'I like to shoot things'

What better place to be after the Virginia Tech massacre than a gun show?

click to enlarge BEARING ARMS: Ken King (right), with brother Chris outside the Suncoast Gun Show, purchased his 1947 M44 rifle from another attendee. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
BEARING ARMS: Ken King (right), with brother Chris outside the Suncoast Gun Show, purchased his 1947 M44 rifle from another attendee.

It's a beautiful April weekend — the sun, clouds and sea breezes all mixed in perfect proportions — but as the rest of Tampa Bay enjoys a peaceful family barbecue or a Devil Rays tailgating party, I'm following the throngs headed into the air-conditioned Charles M. Davis Special Events Center at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Fathers with toddlers; couples with matching belt buckles; children of all ages, laughing and skipping along the concrete path — we've all decided to forgo a day at the beach to see one thing: guns.

Lots and lots of guns.

All manner of guns: six-shooter pistols, hunting rifles, semi-automatic Berettas. M11s, AK-47s and SKSs. History-laden military weaponry next to brand-new, fresh-out-of-the-box firearms. Tiny guns smaller than your hand and artillery pieces so big they wouldn't fit into the back seat of a Ford Escort. Guns allowed in Florida; guns banned in other states.

Less than a week after Seung-Hui Cho gunned down 32 students at Virginia Tech using a 9 mm Glock and Walther P22, hundreds paid their $8 admission fee ($7 with a coupon) to spend a few hours perusing the same type of weapons Cho used in the massacre.

If this strikes you as even the least bit unsettling, you would feel very alone (and unsettled) at the Suncoast Gun Show.

There are a few things to know before going into a gun show. First, what not to bring: Cameras, tape recorders or outside food and drink.

What you can bring: your guns, of course! Visitors are allowed to enter with their firearms as long as the guns are unloaded and secured by a plastic tie (provided at the door).

Second, know the law: When buying guns from a federally licensed gun dealer, you have to undergo a FBI background check, state criminal background check and submit to the three-day waiting period. (Licensed gun dealers, after submitting to an extensive background check, are allowed to buy and sell guns across state lines, a practice usually prohibited by federal law.)

But if buying from an unlicensed private seller, typically an individual selling pieces from his or her personal collection, you just have to slap some cash on the table and you can walk away packing heat. No background check. No waiting period. No questions asked. Several of the vendors at the gun show are private sellers.

Third, there's more than guns at a gun show. You can stock up on knives, tasers, brass knuckles, batons and bomb-making books, too. You can even buy some jerky to munch on while browsing tables of ammunition.

Beyond guns, knives and jerky, though, there's not much to distinguish a gun show from an auto show or an antiques expo, except for the constant buzzing of some vendor demonstrating his 1,000-volt taser. Single mothers, shuffling old folks and students stroll about alongside the Confederate-flag-wearing rednecks you might expect at a gun show. People of all ethnicities and quite a few wheelchair-bound enthusiasts pack the 40,000-square-foot building.

Despite the high attendance and lively atmosphere, you cannot escape reminders of the recent past. Vendors nod their heads as families tell them about needing more guns after "that Virginia Tech mess." An elderly man asks his younger companion, "I wonder how many terrorists are in here." And then there is the female voice blaring across the intercom every hour, reminding everyone about the concealed weapon classes held in the back of the building and soliciting National Rifle Association memberships.

"Especially after the events this week in Virginia, we need to support them," she says.

Nobody talks about changes in laws. The few who choose to talk to me about the week's tragedy invariably mention the old gun-enthusiast adage: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people."

Of course, a gun show isn't the best place to find differing opinions on the subject.

"I like to shoot things," Ryan Roeder says on his way into the show. He's joking — kind of. The 24-year-old owns several guns at his Ft. Myers home and regularly comes to the tri-annual Suncoast Gun Show.

Following Roeder in is Weston Payne, his arms loaded with precious cargo: his toddler, outfitted in camo gear, and his AK-47.

"It's when you aren't brought up [with guns] that you have these problems," he says. "And it's part of our freedom. Without that, they can take anything away."

The dark cloud hanging over guns didn't prevent Beth Chandra from attending either, although she can't help feeling "a bit eerie."

"I thought there would be less people here," she admits. "I felt strange looking at the case of Glocks because of that weird person."

Then again, the safest place to be is at a gun show, she points out.

Vendors aren't so quick to talk about the tragedy, at least not to reporters (we're about as hated the United Nations in here). The few that do talk refuse to give their names. One grey-haired man shows me his collection of semi-automatic handguns. They are surprisingly light, like plastic toy guns. I ask if he's worried about a gun backlash. He shakes his head: "I'm always worried about laws limiting guns."

It starts him on a rant about gun control, and once he gets started, he doesn't stop.

"If you take guns away, the only people who will have guns is criminals," he says. His brow furrows and he gets quieter. "It's not just for self-defense, but the government, too. If the liberals are in charge and keep raising taxes, we may have to take that government back one day."

Just as the vendor is about to share his secrets about the one-world government and the Armageddon, a security guard taps me on the shoulder.

"You a reporter?" he asks.

"Yes."

"Come with me."

Suddenly, I feel a little heavier, a little more unshaven, a little bit Michael Moore. My day inside the Suncoast Gun Show ends.

Outside, I meet Chris and Ken King, two brothers and recent transplants from Alaska. This is their first gun show. They sit outside near the entrance, Ken holding a 1947 M44 rifle. Ken didn't even have to pay admission to buy it; a man sold him the gun on his way inside for $95. The Russian firearm still has the hammer and sickle imprint on the barrel. The gun will join four others, including an AK-47, at Ken's home in Plant City.

Ken is more upset about the crazy drivers in Tampa than the guns ("It's ridiculous how easy it is to get a license here"). Like most attendees, Ken says more, not less, guns would have prevented the Virginia Tech massacre.

You can't blame "a piece of metal" on anything but the person behind it, he says.

"I play violent video games," Ken continues, shaking his rifle a bit. "I've had a lot of bad stuff that's happened to me, but I don't go mowing people down."

People coming in and out of the show stare at us — the reporter with a pen and the man shaking his rifle. A few mutter as they pass by. One man, on his way into the gun show, takes one look and then veers nervously away.

He's carrying two AR-15 assault rifles.

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