From the hills and hollows of West Virginia, North Carolina, and Virginia, they conyered on this quiet Blue Ridge mountain town of 1,700 yesterday, transforming it into an armed camp of gun traders.
By noon yesterday there was an estimated 10,000 people in town and another 20,000 expected today and Monday for an event that gun control advocates have come to abhor and gun fanciers admire: the 11th annual Labor Day show.
Until recently, the event, sponsored by a local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 1115 was known simply as "The Gun Show" and, despite the new name, the principal attraction remains the same.
Vendors yesterday hawked everything from a shoulder-high machine guns (for 3,000) to shotguns, handguns, anf rifles. Because Virginia lacks strong gun control laws, there were few questions asked and no government red tape to hinder sales.
The guns, along with other backwoods bric-a-brac, were offered from stalls along Main Street.
"That's a Springfield. Everyone needs one of them," one North Carolina man called to a man examining a rifle yesterday.
"Just swapped mine," said the prospective buyer, casting a glance down the street and patting a long barreled rifle.
Many of these people have grown up with guns and say it is commonplace around here to see a man sighting down a rifle barrel. But others, among them gun control advocates, point to the Hillsville event as proof of the need for more effective regulation of fun sales.
Attempts to control the buying and selling of unlicensed guns have led the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to place undercover agents at the gun show in the past.
Last year three men were arrested for selling guns illegally, according to ATF officials. "The problem with shows like these is that recordkeeping is no minimal," an ATF official said. "Even though there isn't supposed to be any selling of guns, there is. And because the record keeping is so bad, they're very hard to trace.
"It simply provides another source for people who shouldn't acquire guns to try and acquire them."
Some of the dealers in the VFW hall and show organizers were reluctant to talk about the event yesterday saying they feared that they the presence of undercover ATF, Tobacco and Firearms agents.
"They have come in here and give us Virginia drivers' licenses and buy guns and then they arrest you for selling to someone out of state," asserted gun dealer Bill Bell of Montgomery County, Va.
To buy a handgun in the state of Virginia, the customer need only present his drivers license establishing residency, fill out a federal form on which he declares that he is neither a felon, lunatic not drug addict, and pays for the handgun. But federal ATF agents say that drivers licenses with phoney names can easily be obtained in Virginia.
The lax handgun rules of Virginia shardy contrast to those of Washington, D.C., where gun control laws are among the strictest in the nation, for bidding sale of handguns to the general public.
The VFW hall is surrounded with 20 acres of stalls where washboards, saddles, tubs and tables are sold or traded.
"I been all 'round the world, seen billygoats a'buttin heads and turtles race, but I never seen a thing like this," said a man who drove 160 miles from North Carolina for the event.
But Hillsville, a mountain community 320 southwest of Washington, has different view of gun controls. Townsfolk still recall the March 14, 1912 courtroom shooting that left Judge T.L. Massey and four others dead and a number wounded.
Others tell of former police chief Eugene Pack who was forced to step down from the police department after it was discovered he was trafficking in guns.
Inside the VFW hall, that resembles an arsenal capable of outfitting a regiment, weapons far more exotic than those used to hunt rabbit and squirred are for sale.
Near a copy of the book, "Shooter's a form (the applicaion for transfer of firearms) and get fingerprinted and photographed by the sheriff, this .50-caliber machine gun is yours," said a ruddy complexioned man dressed in combat fatigues and standing knee-high in footlockers full of ammunition clips.
"I'm 85-year-old, can't see to walk, but I'll be plunderin' round here long as I'm be plunderin' round here long as I'm able," said E.C, Bryant, a logger and gunsmith who every year leaves his Crooked Creek mountain home and walks the eight miles into town to see what he can fetch for his guns.
Although the streets bristle with guns and rifles of every deseription, the atmosphere is that of a market-place in which shrewd businessmen have come to find a bargain or take advantage of the unwary and unmformed.
"You never know when youll find a diamond in the rough. I'd love to find a Japanese sword for $10 from some guy who didn't know what he had," said one North Carolinan.