On April 18 and 19, I attended gun shows in Antioch, Calif., and Reno, Nev., to probe the culture of gun enthusiasts at the onset of the Barack Obama era.
I came away from these events with a portrait of a heavily armed, tightly organized movement incited by right-wing radio to a fever-pitched resentment of Obama and his allies in Congress.
Even as the economy suffers, gun dealers and their Washington lobbyists are leveraging renewed anti-government sentiment into unprecedented sales figures and fattened membership rolls.
"We've been swamped today," an NRA representative from Antioch boasted. "We've practically ran out of our materials that we give away at sign-up."
Fueled by the screeds of radio hosts Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, and the lesser-known, but increasingly influential, online conspiracist Alex Jones, many gun-show attendees I spoke to were convinced Obama planned to usher in a Marxist dictatorship.
They warned that the president's power grab would only begin with mass gun seizures. "If Obama takes away our guns," a young, .45-caliber-pistol-toting man from Reno told me, "it's just a step into trying to take away everything else."
Indeed, in their minds, average Americans opposed to the Obama agenda would be herded into FEMA-run concentration camps by a volunteer army of glassy-eyed liberal college graduates.
"When they start imprisoning Americans, and people start seeing that we're the enemy, then that'll make it hot," predicted one young man from Antioch sporting a button for former Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. "People talk about a revolution," the young man continued, "an armed revolution. I think police crackdowns on individuals will tip the scales."
More than a few gun dealers and attendees echoed the young man's seeming enthusiasm for armed revolt. One Contra Costa, Calif., gun dealer named Rich predicted, during an otherwise casual off-camera conversation, that "some nut" would assassinate Obama within one year of any Democratic attempt at gun-control legislation.
While the prospect of organized right-wing violence against the federal government seems far-fetched at this point, the paranoid rhetoric I documented suggests the militia movement that organized against President Bill Clinton's policies during the 1990s could experience a dramatic resurgence by mobilizing resentment against Obama.
If a new militia movement coalesces, its members will have no shortage of sophisticated assault weapons to choose from. At the gun show in Reno, I witnessed the sale of rocket-propelled grenade launchers and bazooka guns; I watched a California dealer demonstrate how rapidly he could field strip his .308-caliber sniper rifle, then stash it in a deliberately innocuous-looking backpack and a briefcase that "looks just like a camera case."
Nearby, I interviewed another dealer retailing a brand of .50-caliber assault rifle that was banned in California because it could supposedly down an airplane. He told me by slightly altering the bullets his gun fired, and by converting the gun from semiautomatic to bolt action, he was able to sell it in California once again.
(Weapons like these are useful to Mexican narco-cartels, too. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Phoenix field division claimed that "many gun shows attracted large numbers of gang members from Mexico and California. They often bought large quantities of assault weapons and smuggled them into Mexico or transported them to California.")
Though big guns were the main attraction, a handful of retailers in Reno appealed to some visitors' apparent enthusiasm for Nazi memorabilia. Swastika-emblazoned flags, photographs of Hitler and his henchmen, and anything related to the Third Reich were available at several booths.
There was obviously no way to gauge the percentage of show attendees who adhered to the racist fringe, but the prominence of so much Nazi regalia suggested they maintained a significant presence. In fact, I learned about the gun shows I attended from a Web site that features a prominent banner ad for the Council of Conservative Citizens, America's largest white-supremacist group.
On April 4, a neo-Nazi wannabe named Richard Poplawski killed three Pittsburgh police officers with a high-powered assault rifle. By all accounts, Poplawski was an avid follower of right-wing talkers, including Alex Jones and Glenn Beck, who "grew angry recently over fears Obama would outlaw guns."
In the wake of Poplawski's massacre, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning of the mounting threat of right-wing extremism.
"Heightened interest in legislation for tighter firearms control," the DHS asserted, "may be invigorating right-wing extremist activity, specifically the white-supremacist and militia movements."
With its focus on right-wing gun culture, the report compounded the already-palpable paranoia of gun-show enthusiasts. An organizer of the Antioch show told me the heightened specter of government scrutiny prompted numerous dealers to demand a total ban on cameras inside the show.
Even with the restriction in place at both shows I attended, I managed to record enough footage to provide what I think is a vivid journalistic report on gun culture mentality during the first 100 days of the Obama era.
Was the DHS report on right-wing extremism credible? See my video report, "Gun Show Nation," and judge for yourself.