By Sari Horwitz
The Washington Post
LAS VEGAS _The tens of thousands of gun enthusiasts, sellers and manufacturers gathering here for the world's largest firearms show are well aware of the political battle unfolding in Washington over tighter controls on assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines. They are neither worried nor reassured.
A gun dealer from Indiana was happy to offer his view of what's happening in Washington the day before President Barack Obama is set to outline what is expected to be an ambitious effort to tighten controls.
"It's ridiculous," Steve Drake, the owner of the Gun Den in Shelbyville, Ind., said Tuesday outside the show's well-guarded entrance. "Newtown is a tragedy, but it goes back to insane people. You can't control insane people. What we need to do is put more arms in sane people's hands so insane people won't be able to get so many shots off."
Drake's comments echoed the leaders of the National Rifle Association and other gun advocates who say that efforts should be focused on registering mentally ill people and putting armed guards in schools, not restricting access to assault weapons.
The 63-year-old father of four is one of 60,000 manufacturers, hunters, firearms dealers and gun rights advocates expected at the 35th annual Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show and Conference, known in the trade as "the SHOT show." They come in business suits, camouflage and blue jeans.
Sprawling across two floors of the Sands expo and convention center and spilling into the luxury Venetian hotel next door, the show offers 12.5 miles of more than 1,000 exhibits featuring the newest and most sophisticated weapons and gear, from Bushmaster semiautomatic rifles and body armor to gun-cleaning kits and hunting vests.
The show is closed to the public and the mainstream press, though reporters from publications with names like Guns & Ammo and American Rifleman wander freely among the booths.
The Washington Post attended the show in 2010 and 2011 and was invited to attend this year. But after the massacre of 20 children and six adults in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school by a man with a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle and high-capacity magazines, show organizers would not allow The Post or other mainstream news organizations inside.
Many people in town for the show were equally publicity-shy, refusing to talk about the current debate. Even industry executives who did speak asked that their names not be used to avoid being singled out.
One arms manufacturing executive said he and many others do not believe that any new restrictions will pass Congress. The chief executive of another gun maker said he was disappointed by the debate in Washington.
"Lawmakers should put their efforts into harsher penalties for straw purchasers, more prosecutions of violators of gun laws already on the books and more treatment and sharing of state information about the mentally ill," the executive said in an interview in his hotel suite, where an armed guard was posted outside the door.
Promoted as "The Event That Keeps On Giving," the show is sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, whose headquarters are about three miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. NSSF President Steve Sanetti, who was among the gun advocates who met with Vice President Joe Biden last week, says the industry is misunderstood, particularly in the aftermath of Newtown.
"We all must recognize that those who don't agree with us share in our desire to rid the world of such monstrous acts and they must recognize that we are not the evildoers," Sanetti said in remarks prepared for delivery to a closed-door dinner Tuesday. "Ours is a responsible industry that makes and sells lawful products to law-abiding citizens."
Those products were displayed inside the cavernous convention hall, where some large booths are designed to replicate rustic log cabins and others stream video footage of hunters shooting game in the African bush. Celebrities such as actor Joe Mantegna roam the floor and gun rights advocates hand out bumper stickers: "America: Armed and Free," and "Guns Don't Kill People. People Kill People."
"It's the mother of all gun shows, a gun show on steroids," said one official from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak for the agency.
ATF and other law enforcement officials are here. ATF agents set up a large booth next to the gun manufacturers. The FBI has a booth nearby, handing out information promoting its criminal background check system. Federal agents hold seminars for gun dealers on how to adhere to laws governing the sale of guns and how to watch for "straw purchasers," people who illegally buy firearms for others.
One of the most popular booths in past years has been where the Bushmaster rifle was on exhibit — one of the guns used in the Newtown shootings and in the Washington area sniper killings in 2002. Here, people do not call the Bushmaster — or any other AR-15 — an assault weapon. The NSSF has rebranded these firearms "modern sporting rifles."
A previous SHOT show was held 11 days after the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., outside a supermarket in Tucson. Six people were killed; Giffords and a dozen other people were wounded. The gunman used a high-capacity magazine similar to the one used in Newtown. SHOT show attendees that year were focused on doing business and preventing what they feared would be an erosion of their gun-ownership rights.
"What happened in Tucson was not a failure of gun-control laws," Lawrence Keane, general counsel of the NSSF, said after the Giffords shooting. "This was a failure of the mental health system."