Sat. Dec 9th, 2023

Gun enthusiasts, Republican supporters, teenagers: You meet all kinds of people at the Nation's Gun Show in Virginia. Foray into a typically American event.

An afternoon at the gun show

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Bill, a salesman at Trader Jerry's kiosk, poses in front of AR-15 rifles. He himself claims to own a few.

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Everywhere, weapons. It’s the first thing you notice when entering the building where dozens of tables are lined up. Handguns, retro pistols, but also semi-automatic weapons. Other sellers offer knives, sabers or different types of ammunition.

Hundreds of shoppers flock to the Dulles Expo Center in northern Virginia on this sunny Saturday afternoon. The Nation's Gun Show, held Friday through Sunday seven times a year, is one of the largest on the U.S. East Coast.

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The Dulles Expo Center is home to the Nation's Gun Show.

Inside, customers bargain and grab the weapons that interest them to better tame them. The noise emitted by Taser-type electric guns echoes everywhere.

Support for the Republican Party, and more particularly for Donald Trump, is omnipresent. A kiosk is dedicated to the sale of merchandise bearing his image. Other sellers, a little further away, have proudly hung on their table a target on which appears the face of the president, Joe Biden.

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An exhibitor sells targets on which the face of President Joe Biden appears.

Greg, for his part, found what he was looking for: he left with an AK-47 assault rifle, a Serbian model, he tells us. With tax it cost me $1200. We’re a bit on the high end for an AK, he notes, before adding that he already owns a few rifles. It’s a passion, then? A passion and a fundamental right, he answers.

He brought with him his daughter and her boyfriend, two teenagers. I bought my first rifle today, says Tim, the young man, proudly. It’s just a small .22 caliber pistol. My parents raised me to instill in me that in this country, you might need a gun.

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Some merchants sell clothing rather than weapons. On the right, a sweater displays the flag of the Confederate States during the Civil War. This flag is controversial: many Americans associate it with racism and slavery.

The table under the Trader Jerry is one of the longest at the fair and showcases hundreds of rifles. He’s the most popular exhibitor, a neighboring seller told us.

Behind the counter at Trader Jerry, Bill serves customers enthusiastically. We sell good things, he declares. High quality. He assures that his team can sell around 500 weapons in a weekend.

At 77, the energetic retiree devotes a good part of his his time with guns: I have about 50 guns. But they are well secured.

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An AR-15 rifle is on sale for Black Friday.

Bill adds that he owns more than one AR-15 model rifle. These weapons are known to have been used by the perpetrators of several of the deadliest shootings in the United States, such as those in Las Vegas in 2017 and at elementary schools in Newtown and Uvalde in 2012 and 2023.

The thing we don't do well in the United States is keeping these guns out of the wrong hands, Bill says indignantly at the part of the table where the AR-15 rifles are lined up. These weapons are not going to come alive on their own and kill people. They are just a tool. The weapon is the person. He believes in investing more resources in mental health and dealing with irresponsible people.

He shows us the form that buyers must fill out to certify their right to carry a weapon. As soon as it is completed, the form is scanned and transmitted to the FBI, which verifies the client's file in a few minutes. If they are in good standing and are a Virginia resident, they can leave with the rifle, Bill explains. He adds that every weekend, people who are not allowed to buy a gun get caught and leave here in handcuffs.

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Some exhibitors sell swords and medieval-type items.

At first reluctant to talk about politics, he finally admits leaning towards the Republicans. I think the Republican Party is more oriented toward freedom and against government control than the Democratic Party is.

Afternoon completes. Alan Hinchliffe and his colleague Dave wait behind the counter, ready to serve the last customers. We specialize in competition pistols. It’s a niche market, Alan concedes.

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Alan Hinchliffe and his colleague Dave are ready to serve customers.

A little further on, Bernie points to his weapons. I specialize in historical rifles and I have a license to sell machine guns, he explains. He sold one the day before; there are two left on its display. Upon learning that we are from Canada, the Virginia resident takes on a distressed face: In Canada, your weapons were confiscated.

It's time to close up shop for the night: the merchants cover their weapons with large sheets. The last customers head out. Two teenagers trot a few steps behind their grandmother. She is holding two boxes containing brand new AR-15 rifles under her arm.

The little family leaves the center and disappears into the night that begins to cover the parking lot.

More than 4000

Number of gun shows that take place in the United States each year, according to the Giffords Law Center (New window). Depending on the sources, this number varies between 2000 and 5000.


Number of mass shootings that have occurred in the United States since the start of the year (Gun Violence Archive, as of November 20, 2023).

1 in 20 people

Proportion of Americans who own a gun AR-15 type, according to an Ipsos-Washington Post survey (New window) released in March 2023.

Violette Cantin is the recipient of the Experiencing Journalism Abroad grant from the Fondation de l'UQAM.

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