Frus­tra­tions at Va. gun show

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Visi­tors and mer­chants bris­tle over calls for firearms con­trol.

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

crave.

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.”

PHOTOS BY JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

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.

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