In a rare occurrence, the women's bathroom line was shorter than the men's at the Dulles Expo and Conference Center yesterday. That's because an even rarer sight, one that attracted a particularly male crowd, filled the center in Chantilly: a thousand tables covered with enough guns to arm a good-sized militia.
Nearly 300 vendors offering pocketbook-size handguns, semiautomatic weapons and Civil War-era swords, among other things, took over a space almost the size of two football fields at what organizers said was one of Virginia's biggest gun shows -- and Fairfax County's first major show in decades.
Hunters, collectors and the curious -- some in button-down shirts, some in full camouflage -- waited in lines several hundred people deep to get first pickings yesterday morning. Inside, they squeezed through the packed hall, stopping here and there to take a gander at the offerings of what was boldly billed "The Nation's Gun Show."
"There's more guns than you can see," marveled Dick Berglund, 59, who had come from Silver Spring to look for pre-Civil War pieces.
While gun shows are held routinely at such Maryland venues as the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, Northern Virginia gun enthusiasts have for years trekked to Richmond or beyond for major shows because a local waiting period had pretty much made the area off-limits for big shows.
In the 1940s, Fairfax County began requiring handgun buyers to get permits from county police, which took three days. That delay discouraged gun shows -- most of which offer a dizzying array of handguns but last only two days.
This year, the Virginia General Assembly passed more than a dozen laws that made the already gun-friendly state even more so. One law overturned local gun ordinances, invalidating the Fairfax County requirement and opening the door to yesterday's arms extravaganza.
Vendors and buyers, taking in yesterday's inventory, said they were grateful for the change.
"We've had a pent-up demand," said David Condon, owner of a gun shop in Middleburg, whose display of antique firearms -- averaging about $4,000 each -- filled up five tables.
The sheer size of the show made it great for those, such as Harry Addis, 60, who were on the hunt for a particular piece. By midafternoon, the Bergton, Va., resident had scored a modern, never-before-fired Sako Vixen Deluxe rifle for $1,000.
"A lot of shows, they're just junky," said Addis, a computer engineer. "People here know what they're talking about."
Suburban Northern Virginia, where recent sightings of openly armed people in restaurants shocked some, might not seem to be the prime spot to peddle firearms. But organizer Steven Elliott, president of C&E Gun Shows, said there are plenty of gun enthusiasts in the Washington area, and they have been thirsting for a show in their neighborhood. He said he expected 10,000 people to attend the show, which ends today.
Elliott said the lofty incomes of many Fairfax County residents make the area a good gun market, too. That sounded right to Tom Robinson, a Luray, Va., collector who was selling about 50 antique pieces, including an $8,800 Winchester rifle made in 1873. "These are your 401(k) types," he said, scanning the crowd.
Vendors, lured by ads in trade journals, came from as far as California and Michigan for the show, said Elliott, whose company organizes more than 20 of the 70 gun shows held in Virginia each year.
Several of those who wandered through the crowd were looking to sell as much as to buy. Slung over their shoulders were guns tagged with handwritten "For Sale" signs.
Cliff Geisler, 52, a Navy investigator from Wheaton, toted his World War II Japanese rifle, for which he hoped to get $225 or so. It hadn't yet piqued anyone's interest, and he wasn't too optimistic.
"The stars have to align just right," he said. "My guess is I'll walk out of here with this today."
A few tables covered in costume jewelry and crystal window ornaments targeted those disinclined to buy firearms. Still, the event was less than riveting for Stafford resident Pam DeBerry, 44, who waited near the snack bar while her husband deliberated between two shotguns.
DeBerry, a project officer at Quantico Marine Corps base, had browsed through a table of leather purses, but none was really her style, she said. "They all have concealed gun compartments."