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Moving Target

Wanna buy some really neat guns? Check out the industry?s annual extravaganza known as the SHOT show, where you?ll see some really scary stuff.
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The French Quarter, with all its indulgences, excesses, and teeming masses, is a few blocks east along the winding Mississippi River. I’m just down Tchoupitoulas St. in a-well, amazingly similar place, though much more heavily armed. It’s my third day at the SHOT Show, the American gun industry’s annual hardware sales extravaganza and dealer preview, held this year at the cavernous Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. I’m lingering in front of one of the 1,500 exhibitor booths, recalling something my friend Frank Hernandez, a Dallas activist lawyer and former state judge, frequently quips when considering a political retreat: “This is one Mexican you won’t catch taking a knife to a gunfight.” Well, carnal, now you can have it both ways. In my right hand is a gun and a knife. Beneath the six-inch blade lurks a tiny barrel, and inside the handle is concealed a five-shot, .22-caliber long rifle revolver.

This “knife,” as it’s classified-Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms approval pending-retails for around $800, or $2,300 for the Millenium Edition. The idea is that you can either stab your adversary, or shoot him, or both. Or neither, maybe, in the event the thing backfires in your hand, or, if in the crush of fighting, you forget which way the bullet comes out and shoot yourself. Or stab yourself. Or both. You can also get one to fit as a bayonet on an AR-15. Options-I like that. Still, I have to ask the sales rep, “What on earth would anyone use this for?” He gives me an indulgent, though rather cold-eyed once-over. “It’s up to you,” he shrugs.

Whatever you may think of the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF)- a powerful, Connecticut-based umbrella trade group for retailers, distributors, and manufacturers-one thing is for sure: Old Man River will run dry and the bayous will be filled with champagne before the show returns to the Crescent City. Not long after my stroll down Tchoupitoulas St., the NSSF’s governing board announced that it wasn’t coming back for a scheduled convention in 2004-or “in the foreseeable future.” In a letter to the president of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, NSSF President Robert Delfay wrote, “It is no secret that our industry feels distinctly unwelcome in the Crescent City by virtue of Mayor Morial’s lawsuit against not only legitimate and responsible firearms manufacturers, but also against the National Shooting Sports Foundation itself.”

In 1998 Morial, son of the popular former mayor for whom the convention center is named, initiated a class action lawsuit, later joined by 30 other cities, against the gun industry, seeking to hold manufacturers responsible for gun-related crimes and violence. (New Orleans has a lot of experience with that.) The NSSF wasn’t amused. Last year Delfay summarily pulled the show from New Orleans and brought it to Las Vegas, depriving the city of what he estimated to be $50 million in revenue. He brought it back in 2001 because (1) the Las Vegas facilities turned out to be not as spacious or convenient, and (2) the Republican governor of Louisiana, avid outdoorsman Tom Foster, begged for its return. Among other things, Foster cited a law passed by the industry-friendly Louisiana legislature seeking to ban municipal lawsuits against gun manufacturers. Earlier this month the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the legislature’s move, in effect defeating Morial.

But Delfay doesn’t like being in Morial’s city anyway, and he doesn’t mind saying so publicly. As in: “No one holds greater animosity toward the Mayor of New Orleans and his transparent political motivations in suing our industry than the staff and the Board of Governors of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.” Of course, there’s also the rather obvious clash of cultures: Morial’s town is poor and predominantly black; Delfay’s SHOT Show is well-heeled and overwhelmingly white. It was exceedingly rare to see African Americans, other than convention center or county employees, at the event.

