At Topeka Gun & Knife Show, cruel ironies fester amid aisles of weapons

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Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Tim Bascom directs the Kansas Book Festival and is the author of two memoirs, two collections of essays, and a novel.

Rain is falling, but 50 to 60 cars are lined up in the parking lot. A family of five are leaving as I dash to the entrance, where the doors have standard signs showing a red circle around a crossed-out handgun. Ironic, I think, as I pay $12 to enter the Topeka Gun & Knife Show.

On the Traders Creek website that advertises this show, the publicist declares: “Please note that all federal, state and local firearm ordinances and laws must be obeyed to avoid having more common sense gun laws shoved down our throats.” The words “common sense” have no quotation marks to suggest sarcasm, which leaves me wondering if the author is genuinely tired of laws that are common sense.

But nuance is not the point here, where I am greeted by a pointed handgun on a poster that warns “We don’t dial 911.”

The cavernous space is two-thirds full of guns, ammo, and shooting accessories, along with an occasional knife display. The first table features 15 AR-15s, which are semi-automatic rifles with barrels encased in mesh handguards, necessary because the shooter might get burnt by the quickly heated barrel as it spits out constant bullets. Then comes a table of hunting rifles with wooden stocks and mounted scopes. An intense-looking father in a tight, brown, military T-shirt is handling one of these while his 10-year-old waits—a crew-cut boy in a similar shirt. Kids, apparently, can enter this show for only $4.

To each side of me there are more tables with more AR-15s or banana-shaped bullet magazines that carry 30 rounds apiece, on sale at $55 for five. There are gallon-size bags of .40-gauge bullet casings—$40 per 1000. There’s also the Durkin Tactical Superstore, where you can buy all the components to build your own tactical rifle: barrels and grips and trigger housings,.

A junior-high boy walks by in a light-blue shirt and flip-flops. He is carrying a hunting rifle tall as himself, and it has a sold tag. His buddy, the same age, pulls him over to a stand where they can compare Colt, Smith and Wesson, and Ruger handguns. Then they join two older teens who have stopped at another stand. Bigger brothers, it would seem, who are carrying a fully assembled AR-15 with its own sold tag.

By the way, a radiologist who had to diagnose the wound images of 14 high school students killed in Parkland, Florida, by a teen with an AR-15 wrote, “A typical AR-15 bullet leaves the barrel traveling almost three times faster than, and imparting more than three times the energy of, a typical 9mm bullet from a handgun.” She reported that “One of the trauma surgeons opened a young victim in the operating room, and found only shreds of the organ that had been hit by a bullet from an AR-15. … Nothing was left to repair — and utterly, devastatingly, nothing could be done.”

Crossing the hall, I pass posters with sayings such as “I’d rather have a gun in my hand than a cop on the phone” or “Ban idiots not guns.” One booth is full of signs for Kansas attorney general candidate Kris Kobach, saying “Sue Joe Biden.” I even come across flame throwers, complete with the warning: “Read Manual First.”

Crossing the hall, I pass posters with sayings such as “I’d rather have a gun in my hand than a cop on the phone” or “Ban idiots not guns.”

A dealer spots me lingering in front of his array of handguns. He walks over, wearing a shirt that says, “I love it when my wife tells me to buy more guns.”

He asks if there is something I am looking for.

“I’m a novice. Don’t know a thing.”

“Ever shot a gun?”

“Just a .22 as a kid.”

“Well, I always say keep it simple if you’re starting out.”

He lifts an old-school revolver of the sort I’ve seen in dozens of vintage detective movies.

“This, now, doesn’t require much maintenance, and it’s easy to aim. Granted, it carries only 6 bullets. The chambers rotate, making it want to turn a bit. But if you are looking to protect your home, almost all encounters happen at 10 feet or less. Studies show it’s over within two or three bullets.”

I stare at the pistol then pick it up, feeling the heft of the barrel pulling my hand down. It costs $375 instead of the $750 required for a more modern-looking Glock.

“Feels kind of heavy.”

“Yeah, that’s the way they’re made. The weight helps with recoil, though.”

He points to another handgun. “That one’s got more composites, if you prefer lighter.”

I notice that his hat has a curled rattlesnake pictured with the saying “Don’t tread on me.” He seems like a nice guy — glad to explain something elementary — but the hat suggests another side that could be testier, especially if he knew how I actually feel about his arsenal. I am relieved when his wife steps up and asks him to help with another customer. I slip away, walking back toward the poster display, where I notice an antique photo of four Apaches with rifles — a ghostly daguerreotype of long-gone warriors. I read the sardonic slogan: “Turn in your weapons … The government will take care of you.”

This time the sarcasm is obvious, but I wonder about the subtext. Am I to assume we are all Apaches now, at risk of extermination by our government?

Nearby, a seated dealer is staring at his phone, wearing a blue T-shirt that reads “Law Enforcement Authorized Dealer,” and I am struck by a related contradiction. Isn’t all law enforcement inherently tied to lawmakers — those same people who aren’t to be trusted since they may take our guns or regulate how we use them?

The four teenage boys are still wandering the aisles with their purchased rifles, wanting to see more of what is possible in this wonderland. Tripods for accuracy. Targets with silhouetted bodies. Dual-drum magazines.

I step out of the show instead, past a cheerful blonde with a U.S. flag and a poster that says, “Register to vote.” Next to her, a uniformed police officer is posted, and I recognize her. She often provides security at our church, which makes me think of a time — not that long ago — when none of us worried about shooters storming into worship services with semi-automatic weapons that fire up to 60 bullets a minute, exploding organs. How strange to see her here now, providing security for gun buyers in a center named for a hospital.

At the exit, I once again pass the small square signs that show crossed-out handguns, and I realize that the last time I was here, a dozen hard-working nurses were receiving the crowd, keeping the COVID-19 vaccine syringes going, making sure we were all safer and less likely to die.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.



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