DALLAS — As the standoff at Mount Carmel drags into its third week, dealers at a gun show here this weekend have adopted their own siege mentality.
Worried about possible bans on traveling arms bazaars and some of the weapons themselves, they have hiked their sales pitches and their prices, especially for the military-style rifles Vernon Howell and his Branch Davidian followers may have used in their Feb 28 shootout with more than 100 federal agents.
During the ferocious 45-minute battle, four heavily armed agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were killed and 16 were wounded.
Audible during the firefight were the rat-a-tat sounds of semiautomatic and, maybe even, automatic weapons.
That type of firepower is on display this weekend at the Dallas Convention Center. Along with various types of handguns dealers are legally hawking AK-47s, AR-15s, FAL-FNs and other semiautomatic weapons.
With a semiautomatic weapon, the trigger must be pulled each time a bullet is fired. Anyone firing an automatic can unleash a fusillade of bullets by just holding down the trigger.
Also on sale are “hellfire” switches — a simple spring-and-screw device which for $20 to $25, uses a semiautomatic weapon’s recoil to turn it into a legal ‘simulated automatic.”
Keeping with their siege mentality, however, most dealers declined to talk about their merchandise — and the situation in Waco — with a reporter.
The media was even banned from a gun show Friday in Fort Worth, a customer said.
“It’s embarrassing,” said Jeff, Tarrant County gun collector, of the Mount Carmel siege. “We’re going to be spending the next four months apologizing for a bunch of idiots.”
Jeff declined to give his last name because he doesn’t want ‘criminals to know where he keeps his legally registered fully automatic H&K MP5K which is similar to the weapons used by some of the ATF agents in the Mount Carmel raid.
Dealers and gun collectors like Jeff and his friend Paul — who had his MP5 automatic slung on his shoulder — said they are tired of reading and hearing “inaccurate” reports in the media about semiautomatic weapons and how easy it is to convert them to full automatics.
“There’s a misconception in the newspaper that everyone is printing,” said one dealer, who was selling new Cold Sporter rifles, which are similar to the AR-15s the Branch Davidians are believed to have.
The dealer, who declined to give his name, said the newer gun’s design makes it impossible to convert to a full automatic. He was selling the Sporters for between $800 and $850 each.
“You just can’t do it,” the dealer said. “It would be much easier to buy the older ones and do it.”
Paul said he was not surprised by the higher prices. The Dallas Morning News reported last week that Howell had bought several AR-15s at less than $600 each.
“People are kinda worried that this may end soon,” Paul said of the gun show and the sale of such weapons.
By visiting gun shows like this in Waco, Fort Worth and other places, anyone with enough money can walk away with an arsenal like the one the ATF says the Branch Davidians have.
In Texas, almost any gun, with the exception of full automatic rifles, can be bought by showing a driver’s license and filling out an ATF transaction record. There is no waiting period.
Someone can buy an automatic weapon if the ATF gives its approval after a grueling application process that can take as long as six months.
Sources have said Howell used to visit gun shows, acquiring the weapons that were used against the ATF agents. Some have said he bought many of the weapons from a former area gun dealer.
A stroll along the aisles at the Dallas show is like stepping into the Old West. Many of the potential customers were carrying handguns, shotguns and rifles, hope to sell or trade.
Paul said he was looking for parts for his MP5. He also owns a fully automatic Israeli-made Uzi.
“I like shooting it,” he said.
Jeff said the legality of fully automatic weapons is similar to the legality of automobiles that are easily capable of exceeding legal speed limits.
“It goes back to ‘why have a Ferrari or a Corvette?’ You enjoy driving fast,” he said.
Jeff and Paul said it is unlikely Howell was able to convert his semiautomatic weapons into fully automatic weapons. Doing so properly, they said, would require about $15,000 in milling equipment and other complex parts.
The use of hellfire switches, on the market for about two years, is not the same thing, they said. Although they allow for multiple rapid bursts, they leave a weapon very inaccurate.
“You’re going to use an entire clip to get one or two hits,” Paul said.
A dealer of the devices agreed.
“Most people, when they buy them, don’t buy them for hunting. They buy them to play around,” said Randy Davidson.
He said the devices are legal because they do not require alteration of a gun’s internal parts.
Also at the show was Lonny Hal, senior vice president of the Constitutional Foundational Association. The Dallas-based group got a free plug last when the Branch Davidians hung out a banner calling for its help.
Hall said the CFA is a group that wants to ensure the protection of the cult’s constitutional rights.
The group’s efforts to become a third party in the talks between the authorities and Howell have so far been rebuffed.
“We’re not concerned with whether he did something right or wrong,” Hall said. “Let’s try him in court, not on radio or TV.”
Hall was also critical of the tactics used by the ATF in its raid on Mount Carmel. Instead of using helicopters and cattle trailers to bring in the agents, authorities should have used a few sheriff’s deputies to deliver the arrest and search warrants, he said.
“You don’t go down there with ladders and automatic weapons,” he said. “That was a recipe for disaster.”
Hall brushed off questions about whether he was at the gun show to take advantage of the Waco situation or about charges that Howell has abused children.
He did say that most of the people at the show, especially those wanting to buy semiautomatic weapons, likely sympathize with his group’s views.
“How many of those people look like they would use them to kill someone?” he asked. “I trust the people in this room more than the people in D.C.”