Gun show buyers, sellers defend `tradition' of hobby

They say crime bill is an overreaction

May 23, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CONCORD, N.H. -- Eddie Hawkins grins when he talks about guns.

"I like them," he said yesterday at a gun show here. "I want one."

But he takes offense when his father tells strangers that he's 6 years old.

"And a half," he explains, rolling his eyes.

Father and son spent yesterday morning strolling through the Sportsman's Show at Concord's Everett Hockey Arena, where 200 tables covered with rifles, pistols, assault weapons, knives, clips, earplugs, holsters and the like were set up under the Concord High School hockey team's state championship banners.

It was the second week in a row that Edward Hawkins Jr., a 30-year-old factory worker from Biddeford, Maine, and his son, Edward Hawkins III, attended a gun show. "It's something everyone should know how to do," Hawkins said of shooting. "I grew up around guns. It's like family tradition."

To President Clinton and many federal lawmakers, shows such as this one offer the chance for unregulated transfers of weapons that could end up in the hands of minors. Weapons purchased at a similar event were reportedly used in the massacre last month at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

On Thursday, hours after yet another school shooting outside Atlanta, the Senate narrowly passed a juvenile crime bill that includes a provision requiring background checks on all sales at gun shows. It also would bar youths younger than 18 from owning semiautomatic assault rifles; they already are denied handgun ownership.

The House will take up the issue.

But many at the Concord event yesterday, held a few blocks from New Hampshire's gold-domed Capitol, said they believe gun shows are being wrongfully blamed.

Art DiPrete, promoter of the Concord show and a dozen others in New England, recalled that in Chicago several years ago, "someone was beaten to death by a baseball bat, and they didn't cancel the World Series."

Gun show defenders included parents.

"Every single time a kid is killed by a drunk driver, you don't see it on CNN," said Chris Bundzinski, who came to the show with his 11-year-old son, David, and believes the media are hyping the recent school shootings.

David Bundzinski regularly travels with his father to an indoor shooting range, where his weapon of choice is a .22-caliber rifle.

"I don't like using pistols. They have a kick to them," said David. The gun he would love to try out -- if it didn't require such stringent licensing -- is the assault weapon used by Navy SEALs.

The Concord show, attended almost exclusively by men, allowed customers to chat with vendors, handle weapons, check out safety locks and explore accessories that might enhance firearms the patrons already own.

Teen-age customers were scarce, which vendors said is usually the case. Attendance would have been better, the promoter said, had it not been a beautiful day during fishing season.

For sale were items as ordinary as fishing gear and as unconventional as "The CIA Black Book of Dirty Tricks." That volume, retailing for about $8, contains instructions for creating such weapons as a .45-caliber pistol from a 3/8-inch steel pipe, couplings, elastic bands and other household items.

The food stands were offering chicken tenders, burgers and hot dogs -- each with fries. Two little girls were selling chocolate candy.

And then there were the guns, and scores of vendors and aficionados who were eager to speak out. Some were angry and some rueful about lawmakers who, they said, have painted an image of these events as shady places where paramilitary-types exchange weapons illegally.

`I feel more defensive'

The crowd yesterday included lawyers, accountants, graphics designers and others who said they share a love for guns that is as benign as a love for baseball cards.

"I feel more defensive," said Jon Evans, 30, a federally licensed vendor from Penacook, N.H., who recently completed law school and passed the state bar. "I see in the media every day now how bad I am selling guns, how I've contributed to a crime."

DiPrete, the promoter, called the Senate crime bill "smoke and mirrors." Almost every vendor in his arena, he said, is federally licensed and therefore conducts background checks anyway.

He pointed to a phone on a nearby table that was being used by vendors to call in checks to the state police or FBI, depending on the type of weapon being purchased.

One exception was Pete Lunsford of Dunbarton, N.H. Because he was only selling a handful of guns from his personal collection, he was not required to be licensed by the federal government or to conduct checks. Any adult with a New Hampshire driver's license could have purchased his pre-World War II L. C. Smith bird-shooting rifle for $950.

"But you're not going to use this in a bank robbery," Lunsford said, laughing.

Experts, however, say that at many of the nation's 4,000 gun shows each year, many guns are sold by vendors who are not federally licensed and do not do background checks.

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