Gun Rush

— For the first time since the mas­sacre in Con­necti­c­ut, the Na­tion­al Guard Ar­mory hosts a gun show, and it at­tracts the masses.

An AR-15 magazine-fed, semi-auto­mat­ic rifle at the Phil­adelphia Gun Show on Sat­urday, Janu­ary 26, 2013. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

 The doors wer­en’t sup­posed to open un­til 9 a.m., but hun­dreds of men, some wo­men and even a few chil­dren stood in the sub-freez­ing, snowy and slushy park­ing lot of North­east Phil­adelphia’s Na­tion­al Guard Ar­mory wait­ing for the Gun Show to be­gin.

Men ages 20 to 70 and bey­ond dom­in­ated Sat­urday’s early bird crowd. A large por­tion of these fire­arms en­thu­si­asts and con­sumers bundled up in cam­ou­flaged hunt­ing gear, Car­hartt-style cov­er­alls, hood­ies and work boots. Some wore mil­it­ary lo­gos on their jack­ets, while oth­ers had the Amer­ic­an flag or “NRA” em­blazoned across their caps.

Mere weeks after the hor­rif­ic ele­ment­ary school mas­sacre in New­town, Conn., and with lead­ing gun con­trol ad­voc­ates such as Pres­id­ent Obama and May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter tak­ing the of­fens­ive in pub­lic and polit­ic­al dis­course on the sub­ject, anti-gun demon­strat­ors were nowhere to be found out­side or in­side the ven­ue.

In any case, they prob­ably would’ve been out­numbered.

“With Amer­ic­ans, if you tell them [they] may not be able to get something, they want it five times as bad,” said John Lamplugh, the show’s pro­moter.

Lamplugh makes a liv­ing or­gan­iz­ing “Gun and Knife Shows” across much of Pennsylvania and Mary­land through his Carl­isle-based com­pany Ap­palachi­an Pro­mo­tions. Last week­end’s event was the first of six planned for the Na­tion­al Guard Ar­mory in 2013. The shows were sched­uled pri­or to the Dec. 14 shoot­ing.

Since New­town, however, at­tend­ance at his shows else­where has ba­sic­ally tripled, Lamplugh said. In keep­ing with that trend, between 8,000 and 9,000 folks paid $7 apiece last week­end to at­tend the two all-day ses­sions, which sold out all 400 vendor tables.

“This is a small show for me,” Lamplugh said. “I have one with two thou­sand tables and the line was four miles long.”

• • •

In­side the Ar­mory, a smor­gas­bord of 2nd Amend­ment-friendly sights, sounds and re­partee greeted pat­rons.

“They’re buy­ing rifles like hot­cakes,” said one man who had traveled from Mary­land with his adult son and a couple of friends. He de­clined to re­veal his name for pub­lic­a­tion.

Prices were a lot high­er than usu­al, too.

“I saw things go­ing for three to four hun­dred [dol­lars] a few years ago that now are go­ing for 1,400. It’s crazy,” the man said. “I’ll nev­er pay that [much]. I think it’s a tem­por­ary thing.”

Nine­teenth-cen­tury Winchester rifles, in­clud­ing one priced at $14,000, lined the very first table, along with a glass case of an­tique re­volvers. Nearby, a vendor offered gun sleeves, hol­sters and Rambo-style util­ity belts.

Across the lobby, an­oth­er vendor peddled a bunch of mil­it­ary sur­plus gear and mem­or­ab­il­ia, in­clud­ing some vin­tage Nazi caps, storm-troop­er hel­mets, swastika-bear­ing arm­bands and flags. A book deal­er sold volumes cov­er­ing non-fic­tion top­ics like gun-clean­ing, re­load­ing tech­niques, for­aging for food and 1001 Street Fight­ing Secrets.

In­side the main ex­hib­i­tion hall, a few oth­er deal­ers sold more Nazi gear, along with non-leth­al mer­chand­ise ran­ging from beef jerky to nov­elty T-shirts spe­cial­iz­ing in dark, if not taste­less, hu­mor

One shirt de­pic­ted a life­guard-style cross with the words “Wa­ter­board­ing In­struct­or.” An­oth­er shirt fea­tured the “Hello Kitty” mo­tif, handed her an as­sault rifle and re­named her “Kalash­nikitty” in a nod to Mikhail Kalash­nikov, the in­vent­or of the AK-47.

• • •

The ac­tu­al fire­arms on of­fer ran the gamut from BB-loaded air rifles and palm-sized pis­tols to state-of-the-art hand­guns, thick-barreled shot­guns and mil­it­ary-style rifles, in­clud­ing vari­ations of the AR-15 sim­il­ar to the one linked to the New­town school gun­man.

