Guntopia: Opinions from SHOT Show

By Robert Young Pelton

LAS VEGAS – Heavyset middle-aged men holding plastic bags loaded down with brochures crowd around the monitors at the trade show watching a silent CNN broadcast. They didn’t need sound to figure out what was going on: It was Jan. 16 and, standing on a stage flanked by schoolchildren, President Barack Obama was proposing a ban on assault-style weapons, tighter background checks and a number of other new gun control measures in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting.

The response in the crowd here to Obama’s proposals for preventing another school massacre was a mix of derision, anger, and a general sense of “here we go again.” As one man standing next to me commented ironically, “I am glad the criminals and crazies will all turn in their guns now.”

I was at the annual Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade (SHOT) show being held at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. (As an owner of DPx Gear, a maker of high-end knives, I visit SHOT Show every year to see the latest models. The show is put on by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a group of 8,000 industry members — unlike the much larger NRA, which boasts over 4 million members.  NSSF is made up of gun industry members who know the business and mechanics of guns intimately. Unlike other gun shows, their web site says SHOT is geared toward: “shooting, hunting and outdoor trade professionals and commercial buyers and sellers of military, law enforcement and tactical products and services ONLY.”

You are likely to find few people who would support any erosion of the Second Amendment.  The Bill of Rights is clear in preventing the government from infringing on the right of Americans to own and bear arms. The purpose was simple. To prevent a government from becoming tyrannical and allowing Americans to form militias to defend themselves from what the British imposed on the colonialists. Gun crimes have always been dealt with but gun ownership and the right to “bear arms” has always suffered a slow erosion.  The gun industry has constantly dealt with the double standard of being a strategic industry for defense and law enforcement but constantly under attack by lawyers and legislators.  The SHOT show is ground zero for the gun culture and the gun industry.

The show has doubled in attendance over the last decade and this year over 60,000 attendees and exhibitors are packed into 630,000 square feet of space. The event is an ocean of young and middle-aged men with a smattering of women, many with backgrounds in law enforcement and the military, and a large number focused on making and selling the very guns Obama is trying to ban. Perhaps the President might consider strolling the aisles of SHOT to get some feedback.

It would not be overstatement to say that the convention floor at the Venetian this week is probably the most dangerous place on Earth for President Obama. Civilian gun ownership is at an all-time high as is the demand for black guns. Southwick Associates estimates that the commercial long gun market (which also includes shotguns and hunting rifles) is around $1.3 billion and the commercial ammunition market is $1.2 billion.  In the period between 2007 and 2011 the overall long gun market grew 3% but the black gun or, assault segment, grew 27%. There are an estimated 1.5 million assault rifles with the domestic market size estimated by Smith & Wesson at $489 million.  From an industry standpoint it is clear that the technology and demand have crossed from military design into the sport and hunting market.

Is the latest push to ban black guns, aka modern sporting rifles aka assault weapons, reflective of public opinion?  Gallup poll results show that banning assault guns and semi automatic weapons only rates fourth on the list of possible solutions with putting guns into the hands of school officials right behind.  Despite the popular image of gun owners being rednecks, cowboys or tattooed Marines, the attendees at SHOT are a mix of the spit cup and Starbucks demographics.

The massive Sands convention center is a gathering of the epicenter of the gun culture. SHOT Show features hunting and tactical weapon manufacturers side by side. The décor is acres of guns, knives, anything camouflage, fake campsites and giant posters of bearded men dragging carcasses through majestic scenery. Well-fed couples with matching camo outfits dodge mobility scooters while with lean side-burned SEALs try to look like civilian in jeans, “Molan Labe” t-shirts  and crushed ballcaps.  The booths are staffed with happy salesmen eager to explain the benefits of their wares.

The general consensus among my fellow SHOT attendees was that “Democrats” or “the politicians” are leveraging the murders at Sandy Hook and other schools as a hot-button political issue.

