A group of about four or five men excitedly forms a huddle as one of them begins to pass around cigars in a celebratory fashion worthy only of some quality tobacco. But it is not the most common special occasion, such as a baby’s birth, that marks this moment. It’s not a wedding. It’s not a graduation. It’s not even a funeral.

No, it’s a gun show.

And for these men, just a handful of thousands who will wait anxiously in line to pass through the gates of the Ventura County Fairgrounds on a balmy Saturday afternoon in January, the experience is on par with a major life event.

For them, the exuberance elicited from this function is something a non-gun lover couldn’t ever possibly comprehend. Tables of vendors as far as the eye can see — in four separate convention halls, no less — are lined with every type of firearm imaginable: assault rifles, antique wartime revolvers, night vision scopes, ammunition, hunting equipment, military accessories and so on … enough (pun fully intended) to “make one’s day.”

Feat2So much so, in fact, that this abstract affinity toward guns — shared between vendor and visitor — permeates through the fairgrounds with a kinetic kind of energy. It’s mostly a love of history and Americana, for simpler times when justice was exacted and the frontiers were lined with people ready to arm each other without reservation.

“This is California, this is the Far West, and this is what we’re interested in,” Peter Sherayko, a vendor of cowboy and western memorabilia, proclaims proudly.

Sherayko’s informal motto, “Do what you love to do,” is the type of affirmation that resonates loud and clear with attendees of this event, just as much as the sound of the guns they love to fire.
But it’s become mostly a labor of love for these aficionados. Outside of the fairgrounds this particular weekend, guns are not exactly in favor among the largely liberal population of California. It’s been evidenced, in part, by the event’s move here from Los Angeles, where gun shows were recently stopped.

But even in conservative-minded Ventura County, a passion for all things gun powdered is still prone to being stigmatized, especially in an area defined by rampant gang activity, of shootings reported on a near-daily basis.

Gun lovers are now finding themselves defending more and more their coveted interest in self defense. Not all gun owners, they say, are criminals or violent people. Some even maintain that if increasingly tougher legislation restricts, or even bans, the legal ownership of firearms, crime will worsen.

A misfire of misunderstanding
Guns, states Lori McMann, are “getting a bad rap.”

McMann, the Arizona woman who has organized Ventura’s gun show for the past 18 years, bills her event as family-friendly. It’s not the sort of place where ne’er-do-wells or felons planning their next robbery or drive-by scout for supplies.

“Walking through here, you won’t find any gangbangers,” McMann says.

That’s because there’s nothing insidious to be had from the patrons here, according to Sherayko, most of whom are your typical hunters and sportsmen, interested mostly in chasing game and target practice.

“Coming to gun shows for 20 years, I can tell the difference between a good person and a bad person,” he says. “Probably 95, 99 percent of the people who come to these gun shows are good, honest people.”

So why the negative view on firearms? Sherayko believes it’s because the small remaining percentage of people — the weapon-crazed and criminal — form the reigning stereotype of all gun owners.

“The politically correct people go around profiling,” he says.

It’s the PC-friendly mindset that can’t separate the two, notes Ray DiGiglio.

DiGiglio is living proof that generalizations and black-and-white thinking are usually riddled with inaccuracies. One might never guess, on the surface, that the unassuming, mild-mannered dentist from Oxnard is also president of the 1,000-member Ojai Valley Gun Club.

For him, before passing poor judgment on the pro-gun community, it’s best to look first at a firearm as the inanimate object that it is.

“A gun is no different a tool than any other,” DiGiglio says. “It’s used to help protect some lives and to take them. I find it illogical to blame the instrument for the person.”

His club founded itself on a matter of upholding the right to bear arms — in this case, the Second Amendment — and one very basic primal instinct: survival.

“To say you can’t protect yourself with a firearm for self-defense goes against the basic laws of nature,” says DiGiglio. “We have the right to use firearms. Shoot, if that’s all that’s available.”

In California, obtaining a handgun is a rather thorough process. Prospective firearm customers must first submit an application and then endure a 10-day waiting period, during which time a background check is conducted to determine if they qualify to own a gun. One might be prohibited from owning a weapon, for example, if previously convicted of a felony or have a restraining order against them.

Despite the careful process, there’s still a negative perception about gun ownership that can get overblown, believes Kent Williams, a gunsmith and owner of Williams Shooter Service in Ventura.

“The thing is, because of Hollywood and the Old West, people think anytime you get guns you’ll have an OK Corral situation,” he said. “The truth is, most people buy guns for self-defense, especially in cities.”

According to Williams, 70 percent of his patrons buy a firearm for self-defense; and of those sales, 90 percent are handguns.

But those guns can be stolen and used in a crime, and it doesn’t do the pro-gun community any favors in the public’s eye.

“They’ll find guns from breaking into people’s homes,” says McMann.

A gun show visitor from Valencia named Luke, who declined to give his surname, agreed.

“Criminals are going to get the guns anyway,” he said. “If you want to get a gun, you can get one.”

Feat4The wrong finger pulling the trigger
“It’s not uncommon for us to encounter or recover firearms that were stolen, typically in burglaries or other thefts,” says Jason Benites, assistant chief of the Oxnard Police Department.

Oxnard police, he said, have conducted about 160 stolen gun traces annually since 2005. The number of firearms recovered far exceeds the number of searches, too. In 2006, 247 weapons were retrieved; in 2007, 234. Benites estimates that’s an average of about 18 to 20 guns a month.

