Final article in a series.
At a gun show in Centereach in August, a table at the front entrance was full of “zombie bats” — baseball bats studded with long nails or wrapped in barbed wire. They sold for $40 each. Beside them were swords — some emblazoned with swastikas — and beyond them, an assortment of knives and brass knuckles.
The hundreds of guns for sale did not become visible until you entered the gym at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 4927 on Horseblock Road. Pistols, rifles and shotguns were spread across tables, and vendors talked up deals to passersby and negotiated prices with customers, many of whom pointed the guns at the wall and took aim before buying them.
The Herald visited the show on Aug. 25. Another was held at the same location on Dec. 1.
Inside the August show, the mood was lively as men and women discussed guns, politics and Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49er who protested police brutality by taking a knee during NFL games.
Event organizer Martin Tretola, of Bellmore, owner of T&T Gunnery in Seaford, described the attendees as hobbyists — people looking to start or add to firearms collections. He said that before he started his shows a decade ago, there were only a few in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Now there are many.
Attendees, Tretola said, are of all ages and races. “You have doctors who collect guns and lawyers who collect guns,” he said. “You have everybody at shows.”
At the August show, an informal survey of the room found a diverse group of people that included African-American, Hispanic and a handful of Asian buyers, though the plurality of attendees were middle-aged white men.
Gun shows and the law
Gun shows have been the subject of intense debate, with gun enthusiasts seeing them as places to purchase an assortment of firearms from several dealers in one place, without their Second Amendment rights being infringed, while gun-control advocates argue that they are venues where required background checks can be skirted.
The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence — led by former U.S. Rep. and gunshot survivor Gabrielle Giffords — notes that the sawed-off shotguns and semi-automatic pistols used in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, in which 13 were killed and 24 wounded, were purchased at a gun show by a straw buyer, who then sold them to the two teenage killers.
New York is one of 12 states that require a background check for any gun sale, including at a show. “Nobody can get out of there with a gun if they can’t pass a background check,” Tretola said. Signs reinforcing the point were posted throughout the August show.
Laws also control who can touch certain firearms at shows. Comac Guns, an Albany gun shop, set out rifles and handguns at its table and encouraged people to test them. Attendees could handle rifles and shotguns, regardless of whether they had permits. Anyone wishing to hold a pistol, however, needed a permit. That’s because, outside New York City, a permit is not required to buy a non-assault rifle, but one is needed for a handgun. Assault rifles are banned statewide.
Tretola said he works to ensure that his shows not only follow the law, but also are safe. In 2014, he and all other New York gun show operators agreed to a set of model show procedures, which mandate that all guns brought into gun shows be tagged so operators can determine which firearms have been sold and that background checks have been performed.
The agreement also requires organizers to ensure that no illegal gun sales occur outside the venues, so straw buyers are not selling to the wrong people.
Outside the Centereach show, members of the Suffolk County chapter of the the statewide Shooters Committee on Political Education sat at the front of the VFW hall passing out literature and speaking against New York’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, passed soon after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The law broadened the legal definition of an assault weapon to include semi-automatic rifles, semi-automatic pistols and semi-automatic shotguns and made them illegal, as well as required mental health professionals to report if they believed their patients might inflict harm on others.
Educating the public
Frank Gennari, a retired Suffolk County police officer and organizer of the Long Island Gun and Sportsman Show in Hauppauge, said he believed that before they purchase guns, people should ask themselves why they want and need them. “You should know if you want it for self-defense, target shooting or hunting before buying,” Gennari said.
Using a gun should feel natural, he added. “You should be able to pick it up and have practice and experience using it,” he said.
During the shows, vendors and attendees educated those with less knowledge of guns. The shows, according to Comac Guns owner Norsela Cole, are an opportunity for novices to learn from experts who can teach them the proper and legal ways to handle firearms.
As Cole explained the mechanics of a 20-gauge shotgun, she cocked it and demonstrated how a woman could hold a firearm of that size. Permitting an attendee to step behind her booth, Cole allowed her to feel the weight of the shotgun and how it felt to handle it.
Throughout Long Island, there are a number of female gun training groups that teach women about gun safety and use. In Uniondale, for instance, there is the Long Island Chapter of The Well Armed Woman, which hosts workshops. The group meets every second Friday in the fall and winter at the Nassau County Rifle Range.
Gun shows, Gennari said, are primarily for gun enthusiasts who want to buy their gear locally, but new gun hobbyists or users often come to tap into local resources.
“There are a slew of instructors and people with a lot of information to share,” Gennari said. “We do these shows because we want people to have access to the right information and advocate proficiency in gun use.”