The perspective discussed endlessly in the halls and bars of the Venetian is that a crazy kid used legally registered guns to kill. What does that have to do with law-abiding gun owners? At the industry dinner on Wednesday, NSSF President Steve Sanetti described the attendees and all of America as being on the “better side of angels opposing evil.” The idea that owners or even manufacturers of guns would not support the reduction of violence seemed ludicrous. It just seemed that many of the solutions proposed showed an embarrassing lack of knowledge about existing laws, criminals and weapons.

Although hunting and recreation is a major part of the show, the biggest irony is that the big dollars are made selling tactical gear not to confused kids bent on revenge but to the U.S. government.

John R. Silver II, who I met at his booth, is a former Navy SEAL and account manager for Darley Defense, a 106-year old company that supplies everything from $800 bolt cutters to $20,000 army tents to military, municipal and federal customers.

He thinks those in the business of selling weapons and military equipment will be fine, even with impending defense cuts.  “Yes the [SEAL] teams are scaling back but JSOC gets all the toys they want,” he says, referring to the military’s elite Joint Special Operations Command. “We sell to the FBI, CIA, all the government agencies and foreign customers.  As long as it’s ITAR  (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) compliant, we make the sale.”If Venezuala wants night vision and the federal government says it’s OK we will sell it.” The point being that they are following government regulations.

He believes Obama’s latest anti-gun push will have little impact on the gun industry. “The largest supplier of military equipment is ADS. They did $1.3 billion last year, and they’re down to around $900 million this year. It’s not a cliff, just a bump.” As for the restrictions on gun ownership, he sees it as a boon for criminals.  “Look at the Castle law in Texas where you can smoke someone for breaking into your car or home. You don’t see a lot of crime.” Echoing a popular SHOT show refrain, he remarks, “Look at Chicago,” where the murder rate has risen despite restrictive gun laws.

To get a sense of the consumer sides, I stopped in at wholesaler Moteng’s booth. They are “North America’s largest shooting, outdoor and tactical distributor.”  “Tactical is growing. It is popular culture that has the market growing,” says sales representative Keith Shelton. “Our market is dealers who sell to enthusiasts.  Our secondary is law enforcement and military. The first market is trumping the second.” He credits movies like Act of Valor and Zero Dark Thirty for pushing the “tactical” gear-and-gun look into the public imagination.

He also thanks the government for increased sales. “The government is inadvertently stoking the demand for tactical weapons,” says Shelton.  A law enforcement officer who overhead our conversation chimed in: “I’m from North Carolina, and we are always going to carry guns. We (the police) need trained and armed citizens or we are screwed.”

The SHOT crowd may not be the single most biased place to poll opinions about assault weapons, but anyone who has ever asked, “why would anyone ever need an assault weapon?” should spend some time talking to the folks here. Many of the SHOT Show attendees deal with school shootings, homicides, terrorists, killers and all types of violence in their law enforcement and military jobs.  They have a very clear view of the exact specifics of the Sandy Hook shootings, knowledge of the weapons involved and the legalities. The Bushmaster AR 15 rifle, Glock 10mm and Sig Sauer 9mm pistols and what appears to be a shotgun found in the truck used in the Sandy Hook shooting were all high-end guns used by both civilians, law enforcement and the military. They were legally registered and none were fully automatic or violated existing gun ownership laws in Newtown, Connecticut, which is, coincidently, also the headquarters of the SHOT show organizers, NSSF.  Adam Lanza stole legally registered and stored weapons and murdered children until he killed himself. The key factor, as the attendees see it, was not the type or caliber of the guns he used but how they were stored.

The NSSF referred media to their short press release and responded to Obama’s speech by proposing that there be: immediate improvements to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) that will bring all appropriate mental health and other records, such as restraining orders, into the NICS system and according to the release: “an expanded safety campaign to promote the secure and responsible storage of all firearms and ammunition when not in use. We believe the personal responsibility of gun owners, especially if there are children or at-risk individuals in the home, is central to any meaningful discussion of the issues.” There are many states where the purchase or transfer of a rifle is not registered and the term “modern sporting rifle” deliberately blurs the term “assault weapon” used by opponents.

It took some doing but I did manage to find one anti-assault rifle proponent at the show. A maker of watches based in San Francisco said he would not proffer his opinion at the show, but he believed that assault weapons were intended for use on the battlefield and should not be in the hands of civilians. A mirror image of Obama’s position. Neither had fired a weapon on the battlefield though.

