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Bad Guys, Legal Guns

Gangs steal firearms to build their arsenals -- and gun laws don't stop them.

There are plenty of people in Colorado who, it is now clear, should not ever have had guns. It's hard to argue that the world would not have been better off if Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and Matthaeus Jaehnig and many, many others had not been able to get their hands on firearms.

Todd Von Bender, Dave Anver and Thomas Muldoon are not on that list. Indeed, as long as guns are legal, there is hardly a group of people better suited to possessing them.

Von Bender's interest in firearms began through his father. "My dad was interested in older custom guns, and we used to attend gun shows together starting when I was about fifteen years old," he recalls. "He appreciated the craftsmanship, the quality woodworking, the wood-to-metal fit, the history of the guns. Guns became a vehicle whereby I could have a relationship with him."

After wandering around the country for a few years -- including eight in the Army, two of those as a drill instructor -- Von Bender eventually landed in Denver and started his own home-renovation company. Once settled in, he rekindled his interest in firearms. Yet, like his father, he didn't merely acquire them randomly. Each gun was special; each had to be a collectible.

On a recent day, Von Bender proudly shows off several of his favorite pieces. Listening to him go through the firearms is like listening to a stamp collector explain why a particular first day of issue matters. "This," he says hefting a blond-stocked rifle, "is a 1929 8mm Mauser. Made in Czechoslovakia for Iran -- see, the writing on the sights is in Sanskrit. It's a beechwood stock, because the manufacturer uses indigenous wood. Usually I can tell at a distance where a gun is from just by looking at the wood."

Or this: "A model 54 Winchester, .22 Hornet," he explains. "Made in 1932, its first year of production. It's a real nice gun. But you got to wonder: It was made in the middle of the Depression, and it's a plinking gun -- it's not going to put food on the table. Who would buy it?"

After getting all the pieces cleaned and tagged, Von Bender began taking his collection around to gun shows. Soon, he gave it a name. The entire Greater Museum of Military and Period Antiques fits on two tables. The exhibit, which also includes old books and photographs, even has a sign that says, "Please Ask to Handle." Viewers are encouraged to heft the pieces, stare down their sights and examine the craftsmanship. Von Bender charges no admission to handle the guns; none of the pieces in the museum is for sale.

Unlike Von Bender, Dave Anver came to guns despite his father. A good Chicago Democrat, the old man opposed guns for all the right political reasons. But he had personal reasons, too. In the late 1940s, his father -- Dave's grandfather -- was walking home from a party with his wife when he was confronted by a man wielding a pistol. The thug demanded money; the elder Anver handed it over. But when the thief went for his wife's wedding ring, he decided to fight. He was pistol-whipped for his chivalry; days later, he died of his injuries.

A city boy, Anver gave no thought to guns growing up. By 1982, he had moved to Denver and was working as an auto mechanic. "Every payday, a lot of the guys I worked with went to this bar on Evans and started drinking," he recalls. "By the end of the evening, whatever money they'd gone in with was now gone, so I would make loans to a lot of them. They would give me stuff for collateral -- guns, knives, tools -- which I ended up keeping. Eventually, I ended up with a strange conglomeration of stuff.

"One day a friend of mine said, 'There's this big gun show down at the Merchandise Mart where you can sell that stuff.' So I went down to the Tanner Gun Show and set up a table with this strange collection of guns -- a Winchester lever action, a Remington shotgun, a Smith & Wesson handgun and a bunch of others. I got there Saturday morning, and by noon the next day I had sold everything. I said to myself, 'This is unbelievably easy.'"

After a few years, Anver applied for a federal license to deal firearms. At first he sold them out of his house and at gun shows. In 1992, business was so good that he opened his first store, on Parker Road. Three years after that, he moved a few miles up the road to his current location, where business has continued to boom. Last year, Dave's Guns was the busiest single federally licensed gun store in the state. The store sold about 8,500 handguns, rifles, shotguns and collectibles.

Although Anver himself shoots targets occasionally and personally owns several weapons, he's hardly an enthusiast. He'd rather spend time practicing judo, which he does at least once, sometimes twice, every day. "I never have gone hunting, although I have nothing against it, and I'm all for eating the critters my friends shoot," he adds. "I guess I could be selling stereos or women's lingerie."

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