WASHINGTON — Vera Torres went to the Nation’s Gun Show in Chantilly, Va. last month looking for a handgun. She left with Amazing Wonder Tops.
She found the impossible-to-wrinkle blouses at a table that also featured Native American necklaces, not far from a jeweler selling $7,500 timepieces, across from a table of high-powered rifles, around the corner from herbal aromatherapy heating pads and .45-caliber handguns and a pop-up DVD store whose categories included “WWII at Sea” and “Napoleonic.”
Gun shows have long peddled gun-related goods alongside the weapons on display — ammunition, holsters, sights, target s, cleaning supplies. But in the past decade or so, as the number of gun shows has ballooned to more than 5,000 a year and the number of people attending them has soared to an estimated 25 million to 30 million, the weekend events have become traveling malls.
Entrepreneurs target first-time shoppers not ready to pull the trigger on a gun, bored wives, families on Sunday outings, and men with guilty consciences in need of bling. A sign at one jewelry stand in Chantilly offered a reminder: “Mother’s Day is May 12.”
Gun shows have been attracting record crowds — the result of background checks and other gun-control measures being considered by Congress. But even before the debate in Washington, business at many big gun shows was already strong, helped along by the efforts to cater to those less interested in weapons and more interested in camouflage onesies, beef jerky and Amazing Wonder Tops.
“You can dress them up or dress them down,” Arnold Roberson, the dealer selling the blouses, told Torres. “Put it in a suitcase and then put it on and look like a million bucks.”
Torres didn’t need a sales pitch. She had purchased the garments — $15 each or two for $25 — in black, purple, blue and red the previous day. She liked them so much she came back the next day to buy “every other color.”
Some gun-show purists aren’t thrilled with the flea market atmosphere. The Tulsa Arms Show, one of the country’s biggest events, posted this warning recently to its vendors: “Absolutely no toys, no candy, no food items of any kind, no survival food, no snacks, no food storage or tupperware, no drinks, no nutritional items, no handbags, no makeup, no scents, no hair products or accessories, no candles, no wickless candles.”
The Nation’s Gun Show doesn’t have such restrictions. Last month, among the more than 1,000 tables at the show, Russell Guthrie had several tables of watches, rings, bracelets and copper coins, including a $3,000 Rolex and a $7,500 Cartier Santos pocket watch.
“I don’t have any cheap stuff,” Guthrie said. “Everything goes. There’s something out there for everyone.”
Gun shows are often portrayed by gun-control advocates as dangerous places where dangerous people arm themselves for dangerous encounters. The reality, gun-show regulars and observers say, is far different.
“Gun shows are a social event,” said Joan Burbick, the author of “Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy.” “They have become a real scene. It’s not just a place to just go buy a gun anymore.”
Or as Pete Lamb, the owner of food merchant Jerky Pete, put it: “People think we’re just a bunch of rednecks with weapons and ammo and we want to blow stuff up. That’s just not true. This is an organized business.”
In Chantilly, Michelle Brewster was wandering the aisles with her five children, ages 4 to 11, while her husband was, well, somewhere at the show not with them.
“My husband comes for the guns,” said Brewster, who lives in Virginia’s Fauquier County, “and we come for the jewelry and the coins.
“This is a family Sunday out,” she said. “It’s fun.”
Steven Davison, an Arlington, Va. plastic surgeon, was looking at another table of jewelry with his daughter Sophia, 10. His wife had wanted him to take one of their kids with him.
“My son didn’t want to come,” Davison said. “My daughter did after I told her there would be jewelry.”
Sophia said, “I also wanted to make him happy, and it sounded like fun.”
She had $25 in “walking-around money” burning up her pocket but hadn’t figured out what to spend it on yet.
Her dad bought a shotgun.
A few aisles away, Rick Audino, a North Carolina art dealer, had a corner booth where he was selling $2,000 paintings of Civil War scenes by John Paul Strain. He’d sold more than a dozen. Many of his buyers at shows in the Washington area — “the only place in the country left with money,” he said — are government contractors or federal law enforcement officials, or occasionally a CIA officer.
They come looking for new holsters or other gear but often leave with a painting instead. Audino does not have a gallery. He has gun shows.
“If you have a gallery, you are waiting for people to come to you,” he said. “This way, we bring it to them. People say, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect that here.’ Then they go, ‘Oh, I like that.’ Then they buy it.”
At the Annapolis Gun Show last month in Maryland, Henry Sobel stopped by because he was thinking of buying his first shotgun. Instead, he was nibbling on beef jerky.
The beef jerky at gun shows — a staple like Auntie Anne’s pretzels at the mall food court — is often so delectable that people drop by just to pick up a pound.
“I’ll give you pepper first,” said Trish Holsinger, the co-proprietor of Holsinger’s Meats & Deli, which was across from a table of high-powered rifles and a not-so-small cache of ammunition. “It’s black pepper. It’s subtle. The red pepper is not subtle. It’s slap-your-face hot.”
Sobel tried the slap in the face. His assessment: “Whoa.”
Sobel, an Annapolis OB-GYN, did not leave with the hot stuff, or a shotgun. He did leave the show — his first — with $21 worth of beef jerky and a dried pig ear for his dog Killian, who was turning 5.
“It’s a real grin to leave a gun show with beef jerky,” he said. “My wife is very opposed to guns, and she wasn’t thrilled with me coming to a gun show. But now I’m coming home with all these treats for everyone, so it’s a win-win.”
Trish and her husband, Bob Holsinger, are part of a multi-generation meat business operating near Hagerstown, Md. They have been selling at gun shows for about two years.
Trish and Bob’s father were not convinced there was a market at gun events, but now they do about 10 percent of their business at the shows.
“When he first said ‘gun shows’ to me, I gave him a look like, ‘What?’” Trish said.
Now the Holsingers often sell more 200 pounds at a show, at $18 a pound. Their company does more than 100 shows a year.
“He was right,” Trish said, “and I was wrong.”
A man was standing at their table holding a shotgun from the 1800s. He was sampling several varieties of jerky.
Asked his name, the man said, “Tom.” Asked his last name, Tom said, “Why?”
Asked whether he liked the idea of beef jerky at gun shows, Tom said, “If it wasn’t for the guns, I wouldn’t have any jerky.”