The mother of all American gun shows, the SHOT show presents a hunting and outdoor equipment cornucopia that runs nearly a mile down the length of the convention center. That becomes about six miles if you walk through all the mazes of aisles. A reporter for the Times-Picayune says it took him 14 hours to visit each of the displays. It took me even longer, but I’m easily distracted. Give it a name and it’s there. Popular hunter favorites such as Remington, Winchester, Beretta, Mossberg, and Browning pull you into their elaborate compounds, where you can browse for hours, checking out the venison-and-potatoes breed like Remington’s Model 700 Titanium .30-06, Browning’s Gold 20-gauge Deer Hunter, or one that catches me by surprise-Winchester’s new Model 9410 lever action, which looks a lot like a lever action .30-.30, but is really a .410 shotgun. And then there are the high-end manufacturers such as Weatherby, Mannlicher, and Perazzi, which feature paired shotguns, safari rifles, and trophy-case high calibers whose precision tooling, gold inlays, and elegant, hand-carved stocks put price tags well into the seven figures.

You’ll want to look good, of course. Brown and Beretta, Glock and other big names aren’t just selling the bang these days, but the look to go with it. Let’s just say if you figured to get out in the woods in your Sears plaids and Dickey’s khakis you’re going to feel very underdressed this year.

Nor do you need to get all spartan about the outdoors. Every need is being anticipated, even those you may not think you have. “Cajun” flavored marinade injection is available for your roast beast, and there’s in-the-bag fast-cook chow for when you can’t light a fire. I swirl through a consumer sea of duck calls, turkey calls, dog whistles, deer feed, camouflage paint, dog training seminars, impressive new trigger locks, Internet providers which give $1 of your monthly fee to the NRA, ergonomic skinning axes, and even knives that are actually knives. At the booths for Nikon, Bausch & Lomb, and Zeiss, to name but a few, I can play around with high-tech binoculars and tripod-mounted scopes-more and more of which seem to be developed for the huge birdwatching market. Bowhunters have plenty to look forward to as well, from better camouflage to tougher points and shafts and bows so precisely engineered, cantilevered, and counterweighted that you may need an advanced degree just to aim one.

As with all industry previews, what’s here filters out during the year to outlets throughout the country, not to say the world. I’m lost amid thousands of retailers, chain buyers- police and military representatives such as the two uniformed Brazilian cops next to me looking over an Armalite display of handguns and assault rifles. Nearly 2,000 of the 25,291 visitors come from 65 foreign countries. One of them, Barbel Ehret, is part of a six-person contingent sent by the German manufacturer Anschutz, which ponied up $6,000 for the booth space, $800 for each person’s airfare, and about $100 a day each for hotel rooms. “It’s definitely worth it,” she says. “We meet lots of people and do many presentations? It’s good to meet the others here and see what they are showing.”

Bill Pate, of Bill’s Gun Trader gun shop in Lufkin, Texas, didn’t come from so far away, but he has similar motives. He and partners Joe Marsh and Allen Repp constitute one of the show’s prime geographical audiences: the Lone Star state, whose nearly 5,000 licensed dealers make it the nation’s leader, followed by California with just over 3,500.

Given the dedication and enthusiasm of exhibitors and visitors, you’d think the NSSF would be happy as a hunter with an 8-point buck. Not so. Don Gobel, retiring president of Browning, and chair of the all-white, all-male NSSF Board of Governors, set the tone on the show’s opening night. Speaking at a special state-of-the-industry public meeting, he came on like Cassandra, describing the gun industry as “under attack like never before.” A big slide screen to one side of the dais flashed a picture of George W. Bush, and Gobel led the attendees, including Wayne LaPierre, of the National Rifle Association, sitting in the front row, in sustained applause. Gobel congratulated the NSSF for its $6 million get-out-the-vote campaign, which he said tipped the electoral scales in marginal states. Every subsequent speaker found room to attack former President Clinton, Mayor Morial, the misguided public, and those ever-culpable media distortions.

