Monday, May 28, 2018
Public safety

Background check decision doesn't chill Pinellas gun show

LARGO — An American flag hung from the green and white cinder block wall on the gymnasium's southwest corner. On the opposite side, past hundreds of people squeezing, cleaning, smelling, eye-balling, buying and selling guns of all shapes and sizes, someone tested a Taser next to someone else selling Buffalo Bob's venison sticks and alligator jerky.

Amid the bustle, a husky man wearing a bright yellow button-down and a John Deere baseball cap rested quietly on an aluminum chair as he sipped a Dr. Pepper. In front of him was a table cluttered with antique knives and empty magazines and a rack holding a half-dozen rifles and shotguns. Tucked beneath the clutter was a stack of green bumper stickers covered in bold, black letters: "IF WE OUTLAW GUNS ONLY OUTLAWS WOULD HAVE GUNS."

Jonathan McLarty is 71 and has done business at gun shows in Tampa Bay and beyond just shy of 40 years. At first impression, the round-bellied Southerner might seem like someone who would fiercely oppose Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri's recent announcement that his deputies would begin enforcing a long-ignored county law mandating background checks at gun shows.

But McLarty isn't.

"They've got to have something," he said.

His opinion aligned with that of many others at Two Guys Gun Show at Minnreg Hall in Largo on Saturday, where business appeared to be anything but stifled. Organizer Guy Lemakos expected 1,500 visitors, maybe more.

Uniformed deputies were nowhere in sight, though Gualtieri had said some investigators would work undercover.

Still, Lemakos doubted the sheriff's effort would do anything to prevent criminals from obtaining guns.

Federally licensed dealers, which made the vast majority of gun sales at Saturday's show, are already required to run background checks on buyers. But private sellers, like McLarty, are not regulated under any state or federal law and can sell to customers without checking their criminal histories.

The local law targets the unlicensed sellers. It requires them to run background checks on buyers with the help of licensed dealers, who have access to a federal database of criminal and mental health records. In Pinellas, violators may be fined up to $500 and jailed for up to 60 days.

Holders of concealed carry permits are exempt from the checks.

For $25, Lemakos, a licensed dealer, offered to run checks for anyone who needed it.

The event began at 9 a.m. By 1 p.m., the private sellers hadn't run a single one.

Lemakos wasn't surprised. He estimated that more than 75 percent of his customers have carry permits.

Dave Loucks, 61, was among the attendees with a permit. The Largo resident, who has frequented gun shows for years, was also quick to mention his membership in the National Rifle Association.

But he also firmly believes in the local law.

"I think it's necessary," he said. "I don't see any reason people shouldn't go through background checks."

Private seller Peter Gunn, of St. Petersburg, echoed the feeling.

"It's a great idea," he said. "A long time coming."

Gunn, his table neatly covered with 25 pistols and seven rifles, said he believed the law would eventually boost sales because it will offer a sense of security to gun show skeptics.

But support for the law was not unanimous.

"Guys who are going to buy guns and commit crimes are not coming here to gun shows," said Randolph Snapp, holding a 1915 Red Ryder BB gun in one hand and a .32-caliber Merwin Hulbert revolver in the other.

"If it even stopped one death," he said, pausing. "But it doesn't."

The sheriff, Lemakos said, has unfairly targeted gun shows. He insisted that the buyers and sellers at his expositions are responsible, reliable people.

Around the time he made this point, someone walked up to him with a small black case.

The man opened it and removed a .22-caliber pistol. A zip tie had been run through its barrel to prevent it from firing. "I bought this on the floor," the man said. He dislodged the magazine to reveal that the gun was loaded with two rounds.

"I don't want anyone in a bind," the man told Lemakos. "But I don't want anybody to get hurt either."

Lemakos removed the bullets.

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]

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