"Our dual tube feature maximizes operator lethality," said sales representative Chad Enos as he brandished a floor model of the KSG 12-gauge, a new pistol-grip shotgun produced by the American firearms manufacturer Kel-Tec. "This bad boy looks like it shouldn't be legal. But it is."
"Glass reinforced polymer grip and stock assembly with hardened steel tube magazines," said Enos. "Twenty-seven inches muzzle to stock with an 18-inch barrel, so it's just as compact as legally possible."
The Kel-Tec display area was packed during the 2011 SHOT Show, held January 18 to 21, the largest annual gathering of firearms makers and dealers in the United States.
The KSG was one of the hottest guns to debut. As demonstrated by Enos, a selector switch enables the shooter to alternate between two seven-shot magazines. This means the KSG holds 15 rounds, with one chambered. A standard police-issue shotgun holds six.
This was the 33rd annual SHOT Show. It was the biggest show in SHOT history and drew roughly 50,000 attendees who reveled in the firepower displayed by around 1,600 exhibitors spread across more than 650,000 square feet of total exhibit space -- five times the size of the casino floor at Caesar's Palace.
Looming over the main entrance to the Sands Expo & Convention Center was a massive banner of a leering Grim Reaper with glowering red-eyes, wielding a scythe. It advertised a laser scope called the Eliminator.
Death personified also symbolized the timing of SHOT, which began just 10 days after Jared Loughner opened fire on a crowd in Tucson, Ariz., killing six people and wounding 13, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Loughner used a Glock-19 handgun, the same gun used in 2007 by Virginia Tech spree shooter Seung-Hui Cho to kill 32 people and wound 17. Lougher's Glock-19 was equipped with a 30-round magazine. Cho's held 15 bullets.
The manufacture for sale in the U.S. of handgun magazines holding more than 10 rounds, known as "high-capacity" magazines, was prohibited under the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB). That law expired in 2004. Attempts to renew it have been thwarted by the National Rifle Association, aided by legions of firearms industry lobbyists.
The self-defense applications of high-capacity handguns that fire 15, 30, or 50 rounds without reloading are dubious at best. Yet since the expiration of the AWB, high-capacity magazines have become integral to the core marketing strategies of most firearms manufacturers whose products are designed first and foremost to kill people, not for hunting or precision target shooting.
Unlike televisions or blue jeans, firearms don't wear out in a matter of months or years. Gun ownership has been in long-term decline over the last 40 years. The industry experienced a brief resurgence in 2009 after President Obama's election stirred fears of new gun control laws. However, that buying surge has evaporated and left the industry reeling as many recent buyers have sold their firearms, flooding the secondary market.
To lure repeat buyers, increased lethality has become the nicotine of the firearms industry. Every year gun makers roll out new lines of assault rifles, tactical shotguns and handguns that hold even more bullets, or fire even faster, or boast new gadgetry that supposedly enables their user to kill other human beings more efficiently than ever before.
At SHOT, the guns on display at the Smith & Wesson exhibit made for a Darwin-chart of the evolution of the modern handgun from the straightforward, Wild West-style, six-shot revolver to new-fangled guns like the Smith & Wesson M&P 15-22P. It's all curves and serrations, equipped with a 25-round "banana clip" magazine, a muzzle flash suppressor and a "ported" barrel with holes to lessen blowback and heighten control during rapid fire. The M&P 15 is part of Smith & Wesson's popular "Military & Police" line of firearms that, despite their branding, are perfectly legal for civilians to purchase.
Glock, the maker of the gun used in the Tucson shootings, went big at SHOT with one of the largest and most luxurious exhibits. It resembled the waiting lounge in a five-star hair salon, with plush silver carpeting and shiny black logo towers proclaiming "25 years of perfection." Placards trumpeted ergonomic features "resulting in reduced recoil and faster follow-up shots."
It's not just firearms manufacturers rolling out new, more deadly products every year at SHOT. Ammunition-makers likewise promote new bullets designed to heighten the damage they cause to the human body. For example, this year the Nebraska-based handgun ammunition manufacturer Hornady, one of the leaders in the industry, introduced .44 Special and .45 Colt caliber rounds to its popular Critical Defense line of "personal defense" hollow-point handgun rounds. (Hollow point bullets expand or "mushroom" when they enter a human body, amplifying tissue damage, blood loss and shock.)
"The only problem with typical hollow-point rounds is that when they travel through heavy clothing, the tip of the bullet tends to clog up, which doesn't allow the bullet to fully expand," explained Hornady salesman Tom Mills. "The Critical Defense line bullets solve that problem by having a flexible tip that allows for maximum penetration and maximum expansion." Mills holds up a gleaming Critical Defense .45 Colt round. "This offers 13 inches of penetration into ballistic gel [which simulates human tissue] when fired through the standard FBI heavy clothing protocol. In other words, 'Hasta la vista, baby.'"