What the NSSF mostly may be worried about, though, is demographics, not rhetoric from liberals, bunny-huggers, and urban constituencies. Overall gun industry sales are growing-hunting and shooting sports combined claim an impressive $75 billion in economic impact-but the future is not considered especially healthy. The average income of the outdoor hunter has risen to $44,000 a year, from $38,000, but the average age has increased from 33 years to 44. Meanwhile, the number of licensed hunters has remained flat over the last 20 years-about 15 million, although 1999 showed a modest increase from sharp downturns the three previous years. (If you add in recreational shooters, the current figure jumps to about 25 million.) Meanwhile, the U. S. population has risen to 281 million from 226 million. As an NSSF report notes, you could interpret the numbers as denoting “a hunting population top heavy with older hunters.”

To show a “positive message” in the face of “negative and challenging realities” Delfay is pushing the organization to continue its aggressive lobbying, legal, and public relations campaigns against gun control. He also wants new initiatives for its outreach programs, especially to new and younger hunters and sport shooters, as shown in the group’s support of education programs with groups such as 4-H clubs and the Women’s Shooting Sports Foundation, funding of programs such as Project HomeSafe, aid to the U.S. Biathlon Association and U.S. Shooting Team, and new links with ESPN.

Without wishing to be accused of being any more of a media distorter than I probably already am, let me just add that for a “shooting, hunting, and outdoor sports” show, this one has plenty of lethality which has little relation to the hunting of animals or shooting of skeet. Powerful handguns, semiautomatics, and sundry black-clad accouterments from manufacturers such as Glock, Smith & Wesson, and Armalite, take up dozens and dozens of booths marketed to police, military, and paramilitary personnel. Okay, all those people need weapons for fighting crime and rebel insurgencies and so forth, but to market it side by side with legitimate sporting and hunting products? A little apples and oranges for my taste. But what do I know? For the better part of four days I’ve been furtively stalking a tripod-mounted, .50-caliber, AW50 sniper rifle on the table near the hot dog concession. Hey-it’s half-off-just $5,500.

And don’t think I haven’t shopped around. These big fifties are everywhere-“the new toy right now”-one retailer tells me. Prices range from a $1,600 markdown special on the Grizzly Big Boar through a half-dozen or more, suggested retail $2,000 to $5,000 or so. But the competitors seem testosteronic contrivances-big barrels attached to ugly plastic stocks and grips. Still, like pro wrestlers, they make you look.

The AW50 is made to NATO specifications by Britain’s Accuracy International Ltd.-muscle, but with method. The weapon can fire a one-foot shot group at 600 yards, with a range of up to 2,500 yards; with full metal jacket, it’s capable of armor penetration. All a combat weapon should be.

But I ain’t in the army anymore. What would I do with all that firepower? I ask a competitor, a rep for Anzio Ironworks, a St. Petersburg, Florida company just out with a lighter, sport-shooting fifty retailing for about $2,500. Perhaps he is also a student of linguistic deconstruction, for he thinks my question is meaningless: “Of course, it’s up to the individual what he wants to do with it.” From what I can tell, this usually means blowing the bejesus out of targets and odd bits of debris up in the hills, or maybe pulverizing varmints out on the lonesome prairie. But hunting per se? What would be left to eat, skin, or mount? Still, people like their fifties; there’s a national association for owners of these and other “Very High Power” weapons. You can even get ultra-cheap “pulled” rounds for around 8 cents each from John’s Guns in Palestine, Texas, if you buy at least one million (or 13 cents each in lots of a quarter-million), beating the average price of $1-$2 per bullet through surplus retail. What this means is that there are a lot more of these things out there than you might think.

So maybe this is a good time to get in. If I can get the AW50 for half its steep $11,000 list, I can re-sell it at a handy profit. Won’t need a license as long as it’s just a one-time thing. I’m already talking to a guy from Indiana who might be interested. As for a spare $5,500, well, I don’t think I can expense my editor, but I do have credit cards. The lure is primitive. Then again, I’m a guy who can spend an hour looking at powerful things I don’t need in a hardware store. Which is what I finally decide about the fifty.

I don’t need it.

Rod Davis is travel editor of the San Antonio Express-News and author of American Voudou: Journey into a Hidden World.