People browse and buy at the Crossroads of the West gun show in Ontario. “Obama… (Christina House, For The…)
Women pushing strollers stopped to peer at handguns in glass cases. Men squinted through scopes. The "clack-clack" of stun guns crackled overhead. A man meandered through the crowd, a black rifle slung over his back with a cardboard sign: "For sale: $1,700."
Less than a month after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school, business was brisk at one of the nation's largest gun shows, held this weekend at the Ontario Convention Center, where vendors and patrons alike expressed fear of possible new federal restrictions on guns.
Ryan Girard, 41, surveyed the crowd at the Crossroads of the West show Sunday afternoon, a box of ammunition in his hands. "It's out of control this weekend," he said. "People are just scared of what could or could not happen."
Girard said he tried to go to the show Saturday but the out-the-door line was more than four hours long. He opted to come back about 6 a.m. Sunday, three hours before the event opened. He said about 500 people already had staked out spots by the time he arrived.
"I'll tell you right now, Obama is the No.1 gun salesman in the nation," Girard said. "The NRA should give him an award."
President Obama, who has voiced support of a federal ban on assault weapons since his 2008 campaign, tasked his administration with reviewing gun policy shortly after the Newtown, Conn., massacre. Several lawmakers have pledged support of new gun measures, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who promised to introduce an assault-weapons ban similar to the one she wrote in 1994. That ban expired in 2004.
California is home to some of the nation's toughest gun laws. The state has bans on assault weapons and on ammunition clips holding more than 10 rounds, strong background check requirements and a 10-day waiting period for sales.
Businesses and trade associations across the country have reported a surge in gun and ammunition sales in recent weeks. The FBI reported 2.78 million firearm background checks were conducted in December — the highest monthly figure since routine background checks were first required in November 1998.
Although gun sales are typically higher in December because of the holidays, last month's background check figure was up more than 900,000 from December 2011. It was also nearly three times the number of checks conducted in October 2001, a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But, the agency said, a "one-to-one correlation" between background checks and gun sales could not be made because of "varying state laws and purchase scenarios."
Frequent vendors said they have seen a noticeable increase in sales.
"It's crazy," said Ken Hunt, 51. "Everyone's nervous about what the government's going to do."
Hunt sat in front of a table lined with plastic bags of steel and brass shell casings. Sales were up, he said, and so were prices. A few weeks ago, Hunt said, he sold 10,000 .223 casings for $500. On Sunday he sold packages of 500 for $75 — triple the price per casing.
Chris Kaufman, 62, worked at one of the largest ammunition booths at the show. It brought three semi trucks of merchandise, and three-quarters was gone Saturday. The stand bought out the inventory of a closing business so it would have enough to sell the next day.
The booth, which travels to major gun shows throughout California, Nevada and Arizona, is seeing five to 10 times as much business as normal, Kaufman said.
Although gun events in some parts of the country also reported larger-than-usual crowds, several other shows have been canceled, including several near Newtown.
Hector Garcia, 49, who managed a booth at the Ontario show, said that as a father of two young children, he has thought a lot about the elementary school shooting. But he doesn't think additional legislation will necessarily help.
"Everybody feels bad, no doubt," he said. "But banning guns and restricting people is not going to do anything to prevent that crazy person."
Fears of gun restrictions are nothing new. Many vendors said they've seen similar, although smaller, surges after Obama and President Clinton were elected — "every time the political winds seem to blow," Kaufman said.
But many said the crowds in Ontario were unlike anything they had seen before. Harold Holmes, 51, said he usually goes to a show in San Diego but chose the Ontario event because of its timing.
"It's right before the Legislature has time to act," he said, several boxes of ammunition sitting in a wheeled cart at his feet.
Holmes said he was shopping for extra ammunition for an antique military rifle and pistol — "just to stock up," he said. "Just in case."
The only pause to Sunday's activities at the Ontario gun show came when a woman's voice over the loudspeaker asked attendees to stop and "find a flag … so we can honor our beloved country." She then began reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as attendees doffed their hats. A quote attributed to George Washington — "The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference. They deserve a place of honor with all that is good." — was read moments before.
Two lines wound around the ammunition booth, one side for pistols, the other for rifles. An employee walked a man and woman past thinning boxes of bullets, stopping at the end of the booth to point to an empty shelf.
"Oh, wow," the woman said.