And in Oxnard, those numbers should not be surprising. It’s not only the largest city in Ventura County — with a population hovering around 200,000 people — it’s also notorious for its gang violence. Gang-related shootings are prevalent in this town, where two legal injunctions, identifying known gang members, and restricting their movements, barely keeps a handle on the warring factions.

The guns retrieved via police traces don’t necessarily mean they’ve all been involved in gang activity, however. McMann’s theory is validated.

“It’s safe to say a nominal number of them were stolen,” Benites says. A large number of those firearms could have been pilfered, but there’s no way of immediately knowing. The thefts may have gone unreported.

“Someone may steal from a family member, and they’re not aware it (a gun) was taken,” he said.

According to Benites, about a year and a half ago Oxnard officials passed an ordinance mandating that anyone who loses a firearm must report it within 72 hours of discovering the weapon missing. The city followed suit after other municipalities in the county, like Port Hueneme and Simi Valley, enacted similar laws.

“By reporting it,” he said, “they’re helping law enforcement rule that person out that the weapon was stolen.”

Also, during last year, Oxnard police gained access to the state justice department’s Armed and Prohibited Persons System. It’s not dissimilar from a sex offenders list.

“It tells us about people in Oxnard who are no longer legally allowed to possess firearms,” Benites said.

However, those who legally own a firearm shouldn’t be excluded from the possibility of committing a violent act.

An analysis of female domestic homicides conducted by the Violence Policy Center revealed that a pattern of prior domestic violence in a household made a woman more than 14 times more likely to be a murder victim. Having one or more guns inside the home, it added, increased the homicide risk for women 7.2 times over.

“Weapons involvement in domestic violence is not always common,” Benites said, “but it does exist.”

Laura Gonzalez, a former probation officer and current director of the county’s Coalition to End Family Violence, confirms that point.

According to Gonzalez, in 2007 her organization received calls on 7,062 reported domestic disputes in Ventura County. Of those, 6,512 did not involve the use of any kind of weapon. That leaves 550 cases involving a deadly weapon, and of those, only six were firearms.

Still, it doesn’t diminish the lethality of a gun.

“It’s dangerous to have a weapon in the household,” Gonzalez said. “Guns can be a big factor in the heat of an argument. A lot of people utilize a firearm or display it for power and control. If they’re not properly licensed and trained, it’s potential to be used in an act of violence, especially in the home, where there’s terror already in exhibit.”

Feat3“A gun’s not forgiving”
Tim Heyne knows this too well.

VCReporter readers may remember the paper’s 2007 cover report of the Thousand Oaks resident’s miraculous recovery from an attempted murder, and his subsequent rise to the federal gun control arena.

“The thing about guns is, they usually kill you dead,” Heyne says. “God was riding on my shoulders.”

On Memorial Day of 2005, Heyne, his wife, and their neighbor were the victims of a shooting by a crazed acquaintance of the neighbor. Heyne was shot point blank, three times, in the chest, and survived. His wife, Jan, and Steve Mazin were not so lucky, and both were killed.

Since then, Heyne has become the president of the Ventura County chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and an active crusader of gun control and gun safety.

“When the gun goes into your hand, you’re God,” he said. “You have dominion over deciding life and death. Philosophically, I think people need to keep things in perspective.”

The shooter ended up taking his own life a few days later with his preferred weapon of choice. The pistol rang out with the loud bang of self-inflicted fatality.

“The thing about suicide by pills or knives or razor blades, some of those people find their way back to life,” Heyne said. “A gun’s not forgiving.”

But Heyne is forgiving and, not unlike the patrons of the Ventura gun show, intimates that some generalizations exist within the gun control camp, too. Being for tougher gun laws doesn’t necessarily make one a gun hater, just as being a gun enthusiast doesn’t make one a gun radical.

“When I go out and speak and talk to legislators or NRA (National Rifle Association) enthusiasts, you find extremes on the side of any issue,” Heyne explains. “The vast majority of the NRA are awesome people, people you want as your neighbors. But one faction of that organization is it’s incredibly insidious, as far as the lobby goes.”

Political paranoia
It could be the same faction spreading word that President Barack Obama will lead the crusade to eliminating all guns, everywhere.

“That’s actually a scam put out by the NRA to increase sales,” says Brian Leshon, chair of the communications committee for the Ventura County Democratic Party. “They spread this totally false information.”

Contrary to rumor, says Leshon, the president is not looking to erase the Second Amendment. Obama’s intent on reinstatement of the assault weapons ban, however, might be what put the scare into the pro-gun camp.

It could be the reason why Ventura’s most recent gun show saw an attendance boom.

“The gun shows have been attended heavily since the election because people feel Obama won’t let people own them anymore,” says organizer McMann.

According to gun purveyor Williams, the worry is understandable for gun owners.

“California already has the most stringent gun laws in the nation,” he said. “It’s just fear he’ll (Obama) accomplish it.”

Is a healthy attitude toward firearms a bit of an oxymoron? When it all comes down to it, not really; it’s not so much about legislation, but personal responsibility, according to Heyne.

“In the public, it doesn’t matter what people think of your ideology,” he says. “Sensible, responsible, anything makes sense to people. It’s like anywhere, if you come up with something that keeps people safe, there’s no opposition.”

He states, “As far as the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms, I support 100 percent the sensible, law-abiding gun owner.”

DiGiglio, president of the Ojai Gun Club, agrees.

“If everyone used (guns) for what we espouse, there’d be no crime,” he says. “It’s not the firearm; it’s the responsibility you take. If, as a society, we don’t realize that, we won’t solve the problem.”

DiGiglio offers up an analogy:

“It’s like trying to cut car accidents on the highway by cutting gas tanks to 10 gallons.”   

 paul@vcreporter.com