Within an hour of the doors opening at the Rocky Mountain Productions gun show Friday, the Expo Building at the Flathead County Fairgrounds was bustling with scores of buyers and sellers.
Gun shows are expanding in Montana, with a variety of promoters putting on far more shows than they were not long ago.
“We’re really excited. This is the best vendor turnout we’ve had for our December show and we have a lot of customers, too,” said Terri Steuben, who runs Rocky Mountain Productions with her husband, Larry.
This year there were 178 tables occupied by vendors. The average is about 150 tables, and the Steubens were hopeful in getting close to their record-best attendance of 1,850 people by the time the Kalispell show closes Sunday afternoon.
The best show for the Steubens — Harlowton residents who have been promoting shows for eight years — came in the fall of 2008 in Kalispell, not long after the election of President Barack Obama.
That attendance was partly driven by concern over the potential for tighter federal firearms regulations and some of the same concerns are influencing the market now, said Larry Steuben, adding that he recently watched a television show dismissing gun-regulation anxiety as “hype” driven by the National Rifle Association.
“I don’t think anybody believes that,” he said.
Nor does Helena resident Don Foster, who has been attending gun shows as a vendor or customer for 34 years in Montana.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in Washington. That’s scary,” he said. “People are paying close attention to that.”
But there’s not a gun purchasing free-for-all as some might think, Foster said.
“People are holding back, and you can’t blame them with the economy the way it is,” he said, noting that sales are relatively slow for high-end firearms and other products.
But people are bargain-hunting and purchasing less expensive items. In addition to firearms, Foster offers books, leather items, movies, reloading ammunition, “everything I can to sell something.”
Foster is not alone.
Many of the vendors at the gun show were selling clothing, knives, optics, food products and more.
While a cadre of licensed firearm dealers occupy most of the tables, Larry Steuben said that this fall’s show has attracted first-time vendors.
“For this show we’ve had a lot of newcomers,” he said. “Actually, I think most of them are cleaning out their closets. They’re here to do trading. They sell something they have and take something new home.”
Many customers enter the building with their own firearms, which are checked to make sure they are unloaded, labeled and disabled. Those customers can then wander around, looking for a buy or a trade.
“Sometimes trades go on in the aisles,” Steuben said.
The Steubens have a promotion schedule of seven shows this year, including one that was held at the fairgrounds in July. But that’s just a fraction of the shows that multiple promoters put on across the state.
“Most of us work together” in terms of scheduling, Steuben said, noting that there’s a general consensus not to have shows within 100 miles of another on the same weekend, and there are efforts to have at least two weeks between shows in the same town.
“You can burn them out,” Steuben said of customers’ interest.
Foster said he works as a vendor at 36 to 40 shows in Montana every year, and some customers do the same.
“You have a few people that will go all over the state,” he said. “It’s hard to live on Social Security. You have to do something.”
The Rocky Mountain Productions gun show continues today from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The $5 admission is good for the entire weekend.