Depending on your philosophical position, throughout this weekend the Expo Mart at Pittsburgh Mills shopping mall near Tarentum is either the safest place in Allegheny County or the most dangerous.
A record crowd was expected at the two-day Pennsylvania Gun Collectors Association gun show. Eager to buy controversial firearms before anticipated regulation changes, fearful that some guns will be banned or looking for a good deal among skyrocketing prices, gun collectors waited outside in half-hour lines Saturday and jammed the aisles between vendors' tables.
Saturday, on national Gun Appreciation Day, group president Phil Dacey said weekend attendance was expected to top the organization's two-day record of 5,400 (plus an uncounted number of group members) set four years ago at Westmoreland Mall in Greensburg. Mr. Dacey said this weekend's crowd will easily surpass 2012's record of about 3,300.
"This will beat that," he said, at his World War II memorabilia booth. "It was crazy this morning."
Surrounding Mr. Dacey, dozens of federally licensed dealers filled display tables with new, used and antique firearms, knives and military gadgets. In the crowded aisles, private dealers hoping to make a sale carried guns slung over their shoulders with "For Sale" signs taped to the muzzles. It was a family affair with children tagging along behind mom and dad and joking about stacks of T-shirts and bumper stickers bearing funny conservative-based slogans.
Thousands of guns are available at the weekend show, all required to be displayed inoperable with wire or plastic locks preventing them from firing. All magazines must be removed. Selling firearms in the parking lot, at the entrance or in the mall is prohibited. Armed police at the doors check incoming firearms and prevent customers from carrying guns into the mall. Additional police patrolled the aisles.
Gun show customers found that prices for some firearms, which had risen following the November presidential election, had soared again as a result of the national gun ownership debate following the Connecticut school shooting in December.
"I bought an AR-15 on Black Friday for about $700," said Dave Guenther of Shaler. "Two weeks later the same gun was going for $1,700. Ammunition, too. It's .223-caliber, they're going for $1 a piece."
A used Bushmaster AR-15 was listed at $2,150. A military style semi-automatic rifle, controversial because of its use in recent mass shootings in the United States, was a bargain compared with less notorious weapons. A Black Rain Ordnance Fallout 15 5.56 mm semi-automatic was selling for $3,955.
Bill Warner, a gun collector from Slippery Rock, said many gun show customers go to browse for comparative prices, not necessarily to buy.
"This is the best place to shop for prices, the best place to get a look at all the gun dealers in the area," he said. "They'll have specials, but they can't bring enough stuff. Collectors will see who has the best deal and go to the shop later to buy."
Gun show customers who want to buy from a licensed dealer face the same procedure as if they were shopping at a gun store. The "gun show loophole," which in some states permits sales at shows without the FBI-run National Instant Check System background checks, is closed in Pennsylvania.
"I'm a dealer," said Mr. Dacey, "so by law I have to get your ID, have you fill out the forms and run you through a background check."
There is, however, a legal way for gun owners at a show or anywhere in Pennsylvania to transfer a rifle or shotgun -- including military-style weapons with extended magazines -- without a background check. By state law, private dealers, including those at the gun show carrying rifles marked for sale, can transfer a gun with no background clearance. The rule does not apply to handgun sales.
Stephen Douglas of Beaver said he hadn't found a buyer for the used .223-caliber AR slung over his shoulder. He wouldn't name his price.
"It's completely legal in this state, and I think it's a good law," he said. "A little business between two people of a legal item -- that shouldn't be anybody's business."
Mr. Dacey said he isn't so sure.
"I don't like the law," he said. "I don't know if there's been a poll, but even most of the gun people here would agree to an expanded background check of anybody anywhere buying a gun."
Before becoming president of the collectors association and organizer of its gun shows, Mr. Dacey was a Pittsburgh police lieutenant and acting commander. He ran the department's Gun Task Force under Mayor Tom Murphy. In 1995, then-Lt. Dacey was sent to Harrisburg to consult with members of the state Senate and House on the Firearms Act that is currently in effect.
"I was sitting in a room with legislators who didn't know the difference between a rifle and a shotgun," he said. "[The police] pushed to make dealers do a background check on every gun. We wanted it, but because of politics and [pressure from] sportsmen's groups, they wouldn't expand it to private sales."
Legal everywhere in Pennsylvania, the private sale of rifles and shotguns with no background checks is permitted at the gun shows, said Mr. Dacey, because "it facilitates the ebb and flow."
"It's just a whole system of transaction," he said. "They might sell it to [a federally licensed dealer]. They might sell it to a person, and with the money they get they might buy one of my guns. There are a lot of people coming in here today selling more traditional guns and then using the money to buy one of the guns they're afraid will be banned."
Some private dealers, including Mr. Douglas, left the show without making a sale.
"They're asking too much," said Mr. Dacey. "The market is starting to react to the price range, and the prices are out-stepping the demand. I think it's going to start to taper off."
John Hayes: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1991. First Published January 20, 2013 5:00 AM