The ultimate in tough guy lifestyle marketing at SHOT was the new Blackwater line of home-defense shotguns unveiled by O.F. Mossberg & Sons, which has a longstanding business partnership with Xe Services LLC, the notorious American guns-for-hire company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide.
Blackwater changed its name to Xe in 2009 to distance itself from a string of bloody incidents involving Blackwater "private security contractors" in Iraq, including the September 2007 Nisour Square shootings, which led to the deaths of 17 Iraqis. During SHOT, Mossberg announced a new dealer incentive program whereby top Mossburg retailers will enjoy a two-day, all-expenses paid "Xtreme Training Experience" at Xe's "world-famous U.S. Training Center (formerly Blackwater) in Moyock, North Carolina."
The Blackwater shotguns from Mossberg are emblazoned with a vintage Blackwater logo: the company's former name above a bear-paw in crosshairs. They also incorporate new features that represent what Mossberg salesman Chuck Spaulding termed "a Blackwater design aesthetic." These include a gnarly, jagged-edged barrel extension on the pistol grip Mossberg 500BW.
"You can use that to stick in a door and blow off a hinge, or to take a core sample out of somebody's chest if you find yourself in a hand-to-hand situation," Spaulding said.
Blackwater/Xe's symbiotic marketing relationship with the firearms industry dates back at least to 2007, when German arms manufacturing company Sig Sauer came out with a Blackwater line of high-capacity handguns.
This year, the centerpiece of marketing for Sig Sauer at SHOT was live demonstrations by Matt Michel, Jr., three-time winner of the World Speedshooting Championships. Wearing a headset microphone and a tight Sig Sauer athletic shirt, his shaved head glistening beneath the stage lights, Michel demonstrated speed drawing and "tactical reloading" techniques twice daily.
"If you're going to carry a handgun, I always advise you to carry a spare magazine in case you want to reload," Michel told his audience. "We live in a great country where you can, so why not, right?"
The reality of SHOT was thousands of yards downrange from the image projected by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the trade association that owns SHOT and celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. The NSSF portrays SHOT as representing the business interests of family-friendly, outdoors recreation-focused "shooting sports" like elk hunting and clay target shooting. These sports are represented at SHOT, as they are in the firearms industry as a whole, but they're vastly overshadowed by handguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, home defense shotguns and the like, along with hollow point bullets, concealed carry holsters, tactical clothing and other "personal protection" accoutrements.
As the bumper sticker for sale at the Second Amendment Foundation booth put it: "The Second Amendment Ain't About Duck Hunting." Yet to watch the video presentation at the State of the Industry Dinner on the first night of SHOT this year was to be shown images of sons and fathers duck hunting together wearing orange vests and carrying traditional shotguns, rather than the destructive force of .50-caliber sniper rifles. (Such rifles, by the way, are capable of piercing an aircraft hull, let alone blowing a head off, at 1,500 yards).
"What we have in common is we all share a common destiny and a common vision. We want to see our children and our grandchildren growing up and enjoying those same recreational activities and the shooting sports we all hold so dearly," said NSSF president Steve Sanetti in his keynote address. "Our goal is clear and unchanging: We want more. More hunters and more target shooters...and more freedom to do what Americans have done since this nation began."
Nowhere was the chasm between SHOT show messaging and reality more glaringly evident than in the wares on display in the Century International Arms exhibit space. The Florida-based company specializes in cheap AK-47 knockoff assault rifles from onetime Eastern Bloc nations like Bulgaria and Romania. Century was doing brisk business at SHOT in both assault rifles and assault rifle ammunition -- Egyptian and Romanian-manufactured rounds available for wholesale purchase at $4.87 per 50-round box, or $89.97 for a 2,000-round case. Serbian-made sniper rounds went for $8.87 per box.
"We're having a good show," said Century sales rep Steven Sanko. "We had the post-Obama boom, now I think we're seeing a post-Tucson boom."
A short distance from the Century International Arms booth, Kel-Tec salesman Chad Enos demonstrated the features of the KSG shotgun for the umpteenth time. Kel-Tec is the IKEA of the firearms industry. It churns out cheap, stylish products that just happened to be designed to kill people rather than outfit dorm rooms. It was founded in 1991 by current owner George Kellgren, the Swedish engineer who designed the most infamous high-capacity handgun ever: the TEC-9, which is capable of firing more than 50 rounds without reloading. One of the shooters in the Columbine High School massacre used a TEC-9.
Kel-Tec is now the third largest manufacturer of easily concealable and high-capacity handguns in the United States. The KSG marks its initial foray into the tactical shotgun market.
"This is good for self-defense, home defense, quail hunting, you name it," Enos said. "Those gangsters will never know what hit 'em."
One onlooker, Cedric Steele of Knightcross Publishing, replied, "It's a lot of gun for the price, but the problem is, you're going to wind up selling a lot of them to gangsters."
"No, no, no, no," said Enos. "Quail hunters. Not gangbangers. Quail hunters."
That line got a big laugh.
David Holthouse is a freelance journalist who lives in Alaska. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Nation, American Prospect, and other publications.