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Arizona shooting: business booms at Tucson gun fair

The Stars and Stripes were fluttering at half-mast at Tucson's Pima County Fairgrounds on Saturday, but the demand for guns among its visitors was higher than ever before.

Seven days after a man opened fire in a supermarket car park, 8,000 people gathered on the other side of the city to worship weapons like the one that left six local people dead and 13 wounded.

Their church was a hangar on the edge of the Arizona desert, backed by the Rincon mountains. Undeterred by the week's horrors, they meandered through aisles packed with lethal equipment.

Bob Templeton, the president of the Crossroads of the West gun show, which rolls into Tucson five times a year, estimated that visitor numbers were up 50pc because of the Safeway killings.

“Any time gun owners feel their rights to use firearms lawfully may be challenged, they turn out in numbers,” said the plump, mild-mannered 72-year-old, whose shows cater to 600,000 people a year.

With a tan, sports jacket and neatly parted white hair suggesting a familiarity with second-rate country clubs, he said high-profile massacres tend to “energise folks who are Second Amendment advocates”.

Mr Templeton rejected suggestions that he should have cancelled. “We have people travelling in from seven or eight states, and some were already on the road” he said. “We decided to go ahead”.

And while he wouldn't “put words in her mouth”, he said of Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman still critical in hospital after being seriously wounded in the attack: “I can't imagine she'd oppose”.

A sign on the front gate told visitors that only unloaded weapons could be brought onsite. Some carried their rifles on their shoulders for show, others with “for sale” signs stuck on their backs.

An hour in, the queue for entry snaked back towards the car park. As a breeze chilled the morning sun, a cheerful man tried to sell those in line $55 classes in gun law and safety. No one was interested.

Beside him, the men holding the National Rifle Association (NRA) raffle were doing a brisk trade, however. For $10-$20 tickets, players could win one of six assault rifles of varying power and value.

“Come win a gun raffle, folks,” said one, identified by his name badge as Ron M. “Come take a look.” Two Hispanic girls in their 20s hurried to the onsite cash machine to withdraw funds for a punt.

If they won, they would not walk out with their prizes today, Ron explained. They would need to take a voucher to a local gun shop, where they must “pass all the usual checks” before claiming their bounty.

The trouble for some is that the 15-minute check – which is run by the FBI and looks for a criminal record, time spent in prison or committal to a mental health unit – is simply not comprehensive enough.

Jared Lee Loughner, the 22-year-old being held for last week's killing spree, was deemed too unstable to attend college, and unfit to join the army. Yet he appears to have bought a $599 pistol with ease.

The NRA, usually the single loudest voice in the debate over firearms regulation, fell silent this week in the wake of another mass shooting. “At this time anything other than prayers for the victims and their families would be inappropriate,” a spokesman said.

But Ron appears not to have received the memo. “Any new regulations they bring in would be a knee-jerk reaction to a tragedy,” he said. “A gun didn't kill people. A mad man did. In Britain you banned guns and now the only folks with 'em are criminals.”

At the front of the queue, after paying their $10 entrance fees the crowds decanted into the sliding-doors of the huge, corrugated metal shed. Several were accompanied by wide-eyed children.

Some promptly stopped at Burl's Gun Sales to examine the Crickett 'My First Rifle', a fully-working, miniature version of Daddy's gun for four- to 10-year-olds, priced at $139.95 in either pink or black.

Over at the Glock stall, things were frantic. The makers of the 9mm semi-automatic G19 allegedly used by Loughner to shoot Miss Giffords through the head had underestimated the interest in their wares.

“Business is dramatically up,” said Steve Zacher, the leading salesman, who could only apologise that he was unable to pause from processing credit card payments.

“I put it down to the media exposure, which has focused attention on the brand, and the potential for new restrictions being brought in,” Mr Zacher said.

How many had he sold in the first 90 minutes? “I don't reveal numbers,” he said. “But I can tell you I'm noticing about a thousand per cent rise in these.”

He gestured to the range of high-capacity ammunition clips, including the 33-round 9mm magazine “supposed to have been the one that the guy used last week”, which was priced at $50.

Loughner is alleged to have been able to fire 31 of his first magazine's rounds at victims, including nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, before being prevented from reloading.

Critics say there is simply no need for such large magazines. Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York, this weekend suggested the city police would boycott manufacturers who sold them to the public.

A short, stocky man shopping with his son, who looked about 8 years old, was stocking up on the 33-round clips, but wasn't keen to talk. “We're all set, thanks,” he said.

Chris Bonhoff, a 24-year-old mortgage salesman from Tucson, was cocking a G17 9mm pistol and passing it from hand to hand. He was considering handing over $500 to take it home.

“They're good, reliable guns,” he said. “I want one for self-defence and sport.” He was undeterred by the events of last weekend. “It's not the company's fault that this thing happened, he said.

And he would have no qualms using the “hi-cap” magazines, which were made illegal under the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004, and was not renewed despite frequent attempts.

