Inside the Phoenix gunshow: no hassle to buy assault rifles

This weekend I went to my first gun show. And, boy, am I glad it was in Phoenix.

In Arizona, gun shows are examples of both first and second amendment freedoms at their best (or worst, depending on your position): There were tables where I could have bought T-shirts comparing President Barack Obama to Hitler and threatening AK-47 gunfire to make my voice heard in Washington. And there were individuals selling assault rifles that I could have legally bought with $800 cash, without any paperwork or information exchange required.

AR-15s for sale by private dealer

The Crossroads of the West gunshow at the coliseum at the state fairgrounds – the largest gunshow in the West, according to the company president — was overwhelming and educational.  I mean, I had done my research going in. I knew all about Arizona’s so-called “gun show loophole” that some law enforcement officers say puts guns in the hands of Mexican cartels and L.A. gangsters. But until you are actually offered the opportunity to buy an AR-15 with only a cash exchange and a handshake, it still seems unbelievable.

50 caliber rifles

I went to the gun show with my research assistant, David Robles, as part of my reporting for an upcoming article for Phoenix Magazine. For the first couple hours, David and I just took it all in. I think he thought I had lost my edge: I was struck dumb by the sheer amount of weaponry. There were defused grenades for $25 that the seller explained could be reactivated by people with the right skills. (“But that’s on them,” he said.) There were tables with antique knives with Nazi symbols and others lined by 50 caliber rifles that I’ve been told could take down a lightly-militarized vehicle from a mile away.

All the ammunition you could want

But I was here for the assault rifles – specifically the AK-47s and AR-15s that are the weapons of choice among the drug cartels. If I purchased from a licensed dealer at the gunshow, I would have had to fill out a form to make sure I wasn’t a felon before I bought one, or four, or a dozen assault rifles. Still, there were plenty of opportunities to get around that minor inconvenience.  The first private seller I approached about buying a couple assault rifles asked me for my driver’s license to make sure I wasn’t an illegal immigrant and informed me I didn’t look like the typical AR-15 buyer. (Of course, I’m not; I had a notebook in my hand.) At the second private table, the seller assured me before I even asked anything at all that I could buy all nine of his semi-automatic weapons without any paperwork required, though he also would check my I.D. By then, though, a young man with an AR-15 for sale (he was moving out of state and needed the cash) had approached me: all I needed was the money.

I spent some time before I left talking to gun rights expert and author Alan Korwin, who explained that we have a choice between government control and freedom, and he wants freedom. He also said he doesn’t believe we need new laws to restrict illicit gun trade, just better enforcement.

Down the crowded aisle at another table, John Collins said he doesn’t think we should worry about what’s going on in Mexico, either, because that’s not our problem. Collins runs, which specializes in AR-15 and AK-47 accessories.

“I don’t think Arizona has any responsibility to keep guns out of Mexico, especially when their president is going to show up in Congress and criticize our country and laws,” Collins said, referring to Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s May speech to Congress in which he blasted Arizona’s SB1070 and the lapse of the federal assault weapons ban. “The violence in Mexico is Mexico’s problem,” Collins said.

But isn’t it the U.S. market for drugs that is perpetuating the violence? I asked. He surprised me by saying he supports the legalization and regulation of drugs. “The drug war doesn’t work,” he said. As far as that sentiment goes, I couldn’t agree more.

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