Most of the attention following Sandy Hook has focused on the Bushmaster AR 15, a semi automatic version of the fully automatic M 16 and shorter M4. The AR 15 is made by a number of manufacturers based on a long expired patent by Eugene Stoner. The idea was based on a well known “varmint round” essentially a .22 with a lot of powder, that would also make the caliber lighter so a soldier could carry a lighter weapon with more rounds. To the experienced  gun expert the ominous looking black gun with accessory rails, lighter stock and high powered 5.56 round is simply a more efficient rifle design. It is the use of full auto and need for large capacity magazines, some as large as 100 that defines the military application. Why exactly should a semi automatic (no full auto) weapon be in civilian hands? Why shouldn’t it be? Is the answer here going back to the Second Amendment as a rationale.  In the days following the shooting, Cerberus Capital Management, the private equity firm that had bought the company in 2006, quickly unloaded it to avoid the bad publicity. Cerberus had wisely seen the growth in merging underperforming “Homeland Defense” companies and creating a larger conglomerate.  The Freedom Group (a collection of gun brands that include Bushmaster, Remington and Para) have seen shrinking domestic sales, but growing international numbers.

To get the gun company’s perspective, I walked over to the Bushmaster booth to talk to the two salesmen dressed in black shirts. As soon as I mentioned that I would like their opinion on the record they became visibly agitated, squirmed uncomfortably and directed me to the Remington booth where Teddy Novin, their much in demand PR person was supposed to be. He was not to be found and no one had his contact information. I went to the Colt booth (another major manufacturer of assault weapons and for a long time the largest business in the state of Connecticut) and the nice ladies at the counter nervously directed me to the SHOT show organizer and said, “We don’t really speak on public policy issues.” Even the ever-present Ted Nugent who is not shy about his opinion of President Obama or guns moved uncharacteristically quietly and quickly through the crowd.

At the Glock booth I followed a long line of brochure-laden attendees to find R. Lee Ermy, or “the Gunny,” at the end, happily signing autographs.  Gunny, a former marine who has acted in films like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now, is a paid spokesperson for Glock and a prominent advocate for gun ownership. He is outspoken both personally and in his role as spokesman.

According to Ed Fitzgerald, a spokesman for Glock, Ermy signs about 800 autographs a day at the show.  Although a Glock was one of the guns used in the Connecticut school shooting, he sees the current political debate as just another event that the industry will address. “A pro-active industry will react and adjust. We have seen this before,” said Fitzgerald, as Ermy posed for photos. In the background, their new commercial showing an attractive young woman gunning down a home invader showed off their latest wares.

The reality is that guns and the gun business are booming. In late November, according to the NSSF, the FBI reported a record number of requests for background checks. A new single-day record for point-of-sale background checks was established on Black Friday, Nov. 23, when 154,873 were conducted by the FBI. NRA membership is up 250,000 members just last month. A quick check of sporting goods store “Big 5” confirms that ammunition for assault rifles has sold out shortly after President threatened to bring in more gun legislation.

The reality is that none of Obama’s suggested actions, had they been in place before Sandy Hook, would have prevented the shootings. It is unlikely that any disturbed individual, whether they hijack aircraft using a box cutter or park vans full of fertilizer and diesel in front of government buildings, will be dissuaded by any legislation on guns.

On the other extreme, the NRA concept of armed guards in schools is out of line with the experience of first responders who say that training to create an organized evacuation of schools is the most effective deterrent to reducing casualties in a shooting.

But outside of the polarized positions from the floor of a gun trade show or inside the beltway, what is the long-term future of guns and schools outside of the gun industry and anti-gun advocates? For that we should turn to the next generation.

According to a new 2012 American University poll of 4,266 young people, 32 percent of high schoolers and 43 percent of college students plan on having a gun in their home. If “maybe” is the threshold, the numbers of future gun owners increase to 60 percent of high schoolers and 60 percent of college students. That’s a stunning endorsement for gun ownership by the next generation who is most affected by school shootings.

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