Just days before President Obama took executive action to close the "gun show loophole," an estimated 20,000 Virginians attended The Nation's Gun Show at the Dulles Expo Center, just across the Loudoun County line in Chantilly.
Attendees and organizers were already preparing for a fight. Annette Elliot , who manned the information desk for Showmasters Gun Shows, took direct aim at the governor and the president as enemies of gun-rights advocates, but also credited the leaders for a surge of interest in the Chantilly show.
"There are three reasons why people are waiting in line to get into our show," Elliott explained. "One is ISIS. Two is McAuliffe. And three is Obama.
"See, that's CNN over there," she said, pointing to a camera crew at the bustling registration desk. The crew was waiting for permission to film inside the Expo Center, which was lined with 1,300 tables or 1.5 miles of guns and accessories, she said.
On Thursday, President Obama takes to CNN for a one-hour live town hall on gun control at George Mason University in Fairfax. The event's timing coincides with the fifth anniversary of the shooting of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords , D-Arizona, in a rampage that left six dead and 13 others wounded.
On Tuesday, the president announced new executive actions intended to reduce the number of mass shootings, suicides and killings that have become routine in the nation's communities. He is seeking to expand background checks for buyers and compel individuals "in the business of selling firearms" to register as licensed gun dealers, effectively narrowing the so-called "gun show loophole," which exempts most small sellers from keeping formal sales records.
As tears streamed down his face, the President condemned the repeated spasms of gun violence across America. Obama has repeatedly expressed his frustration with Congress' inability to pass new gun laws, and has frequently spoken out about increased gun control in the wake of mass shootings such as Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and 6 adult staff members in December 2012, and in Roanoke where a reporter and cameraman were shot and killed filming a TV interview in August.
|Yoachim Russ, with TSOFEH of Annapolis, Maryland, displays his patented optical devices that work on rifles or cameras. Times-Mirror/Rick Wasser|
On Capitol Hill and throughout Virginia, Republican lawmakers joined the National Rifle Association in challenging Obama's executive actions.
Gun control advocates and White House officials say one focus is the so-called "gun show loophole," which allows certain sellers of guns -- at gun shows such as the one in Chantilly and elsewhere in Virginia -- to avoid conducting background checks before making sales.
Gov. McAuliffe (D) has criticized gun shows in Virginia for making firearms, including semi-automatic weapons, available to Virginia residents who can purchase a firearm by presenting two forms of identification but are not required to undergo a background check.
Showmasters Gun Shows, which conducts 30 gun shows a year in Virginia including eight planned in 2016 at the Dulles Expo Center, is the largest organizer of guns shows in the commonwealth. Vendors at last weekend's show required the obligatory two forms of identification -- a valid Virginia driver's license and a credit card -- to purchase any gun at the show.
The Times-Mirror could not find any vendor who required a background check for purchasing firearms, even semi-automatic handguns or rifles.
From table to table, much of the antipathy was reserved for the president, who was mocked on t-shirts, bumper stickers, posters and, even shooting-range targets, that ranged from racist to outrageous.
Politics aside, vendors stressed "making peace with your violence." Robert, a sales agent in a camouflage t-shirt, touted the innovation and craftsman from Alexander Arms, a Radford, Va.-based manufacturer of automatic rifles. Originally designed for hunters of "varmints and groundhogs," the more advanced versions of Alexander's rifles feature military applications with pin-point accuracy for supersonic and subsonic ammunition.
"Enough firepower to blow away a groundhog from 100 yards," Robert said proudly.
Firepower could be found in a variety of versions , some licensed, others not. Despite signs at the entrance prohibiting patrons from bringing firearms into the exhibition hall -- attendees were asked if they were carrying a gun, but they were quickly hand-stamped without being checked -- a number of attendees carried rifles or displayed handguns that were holstered on their belts.
Frank Demith of Ashburn carried a Kriss Vector carbine, one of a series of weapons that was developed from a submachine gun design, as well as a 50-caliber, semi-automatic pistol. Several unlicensed dealers walked the floor with automatic rifles strapped to their backs, "for sale" signs inserted into the barrels.
Other attendees included hunters shopping for the latest sporting gun equipment and collectors seeking to add to their collection of gun and war paraphernalia. The patrons at those booths seemed indifferent to the gun violence debate that was being expressed around them.
But it would have taken an elephant gun to take down the elephant in the room: the presumed need for protection in a dangerous country that loves its guns.
"Guns keep us safe," said Deborah Anderson, a former Loudoun County resident who operates Discover Shooting in Fairfax, which holds classes for operating handguns and provides training to use an AR-15, a small arms rifle developed for the U.S. armed forces.
More guns were sold in December than almost any other month in nearly two decades, continuing a pattern of spikes in sales after terrorist attacks and calls for stricter gun-buying laws, according to federal data released on Monday.
The heaviest sales last month, driven primarily by handgun sales, followed a call from President Obama to make it harder to buy assault weapons after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif.
Fear of gun-buying restrictions has been the main driver of spikes in gun sales, far surpassing the effects of mass shootings and terrorist attacks alone, according to an analysis of federal background check data by The New York Times.
Advocates of "open carry," Anderson and her husband Mark also advise gun owners on how to navigate concealed weapons regulations from state to state. They said their business has boomed since Virginia acted to restrict agreements with other states that allow for openly carrying a firearm in public.
Virginia Attorney General Herring ruled in late December that Virginia will no longer recognize concealed carry handgun permits from 25 states that have reciprocity agreements with the commonwealth. The move means Virginians with a history of stalking, drug dealing or inpatient mental health treatment cannot obtain a permit in a state with comparatively lax laws and carry a handgun legally at home.
Herring said severing the out-of-state agreements can prevent people who may be dangerous or irresponsible from carrying a concealed weapon.
The Andersons, as well as gun show organizer Elliott, said the Virginia attorney general and President Obama have it wrong. Guns, they said, are a deterrent to crime.
"When good guys fight back, bad guys go elsewhere," Deborah Anderson said.
While thousands of attendees shopped for firearms to keep bad guys at bay -- sales from gun merchants at the show were reportedly brisk -- several organizations lobbied for gun-rights and recruited new members.
At a nearby booth beyond tables of automatic rifles, the Virginia Citizens Defense League signed up new members. The state's dominant gun lobby, described by Herring in 2013 "as being more radical than the NRA," sought signatures on a petition enabling gun owners to tote firepower everywhere in Virginia, including outdoor festivals, schools, government facilities and college campuses.
The NRA, with headquarters in Fairfax, cast a long shadow over the local gun show. Instead of paying a $13 entry fee, attendees could join the NRA or renew their membership.