For 14 years, Harry Jacobs has spent just about every weekend at a gun show, signing up members for the National Rifle Association.
That’s a pretty easy job these days.
With the debate over gun control raging across the country following December’s deadly shooting of 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., many firearm owners are lining up to join the NRA.
“Clinton gave us over a million new members. And Obama’s going to give us a hell of a lot more than that,” Jacobs said, manning an NRA booth at an Albany gun show last weekend.
The show was at the state’s convention center – the same place where just weeks ago Governor Andrew Cuomo gave his State of the State speech calling for a crackdown on high-capacity assault weapons.
Shortly after that speech, Cuomo managed to push through a sweeping gun control bill that, among other things, banned guns with certain military features as well as high capacity magazines.
Now President Obama is hoping to tackle gun control on the federal level.
That meant a busy weekend for Jacobs, who said he normally signs up 120 new or renewing members during the annual two-day Albany show. This year he reached that number mid-way through the first day.
The show, put on by the New York State Arms Collectors Association, drew thousands to the Empire State Plaza Convention Center. The crowd wound its way past tables with antique weapons, brand new hunting rifles and military paraphernalia – including several booths selling swastika-covered Nazi mementos.
But before the crowd could make it to these items, they walked past Jacobs’ booth, just inside the front entrance. As people walked by, he made his pitch: “Anyone else need to join or renew? $10 off and a hat. Help protect your gun rights, tack on a year.”
Chris McClelland was on his way out with his little girl when he stopped to join. McClelland said he’s been hunting and shooting guns since he was a little kid growing up in middle of nowhere. But this is the first time he’s been a card-carrying member of the NRA.
“I’ve been thinking about doing it for a while and I want to support somebody who’s going to help protect my gun rights now that they’re trying to take them,” McClelland said.
And it’s not just adults joining the NRA. A number of parents at the show had their kids join.
The New York Times recently reported that gun rights groups are trying hard to enroll a new generation. Jacobs said his sales and cash donations went to support that effort.
“Everything we sell up here goes for junior membership. For some reason we keep getting older,” he told one man who stopped by the booth.
Pauline Dion also joined. Like others, she is looking for the organization to not just fight possible changes at the federal level, but to get the state law overturned.
Dion owns a rifle that is now considered an illegal assault weapon under the new state law. She can keep it because she had it before the law passed, but she and other owners are supposed to register the guns with the state.
Dion said she knows some owners who won’t obey.
“They said they’re just not going to comply. They’ve had their guns for 15, 20 years. They’re just not going to comply,” Dion said. “My sister and several of us are writing to sheriff’s offices and such like that and asking if they’re going to enforce that law and a lot of them are saying no, they’ll turn their head the other way.”
Dion said she’s never broken a law in her life and is angry she’s being treated like a criminal. She isn’t sure if she’ll obey the law and register her rifle, she added.
That sense of defiance filled the convention center and show organizers struggled to contain it – or at least keep it from spilling out in front of the media.
The show’s manager, Sandy Ackerman Klinger, tried to keep reporters from walking around the hall and talking to people.
“We don’t like the press just walking around doing their own thing,” she said.
Klinger said she recognized that vendors and buyers have freedom of speech, but added that “we’re afraid of what some of them might say.”
Despite the restrictions, some people at the show did decide to exercise their First Amendment rights.
Standing in front of the NRA table, Tom Cameron voiced his opposition to the New York law, despite the fact he doesn’t actually own any guns that are now considered illegal.
“If you give them bastards the right to take away a semi-automatic gun they’re going to be after your grandfather’s old Browning Automatic 5 shotgun, your 740 Remington Woodsmaster, every gun that’s a semi-automatic, which means you have to pull the trigger each time it shoots. That’s what they’ll go after. You can’t give them an inch,” Cameron said. “This is communism. They want to destroy the constitution of the United States, all the liberals that are out there, all the leftists.”
While Cameron had some of the more extreme comments, people everywhere seemed to be talking about the law. Or they were when they weren’t shopping.
Bullets, 10-round magazines and all manner of guns were flying off tables.
That meant good business for vendor Carol Heath.
“It’s been very busy. People have been looking for .22 ammo, which we are out of, so I haven’t been able to help them with that,” Heath said. “And basically they’re just trying to pick up what they need probably because they have heard that ammo is very short in supply.”
Some customers at the show grumbled that boxes of bullets were double their normal price. But many kept buying. The new state law does require background checks for bullet sales and provides for tracking large buys. But that portion of the law hasn’t gone into effect yet.