Some swaggered in with rifles across their shoulders and six-shooters strapped to their hips. Others came to indulge their fantasies--parading as paratroopers, gunfighters and soldiers of fortune. Still others just wanted to browse among booths filled with guns, bullets and hunting knives.
But most of all, many of the several thousand people who packed the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona on Saturday for the Great Western Show came to celebrate their love of weapons and the right to own them.
As they looked over stalls offering everything from ammo boxes to National Rifle Assn. memberships, they voiced concerns that the media and the government have unfairly portrayed gun enthusiasts as fringe elements in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing.
"If you talk to the people out here, you'll see they are not psycho-Nazi, anti-Commie platoon sergeants," said Paul Yoder, 27, a musician from Monterey Park who strode into the event with a semi-automatic rifle over his arm and a .45-caliber pistol on his leg. "They are normal down-home Americans cut from the cloth."
Yoder and others said they do not condone paramilitary groups and militias that preach violence. And they angrily denounced those who masterminded the recent bombing in Oklahoma City, which left 121 people dead, including 15 children, and stunned the nation. More than 60 are believed missing.
"Those guys should be taken out and shot," said one member of the Gun Owners Action Committee, a grass roots group that supports anti-gun control candidates.
Bruce Hornberger, an engineer who attended the show to buy some grips for a pistol, tried to explain the mind-set of those who join militias.
"They're more reactionary than most people." he said. "They're afraid (of government intrusion.) Take away that fear and they will return to their jobs."
Many said they were carrying their weapons to show support for their constitutional guarantee to bear arms.
Government attempts at gun control, they said, have amounted to a full-scale assault on the very freedoms upon which this country was founded.
"The (government) talks about crime control, but it appears to be people control," said one woman who was selling gas masks, water purifiers and other survival equipment. "I'm basically a pacifist at heart, but the 2nd Amendment says the right to bear and keep arms shall not be infringed."
Many who were carrying weapons said their motives are misunderstood.
Carl Hinners, a 35-year-old mechanical engineer, described his fellow gun owners this way: "We have decent jobs. We have some money to buy guns and ammo. It's a perfectly safe and legitimate hobby if used with common sense.
"I grew up on a farm and guns were a tool," Hinners added. "You had hammers, you had shovels and you had guns."
Yoder, the musician from Monterey Park, said he had taken an interest in weapons and the military as a youngster because most of the men in his family had served in the armed forces. Yoder has never served in the military but he does subscribe to Soldier of Fortune magazine, he said, because it offers "a fresh insight on journalism."
"Their correspondents are actually ex-military people and they go right into the thick of (action). It's based on truth and what really happens."
Yoder said he owns six guns and goes target shooting in the mountains near Los Angeles about four times a year. He said the Bushmaster Commando semiautomatic rifle he brought to the Great Western show is the same model used by Navy Seals. Yoder recently added a flare launcher to the rifle but he has never had the occasion to use it.
"This isn't very practical for your home defense," Yoder said of the rifle. "If the government comes after me some day, I guess we'll be on even turf."
Some who turned out Saturday came to pursue passions other than guns. History buffs took advantage of the day to dress in uniforms they had painstakingly re-created from past wars and to share a little nostalgia for eras gone by.
Michael Pavluk wore one of the 10 World War II British military uniforms he has collected over the years. The 25-year-old Pacific Palisades man chose his wool paratrooper uniform--complete with beret, black leather lace-up boots and an arm patch that reads "Parachute Regiment."
"It's wool and it's itchy," Pavluk said of the heavy, brown uniform. "But you just have to get used to it."
Phil Gallanders of Lomita came dressed in a gray jacket and light-blue pants--the garb of the Confederacy. For the day, he was a Civil War infantryman. Gallanders is a member of the Ft. Tejon Historical Assn., which re-creates scenes from the Civil War about once a month at the fort, near Bakersfield.
"We try to get as authentic as possible," said Gallanders, 45. "We don't put lice in our hair or get dysentery, but we do sleep on the ground."
For others, the show was all business. Dealers by the dozens offered to sell all sorts of weapons--from Russian-made rifles to crossbows to hunting knives. But vendors said business was slow.