His father was a World War II veteran who joined the D-Day invasion and was fired upon by German snipers. The enemies' weapon? It was, he says, an MG-42 machine gun -- one of which Richardson now owns, and from which, when he aims and fires it, spent cartridges pop and drop in an agitated spray. "Being here," Richardson adds, "is like a history lesson."
Of the 24 guns he owns -- including three M-16s and two AK-47s -- Richardson brought nine to the show, toting them in a small trailer. Along with the MG-42, there's a Browning 30-caliber machine gun and a Taurus 45-caliber pistol. There's also a gun that, Richardson notes, "made your city [Chicago] famous": a Thompson sub-machine gun, nicknamed the Tommy gun, reputedly the gangster's best friend.
The guns are pretty, but the politics aren't. To walk around the machine-gun shoot is to thrash your way through an angry forest of strongly held opinions, channeled through T-shirts and bumper stickers: "I Got a Gun for My Wife -- Best Trade I Ever Made" and "`Vegetarian' Is Just an Old Indian Word for `Lousy Hunter' " and "If You Know How Many Guns You Have, You Don't Have Enough" and "If Guns Kill People, Then Spoons Made Rosie O'Donnell Fat."
Because of the incendiary politics on both sides, a gun show apparently can't ever simply be about the beauty of guns -- and they are beautiful, particularly the lovingly maintained arsenal of a serious collector such as Richardson. Few issues in American life are more complicated, contentious and polarizing than citizen possession of firearms; it makes the abortion debate seem like an afternoon tea.
Gun laws vary widely from state to state. In about half the states, in places such as Kentucky, Oregon and many Southern states -- but not in Illinois -- people with the proper permits and who operate under safe and controlled conditions can own and use automatic weapons, as long as those weapons weren't made or imported after 1986, a cutoff point mandated by federal law.
That makes vintage machine guns all the more valuable. A Tommy gun can set you back $30,000 to $40,000; some Browning and Maxim machine guns can garner more than $100,000. Getting permission to own a machine gun involves a two-to-four-month process, Richardson notes. "A lot of people have the misconception, through Hollywood movies and such, that you can walk into a store and buy a machine gun and walk out. But it requires paperwork, fingerprints, photographs, all this stuff. A complete check is done on you. I don't mind jumping through all the hoops to own these particulars guns -- as long as it's never taken away from me."