The Tulsa Arms Show is held twice a year and boasts more than 4,150 tables of guns—new, old and downright ancient—as well as shooting accessories, ammo, private firearms collections, wildlife and western art and even scrimshaw and decorative items. Laid end to end there is more than 6 miles of guns and exhibits. The show, to be held this year April 6-7 and again Nov. 9-10, has been around since 1955, and since 1968, the man behind its organization has been Tulsa resident and retired petroleum consultant Joe Wanenmacher, 78. The show brings in so much money and business to the local area, in 2009, the mayor of Tulsa made Feb. 5, Joe Wanenmacher Day—the honor made perhaps more impressive coming from a Democratic mayor who served on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns council. We caught up with Joe to get his thoughts on what it takes to build and run such an event and how it feels to have anti-gunner crosshairs placed squarely on gun shows around the country.
What first got you interested in firearms?
My dad was always a hunter and took me out at a young age and introduced me to firearms. Around Tulsa they had strip-mining pits, and as youngsters we would save up all of our bottles and jars and would put them in the water in bottom of these pits and shoot them. It was a great way to learn to shoot because you could see where your shots were hitting when you missed.
What was your first gun?
My first gun was a Mossberg .22. I liked it, but have seen a lot better guns since then.
Being around so many different firearms, do you have any favorites?
I’ve always been interested in guns. I would like to own them all, but I realized long ago that you can’t. I own a lot of different firearms, but my big interest now is in antique arms.
What is the coolest one you own?
The coolest gun I have is one maybe considered one of the first machine guns ever made. It was made in 1590. It’s a wheel lock; it has two wheel locks on it and shoots 16 shots. It shoots elliptical bullets that have a hole through them and works on a Roman Candle theory: You start the first one and it keeps on going until all of them are shot. That gun will soon be on display at the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va. It’s quite an honor to be asked to display it there.
How did you come to organize the Tulsa Arms Show?
The show started in 1955 as a club project for the Indian Territory Gun Collectors Association in Tulsa, Okla. I moved to the area in 1961 and joined the organization a couple years later. I was the world’s worst member. I never attended meetings, because I was more interested in shooting than meeting. When the secretary/treasurer left the group in 1968, since I was still among the newest and most gullible members, they elected me. That officer was in charge of organizing the show.
Was it as big then as it is now?
The first show I did we had 117 tables. Me and one other member were the only ones to show up and put them all out. After that, I decided this needed to be run more like a business. From 1955 to 1968, it never made it a profit, and it took me two years to turn it around and grow it into a 400-table show. Today, we more than 4,150 tables.
What makes this gun show so unique?
This isn’t just a local gun show. We have vendors and exhibitors from all across the country. It draws 83 percent of people outside Tulsa, and we’re now seeing third generation shooters coming to the show, which is really special.
Background checks at gun shows are a hot topic in the news today. What impact might background checks have on shows such as yours?
Right now, the laws are not being enforced to prevent purchases with the background checks that are in place. Any additional legislation will not prevent gun-related crimes. A universal background check on the surface sounds good, but there are many reasons why we should not have these checks. Most obvious is most people would not do it and it would make criminals out of many otherwise law-abiding citizens…it would ultimately lead to registration and that leads to confiscation. Every country that has started with registration has led to confiscation. Just look at Mexico where criminals have the guns, but very few regular citizens have them…Less firearms does not mean less crime, it means more crime.
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