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.”
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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.
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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.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org