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Staring Down the Barrel
+Geoff Ellwand  

Machine Guns, Magnums and more: my day at an Ohio gun show
By Geoff Ellwand
Updated March 15, 2004

"Do I have to fill out any forms?"

That's my question to the man trying to sell me a .45-calibre, semi-automatic Taurus, a handgun modeled on the popular Beretta.

"No" he replies. "We're just two civilians making a private deal."

That's the way things are in Ohio.

Here guns are considered personal property and their sale between two individuals requires no more paperwork than buying a book or an old chair at a garage sale.

He was asking between $500 and $550 US for the jet black semi-automatic and was willing to throw in a double shoulder holster and two clips of ammunition.

This man was just one of dozens at the Niles Area Gun Show on a weekend in late February looking for buyers for the assortment of rifles and handguns they were carrying.

Niles is a neat, clean Ohio city located about 100 kilometres southeast of Cleveland. Aside from playing host to one of the state's biggest gun shows, Niles is also the birthplace of William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States. It just happens McKinley was shot to death by a deranged assassin in 1901 while touring the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo.

This show, held at the Eastwood Expo Center near the intersection of several busy interstate highways, is typical of dozens of gun shows held across Ohio each year.

It featured table after table of guns, knives, ammunition, crossbows, helmets, gas masks and military camouflage outfits. One vendor was even hawking Nazi-themed t-shirts. Among the handguns on sale were everything from a small pearl handled "Ladies Gun" to a hefty .357 Magnum.

.357 magnum"If I shot you with this," the seller says as he waves the Magnum around, "It would take out this much bone." As he says this he stretches his thumb and forefinger about as far apart as they can go.

Then there were the rifles. Single shot .22s and beautifully made shotguns with inlaid stocks and engraved barrels. But beyond the handsome hunting rifles, were other weapons designed for just one purpose...to kill people.

A wide selection of AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifles were on hand, along with several sawed-off shotguns, a favourite of bank robbers, and at least one bazooka - the famous anti-tank weapon.

M60Then there were there fully operable machine guns, presumably for collectors, many of World War II vintage, but some much newer. One of the tables carried the handwritten sign "Buying Machine Guns".

Shows such as these are the result of some of the loosest gun laws of any state in the Union. Ohio, along with Florida, boasts a law that allows individuals to sell firearms with no questions asked.

The bulk of the products offered at the Niles show were being sold by established gun dealers. Even under Ohio's laws they are obligated to have customers fill out an information sheet confirming they are Ohio residents with no criminal past. A phone call confirms the would-be buyer's information.

But this doesn't cover the private vendors, such as the men offering the Taurus or the .357 Magnum. They can legally sell any weapon as long as they don't know the buyer came from out-of-state or had intent to commit an illegal act. Two questions that I was never asked in several negotiations with sellers.

One man offering a small .25 calibre handgun for the bargain price of $85 boasted that it was "real easy to put in your pocket."

There's a move afoot to toughen the state's gun laws, which have been blamed for the flow of illegal weapons smuggled onto streets in Toronto and other Canadian cities. This possibility enraged some of the people at the show.

"They want to take away my freedom" said an aging seller as I helped him carry some heavy guns to his car. He says he's been buying and selling guns for 50 years and claims to have never sold one to a criminal.

Back inside the show, I chatted with a woman selling Nazi-themed coffee mugs, posters and t-shirts. One shirt had a silver "SS" symbol on the front.

Though she does get some complaints "just like anything else" she says, she insisted her stuff is "just historic, sir, just historic".

Dancing soldierWith that I checked out the crossbows, the daggers and the swords and looked over a dancing toy in full battle dress. On the way out I said goodbye to the sheriff's deputy who was ensuring that any weapons brought into the show were not loaded. I went to an adjoining bar for a beer.

A sign on the door read, not entirely reassuringly "Sorry. No firearms allowed."

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