C&E Gun Shows, Inc. out of Blacksburg, Virginia “is dedicated to producing the most professional, safest and ethical gun shows in the country” (according to their website). Their schedule for 2013 lists nearly 100 show dates in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Most of their shows revisit the same locations several times a year. For example, they have six shows scheduled at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum education annex in 2013.
One of their last shows for 2012 was also scheduled for Winston-Salem, the weekend of December 22-23. I’ve attended probably half a dozen C&E produced gun shows and they are quite routine. People show up and walk up and down aisles looking at guns, ammo, and accessories, as well as knives, jewelry, food, books, clothing, collectables, and the like. Some people buy things. Alot of people just like to window shop.
This last show of 2012 promised to be different, though, falling just a week and a day after the mass murder of 27 individuals, including 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut. In the days that followed, pressure for greater gun control rose to levels not seen in recent years. Although he appointed a working group to study the issue of gun violence, President Barack Obama at the same time signaled that he would propose a ban on “assault rifles” and “high capacity magazines.” Other groups followed suit, including “College Presidents for Gun Safety.” This group of 160 college and university presidents – among them the president of Wake Forest University, Nathan Hatch, my boss – specifically advocated “Reinstating the ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons along with high-capacity ammunition magazines” (among other things).
The responses of those in the gun culture have been twofold. Many have sought to articulate a defense of gun rights and to promote the use of guns in defense against such attacks. And many have sought to buy as many guns and accessories as possible, especially the very AR-15 style rifles and magazines (as well as the ammo to feed them) that many are seeking to ban. Photos of empty shelves in gun stores circulated on the World Wide Web, and Hyatt Gun Shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, reported doing $1 million in business on a single day last week.
By 8:30am on Saturday December 22nd — 30 minutes before the doors even opened and in 30 degree weather — a line of what I estimated to be two to three thousand people had formed outside the C&E Gun Show in Winston-Salem. (According to the organizer, 2,500 had entered by 11:00am, confirming my estimate.) The following photo is from near the back of the line at 8:40am. The building with the white roof beyond the peach arch is the education annex.
Here is the view once you turn the corner. Still a long way to go to cross under the arch just to get to the ticket booth. (Admission is $8 for adults, kids are free, and many people have $1 off coupons from C&E.)
Once you get your ticket, you then have to go to a separate line to get in the doors straight ahead. Here is the view around 9:00am when the doors finally opened. I am about 600th in line. The person in the front of the line arrived at 7:00am.
Inside the mood was much different than previous gun shows I had attended. The spectre of gun and other bans was present and clearly affecting people. Usually at a gun show most people in attendance are happy because they are doing something they enjoy. Today, at the beginning at least (I was only there from 9a until 11:30a), everyone was very serious. The only joking was a sort of gallows humor, like the person looking at a Barrett .50 BMG sniper rifle who said, “That’s what you want when they come to get your AR.” Many were very intent on getting what they came for, and there was even what could safely be called a sense of urgency especially for ammunition, rifle magazines, and AR-15 rifles.
By 10am, I saw two people with hand carts carrying 4,000 rounds of 7.62 and .223 ammo. Many others were buying 500 or 1,000 round boxes. By the time I left just after 11am, all the bulk packs of .223, 5.56, and 7.62 ammo were sold out at the two main ammo vendors.
Pricing reflected the extraordinary demand. One vendor was selling Federal XM193 5.56 ammo, 55 Grain, 1000 Round bulk boxes ($499.99 at Gander Mountain — though not currently available) for $894.95. Remington UMC .223, 45 grain, jacketed hollow point 400 round cases for $344.95 ($275.80 when available at TargetSportsUSA.com). .223, 55 grain, full metal jacket, 400 round cases for $318.95 (previously selling for $139.80 at DansAmmo.us). All of these boxes were sold out by 11am.
There was also a run on AR magazines. MAGPUL 30 round AR-15 PMAGs in dark earth that are listed in the most recent Cheaper Than Dirt catalog for $19.97 were selling for $45 at one table I watched. One guy bought 10 of them, and the lot was sold out by 10:30a. (Pistol magazines were also selling at a premium — e.g., standard capacity 17 round Glock 17 magazines for $50 rather than $25 — but there was nowhere near the rush for them as compared to AR magazines.)
Compared to ammo and magazines, the run on AR-15 rifles was more uneven. The high normal cost of rifles brought the supply/demand equation into play. I saw a couple of people ask vendors if there were any AR-15 rifles for less than $1,000. Answer: only those chambered in .22LR. How high did the prices have to go before people started to say “no thanks”? I did not do a systematic study of this but, for example, I saw a Stag Arms stripped AR 5.56 lower — MSRP $135 — selling for $300. Three were available with no immediate takers. A Ruger SR 556E — MSRP $1,375 selling for $2,200 — was available with no takers immediately. I saw an FN SCAR 17S — like the one I wrote about trying before — for $5,500. When it was American Rifleman’s Gun of the Week at the end of May 2012, the MSRP was listed as $3,350. That is quite a premium on an already expensive gun, and I wasn’t totally surprised to see the woman running that table just sitting there playing on her phone.
By contrast, stores that had increased their prices but were still pricing their products more reasonably were doing better business than others. By 9:30a, Kopter Supply in nearby Advance had 10 people standing at its booth with paperwork completed just waiting to checkout. I spoke to one man who was buying his first AR-15 for $1,700 that he said he could have gotten for $1,100 last week. At the same time, he reflected, it could cost twice that much in January, if he could even get one. He had been waiting 20 minutes when I spoke to him. About an hour later I came back by the booth and he was still waiting. I asked him how long he had been waiting and he replied, “What day is it?”
I have not had a chance to read all of Joan Burbick’s well-known and controversial book, “Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy,” but one point she makes I think is true. Gun shows do not just sell guns and related products. They sell an ideology, a vision of who Americans are and what America is. (Which is not to say that everyone who attends a gun show is buying that ideology.) Some of this is very explicit, like the libertarian bookseller or the tables with anti-Obama bumper stickers. Along these lines, I happened across a vendor I hadn’t seen before who had a number of “Don’t Tread on Me” stickers and t-shirts. But what caught my eye was a new item on offer at this gun show that he was also selling, this t-shirt:
The local newspaper reported that 2,500 people had entered the gun show by 11am. Who knows how many people attended in total that day? When I left at 11:30am, there was still a long line of people — perhaps 1,500 more — outside waiting to buy tickets. They were joined by a small group of 25-30 protesters and a news crew from the local NBC affiliate.