RENO, Nev. (AP) — A customer inside Mark Hessler's crowded gun shop in Reno pointed to the few remaining AR-15 rifles on a display wall and asked Hessler if he'd sent President Obama a thank-you card for hinting at a ban on assault weapons.
Hessler almost had to shout over the din of bustling salesmen, credit cards snapping on glass countertops and cash registers that spat out receipts.
"Obama is the best gun salesman since Bill Clinton," Hessler said, drawing laughs from his audience. "Every time a liberal opens his mouth and says something stupid about guns, I sell a gazillion of them."
As the Newtown, Conn., massacre sparked a national debate about gun control and the availability of assault weapons, gun sellers in Nevada enjoyed booming sales.
State officials said 2,383 firearms transactions were recorded statewide over one weekend after the Connecticut shootings.
Long accustomed to some of the nation's most lenient gun laws, Nevada gun owners worry that the tragedy might be the knot used to tighten the state's regulations once and for all, and ultimately threaten their way of life.
In this region of casino promises, conservative values and libertarian sensibilities, firing a semiautomatic AK-47 with a 30-round banana magazine into the desert night is just as legal as placing a $5 bet on the craps table or visiting the Mustang Ranch brothel down the road in Sparks.
Nevada's rules on assault weapon sales are so lax that some blame the Silver State for the flow of such firearms into California, where the guns have been banned in some form since 1989. With a reorganized NRA contingent, growing gun club memberships, and a slew of pro-firearm laws passed in the past five years, gun enthusiasts here said they are not concerned that their local lawmakers will join California's march toward an antigun culture.
Yet they do worry that federal authorities will try to force them.
Hessler, who said he moved from Southern California eight years ago to flee strict gun laws, foresees a violent response if lawmakers try to ban the sale of military-style weapons.
"This is Nevada, baby," Hessler told the San Francisco Chronicle (http://bit.ly/UghtS6) as he continued to hold court at his U.S Firearms Academy store, located in a strip mall on the southern edge of town. "You don't mess with our guns. If you think the government is going to tell us we can't have them — or they're going to try and confiscate them — well, I'd like to see them try. That's when: revolution."
Not all gun proponents predicted an armed revolt, but all agreed the call for more gun laws would do little to prevent mass shootings such as happened in Newtown, where 20 children were among the killer's 27 victims.
Don Turner, president of the Nevada Firearms Coalition, the NRA's state affiliate, said Nevada's laws were strengthened in the past half-decade because residents had concluded the government was no longer able to protect them. He pointed to the aftermath of Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, where neighbors were left to fend for themselves during outbreaks of looting and violence.
"You can't count on police to save you," he said. "Their departments are cut, staffing is down everywhere. Their response times are never going to get to the shooter before a citizen could."
Inside stores, several customers agreed they were stockpiling guns and ammo in case they ever had to fight gunfire with gunfire. Others said they were investing, hopeful the weapons would quadruple in value as they did during the Clinton administration's federal ban in 1994, which expired in 2004.
At Bizarre Guitar, a Reno gun outlet, Greg Brown, 52, and his son Gregor Brown, 24, took a long look at two AR-15s, the first such rifles they could get their hands on after visits to four other stores.
The elder Brown, an architect, said his family had moved here from the East Bay town of Alamo in 2010 after they got fed up with California's regulations. As a Nevada resident, Brown was able to walk out the door with a $1,500 weapon that in California would have required a 10-day waiting period, assuming it was a legal weapon in the first place. In this case, a sales merchant called an FBI phone number for an "instant background check" and cleared Brown in less than three minutes.
Plus, if Brown wanted to sell the assault weapon to another resident outside the shop or at a gun show, there is no state law to prohibit the transaction. In California, such paperless "private sales" are banned but difficult to enforce.
Those easy arrangements, said Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis, are what draw California residents into Nevada to purchase military-style weapons. They are also an incentive for Nevada sellers to not ask many questions when dealing with out-of-state, cash-paying customers, he said.
"I have no reason to believe the situation has changed at all," he said. "The standard is to ask no questions. The deal is done with cash and a handshake, and then they move on."
Ben Van Houten, an attorney with San Francisco's Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said federal reforms are necessary to stem the illegal trafficking of guns over state lines. The center gives California's gun laws a grade of A, while Nevada gets an F.
"Bad gun laws have a significant impact far beyond their borders," Van Houten said. "It's really incumbent with the state with weak laws to shore up their laws because they're exporting their gun violence problem."
Because no background checks or paperwork exist with private sales, it is impossible to estimate how many assault weapons flow into California, authorities said.
And even if the gun show loophole makes Nevada retailer Kevin Roth wince, he said it was not enough to call for a crackdown on all residents' rights to freely buy and sell weapons.
Roth, a gun instructor and owner of Arms to Bear in Sparks, took his AR-15 to one of his favorite roadside shooting spots last week to demonstrate the weapon's firepower.
He rattled off eight precise rounds in four seconds, striking his target 15 yards away in the head and chest.
But at the informal shooting range located in the foothills outside Sparks, it was a toy gun compared with the other weaponry. Roth said it was common to hear AK-47s and machine guns rattling in the distance.
Roth said he bought his assault weapon so he would never be outgunned if he stumbled onto the scene of a Newtown-like shooting.
"The bad guys have them," Roth said. "That's a fact we have to live with. That's never going to change. At least now, I have a chance of taking him out before he kills a bunch more people."
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