CROWN POINT | "No loaded firearms in the building," Dan Hedger, of Central Indiana Gunshows, called out Saturday morning to the crowds streaming into the Lake County Fairgrounds Industrial Arts Building.
More than a thousand gun enthusiasts, some waiting in line for an hour under a flurry of snow for the doors to open, browsed 107 tables bristling with handguns, rifles, shotguns, assault weapons, knives and nunchucks, or, nunchaku, two sticks connected at their ends with a short chain or rope. A sign at one table states, "Cash for legal machine guns."
One table featured pink-accented personal safety devices and one T-shirt proclaimed, "Girls just want to have guns." For the most part, the crowd was primarily white, male and older than 30. Some fathers had children in tow or in arms. Many were boomers and beyond.
"It's a guy's day out," Rodger Blythe, owner of Blythe Sports Shop of Griffith, said of the Lake County Fairgrounds gun show, which continues until 3 p.m. Sunday. Five more are scheduled this year.
The shows have drawn the ire of law enforcement officials. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart called together a summit of Illinois and Indiana police and prosecutors last month to stem the export of Indiana guns, accounting for nearly 20 percent of weapons Chicago police recovered from 2008 to 2012. The fairgrounds gun shows were singled out as a contributor to the problem.
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, a participant at Dart's summit, demanded the Board of Commissioners rein in private gun sales at the shows. Several men who paid the admission fee walked through the crowd with long guns slung over their shoulders and signs sticking out the barrels with their asking price.
"These things were going on long before I was here," said four-term Commissioner Gerry Scheub, D-Crown Point. "We have the county police there to watch it and not once in 16 years did a county policeman tell me we had a problem with these shows, so I don't have a problem with them."
Scheub said the county will honor its 2013 contract with Central Indiana Gunshows, which promises safe, family-friendly events. The county collects about $1,500 in rent per show.
Hedger, of Central Indiana Gunshows, said the recent media attention appears to have boosted the crowd.
A number of tables displayed Federal Firearms Licenses or ATF Over-the-Counter Firearms Transaction forms buyers must complete. Signs around the building warned, "The sale of firearms to Illinois residents without being properly transferred to an Illinois firearms dealer is strictly prohibited by law."
Hedger said he cannot stop freelance gun sales among gun show customers. "It's legal. They could do it out in the parking lot or at yard sales. At least this is a controlled environment," Hedger said.
Lake County police Cmdr. Rob Arnold said, "All the sheriff is asking is make the promoter have a guy with an federal firearms license, check all these yard-sale transactions out."
Corinth Bishop, a veteran defense lawyer, federal firearms licensee and former gun show participant, said, "Most of the people at these shows are collectors looking around for something in particular or others who've seen something at Gander Mountain or Cabela's and then they come to the show to dicker with someone at the show for a better price."
Earl Westforth, owner of Westforth Sport Shop in Calumet Township, said his business benefits from the gun shows even though he doesn't have a booth at the fairgrounds. "Our sales go off the chart because a lot of individuals go the shows, then come to us to make sure they are getting a legal firearm and a warranty."