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Gun show packs 'em in as enthusiasts fear showdown with government

Published: Saturday, Aug. 29 2015 7:36 a.m. MDT

Tim Wilkes, right, sights down the barrel of a hunting rifle at the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News) Tim Wilkes, right, sights down the barrel of a hunting rifle at the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News)

SANDY — Outside, the lines were long and it was bitter cold.

Inside, it was hot and shoulder to shoulder — sometimes belly to belly — as people threaded their way through the Saturday crowds.

Many at the Rocky Mountain Gun Show said they were there to snatch up their freedom before the government gets a chance to take it away — and that “freedom” lined table after table after table.

The South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy offered a bit of just about anything for anyone who wanted to bring home their Second Amendment right.

There were dainty pearl-handled Cobra Derringers, small enough to conceal in an embroidered evening bag, a black 1890 Sharps rifle sporting an octagon barrel for display on a wall and the pricey Colt AR-15 assault rifle.

Hundreds of gun enthusiasts waited in line at the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013.  (Ben Brewer, Deseret News) Hundreds of gun enthusiasts waited in line at the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News)

But the biggest lines were crowded around the ammunition tables, with four cash registers steadily ringing up purchases for people willing to wait it out for as long as 90 minutes.

“The ammunition lines are insane,” said one gun owner, toting away his bounty, which included a few Remington Bucket O Bullets piled on a dolly.

Not far away, a sign warned of a 2,000-round limit on all calibers.

“We expected a large crowd,” said show co-promoter Mitch McKinlay. “A lot of this has upped the people.”

What is “upping” gun enthusiasts across the country and in Utah are serious efforts to take aim at the nation’s laws on who can own a gun, and what kind, how much ammunition is permissible to buy, and how those purchases can be made.

Protestors advocating for gun regulation discussions walk towards the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013.  (Ben Brewer, Deseret News) Protestors advocating for gun regulation discussions walk towards the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News)

The first day of the new Congress had barely gotten under way Thursday when reform legislation began peppering legislative headquarters.

Proposals are on the table to put outright bans on assault rifles or high capacity magazines. Measures are calling for more thorough background checks and tighter controls on gun shows like those put on by the Davis County residents behind the Rocky Mountain Gun Show, which stages in multiple locations in Utah, as well as Las Vegas and California.

The debate over gun control and how much is needed lies in the shadow of December’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were killed last month.

Like a continuous loop of tragedy, it follows the mass shooting in an Oregon mall the same month and a Colorado theater shooting in July.

Visitors look on while waiting in the ammunition line at the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013.  (Ben Brewer, Deseret News) Visitors look on while waiting in the ammunition line at the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News)

Normal places where normal people should be safe — an elementary school, a shopping mall, a midnight screening of a much-awaited superhero movie. When a society’s vulnerability is peeled open because of events like these, masses cry for change so it doesn’t happen again.

And all sides in the gun debate have picked up the bull horn, with the National Rifle Association urging armed guards be stationed at elementary schools and their ardent critics insisting that only police and the military be armed.

There’s not a lot of gray in the discussion.

Stan Holmes was one of a handful of picketers outside the gun show early Saturday morning. He took the glares with good nature, even smiling when one man growled at him and said, “You guys are in the wrong place this morning.”

Anti-regulation signage at the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013.  (Ben Brewer, Deseret News) Anti-regulation signage at the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News)

Their signs said that real hunters don’t need assault rifles and that the NRA once stood for safety.

“We’re just a circle of friends who decided after the Connecticut shooting that enough is enough,” he said, adding that reaction by gun show attendees was mixed.

“There are people here who have the same concerns we do. They are legitimate gun owners and they are the people who can help turn it around."

Some gun enthusiasts, Holmes added, believe that any strike at reform is a wholesale assault on the Second Amendment.

He says it is not.

“We are not here to take away their guns, we are here to deprive terrorists of guns."

"Gunny Monster," the mascot for the USMC Marine League West 1332nd detachment, gets some attention from a visitor at the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News)

But McKinlay, one of the show’s promoters, said gun owners rightly feel a sense of urgency, evidenced by packed show-sponsored classes for concealed carry permits where hundreds of people filled the room in three separate sessions.

“Most people here at the show, the majority, are law-abiding gun owners who are doing it the right way, the responsible way,” he said.

Fears of a crackdown on ammunition, particularly, were driving the long lines at the show and the even the rumor that .223 rounds for assault rifles were sold out early in the day.

Organizers trucked in plenty and will be able to weather through Sunday’s show, McKinlay said, but added: “It will be close.”

Such concern is ricocheting around the country.

Patrick Wayne checks a hunting rifle at the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013.  (Ben Brewer, Deseret News) Patrick Wayne checks a hunting rifle at the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News)

Business Insider reported that a large global supplier of AR-15 ammunition had sold more than a three years’ inventory of magazines in a 72-hour period.

In Layton, a sporting goods store employee said they were out of four varieties of ammunition, including the .223 rounds and the rest was going so fast it was “spooky.”

Erik Westesen and his brother-in-law, Steven Ting, are both gun owners who believe the debate over gun rights and gun control can be elevated to a dimension of rational discussion — without finger-pointing.

“So many people are hard and fast in their opinions,” Ting said. “I think you can come at this with an open-mindedness and willingness to examine the facts.”

The two talked of their www.utahgunowners.com, a discussion board meant to be a prism for information, ideas and discourse. Westesen said he thinks it is sad that so much attention is being put on guns when there is a much greater casualty that society seems to miss.

Jill James hands out gun regulation literature at the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013.  (Ben Brewer, Deseret News) Jill James hands out gun regulation literature at the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News)

“People scream that guns should be restricted, but you hardly hear them talk about the mental health of people. Rather than worrying about guns, we need to care more about people,” he said.

If Holmes, the picketer, had been inside, he likely would have told Westesen and Ting they have a real chance to help the country by entertaining some reform of gun laws.

“Help America get out of the firearms crisis we are in,” he said to those headed to the show. “We are here to help the kids who are in jeopardy.”

In the midst of the all the angst over who can own what and how much, members of the Marine Corps League, Utah West Detachment 1332, were manning a booth, selling handmade bracelets to raise money for their cause.

It’s not gun rights.

Protestors advocating for gun regulation discussions stand outside the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013.  (Ben Brewer, Deseret News) Protestors advocating for gun regulation discussions stand outside the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News)

Victims of domestic violence through the South Valley Sanctuary, hungry people through the Utah Food Bank and needful veterans through the Wounded Warriors project are all recipients of their efforts.

Gunny Monster, their bulldog mascot, attracted show-goers with a dazzling Marine dress uniform he sported with pride.

“He loves to get dressed up,” his owner said.

Another Marine pointed to the display of military rifles roped together, standing like sentries over the booth.

“We’ve had those guns out here all day,” he said with a smile, ”and they haven’t shot anybody.”

Gun enthusiasts line up before the doors open at the South Towne Expo Center for the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013.  (Ben Brewer, Deseret News) Gun enthusiasts line up before the doors open at the South Towne Expo Center for the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News)

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

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