This year, the 12th day of Christmas smells like cold, hard steel.
"There should be a table outside," explains Brody Culpepper over the phone. "If you join the NRA right there, you get free admission to the show."
Culpepper and Rusty Blazenhoff -- co-founders of Bigrig Industries, which creates both a lifestyle and a zine that is pro-gun, pro-alcohol (though, not together), and devoutly anti-kitchen appliance -- have agreed to take Night Crawler Christmas shopping at the Crossroads Gun Show.
They arrive in a 1975 International Harvester Travelall and offer me a change of clothes -- a pale blue, Bigrig-issue, button-down shirt emblazoned with three festive words: EAT, FUCK, and KILL. There is also an accompanying selection of name patches from which might be chosen a temporary identity: Vicki, Linda, Tracy, and the winning Rubas.
"Remember, we're nuts about guns," says Culpepper. "We're not gun nuts. There's a difference."
Once properly outfitted (my hosts wear government-issue U.S. Postal Service shirts), Blazenhoff points her rumbling truck toward the Cow Palace -- welcoming home of rodeos, midget bullfights, monster truck exhibitions, and gun shows -- just a mile shy of San Francisco's politically correct county line. The parking lot is already packed with pickups and American sedans by noon, but Blazenhoff finds a nice spot -- somewhere between the customized domain of "Sin City" and "Choppers" -- in which to nestle her "4BIGRIG" license plates.
"It just ain't Christmas without the gift of guns," quips Culpepper.
Blazenhoff nods, her ginger braids swinging in blithe concurrence. She's in the market for an International Harvester M1 Garand from World War II, to match her truck, and a customized holster for her handgun. Culpepper's looking for a Saiga Semiautomatic Shotgun.
At the door, several Daly City police officers stand joking with the show staff as they inspect people's weapons at the door. A sign hanging outside offers the only restrictions: No loaded guns beyond this point, and absolutely no cameras. For the most part, customers entering the building with firearms slung over their shoulders are savvy enough to have left their ammo in their cars, but the sight of even an unloaded camera causes a great amount of agitation.
"In 25 years, we've never allowed a single camera inside," explains promoter Ron Templeton. "We have a responsibility to protect the privacy of everyone involved."
"You get all kinds at gun shows," explains Culpepper, "survivalists, history nuts, conspiracy theorists, hunters, white supremacists, collectors ...."
Inside, the gun show is bustling as dealers try to make their final sales of the weekend: handguns, shotguns, rifles, ammo, swords, knives, hatchets, videos, books, books on tape, war "memorabilia," trip wires, concealment vests, medical and dental tools, lighters, bumper stickers, and the occasional inscrutable item -- Beanie Babies, Russian dolls, crystal wizards, incense. Culpepper is disappointed by the few empty tables in the hall, but Blazenhoff is surprised by the crowd -- an uncommonly proportionate mix of men and women.
"They must all be doing their Christmas shopping," says Blazenhoff. "Usually, it's a bit weird here if you're a woman. I think women make them a little nervous." Not today. Today, men and women walk together, swinging cases of newly purchased ammo between them, and children eagerly eye the weapons of their sugarplum dreams as their folks discuss the pros and cons of owning them.
"Isn't it heartwarming to hear the glee in the young kids' voices," points out Culpepper as a nearby woman states in exasperated tones, "If you put in an extended mag, you have to put in an extended mag release, too."
Culpepper chuckles and makes his way to the rear of the hall.
"Old guns have a macabre history all their own," he says, handling a Czechoslovakian VZ-52. "This type of rifle was used by Czech border guards to shoot their freedom-loving countrymen. It's sleek, and well-balanced, with a nice side-folding bayonet. You can pick it up for $140 without a background check, or a waiting period."
Because curio, or relic, rifles are not regulated like other weapons, a person can buy as many as he or she can carry, with little more than a driver's license for identification. According to Culpepper, who owns and shoots several of these rifles, most of these "outmoded" military models are still tremendously powerful and highly accurate. And for as little as $60, you can own a part of human history.
"The Russian Mosin-Nagant killed more Nazis than all the other Allied weapons combined. It can pick off a person at a quarter-mile away," says Culpepper, examining a rifle from 1941. "Sixty-nine dollars, and it's yours.
"The French MAS 49/56 was used until the '70s while France tried to hold on to its colonies in Indochina and Africa. It's fitted with a grenade launcher, a night sight, and a bayonet.
"An Italian Mannlicher-Carcano is the rifle that shot Kennedy, if you believe that version of the conspiracy."
Despite the extensive history lesson, only a Swedish-designed Egyptian Hakim catches Culpepper's eye, and he walks away buying just ammo for his 1916 British Enfeil. Blazenhoff buys flashcards from John "Lofty" Wiseman's SAS Urban Survival Handbook for her nephew (a Bigrig recommendation) and reloaded ammo for her Smith & Wesson .40 Caliber (in bulk). Last year she bought Culpepper a reloader for Christmas, but it's gone unused in their small Oakland flat. I leave with a bellyful of buffalo jerky.
"If you want to buy a handgun," says Blazenhoff, "you can get a handgun safety certificate. It's easier than getting a driver's license, and you can get it here."
(Sample question: Alcohol and drugs negatively affect a person's judgment, reflexes, and physical reactions when handling a gun. True or False?)
"The issue of guns is completely polarized," says Culpepper. "If you're liberal, you're supposed to be against guns. If you're a conservative, you're supposed to be for guns. It really throws a monkey wrench in the whole thing if you're an accepting, liberal guy with a closetful of semiautomatic rifles." Ho Ho Ho.
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By Silke Tudor