UPPER MARLBORO - Nathaniel Dixon had been thinking for a while about buying an assault rifle, but it was the ban being debated in the General Assembly that cemented the deal.
He walked away from yesterday's gun show at the Showplace Arena here $1,100 poorer, but visibly pleased with his Olympic Arms .223-caliber semiautomatic, a formidable-looking weapon of military appearance that is nearly 3 feet long. He said he intends to use it to shoot turkeys.
"That bill spurred me on to make my purchase," said Dixon, 52, as he waited for gun dealer Sanford M. Abrams to complete a federal "instant check" for a criminal record. "I've been in the market for a .223 for some time. I'm a patient man, but I wanted to beat the ban."
At tables rented by Abrams' Parkville store, Valley Gun, a sign declared "Blow Out Sale! Assault Weapons - Cash and Carry." Abrams scurried about behind the table, struggling to keep up with the customers standing three deep around displays of firearms and accessories. Many were eyeing the rifles that would be outlawed by the proposed legislation.
"The legislature is my best salesman," said Abrams, vice president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association. "Before now, I haven't sold but one a month of these assault rifles. Now I'm selling as many as three a day in the shop."
By noon yesterday, Abrams said he had sold seven assault rifles at prices from $700 to $1,200. "As soon as you threaten to ban something, the first questions are, 'Where can I get it?' and 'How much does it cost?' " he said.
Polls show a solid majority of Marylanders favor adding assault rifles to the state's existing prohibition on the sale of assault pistols, particularly because a federal ban on automatic assault rifles expires in September. A survey this month by Gonzales Research of Annapolis found that 74 percent of 818 Maryland registered voters supported banning "military-style semiautomatic assault weapons."
In the Washington suburbs, where memories of the 2002 sniper attacks are still fresh, 81 percent favored the ban. But even in rural Western Maryland, 67 percent backed the ban. Some 77 percent of Democrats favored the ban, but so did 66 percent of Republicans.
"These are weapons designed for warfare," said Leah G. Barrett, executive director of CeaseFire Maryland, a gun-control group, which paid for the poll. "Their only purpose is to kill people as fast as possible."
But most of the more than 2,000 people who packed yesterday's gun show - one of 10 a year mounted in the state by Silverado Productions - would adamantly disagree.
They argued that anti-gun zealots have blurred the distinction between semiautomatic rifles, which fire one bullet each time the trigger is pulled, and fully automatic weapons, which continue to fire as long as the trigger is pressed. Fully automatic weapons are severely restricted by federal law; the proposed state ban affects semiautomatic assault rifles.
"People assume wrongly that an assault weapon is fully automatic," said Jim Moffitt, a 33-year-old surgical technologist from Frederick who bought a Ruger rifle for $350. "It's a lack of education."
Rich Wymetal, 52, of Dentsville in Charles County, said polls showing support for the assault weapon ban simply demonstrate that most Marylanders have no knowledge of guns and act out of fear.
"A lot of this stuff has to do with how people perceive weapons," he said. "It's as easy to kill a person with one bullet as 10."
Wymetal took advantage of the show to swap a $700 .22-caliber Mauser rifle for a similar, but in his view more elegant, Kimber model. He wasn't in the market for an assault rifle, but he opposes the ban.
In his rural neighborhood, where it can take 20 minutes for the police to arrive, Wymetal wants firearms for protection, he said.
Jay Vrable of Severn said the proposed law would destroy his hobby - competitive shooting of high-powered military rifles. At least once a month during the summer, he takes his Colt AR-15 to matches in which he shoots at targets from 100, 300 and 600 yards.
"People characterize them as assault weapons," he said. "But it's really for competition. I think the government should pretty much stay out of it except for regulating safety."
The arena bristled with firepower, including many models of the Bushmaster assault rifle used by convicted snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo to kill 10 people and injure three in the Washington area 17 months ago. But customers looking at the guns insisted that they obey gun laws and pose no threat to anyone.
Still, some of the merchandise displayed by more than 100 vendors illustrated why gun-show enthusiasts sometimes find themselves on the defensive.
For sale along with Wally's Original Gun Wipe Conditioner were books with such titles as Silencers for Hand Firearms, Sniper Training and Lock-Picking Simplified.
Frank Krasner, whose Silverado Productions runs the gun shows, had no apologies.
"If the anti-gunners were right, this show would be the most dangerous spot on earth," he said. "But you meet your friends, your neighbors, the nicest people you'd ever want to meet."
Maryland's Proposed Assault Rifle Ban
Legislation being debated in the Maryland General Assembly would:
Prohibit the sale of 45 listed models of semiautomatic assault rifles by adding them to the state's existing ban on assault pistols.
Prohibit the sale of "copycat" rifles with similar characteristics, as determined by the state's Handgun Roster Board.
Require the registration of any of the listed assault rifles or copycats legally possessed before Sept. 13, 2004.
Permit gun dealers to sell assault rifles already in stock.
For views in favor of the proposed ban: www.ceasefiremd.org/state_leg/bills/2004/
For views against the proposed ban: www.msrpa.org/legislative/sb288.htm
For The Sun's online coverage of the General Assembly: www.baltimoresun.com/assembly/