"They're probably in those vans over there, filming all this," says my host Jim, gesturing toward a small parking area. "There are a lot of feds here today."
The presence of ATF agents at the Lake County Sportsman's Show is apparent even to a novice like me. Jim hits the gun show every month with his 20-year-old son Marty. He's bored by today's offerings, so he's created a contest--who can spot the fed first? It's all speculation of course, but right now he's beating Marty by a score of five to one. He points out a couple of likely candidates, noting the buzz cuts, leather bomber jackets, and cowboy boots. "When the bank got robbed in McHenry, they ran a photo on the front page of the paper, and which guy do you think was from the FBI?" he asks. "The guy in cowboy boots!"
We're watching a steady stream of people flow between the four buildings that dot the otherwise deserted fairgrounds in Grayslake. The mostly white, male crowd tends toward facial hair and front-facing baseball caps with insignias for Jack Daniels, Harley-Davidson, the Dallas Cowboys, and Walt Disney. A few have guns, but most carry ammo boxes and gym bags containing other gun-related paraphernalia.
"I don't go to buy guns," Jim says. "I go for the circus. And the batteries, clothes, and flashlights. It's like a flea market for shit." Indeed, more than half the booths offer such items as dog food, candy bars, rock 'n' roll pins, antique swords, Mexican blankets, Civil War chess sets, Buddha statues, adult videos, GI Joes, tie-dye shirts, SS helmets, turquoise jewelry, and camping equipment. There was a glut of East German army surplus after the Berlin Wall collapsed. Nowadays the big growth products are pepper gas and stun guns.
"Look at all the geeks here," Jim says derisively, pointing to a family of four decked out in full camouflage.
There's every type of gun imaginable. Rifles, handguns, semiautomatics. If it's legal, it's for sale. But you're not supposed to be able to buy a gun and walk out with it. There's a mandatory three-day waiting period while the state does a background check. "It's a pretty good law," says Jim, a longtime NRA member. "You should be checked." But ATF agents still show up, he says, because of "straw" sales, in which nonfelons fill out forms for their friends who can't legally own firearms. "It's illegal, it's not right, and you see it all the time," says Jim, adding that many of the guns are "resold in Mexico for a lot of money." He says most of the dealers participating in straw sales don't have stores but "deal guns right out of their trunks. Some of those guys have no scruples."
Inside the main building, the crowd melds into a mass of flannel, olive drab, and hunter orange. At the cutlery booth specializing in fake Swiss Army knives, a short, middle-aged man in glasses and a Cubs hat looks at a pair of scissors. "I'm a surgeon," he tells the man behind the counter. "These are hard to find." The vendor says he also has hemostats and scalpels. Below a large folding table, a cardboard box of Doberman puppies attracts a crowd of young children.
Two women work the book concession, which occupies a large space in the middle of the building. Titles include How to Disappear, How to Get Anything on Anybody, Personal Privacy Through a New Identity, How to Talk Your Way Out of a Traffic Ticket, and Big Sister Is Watching You: Hillary Clinton and the White House Feminists Who Now Control America. Next door John Birch Society pamphlets share space with the Communist Manifesto and the New American magazine.
A couple in their 60s do brisk business selling turkey, teriyaki, and venison jerky. "The real problem here is not the guns," says Jim. "It's the people who eat the jerky. They're fat and sickly and are going to have health problems that we'll have to pay for the rest of our lives."
Several booths have Vietnam-era bumper stickers blasting Jane Fonda ("Vietnam Vets are not FONDA JANE") or making defiant proclamations ("Kill 'Em All, Let God Sort 'Em Out"). A placard beneath a Nazi flag warns interested parties that it's "Not for Sale." Across the aisle a woman in full cammo breast-feeds her baby behind a table displaying a Belgian assault rifle.
Near the exit a father and his young son gaze at a glass case full of military patches and war medals.
"Those are medals," says the father. "You've got to earn those."
"Or buy them at the gun show," replies the son, not missing a beat.