Frustrations at Va. gun show
Pop! At the Nation’s Gun Show in Chantilly, Va., on Saturday, in a cavernous warehouse filled with thousands of customers and tens of thousands of guns, the sharp sound snaps a few heads.
“We’re going to have to have a discussion about those balloon animals,” Annette Elliott, the show’s organizer, said wearily.
Forgive Elliott — and everyone — if nerves are frayed in this era of weekly mass shootings. She, too, has become familiar with the ritual of gun violence in America, but hers comes with a personal twist. Another week. Another massacre. Another round of calls from reporters asking what can be done and who is to blame for the country’s deadly gun culture. After the latest rampage, which ended with 10 dead, including the shooter, at Umpqua Community College on Thursday in Roseburg, Ore., she is hearing the questions again.
“We’re being put out there like it’s our fault,” Elliott says. “But what we’re selling is an inanimate object. And I don’t know what the response is except to arm yourself to protect yourself.” As gun opponents ratchet up the calls for more controls and more regulations, gun owners and sellers have no choice but to push back, she says. The fault, she says, lies with a mental health system that doesn’t have enough resources and with the media which, she says, gives mass killers all the attention
The frustration with the media is a theme sounded by many of the visitors and merchants at the show.
“These nuts do this seeking publicity. And the media promotes it,” says Jerry Cochran, 60, of Cedar Bluff, Va., who owns Trader Jerry’s, one of the largest gun sellers at the event. “This is a coward who never did anything, and now look, his name is everywhere.”
The Nation’s Gun Show is held seven weekends a year at the Dulles Expo Center. More than 12,000 people will pay $13 each this weekend to scour aisles and aisles of approximately 100,000 guns being sold by 270 exhibitors.
It is a sea of weaponry with almost every imaginable handheld instrument of destruction on display: machine guns, rifles, shotguns, pistols, semi-automatics, stun guns, knives, machetes, bayonets, switchblades. Even a few hatchets.
The crowd is mostly men, but there are also families, babies in strollers, grandparents. The number of women coming to the nearly 5,000 gun shows held each year around the country has grown by about 20 percent since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to Elliott, who says her company, Show masters Gun Shows, is the second-largest gun-show organizer in the nation.
Guns and ammo aren’t the only items proffered. Holsters for concealed carry weapons are everywhere. Camouflage clothing, too. Gasmasks. Confederate battle flag belt buckles, towels, clocks, pillows, bandannas. A sign at a table selling body armor urges buyers to act soon: “Body Armor will soon be banned! Federal ban on body armor.”
T-shirts for sale cater to the crowd, mixing pro-gun messages with patriotic imagery: “Don’t tread on me”; “ProGod Pro Life Pro Gun”; “I’m a shooter, not a fighter”; “Gun Chick.” Some T-shirt messages are wordier. One reads, “An unarmed man can only flee from evil and evil is not overcome by fleeing from it.” That’s a shirtful.
Almost all of the visitors interviewed at the gun show Saturday said that gun policies are not responsible for mass shootings and efforts to further restrict access to guns will only hurt responsible gun owners.
“Taking guns away from people is no solution,” says Cathy Boarman, 60, of Southern Maryland. Boarman describes herself as a country girl who grew up in a gun family. The problem, she says, is mental health, not guns.
“You never know when someone is going to flip,” she says. “I’m sorry for all the people who got hurt. But are you going to take all the cars off the road because people get killed in car crashes?”
A young man walks past carrying an AR-15 pistol and an AR-15 rifle slung over his shoulders. He’s wear they ing a T-shirt with “No Hope” emblazoned on the front, lyrics from a song by the band Defeater.
“Banning guns is the wrong approach,” says Dylan, 22, of Round Hill, Va., who declined to give his last name because of privacy issues. “They should be asking why we have such a violence problem in America, not a gun problem. We just have a more violent culture. It’s sad and tragic, but there’s no way to prevent it.”
Chris Cherry, 36, of Upper Marlboro, Md., brought his mother, Janace Ferguson, to the gun show. Ferguson, 62, also of Upper Marlboro, said she is thinking about buying her first gun because she wants to feel safer when she is home alone.
“I don’t think I could kill anyone, but maybe just scare them,” she says. Her son doesn’t see any solution that would end the threat of mass shootings.
“If you take away guns, you’re not giving responsible owners a way to defend themselves,” he says. “And you can’t give everyone a gun because then it would be like the wild, wild West.”
The worst move the government could make would be to try to eliminate guns altogether, he says.
“If there is a total gun ban, that would start a civil war in the United States,” Cherry said.
After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn., where 26 children and school staffers were killed in December 2012, President Obama and Democrats tried to introduce gun-control measures. The threat of making it harder to legally buy guns bumped up sales in 2013 as customers moved to purchase guns and ammunition before any restrictions were put in place. That spurred gun buying and background checks for sales in 2013 that hit 21,093,273 — a record, according to an FBI report.
As someone who has heard the arguments against guns for years, Elliott knows that battle lines have been drawn, and she, too, sees little hope for a compromise that would please both sides. For her, the disagreements are fundamental.
“I don’t think President Obama and the anti-gun activists are speaking out for political reasons,” she says. “I hope they’re not. I think they actually believe that access to firearms will reduce crimes. But the truth is that it is greater access to firearms that has reduced crimes. And that isn’t going to change.”
Terry Eyler peruses some of the thousands of handguns offered by hundreds of vendors at the Nation’s Gun Show in Chantilly, Va.
Among the many firearm-related items for sale at the Dulles Expo Center: body armor.