The Tanner Gun Show: Guns, knives, T-shirts and the right wing
Denver's Tanner Gun show has been around since 1964 and is now one of the largest gun shows in the western part of the United States. Through the years, the Tanner Gun Show has grown from humble beginnings in hotel banquet rooms to its current home at the Denver Merchandise Mart that caters to thousands every other month or so, just north of Denver off 58th Avenue near the Grizzly Rose Saloon. The show has been in the spotlight a few times over the years and experienced its fair share of controversy stemming from Dylan and Klebold of Columbine High School infamy to efforts of various anti-gun politicians to stamp out the show's very existence. Yet in spite of the negative attention the show has sometimes attracted, the Tanner Gun Show has rolled on year after year growing in size and popularity.
From the time I turned off I-25 at 58th Avenue to pull into the parking lot, it was clear I was entering another facet of Denver's culture that was quite different than the restaurants, galleries, and music clubs of downtown. But let's face it, guns are a big part of Colorado's western culture -- and lest ye think I'm out to paint the Tanner Gun Show in a negative light, I enjoy a little target shooting myself with friends from time to time since I was a kid. So after finding a parking spot among the sea of enormous four wheel drive pickup trucks, I walked up to the entrance, paid my $8 and wandered into the air-conditioned concrete cavern inside to see what the Tanner Gun Show was all about.
The Tanner Gun Show might advertise that it's all about guns and knives, but really it's more about the public exercise of the 1st and 2nd Amendments: "Freedom of Speech" in the form of T-shirts with Ku Klux Klan logos (we'll get to that in a minute) to the "Right to Own and Bear Arms" proudly displayed in the form of thousands of shotguns, handguns and rifles of every flavor. Everywhere you looked, the proud and sometimes outright vulgar display of these two cherished American rights was on full display.
Over the course of the two hours I spent at the show wandering from booth to booth, I didn't see a whole bunch of diversity -- which I can't say really surprised me. I could count all the people of color I saw on two hands, most of whom were the people working the concession stands. The attendees of the show overall were about what many people might expect: a mixture of 'Nam vets with graying beards, farmers and ranchers from up north and the eastern plains, drugstore cowboys, burly bikers, and younger guys wearing NASCAR-themed hats and T-shirts. As I wandered around, I have to admit, the vast majority of people and dealers were really quite friendly. At the Centennial Gun Club booth, I was educated by a cheerful older man on the benefits of joining their club and was personally invited out to the club's next fully automatic machine gun day at their shooting range, which was one of the more interesting invitations I've ever received.
Besides the utterly awe-inspiring display of American firepower, perhaps the most intriguing thing about it was the fascinating display of radical political conservatism. I'm all for free speech and the right to bear arms (responsibly) but the dichotomy of vendor tables hawking bumper stickers, hats and shirts advocating the death of the President of the United States next to a table full of AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles was a little disconcerting. I sort of expected the anti-Obama stuff to be at the show, but the Ku Klux Klan "Original Boys In The Hood" t shirts booth I stumbled on, what the fuck was that all about?
That backpack is not what you think -- it's actually filled with geraniums.
Nearby, another vendor selling discount ammunition had a United Nations flag as a door mat in front of his table. I overheard many people complimenting the ammunitions dealer on his creative use of the UN Peacekeeping flag as a place for people to wipe their boots, to which he replied "The UN wants to take away our guns and assimilate us into their way of life." Umm...so I guess the guy was comparing the United Nations peacekeeping efforts around the world to the Borg of Star Trek or something. I dunno. He was nice and had candy at his booth, so I grabbed a jolly rancher, looked and compared his ammo prices with what I'd seen at other booths and ambled onward. There were also a few vendors selling Nazi flags and other various Nazi war memorabilia, but along with the KKK T-shirt booth, these vendors didn't seem to be garnering all that much foot traffic to their booths.
Because I know you're curious, a brand new Hi-Point 9mm semi-automatic pistol with a nine-round clip and a lifetime warranty could be had for $160 brand new out the door, while a heavily used Cold War-era communist China SKS military rifle complete with bayonet could go home with anyone who ponied up the $225 asking price. Brand new Romanian AK-47's cost about $500. As far as bargains were concerned, if you looked hard enough, there were plenty of beat up old hunting rifles for sale ranging from $70 on up, but most used guns were $200 to $500, depending on what someone wanted. I assumed it was easier to buy a gun at a gun show than at a gun shop or sporting goods store. Not so. In fact, the exact same one-hour criminal background check process to buy a gun is in place for both. Fact was, all of the vendors I came across in the midst of transactions were vigilant about reminding their customers about the paperwork and background check process.
I heard more than a few dealers speaking among themselves about private sales or trades, which did leave to me believe that perhaps among an inner circle of gun-show enthusiasts there might exist paperwork-free transactions, but I never saw it or heard it openly discussed. Interestingly, I saw quite a few out-of-state people and one foreign immigrant from Brazil attempt to buy handguns from a dealer -- they were politely denied. On the other hand, you could buy a book on how to build a homemade silencer for your pistol or convert your hunting rifle to a fully automatic machine gun, and there were plenty of vendors offering books on just how to do such a thing. Legal? You bet.
In between table after table of every gun new and vintage you can imagine were also plenty of booths hawking knives, gun safes, hunting trips, gun parts, gun accessories designed to make your plain-jane hunting rifle look like an M-16, and surprisingly (to me at least) quite a few women-centric booths selling candles, housewares, gift items, decorative crystals, engraved whale's teeth and elk antlers, all destined for home use or as Christmas gifts for their boyfriends or husbands. By far the most popular booth at the entire show was a local handgun dealer who employed beautiful young women as sales associates to draw the men in to examine the various pistols in all brands, calibers and colors. They even had a sizeable selection of hot pink handguns made specifically for women, which a man could purchase and then have gift wrapped at no extra charge.
Like the UN-flag-doormat ammunitions dealer-guy mentioned earlier, many other vendors throughout the show gave away free candy at their tables to entice passerby to stop and look at their wares. This marketing strategy worked brilliantly in enticing the younger children of fathers who were inevitably drawn over to see what their kids were eating. Many of the vendors wore a variety of novelty T-shirts with anti-government slogans proudly displaying their allegiance to either the NRA or various right-wing causes. I spotted more than a few people were walking around with Vote Tom Tancredo buttons affixed on their shirts. Despite the bizarre Nazi and KKK vendors, the whole experience was pleasant enough overall, with truly friendly people who all shared a love of guns and their constitutional rights -- but it was definitely a side of Colorado I don't see very often living in Denver.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.