Gun show buyers, sellers say they’re left out of gun control debate

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Eagle Arms Weapons Show at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, at Oaks, PA on March 24, 2018. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Since the February mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, discussions have focused on toughening gun laws.

But at the recent Eagle Arms Gun Show in Oaks, Pennsylvania, many gun owners said they feel their voices are being ignored.

Patrick McCarthy walked through the crowd of the Eagle Arms Gun show smiling and shaking hands. He greeted each patron and vendor like a long-lost cousin.

“We actually think of ourselves as the gun show family,” said McCarthy. “I mean it’s it’s a multi-racial family of people that come together here. We have black, white, Asian, gays, everything under the sun that comes to the gun show.”

As floor manager that day, he walked more than 10 miles back and forth through the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, and he showed no sign of slowing down. Despite all the recent shootings and the negative attention guns have gotten in the media, McCarthy said, gun show business is good.

“We have a good time,” he said. “I mean, if the rest of the country could get along as good as we all do here, I think it would be a wonderful place to live. What we have to eliminate is the extremes on both sides and get together and have a normal conversation.”

McCarthy, a collector himself, is decidedly pro-gun, but he does not advocate gun ownership for everyone. He said the folks at the Eagle Arms Gun Show do their part. Every licensed vendor who attended show was required to do a federal background check, and he said he encourages private sellers to do the same thing.

But he acknowledged their limitations.

gun show
Eagle Arms Weapons Show at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, at Oaks, PA on March 24, 2018. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Driving home a point

“Obviously, background checks isn’t the answer,” said Dave Holmes. “If I recall the man that shot the people in Los Angeles, those guns were bought legally and possessed legally, but he killed many many people.”

Holmes, one of about 350 vendors at the gun show, said he understands the frustration over gun violence — but he doesn’t think more laws will help.

“The last I heard, it was illegal to shoot people, to kill people. So, if you want to make more laws you need to remember they’re made for law abiding people. Those that are going to use a gun to harm someone else don’t care about laws,” he said.

gun show
Eagle Arms Weapons Show at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, at Oaks, PA on March 24, 2018. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Holmes, who said he empathizes with people calling for change, noted that the national conversation doesn’t stay on gun laws for long after the latest mass shooting. And while people want legislatures to do something, he said calling for a ban on assault-style weapons can be difficult when lawmakers don’t understand what they are actually talking about.

“Well, what’s an assault rifle? I mean you tell me what an assault rifle is because there are AR-15s and AK-47s, semi-automatic rifles here that people use to target shoot and just to own,” said Holmes.

Asked about a civilian’s need for high-velocity semi-automatic rifles, Holmes responded with a car analogy.

“Somebody says, ‘You don’t really need that rifle, do you?’ No, I don’t. I don’t need any of these, but do you need a Mercedes Benz when a Ford will work fine?” he said.

Some families embrace tradition, others disagree

The expo center parking lot was full and so was the hall that day. Police officers stood at the front door checking firearms, making sure they were not loaded or able to be fired. Vendors had their wares neatly spread out on tables, one lined up after the other.

A handful of individuals who paid admission were there to sell firearms of their own. They walked the expo center floor with long rifles bristling from their backpacks. Little Post-it notes saying, “Buy Me!,” stuck out of the  barrels.

But these were not the big scary guns you may associate with mass shootings. They appeared to be antiques, historic artifacts of a different time.

gun show
Eagle Arms Weapons Show at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, at Oaks, PA on March 24, 2018. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Josh Love grew up around guns. For him, the gun show was a family affair and a learning opportunity for his children.

“I want my kids to be educated on how things are and the way things work, what the things are so they know how to handle them safely,” said Love.

His wife, Kristy, grew up in an anti-gun household. She thinks more children should be exposed to guns to learn the proper respect for them.

“Teach them,” she urged. “Teach the kids what a gun is. You know? They don’t have to break one down, but show them. Show them, and educate them, so that they when they see one lying somewhere, don’t go over and think its a Nerf gun. They understand the difference.”

McCarthy, the floor manager, said he understands plenty of people do not share his affinity for firearms. His wife is one of them. He just doesn’t think either side of the gun control debate is doing much listening.

“That’s what America is all about, is voicing your opinion,” said McCarthy. “Whether you like it or not, that is your right, to voice your opinion. And I’m totally for it. You can voice your opinion but you also have to listen to the other side.”

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