Fear stokes gun show sales

| Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, 10:34 p.m.

Thousands of gun enthusiasts, collectors and hunters jammed a gun show at the Washington County Fairgrounds on Saturday in a wave of browsing and buying that some said reflected fears that tighter gun laws could be on the way.

“I think people are probably doing panic buying,” said Ryan Snodgrass of Jefferson Hills, who was selling handmade survival bracelets and dog collars as well as 30-round magazine clips at the show.

The Obama administration announced last week that it is considering limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines, pushing for universal background checks and banning military-type weapons.

Some political experts say the proposals, made largely in reaction to last month's massacre of 20 first-graders and six professional employees in a Connecticut elementary school, face an uphill battle in Congress.

“There is hoarding of semiautomatics like AR-15s and large ammunition clips. Most people buying these weapons in anticipation of possible gun restrictions are not thinking about hunting. They think we have a fascist government,” said Jack Levin, a criminologist and professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

The Washington County show was so crowded that many who attended had trouble walking through the four exhibition halls and even seeing what was on display. And vendors there and gun store owners at their shops said brisk sales at the show significantly slowed the Pennsylvania Instant Check System (PICS), which is run by the state police.

“The background checks are running slow because of the gun show in Washington County. Anytime the government says it's going to ban something, people want to buy more of it,” said Chelsea Pugh, whose family owns Island Firearms in Neville Township.

Demand for firearms has spiked in Pennsylvania in recent weeks.

The number of calls to the PICS unit on the day after the Dec. 14 shootings in Connecticut increased significantly compared with the Saturday of the previous week, said Maria Finn, a state police spokeswoman.

On Dec. 19, state police received 8,041 requests for background checks, just shy of the record of 9,003 calls set on Nov. 23.

Saturday's show, where photography and videotaping were prohibited, featured all kinds of merchandise, including modern weapons like the .223-caliber Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, which gun enthusiasts say is increasingly expensive. It was one of the guns Adam Lanza took to the Connecticut school to commit the shootings.

“I bought one four years ago for $800. They are all selling for more than $2,000 here. The prices they want for guns have really been jacked up,” said Jack Masters of Weirton, W.Va.

Masters and many others resent what he says is the unfair blame being given to gun owners for recent mass shootings.

“They are taking our guns again. This is not just about hunting. Most people believe that if the government turns on you, you will need guns,” he said.

Masters said he plans not to support West Virginia's Sen. Joe Manchin for re-election. Manchin, a Democrat who was re-elected in November, has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, but he said last month that it was time to “move beyond rhetoric” on gun control.

Many at the gun show were there to admire or buy some of the hundreds of antique guns and rifles with storied names like Smith & Wesson, Derringer and Winchester.

Randy Weis of Avella brought along his Winchester, made in the 1880s, to look for parts for it. Weis, who hunts and target shoots and says he enjoys being outdoors, says he resents the reputation of many gun owners as crazy.

“I've owned guns my whole life. I've never thought of killing someone, and I do not think the government will ever come to get me,” Weis said.

Yet, he said, there was some paranoia at the show.

“Some people, when the background-check computers had problems, said it was a government conspiracy,” Weis said.

In December, state police received a total of 142,812 calls requesting background checks, up from 86,830 in December 2011.

Last year, more than 16.8 million background checks for gun purchases in the United States were recorded in 2012, the highest number since the FBI started collecting the information in 1998.

Last month, for the first time since President Obama took office in 2009, more Americans favored firearms restrictions than the right to own guns, according to polling by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. Currently, 49 percent say it is more important to control gun ownership, while 42 percent say it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns.

Experts like Levin, the Northeastern professor, question how much the proposed firearm restrictions will accomplish.

“The majority of school shooters do not have a criminal background. They usually get their weapons from their parents,” he said.

And while mass shootings upset the public and devastate the communities where the occur, Levin says, they account for only a small part of gun violence each year.

“About 150 people, on average, die in mass killings each year. About 12,000 homicides occur with small-caliber handguns. We are ignoring the bigger issue of gun violence,” he said.

Rick Wills is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or rwills@tribweb.com.

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