LADSON — As Jason Mele watched people peering down the sights of Mossbergs, Bushmasters and Remingtons, he couldn’t deny that something felt different this time.
The popularity of the Charleston Gun & Knife show seems to soar whenever a Democrat is elected president or when a crazed man opens fire into a mall, theater or school.
But the sentiment that drove people to the Exchange Park fairgrounds — a fear that politicians will strip Americans of their firearms after 26 people were slain at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School — was palpable Saturday, which likely went down as the most attended show in its history.
This time, it could actually happen, many said. The enthusiasts cited changing times in which Washington lawmakers devise laws despite widespread disapproval. They pointed to President Barack Obama’s health care bill.
“They have the right to think that the government will spurn the will of the people and disarm them,” said Mele, owner of Upstate Armory Group in Simpsonville. “Politicians are going to do what they want.”
Some vendors were more popular than others. Products that shoot, shock or cut all were available.
Customers took special note of military-style rifles, which have been hard to come by since Sandy Hook. But ammunition was the hottest item.
Ammo manufacturer Georgia Arms has been making components and loading rounds six days weekly since the Connecticut shooting. Workers take a break only for church on Sundays.
The show’s producer, Mike Kent, declined to provide specific attendance data. The show continues today.
Three more are planned in Charleston this year. But by the next show in June, Kent expects the hype to have ebbed.
Gun shows carry some misconceptions.
People who buy from vendors at a gun show must undergo a background check, as they would in a retail store.
Private sales, however, are unrestricted in 33 states, including South Carolina. This so-called “gun show loophole” means an individual with a gun can stick a price tag on it and tote it around the floor. If it catches an eye, the seller can work out a deal with the prospective buyer.
On Saturday, firearms were checked at the entrance. Private sellers shoved wooden dowels into the barrels. Affixed to the wood was a piece of paper explaining the make, model and asking price.
Whether gun shows are a significant source of firearms that get into the wrong hands has served as political fodder.
New Mexico’s House, for example, approved a measure last week that would demand background checks for private sales, as well as ensure that mental health records are submitted to the database.
Closer to home, lawmakers in South Carolina are expected to announce a bill on Tuesday that would aim to prevent the mentally ill from buying firearms. The move comes on the heels of an incident at Ashley Hall in downtown Charleston. Legislators, however, have not said whether they would take up the gun show issue.
Meanwhile the link between violent crimes and gun shows remains debatable.
In 2000, a government analysis of more than 1,500 gun-trafficking investigations found that the venue was the second leading source of illegally sold firearms. But the next year, a report indicated that only 0.7 percent of federal inmates locked up for gun crimes got their firearm at a show.
Rita Snipes, 56, of Charleston, who bought boxes of 9 mm and .45-caliber rounds at the show, lamented the Connecticut tragedy, but she lambasted lawmakers for “using it as a pathway” to strip Second Amendment rights.
“These are law-abiding citizens,” Snipes said. “They try to protect their right to bear arms. And bear them at good prices.”
For the past month, 44-year-old Dave Taylor of Goose Creek hadn’t been able to find the gun he wanted.
He already owns a .223-caliber rifle. But since the Connecticut shooting, in which killer Adam Lanza used a .223 Bushmaster, the ammunition has been pricey and hard to find.
Taylor bought his Rock River .223 before the current hype for $1,000. At Saturday’s show, it was selling for $2,300.
So within 10 minutes of the show’s opening, Taylor scooped up a much cheaper .22-caliber Heckler & Koch for $620.
The military-style rifle resembles its bigger cousin: It’s black and appears to belong in the arms of a SWAT team member. But it shoots a low-power cartridge that’s one of the most common and least expensive worldwide.
“This might even be an investment,” Taylor said. “It’s getting kind of crazy out there.”
Dean Fort, though, is sticking to the guns he has now — all 50 of them, from shotguns to a black powder musket.
The 59-year-old from Moncks Corner carried a metal ammo box containing 240 reloaded .223-caliber rounds.
To get it, Fort had to battle the swarm around the Georgia Arms tables. At one point, he grabbed the collar of a man who cut in front of him, “so I could get my bullets.”
He blames the crowds on the president.
“I think Obama is out to get a Salesman of the Year award,” he said. “He created a whole new industry for guns.”
Other people weren’t as happy with their purchases, or lack thereof.
Adam Scripture, 30, clutched a roll of paper targets in his right hand and grasped the fingers of his 4-year-old boy in his left.
The Summerville man and his son waited for an hour in 45-degree air before he got inside. By the time he had his hand stamped in black ink with “GUN,” people had already blocked the way to the ammo tables, where he aimed to buy a few boxes of .45-caliber rounds.
“You can’t even get in that corner,” he said. “The building isn’t big enough.”
At the Upstate Armory booth, 22-year-old Murray West of Charleston pressed his cheek into the stock of a .22-caliber Mossberg.
He set it down after checking out the price tag.
“It’s too expensive right now,” he said. “I’m waiting for stuff to go back down.”
On the other side of the table, the seller, Mele, said his .22-caliber military-style rifles were going the quickest.
Mele acknowledged some sticker shock among customers, whose demands for the guns have created manufacturing bottlenecks.
“The shelves in the shops are bare,” he said. “We get calls asking us if we have this or that. The answer is no.”
“How fast does this shoot?” a potential customer interrupted.
“As fast as you pull the trigger,” Mele said.
But just as the customer prepared to buy it, Mele told him that someone else had bought the gun.
It was Mele’s last in that caliber.
At one of the ammo tables, Chris Clark took a steady flow of cash and stuffed it into a cubby hole.
His company, Neuse River Sports in the Goldsboro, N.C., gets its ammo supply from distributors. But it competes with police and military agencies for the coveted .223 rounds. A case of 200 cartridges runs about $249.
In a show last week in Myrtle Beach, he said, a customer from West Virginia had planned his family vacation to coincide with the gun show. Apparently, Clark said, the supply is even more dire in the Mountain State.
“People are concerned about what the future holds,” he said. “It’s a gut feeling that something will happen, so they’re stockpiling.”
The show even had its own comedy corner.
That’s Don Lipsey of Myrtle Beach, who delivers politically charged quips and zombie scare tactics to sell T-shirts.
As vultures swarmed the carcass that was the ammo tables, Lipsey also sold wooden weapons.
“We start the kiddies with a rubber-band gun,” he told a father. “They don’t hurt anyone, and I promise he won’t take it to school.”
A red-headed boy took a test shot at an aluminum pie plate.
“They shoot seven rounds, but even that’s probably too much,” Lipsey said, referencing legislation seeking to eliminate high-capacity magazines.
“No, thanks,” one father said as he walked next to his 10-year-old son. “We’re here for a real one.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.