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How gun control looks from an Arizona gun show

Understanding all sides

President Obama wants to regulate gun sales at gun shows more tightly. Here's why folks at the Crossroads of the West gun show say that won't help. 

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    People shop for guns at a gun show hosted by Florida Gun Shows on Jan. 9 in Miami.
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On a small outdoor stage, past a National Rifle Association welcome banner and a sign offering passers-by the chance to run a mock mission with former Navy SEALs, stands Bob Templeton, the gray-haired, besuited owner of the Crossroads of the West gun show.

On this January day, Mr. Obama's new executive actions on gun control are fresh in the minds of fair-goers – and of Mr. Templeton.

"Every time President Obama gets up on his soapbox, you can expect large crowds at gun shows, and large crowds at the gun stores ... people are concerned about their gun rights," he tells the crowd.  

Those executive actions, aimed at reducing violence, aim to tighten background checks on private sales by individuals at gun shows like this one, among other things.

At other times, Templeton has called the actions a “dog and pony show” that won't hurt business. But when someone in the audience asks if, given the current political climate, it might be a good idea to stock up on guns now, he responds: “Buy them when you can, continue to buy them; that’s what I’m doing.”

Sales are brisk.

That is how it has been nationwide for years – and certainly throughout Obama’s presidency: Any hint of controversy over gun control leads to spikes in gun purchases. 

But the view from the fairgrounds in Phoenix doesn't portray a monolith of gun-toting Second Amendment zealots. Yes, firearms are strapped to waists and bulkier rifles (unloaded per event rules) peek out of backpacks. But those out weapon shopping are nuanced and varied in their opinions, pointing to room for the types of measures passed by states in recent years, such as extending background checks. 

Justin Bayens was subject to a background check before leaving the gun show and says he has no problem complying with a federal requirement that he views as effective. He sees no need to overhaul the system, though he is not against Obama’s plan to screen for potential buyers who are forbidden from owning firearms for mental health reasons. 

"I'm a veteran so I've always been comfortable with guns," says Mr. Bayens, who served in the Air Force. "I go out shooting almost every weekend; it's a good stress relief for me."

Wearing the Ruger SR40 pistol he got recently at another gun show on a hip holster, Bayens carries a case of ammunition for the 12-gauge shotgun he bought earlier that day to hunt quail.   

Bayens says he doesn’t believe tightening regulations will put a dent on gun violence because criminals will find ways to obtain weapons through illegal means.

“It’s not the guns’ fault,” Bayens says. “It’s the people’s.”

Nationwide, gun sales spiked to 1.6 million in December, after Obama called for stricter controls after the San Bernardino terror attacks in California, a Feb. 3 New York Times analysis found. The record month for sales was 2 million guns in January 2012, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. The 15 million guns sold in 2013 were more than double a decade prior. 

While gun control legislation has failed in Congress, states have taken various steps. In 2014, Washington state voters passed a ballot initiative extending background checks to most weapon sales and transfers. Nevada voters will have their say in November. Proponents are pushing similar initiatives in Oregon, Maine, and Arizona – one of the most gun-friendly states in the country. In all, 18 states have passed background check laws, either by ballot initiative or legislation. 

At the Crossroads gun show, Hazel Daniels roams the grounds looking for a handgun smaller than the 9mm Smith & Wesson she bought for protection after her husband died in 2008. 

Back then, when she lived in rural Wisconsin, “I had 32 acres, I was out in the country by myself,” she says. “Now I'm here and I wear a cowboy hat and I wear cowboy boots, and now I want a gun on my hip.”

In a more serious tone, she says doesn't object to efforts to strengthen background checks. “Anybody who wants to own a gun should be able to prove themselves worthy of it.” 

In general, those interviewed who objected to strengthening background checks tended to be the sellers, not the buyers.  

Nicholas Steigert, for eample, is no fan of Obama’s push for stricter gun control. “The mass shootings aren’t an American problem,” the gun dealer says. “He likes to say that, but they happen all over the world.”

(Data show that between 2000 and 2014, there were 23 mass shootings in 10 countries – including Australia, Canada, China, England, and Norway – that left 200 dead and 231 wounded, according to research conducted by Jaclyn Schildkraut of the State University of New York in Oswego and Jaymi Elsass of Texas State University. In the United States during the same time period, the researchers told PolitiFact that there were 133 incidents that left 487 dead and 505 wounded.)

Mr. Stiegert blames gun violence not on firearms but on societal decay. “The scary thing isn't that this is a semiautomatic,” he says, pointing to a row of AR-15s selling for up to $3,000. “The scary thing is that we have issues in this country that are unresolved.”

A few yards from Steigert, Bill Wilde shows off his collection of rifles dating to World War I and II. “I’m getting up in age; it’s time to get rid of it,” he says.

Mr. Wilde says he is not worried about the potential effect of Obama's executive actions on his ability to sell his guns.

“The Constitution says he can’t do what he wants to do,” he adds. “The Second Amendment says I have the right to own guns.”

Dealer Justin Hart sells mostly used guns at shows in and around Phoenix.

Mr. Hart says a better government strategy to try to curb violence may be to aggressively enforce laws already on the books. His response to the idea of passing new measures provides a contrapuntal echo to gun control advocates, who wonder how many guns is enough before Americans feel safe.

“I don't think more laws are the answer,” he says, cleaning a $450 Ruger LC9. “We've got plenty.”

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