Guns, Rods, Hotdogs and Big Ballistics

The Elks Lodge. Sunday. Church hours. Blah blue sky. Parking lot full of pickup trucks.

I park, then, following a guy with a saucer- sized belt-buckle, walk past a truck spray- painted camo with a bumper sticker that says “Every citizen should be a soldier,” and another that reads “People Kill People. Stop Blaming Guns!” find the entrance, pay my six bucks, go in.

First stop: the Elks Lodge Bar, where two elderly male patrons are bantering with
the bartender. The two big TVs are both tuned to an infomercial for Dr. Ho’s Back Decompression Belt. It seems like a pretty sweet scene. I ask the Gentlemen Drinkers
if the bar is open to the public. One tells me that if it were, it would likely be infiltrated by “scallywags.” I don’t know what a “scallywag” is, though I gather it means something like “whippersnapper.” To be honest, I also don’t know what “whippersnapper” means. Anyways, just to be sure, I look “scallywag” up on on my phone. The first definition roughly matches my guess: “1. Informal: scamp; rascal.” But I wouldn’t have guessed the second: “2. (after the US Civil War) a White Southerner who supported the Republican Party and its policy of Black emancipation. Scallywags were viewed as traitors by their fellow Southerners.” Interesting.

Most of the Chico Rod & Gun Show takes place in a large hall, under a gigantic, incongruous disco ball. There aren’t really any rods, but there are a lot of guns. A lot of guns.

The crowd is—how shall I say this?—very… History Channel. There’s a cacophony of gun- talk occasionally punctuated by the crackle of a stun gun; a sound you can feel in your bones. It smells like skin ointment, metal alloys, hot dogs, Avon perfume, Stetson for Men, talcum powder, a culture in decline.

I pass a booth where a dad and his young son are shopping for an AR-15 assault rifle; come to another where an elderly couple are selling jewelry and knives—along with glass pipes and vaporizers. I ask about the pipes/ vaporizers. “You don’t ever say marijuana, you don’t ever say that, see,” the woman explains, her voice as sweet as a Werther’s Original. “As long as you say tobacco, it’s fine.”

I talk to various gun vendors. They’re uniformly friendly, generous, obliging. It strikes me that, in all actuality, this gun thing is mostly just a (obscure, boring-sounding- to-me) hobby. The people here basically have guns for the Big Scary Break-In That’s Never Going to Happen and for target shooting and fetishizing and deer-murdering. Who cares?

I come to a booth with bumper stickers. The seller—who has a long beard the color of freshly fallen snow and looks like he’d be an obvious choice to play Santa during the Holiday Season—has a selection that includes the Confederate Flag, and one that reads “Taking Out the Trash” along with a scope crosshairs image.

Adjacent, a dude in full army getup is selling gnarly-looking assault weapons with laser scopes, bulletproof vests, gas masks and wolf masks (just, like, wolf masks—like you’d find at a Halloween store. Don’t ask me, man). There’s a zombie head with a severed finger in its mouth on his table.

It does seem pretty weird that in America one can’t legally purchase a hot tub that goes over 104 degrees, but one can buy assault weapons, bullet proof vests, and wolf masks all at one table. It’s almost as if our regulations had more to do with which special interests had powerful, well-funded lobbying groups, rather than what is actually sensible.

There are a few outdoor booths, too. At one, a kindly woman is selling these little devices that help AR-15 users quickly switch between magazines. The devices, she explains, are basically loopholes to California gun laws that prohibit assault weapons from being reloaded at the touch of a button. The laws were designed so that the number of kids slain during our recurring kid-killing rampages wouldn’t be too excessive. The devices attach by magnet, so they aren’t technically an illegal modification.

The only other things the very nice woman has for sale are “NoBama” shirts and anti-Harry Reid shirts. The anti-Harry Reid shirts say, “Charge him [Harry Reid] grazing fees!” a reference to the whole Cliven Bundy thing. I ask her if sales have gone down on those shirts since Bundy mused on the plight of the “negroes,” and pontificated on whether “they are better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life…” rather than living on welfare. She tells me that, actually, they’ve gone up. Then she tells me that her own personal politics is a pragmatic desire for our politicians to come together to get things done for the American People. She’s against divisive politics, she says.

Back inside I talk to a guy in an NRA hat who sells stun guns. He says if I sign a waiver, he’ll shock me. But he warns me that it generally causes people to shit themselves. It happened to him the one time he allowed himself to be shocked, he tells me. And it happened the one time a burly gun show patron signed a waiver, convinced he could handle the shock.

The coolest dude I meet at the Gun Show is former Bay Area resident and current Chico local, Anthony Arroyo, inventor and owner of Drop Dead Targets ( Anthony, an affable father of five, sells these zombie targets filled with fake blood that explode when you shoot them. He makes them out of polymer plastic molds using his home oven and a vacuum cleaner. Anthony prepares the blood right on his stove top out of cornstarch, water and food coloring. Then his wife spray paints on the faces.

I mention to Anthony that if he were to make his targets despised political figures instead of zombies, he’d probably make a killing.

“I know exactly who you’re talking about,” Anthony responds, though, actually, I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular. “I get at least two requests to make one of him every single day when I work these shows,” he says. Anthony tells me he’s gotten at least six requests this weekend at the Chico Rod & Gun Show for an Obama target stuffed with exploding blood packets. He says that the pressure and demand has been so great that he even mocked one up before deciding he just wouldn’t feel right making a target of the President with a head full of exploding blood.

After we banter a bit about his business, our conversation turns to gun control. I mention Sandy Hook.

“That was horrible,” Anthony says. “But you don’t take something away from everybody just because somebody abuses it.” Anthony presents an analogy. “It’s like Chico Halloween,” Anthony says. “One group of assholes burns couches and now Halloween sucks for everybody.”

I struggle to make sense out of the analogy. I’m pretty sure it’s burning couches = shooting kindergarteners, and Halloween sucking = Gun Control.

Though Anthony’s analogy may be a bit inelegant/not media savvy, I get his point. Our society must struggle between our libertarian instincts for personal freedoms and the instinct to provide minimum protections to its citizens. Call me crazy, but we could start by finding where the majority of us agree, rather than digging in and calling the opposing side a bunch of morons. Like I said, call me crazy.

Most of us believe in controls over private ownership of weapons. It’s just a matter of extent. Almost no one thinks that private citizens should be able to own bazookas or F-14 fighter jets with missiles. That’s just too much capacity for violence for any one person to control. But cars can also be very effective for running people over and we would never dream of banning them, because they are so useful for other purposes. Much like abortion and immigration, Gun Control is a fraught and tricky American puzzle of competing values that’s a lot more difficult than either ideological side cares to admit.

I buy a couple zombie targets from Anthony as gifts for a gun-loving friend’s birthday. Then, Zombies in hand, I walk back out into the sunshine—and back out into the present day.

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About Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff

View all posts by Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff
Former busboy, sauerkraut-mixer, and Japanese hair model, Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff is a writer and father of two, living in Chico. After quitting a job as an Erin Brockovich-like legal investigator, then hitting rock bottom in a scene that involved roommates, tears, nudity and police officers, the UC Berkeley graduate decided to go for broke (and he’s accomplished his goal!) in the exciting world of small town weekly newspaper writing.


  1. David Zink says:

    Great writing, man. A real sense of American Carnival.

    1. emiliano says:

      Thanks David Zink, I really appreciate that. Next week: the actual American Carnival 🙂