-day hotline that every diligent vendor has on speed dial and which is referred to as "Nicks" (NICS). If the call turns up any felonies, instances of domestic abuse, or mental illness, the sale is canceled.

"This is not the venue for selling machine guns," Tim adds as he nods respectfully to a passing browser. "Those are hard to come by. Only hard collectors get into them. Very expensive, plus there's a $200 federal transfer tacked on for every sale."

About 12 minutes later, a prim man wades through the booths, black Romanian WASR-10 AK-47 slung over his shoulder. A white sheet of paper taped to its glistening black barrel announces its price: $500 or best offer.

"I want my baby to go to a good home," he says, eyeing me up and down.

I can tell by his squinting, sun-weathered eyes that he doesn't mean mine.

THE ODOR OF GRILLING BURGERS and brats wafts through the east side of the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. White guys stand in groups of three; a few sit at a picnic table and squint into the blazing sun, which shines unseasonably warm this April day.

The racial makeup of gun show-goers warrants brief remark, if only because of the inescapable stereotype that accompanies the subculture. The clichéd caricature of the "gun nut" is not only white, but aggressively white.

When three black men enter the show at around 1 p.m., however, no one pays them much mind. Asked about their experience here, they seem more taken aback by the question's presumption than the surroundings.

"I've been to three gun shows, and I've never had a problem," says Grant, turning to his friends for corroboration. They nod. They're not here to purchase, Grant adds. For many, gun and knife shows are the male equivalent of window-shopping for shoes.

"This one right here, I'm telling ya, it's like, 'Don't fuck with him," says a gaunt 40-something holding up an FS2000, a Belgium-made assault rifle so sleek it looks like it should shoot lasers. "She's got a 1.6x magnification optic, sight cover, and attached flash suppressor. Shoots 5.56 NATOs from 500 meters out minimum. That's minimum."

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