Pat­rons shuffled through jam-packed aisles as oth­ers lingered and leaned in to in­spect coveted items. Most vendors em­ployed an “ask first” policy, but en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally al­lowed would-be cus­tom­ers to handle and ma­nip­u­late the weapons, cre­at­ing a din of clicks and clat­ters that eas­ily drowned out the quiet con­ver­sa­tion.

At many tables, gun pur­chasers waited out “in­stant” back­ground checks re­quired by law for all hand­gun sales, as well as all rifle and shot­gun sales in­volving fed­er­ally li­censed deal­ers.

Un­like some states, there is no “gun show loop­hole” in Pennsylvania, whereby buy­ers can avoid the crim­in­al and men­tal-health back­ground checks. The rules at a gun show are the same as the rules at brick-and-mor­tar re­tail­ers. Both Lamplugh and one of the state’s lead­ing gun-con­trol ad­vocacy groups, Cease­FirePA, agree on that.

Last Wed­nes­day, Cease­Fire or­ches­trated a demon­stra­tion in Har­ris­burg to call for stricter gun con­trol meas­ures. About 300 people took part — in con­trast to about 150 pro-gun counter demon­strat­ors — ac­cord­ing to pub­lished news re­ports.

The Ar­mory saw noth­ing of the sort.

• • •

One lead­ing Philly gun con­trol group, Chest­nut Hill-based Heed­ing God’s Call, mainly demon­strates out­side gun shops to de­mand that the re­tail­ers sub­mit to a 10-point “vol­un­tary code” aimed at un­der­min­ing so-called “straw pur­chasers.”

A straw pur­chaser is someone who buys a gun leg­ally only to sell the weapon for profit on the black mar­ket.

“We pray. We sing. We stand with signs. We en­cour­age people who drive by to honk their horns in sup­port,” said Bry­an Miller, the in­ter­faith group’s lead­er.

Miller’s group doesn’t gen­er­ally go to gun shows, however.

Cease­FirePA is fo­cused on in­flu­en­cing law­makers in Har­ris­burg and on Cap­it­ol Hill and not on shut­ting down people like Lamplugh, ac­cord­ing to ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or Shira Good­man. Cease­Fire seeks four spe­cif­ic pro­vi­sions in its “com­mon sense” agenda.

In Pennsylvania, it wants law­makers to close the “private seller” loop­hole through which an in­di­vidu­al can trans­fer a rifle or shot­gun to an­oth­er in­di­vidu­al without a back­ground check. It also wants the state to re­quire gun own­ers to re­port all lost or stolen guns to po­lice, a law that could hinder straw pur­chasers and black mar­ket gun sales.

Fur­ther, Cease­Fire is push­ing for “the con­ver­sa­tion to be­gin” on ban­ning “as­sault-type” weapons al­to­geth­er, or those “not needed for per­son­al pro­tec­tion or hunt­ing,” Good­man said. Oth­er gun con­trol pro­ponents have called for lim­its on the size of am­muni­tion cart­ridges or magazines avail­able to ci­vil­ians.

Fi­nally, Cease­Fire wants a le­gis­lat­ive or ad­min­is­trat­ive rem­edy to the so-called “Flor­ida loop­hole,” by which Pennsylvania hon­ors con­cealed-carry hand­gun per­mits is­sued by oth­er states which may be less-re­strict­ive in their per­mit re­quire­ments, Good­man said.

At the gun show, opin­ions var­ied on wheth­er Cease­Fire and sim­il­ar gun-con­trol wish lists have enough polit­ic­al sup­port to be­come real­ity.

In 1994, for ex­ample, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment passed an as­sault weapons ban, but a dif­fer­ent Con­gress al­lowed the ban to lapse a dec­ade later. 

Gun en­thu­si­asts aren’t tak­ing any chances. They’re buy­ing up all the guns and am­muni­tion they can. As a res­ult, fire­arms are in short sup­ply across the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to Lamplugh, who re­cently at­ten­ded the na­tion’s largest deal­er-ori­ented trade show in Las Ve­gas. Rising prices re­flect the de­mand.

“Everything’s tripled,” the pro­moter said. “The ammo is ri­dicu­lous. It’s be­cause [deal­ers] can’t get any right now. And of course the as­sault weapons [cost more], any­thing that has a mil­it­ary ap­pear­ance.

“I was talk­ing to a friend and he said to me, ‘This isn’t about buy­ing what you want, it’s about get­ting what they have.’” ••

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or

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