The 53rd annual Bel Air Gun Show, held Friday, Saturday and scheduled for Sunday at the Bel Air Reckord Armory, is setting records for attendance and sales, according to leaders of the Harford County Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, the show's sponsor.
There were long lines to get into the imposing castle-like building on North Main Street Friday night, as only 400 people can be inside at one time to comply with fire regulations, and that limit was being met constantly, the show's director said.
Saturday afternoon, there was a steady stream of people of all ages filing into the armory, as one of the Izaak Walton League members used a hand counter at the door to make sure the occupancy limit wasn't exceeded. There wasn't a parking spot to be had along several blocks of Main Street and nearby parking lots were also packed.
Inside, it was a little difficult to move among the tables of long guns, handguns, accessories, knives and other outdoor equipment, both new and used, which were on display or sale. There was a constant buzz from the floor, as visitors talked with vendors and among themselves, while they looked over the thousands of guns and other items for sale.
The dealers were equipped to handle the state background checks required for long gun sales on the spot, and several people left the armory carrying rifles and shotguns. The paperwork required for the sale of a handgun and the Maryland State Police background checks take longer, so anyone who purchased a handgun at the show would still have to pick it up from the dealer once that process is completed, explained Jim Lagan, the show's director, who said all the transactions comply with applicable state and federal laws.
The most popular man at the show appeared to be Dale Bowman, of Bowman's Gun Shop in Darlington, who was selling ammunition, a scarce commodity now that many gun owners fear the government may one day require extensive records on its sale or even limit its purchase, in the wake of last month's shooting rampage that killed 20 children and six staff at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
"Holy jeepers!" exclaimed Gary Kiebler from behind Bowman's sales table, when a customer asked him how sales were going. By early Saturday afternoon, they had already sold out of 9 mm and 40 caliber ammo, Kiebler said, and what they had left on the table was going fast, with buyers pulling out cash and handing it over as quickly as Kiebler could take and count it.
Bowman acknowledged that fear of more federal control over gun ownership is driving a scarcity of both ammunition and popular firearms.
"This happened four years ago when [President] Obama came in and there was concern about what they would do," explained Bowman, who said the rise in demand then caused shortages for about a year.
A regular at the Bel Air show, Bowman said he couldn't predict how long the buying frenzy might last, but he said it is likely to continue for some time.
As he examined a shotgun, Warren Smith, of Linthicum, recalled how when he took off a semester at the University of Maryland back in 1968 and was drafted into the Army, he was given an M-16 rifle "to qualify with, maintain and carry for two years."
"Forty-five years later, my government is telling me I can't own an M-16 [unless purchased prior to 1986 by federal law], and I want to know why?" Smith continued, saying that Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton "are the best thing that ever happened to the firearms industry," because they had proposed reinstating a federal ban on the possession of assault weapons, which expired nine years ago.
"That had exactly the opposite effect of what they intended," he added.
Smith said he had once been content to own a bolt-action rifle, a revolver and a pump shotgun but, like many gun owners fearing more government controls or outright bans on some guns, he went out and bought semi-automatic handguns, rifles and shotguns.
"Now the government is talking about maybe limiting ammo purchases, and I want to know why?" he said.
Lagan, a Fallston resident, who has been coordinating and directing the Bel Air show for the past 15 years, said he has no doubt this year's show will be the biggest ever in terms of both attendance and sales.
Asked if he thought the fear of more government gun control had been behind the surge in attendance, he smiled and replied, "Sort of."
Though the show was slated to be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, Lagan said he was more concerned that some of his 28 vendors would run out of stock or that it might snow (a 60 percent chance, according to the latest NWS forecast), rather than the possibility people would stay home to get fired up for the Ravens later in the day.
The big crowds at this year's show mean more money for the Izaak Walton League's programs, and both Lagan and Harford Chapter President Steve Tresnak, of Edgewood, said that's more important to them than the reason for all the interest. Admission to the show is $5 for adults and $2 students under 16.
"This is our biggest fund-raiser," Lagan said.
Proceeds from the show are used by the Izaak Walton League's Harford Chapter to fund its annual scholarship program and for the various environmental and conservation programs in the county in which the chapter is involved.
Tresnak noted the chapter is particularly active in efforts to protect the Bush River and its Otter Point Creek tributary, where the chapter owns a 350-acre nature conservancy donated by the late Melvin G. Bosely.
The Harford Chapter annually makes five $1,000 scholarships available to Harford County high school seniors planning college studies in conservation and related fields.
"That's what I'm most proud of what we do," Lagan said.
To find out more about the Harford Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, visit http://www.iwla.org/harfordcounty.