The morning fog hadn't burned off yet, so we couldn't quite see the end of the line behind us, but I'm guessing it was a quarter-mile long. Hundreds and hundreds of people, nearly every one of them white and male. T-shirts, some camo, blue jeans and ball caps with fishing hooks tucked across the bill.
It could have been the line to a church convention. Or baseball card show.
Except every so often, like out of some dystopian dream, someone would walk by carrying a semi-automatic slung over his shoulder. Or a box of ammo in each hand. Or a rifle, barrel pointed to the sky, leaned on like a walking stick.
"Lord have mercy. This is crazy," a man said, with his long gun resting in the crook of his arm, as he walked upon the long line. "This ought to be at the White House!"
Saturday morning, we waited an hour to get inside Dalton's Northwest Georgia Trade Center for the Eastman Gun Show. Saw a man with a cardboard sign hung across his neck, listing ammo he was selling. Passed by another, offering a brand new AR-15.
"Fourteen," he said. (Hundred.)
"The Second Amendment," one man's T-shirt read. "America's Original Homeland Security.''
Inside the convention center, guns. Tables and tables of guns. A scene to be found nowhere else on Earth.
On the periphery, like an afterthought, knives. Carving, hunting, pocket. Swords. Hand grenades, $8. Freeze-dried rations. Solar panels.
Mock gear for the zombie apocalypse. Bedside holsters, disproportionately displayed on the side of a tiny Ken and Barbie doll bed, which actually had a Ken and Barbie doll under the covers. The holster was almost as big as Ken (what would Freud have said?).
A haunting background soundtrack of turkey calls, combined with another unmistakable noise: the click-click-electric-click of a Taser.
"Somebody grabs you from behind, just whip this into his groin," said one woman, trying to sell a pink Taser to two other women. "He'll let go of you."
Yes. He most certainly will.
Boxes and boxes of ammo. And plenty of T-shirts.
"Winning the hearts and minds of our enemy," one shirt read. "2 in the heart and 1 in the mind." (Get it? Two gunshots to the heart. Another to the brain).
"Body piercing," read a T-shirt, with an image of a handgun below.
"Two things every American should know how to use," read another, with a picture of the Bible next to a handgun. "Neither of which are taught in schools."
I'd come with my friend, who I'll call T-bone. He needed to buy a clip for his 9 mm handgun and to sell two high-capacity magazines (one held 20 rounds; the other, 50). Got three offers within 15 minutes of getting there.
T-bone's argument: For the most part, gun shows bring out enthusiasts, collectors, honest folk.
"These people aren't going to go shoot anybody," he said.
There was an undercurrent of white Southern culture at the show, with its blend of independence and home-grown generosity. People who stop to help a stranger change a tire. Open the door for you at Walmart.
Part of the show was Americana: the shotguns, hunting rifles, and old flintlocks (one Colt from 1899 was selling for $7,000).
But there was another element, born of some chaotic vision of a modern America that's gotten people very afraid.
"I can't wait for you to be a zombie," read one T-shirt that T-bone saw. It bothered him.
"Why? So you can shoot me?" he said.
I walked up to a table. Looked down at the black, military-style AR-15.
"You're welcome to pick it up," the seller said.
It was heavy, like three or four lead pipes. Holding it -- a gun like this was used in the Connecticut school shootings -- had a godlike appeal. I was, for a moment, invincible. A totemic, intoxicating power.
I also hated it. The potential for such destruction, such violence, all right there.
I walked up to another table, which had a sign: "Sales only to Georgia residents."
"I have a Tennessee ID," I told him.
He mouthed, like a whisper, a response: "It don't matter."
Turns out, he's right.
If I'd had the cash (each gun was about $2,000), I could have bought a table of AR-15s and AK-47s. Legally, this "gun show loophole" allows people who claim to be private sellers with private collections (compared to those official gun sellers who have federal licenses) to sell to anybody.
"No paperwork," one seller told us, as we stood above the AR-15s.
To vote, I need a photo ID. To get my commercial driver's license, I had to take multiple tests. If I want cold medicine, I have to sign a form.
But Saturday I could buy an assault rifle, no questions asked?
We left. And the line of people was still long. The fog, however, had lifted.
But God, when will we see clearly about guns in America?
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...