When I was 13 years old, I bought a rocket launcher from the Great Western Gun Show in Pomona, Calif. The man behind the table looked at me, took my money, and handed it over to me with a smile. No questions, no wait.
What a terrible thing it is for an adolescent child to go to a gun show and buy a weapon that serves no hunting purpose whatsoever. You know what else? My father stood by and watched the whole transaction. He even pitched in a few dollars to help pay for it.
Just one thing, though. The launcher had no rocket. As a matter of fact, it had no firing mechanism. It was a harmless piece of military memorabilia nothing more than an olive-drab, fiberglass-lined tube with a pop-up sight and a rubber-covered trigger that clicked when you pushed it hard.
That rocket launcher has been on my mind a lot lately. I thought about it the other day as I listened to Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky talk up his bill to kick the Great Western Show off of the Fairplex fairgrounds.
"If you want to buy an Uzi, this is where you go," Yaroslavsky said. "If you want to buy an AK-47, this is where you go."
The board passed Yaroslavsky's bill to ban gun and ammo sales from county property 3-2. Among the "findings" in the preamble of the ordinance is an alarming list of illegal weapons state police seized from the Great Western Show in April, including "flame-throwers and an illegal rocket launcher with projectile."
Wow. A real rocket launcher? Honest-to-goodness flame-throwers? That was the impression everyone got from State Attorney General Bill Lockyer in May when he told reporters about the big bust. He made a grand display of the booty his agents reportedly seized there.
"It's a serious problem," Lockyer told reporters. "There were assault weapons, conversion kits, rocket launchers, flame throwers.... I don't know what hunter needs a flame thrower."
TV news reports made a big deal of the flame throwers.
"The only reason my agents weren't able to identify more illegal gun trafficking is because we ran out of time and money," Lockyer said. The Great Western Show runs three days. About 20 undercover agents with $4,000 among them were there for part of Saturday and Sunday. The haul? A grand total of two banned assault weapons and some machinegun parts. Four men were arrested and charged with breaking state gun laws.
But what about those flame throwers? And what about that rocket launcher? Harmless memorabilia, just like the tube I bought when I was 13 years old.
According to Nathan Barankin, Lockyer's press spokesman, the rocket launcher's projectile was a dummy. But he said the man who sold the device told undercover agents he knew how to make it work.
As for the flame-throwers, the man who owned them was charged only with selling a machine-gun part. The flame-throwers actually weren't seized at the show, but from the man's home. Barankin did not know if they actually threw flames, but apparently they looked nasty enough.
Lockyer's comments about flame-throwers were intended to give a "general" idea of what was offered for sale at the show, Barankin says. But the truth is, out of more than 5,000 vendors not all of whom are gun dealers the best the state could do is make four arrests.
Not the state's fault, we're told. There are so many lawbreakers, the police don't know where to begin. "We cannot adequately police these shows," Yaroslavsky said last week.
But the first thing a person sees when he walks through the gate of the Pomona Fairplex is a uniformed Los Angeles Sheriff's Deputy. In fact, uniformed officers and undercover police are all over the fairgrounds.
If lawbreaking is as rampant as we are told, then somebody isn't doing his job. Most of the time, gun show purchases are done by the book. Some are not. In those cases, the authorities need to do their job. Maybe they can do more.
Fact is, state law right now requires a licensed firearms dealer to process all firearms sales. Anyone who purchases a firearm anywhere in California be it a gun store or a gun show is required to undergo a background check and wait 10 days before picking up the firearm.
But by enshrining this "rocket-launcher" myth in the popular imagination and in the law, Lockyer and Yaroslavsky have played on the public's fear and perpetrated a fraud. Politicians nationally have made an issue of gun shows as part of their ongoing effort to enact a far-reaching control agenda. But if the gun-control cause is so right, then let it be founded on facts not fear, distortion and misinformation.