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Gun dealer Wain Roberts was true to own values

PINELLAS PARK — The elderly woman didn't know guns. But she needed to sell one that had been a family heirloom.

She went to a dealer, who offered her $300. That sounded about right.

Just to be sure, she took the gun to Wain Roberts Firearms.

"Ma'am, your gun is worth $800," a tall man told her. "I'll give you $600."

"That's too much," the woman protested. Wain Roberts convinced her otherwise, and she left with the cash.

The transaction was typical of Mr. Roberts, who died Aug. 17 at 66. He had cirrhosis, despite being a lifelong teetotaler.

"A few years ago, he had the market," said lawyer Joe Ciarciaglino, a longtime friend. "All you had to do was say 'Wain Roberts,' and everybody who knew guns knew who that was."

An employee repairs guns behind the counter at Wain Roberts Firearms, a boar preserved by taxidermy lurks around the corner, and a red-nosed pit bull named Max on a short chain greets visitors with sniffs and slobber.

Vintage autographed Tampa Bay Buccaneer T-shirts line a narrow hallway by his former office, now overflowing with rifles in trash containers.

Local and national media often called Mr. Roberts about the many issues surrounding guns and their ownership.

Is there a gun-buying season? (Yes, the Christmas season, for gifts, and the hunting season.) Should women buy guns? (Sure, as long as they are willing to use them.)

How did he feel about military-style rifles, such as the SKS semiautomatic carried by cop killer Hank Earl Carr in 1998?

"We used to sell them, but we don't any more," Roberts said the week after Carr killed two Tampa police detectives and a state trooper. "There are legitimate collectors for the SKS, but it also attracts an element of people I just didn't want to deal with."

He later backed off that stance. Daughter Pam Roberts, who runs the store where all four of Mr. Roberts' children work, attributed her father's initial reaction to the fact that he knew many police officers, including Carr's victims.

"I think he was just very upset at the time," she said. "We have sold a ton of SKS since."

But of all the hot-button issues that defined Mr. Roberts — and sometimes set him apart — none surpassed his approval of mandatory background checks for gun buyers, or a county's right to impose three-day "cooling-off" periods between purchasing and possessing a handgun.

"Wain's thing was, if you make some people obey the rules, then everybody should obey the same rules," Ciarciaglino said. It rankled him that unregulated gun shows and private "collectors" were able to avoid restrictions he had to abide by.

Born in Michigan, he moved to the Pinellas Park area in 1955 and graduated from Northeast High School. In 1967, he married Barbara, his high school sweetheart, who made him sell his red Pontiac GTO to start a family.

He was an administrator and co-owner of Parkway Nursing Home and Roberts Home Health Services. But his career took a turn in the late 1960s, when he failed to find a Colt AR-15 rifle.

In frustration, Mr. Roberts declared he would start his own gun store. He got his license in 1972 and opened Wain Roberts Firearms near the nursing home. The store moved to its current location on Park Boulevard in 1978.

Guns have factored into high and low points at the store. In 1976, while making a night deposit at the former Southwest Bank, Mr. Roberts and an employee foiled a robbery in progress. Though he was packing a .36 Smith & Wesson in each pants pocket, Mr. Roberts didn't fire a shot. The employee did, hitting the robber in the face, while Mr. Roberts clotheslined his female accomplice as she tried to blast her way out of the bank.

Then in 2005, a Tampa mortgage broker killed his two children and himself with a gun he had bought at Wain Roberts Firearms. Robert O'Mara had passed a background check and waited three days, as required by law.

"It happens. It's the nature of the beast," his daughter said. "But it hurts when that happens, it really does."

The landscape has changed in recent years. There were 113 licensed firearms dealers and pawnshops in Pinellas County in 2009 and 99 in Hillsborough, a total of 212. That's down from 388 in the two counties in 1998, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. (Pasco County has 55 licensees, Hernando County 13.)

"Today it's a different business," Pam Roberts said. "They just go online, do their research and buy the cheapest thing."

Meanwhile, the number of gun owners increases. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the number of background checks for prospective gun buyers was 532,094 in 2009, up from 189,236 in 1998. Of those, 8,276 were denied.

Like other gun shops, Wain Roberts Firearms remains a bellwether of the national mood. Over the last decade, the store has run out of ammunition three times: after the Sept. 11 attacks, during and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and upon the election of President Barack Obama, whom customers regarded as an enemy of gun rights, Pam Roberts said.

"What did Wain do?" Ciarciaglino said. "He lived the way you're supposed to. That's a lot to be said for a guy."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

.Biography

Davis Wain Roberts

Born: Oct. 22, 1943.

Died: Aug. 17, 2010.

Survivors: Wife Barbara; son Allan; daughters Pamela, Lori and Marcia; and six grandchildren.

Gun dealer Wain Roberts was true to own values 08/27/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 27, 2010 9:00pm]
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