“There's no difference between one large clip and two smaller clips,” Mr Bonhoff said. “If a person wants to kill someone, they will.”

“An experienced firearm user can change magazines so quickly that it doesn't matter what he uses,” said Mr Zacher. “And it doesn't matter what we sell.”

The salesman described the clips as “novelty items”. Asked to explain, he said: “They were not meant for regular Glocks. They're for the ones used by the cops. But they happen to fit these too.”

He insisted a ban would not have restricted Loughner's rampage. “There will always be a scapegoat in these tragedies,” he said. “It's simply not the case that these magazines make them more likely.”

“This show didn't have anything to do with what happened, the type of people at this show didn't cause it, and the products we sell didn't cause it,” he said, remaining perfectly calm. “One person caused it.”

“What happened was a complete aberration. Business must continue, and we will continue to sell responsibly. We've had no negative comments.”

Mr Bonhoff agreed. “It's not the gun's fault, and it's not the clip's fault,” he said. “This could have happened with any gun, anywhere. The wrong person happened to have a firearm.”

The view that this was precisely the problem, and that more must be done to stop the wrong people getting guns, was expressed the previous evening in a most unlikely location, 70 miles south.

The city of Tombstone has a special place in the annals of American gun use. In 1881, in an alley off Fremont Street, the Earps and Doc Holliday clashed with the Clantons and McLaurys at the OK Corral.

At six o'clock on Friday, as the son set across the old-style dusty streets, and the chapel bells chimed to 'Onward Christian Soldiers', Dave Nunley, 48, said some cowboys cared about health and safety.

“Like Reagan, I believe in safety in strength,” said Mr Nunley, who runs ghost and murder tours in full western garb. “People are less liable to take advantage if they think you can protect yourself.

“But we need more background checks, of course. People should be checked for any psychological problems, violent tendencies, and any kind of anti-social behaviour.”

Mr Nunley said the law passed in April last year allowing Arizonans to carry concealed weapons without a permit – only people in Alaska and Vermont can do the same – should be scrapped.

Further down East Allen Street, past the Crystal Palace Saloon, on whose door a sign in 'Wanted' poster typeface tells the stetston-wearing clientele “NO WEAPONS”, another Tombstoner agreed.

Elba White, 33, was working behind the counter at the gift and souvenir shop, where rows of toy pistols and rifles sat for sale beside an extensive range of Wyatt Earp memorabilia.

“People should be able to have guns, yes,” she said. “But as well as police records, we need better mental health records. And most importantly, we need to ask simply: why do they want a gun?”

Back at the gun show, however, there was little appetite for reform, according to Anthony Johnson, a 40-year-old Californian working at the biggest ammunition stall, who had slipped out of a side door.

“People get furious about their Second Amendment rights,” said Mr Johnson, who was frying a Venison sausage sent from friends in Minnesota. “But I don't get it. I'm more of a spiritual kind of guy.”

Some even suggested that any attempt by lawmakers to further limit their freedom to bear arms would prompt a fierce backlash against leaders in Washington eclipsing that of the Tea Party.

“You ain't seen nothin' yet,” said Tommy, a middle-aged, moustachioed gun vendor wearing a lumberjack shirt and battered baseball cap bearing the slogan 'God Bless America'.

“Our country has been protected until now because we were a nation under God,” he said. “The more they change that, the more they glorify Satan, the more evil there's going to be in the country.”

Tommy, who declined to give other details, then repeated a belief that has been popularised by Glenn Beck, the star Fox News broadcaster, who is one of Barack Obama's most strident critics.

“Our present administration subscribes to Saul Alinsky's book 'Rules for Radicals',” Tommy said. “Every one of our top leaders follows that book, and it is dedicated to Satan,” he said.

Alinsky, who was born in Chicago in 1909, is known as the “father of community organising”. His work influenced Democratic politicians including Mr Obama and Hillary Clinton.

His last book, which was published in 1971 and intended as a manual for leftist activists, was indeed dedicated to Lucifer, “the first radical known to man”. But this was meant tongue-in-cheek.

Nevertheless, its links to the high-powered have convinced some American conservatives that Mr Obama is bent on turning the US into a godless, European-style social democracy.

“If you were in Britain, you would go to jail if you defended yourself against someone who came in and raped and killed your daughter, or your mother, or your wife,” Tommy said.

“But if there was a little good-lookin' chick here who was about four and a half feet tall, and there were six of us guys who wanted to force ourselves on her, you know, if she didn't want to go for it, and she had a gun, we probably wouldn't rape her.” He playfully tussled with a colleague and walked off.

Inside, the owner of a stab-proof vest stall, a large Chinese-American man in an orange and white hooped shirt, said that ultimately there was only one answer: more guns.

“The common sense analysis of what happened here last week is: the reason so many people died is that the gunman went to a political rally where most people were anti-gun,” he said.

“If he'd gone to a pro-gun rally, he wouldn't have lasted five minutes. That's the tragedy. If more of those people had had guns, they could have protected that little girl.”