TAMPA — Hundreds lined up minutes after one of the state’s biggest gun shows opened its doors Saturday morning at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
About 400 people from the entrance stood Austin Nichols, a 19-year-old looking to get a deal on bullets. He wouldn’t say for what kind of guns.
There seemed to be more people than in past shows, he said. The line reminded him of an amusement park.
"I think it’s the protests," Nichols said talking about the recent demonstrations across Florida. "It feels different this time. I think more people are concerned they might do something."
Nichols and other visitors and vendors at the Tampa stop for the Florida Gun Shows shared a similar unease that Congress or state legislators might pass stricter gun laws. Many brought up the Parkland Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre and subsequent protests without being asked.
During the 10 days after the school shooting which killed 17 in Broward County, thousands of students have walked out of classes and swarmed Florida’s capital in demonstrations calling for new gun legislation. CNN held a town hall in Broward with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature has proposed changes to gun laws.
Those protests continued at the fairgrounds on Saturday, as a half dozen or so people held signs protesting the gun show.
Show owner Khaled Akkawi said he expected more than 2,000 people to purchase tickets by noon. The show ran from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and goes from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
"These people here don’t want to be victims," Akkuwi said of those entering his Expo Hall.
Akkawi said he was disappointed to hear about the deputy who did not enter the school when the shooting started. He said it was proof more people should be armed.
The next show is in Lakeland from March 3-4, but the Fort Lauderdale show scheduled for later that month was canceled at the request of the mayor.
More than 100 vendors set up shop at the Tampa show. Many were licensed arms dealers who are required by federal law to conduct background checks before they can sell a gun to a potential buyer.
But some sellers are exempt. Dozens of people strapped rifles over their shoulders and attached sale signs to them as they walked around the expo floor.
Anyone can sell a weapon from their personal gun collection without conducting background checks even at a gun show, said Mary Harmon Eliason, an area supervisor for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Tampa.
Those who push for stricter gun laws call this the "gun show loop hole."
In the past, county ordinances in Hillsborough and Pinellas required background checks for all sales at a gun shows. But state legislators stripped local governments of the power to regulate guns, except for instituting a three-day waiting period on gun purchases.
Ending the so-called "loophole" would not necessarily have stopped the massacre at Stoneman Douglas.
Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old accused of killing 17 people at the school, passed a background check before he purchased a semiautomatic AR 15-style rifle in February 2017 in Coral Springs.
AR-15s were on sale from anywhere between $800 to $1,600 at the show. The more expensive versions could be found at the In Guns We Trust LLC booth.
Owner Robert Ellie said he sold only four before noon, but expects to sell several more before Sunday. He has custom built these rifles at his shop in Fort Myers for about 10 years. He said the rifles aren’t the problem when it comes to the mass shooting epidemic.
"We’ve had the Second Amendment for more than 200 years, but mass shootings are only a recent phenomenon," Ellie said.
He said the AR is his choice rifle for hunting, especially wild boars which he described as "tanks." He said any legislation banning or restricting the rifle’s sale concerns him.
"Worst case, they ban the guns and they put me out of business," Ellie said.
Even at a gun show, though, there is still some gun control.
Visitors are allowed to bring up to two guns in to sell or trade, but weapons must be zip tied to prevent them from working.
Even those who have a state concealed weapons permit must unload their guns and leave any ammunition in their car.
The show’s website says: "Safety is our number one priority and can only be maintained if there are NO loaded guns in the show."
Contact Jonathan Capriel at 813-225-3141 or [email protected] Follow @jonathancapriel.