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Annual gun show highlights north country’s deep hunting roots


CLAYTON — When they hear about more gun restrictions pushed by the government, hunters in the north country who’ve been firing rifles since they were teenagers often have a strong gut reaction.

“The gun culture in rural areas is a part of who we are and what we do,” emphatically said Ron H. Kohstaedt of Canandaigua, who sold airsoft and bee-bee guns for youths Saturday at the 35th annual Clayton-1000 Islands Gun & Sportsman Show at Cerow Park.

He is one of 40 vendors at the firearms show, which continues from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for active and retired military members with identification and free for children younger than 12.

Statistics “show that areas with the most restrictive gun laws have higher crime rates, and it’s because of communities that don’t have a more respectful gun culture,” said Mr. Kohstaedt, who grew up hunting as a teenager in the Finger Lakes region.

“Politics in big cities with high crime has translated into laws” that infringe on rural areas where people have grown up hunting with guns, he said. “I bet no one at this show even knows someone who’s committed a criminal act with a weapon.”

At the show — a pit stop every fall for outdoorsmen preparing for hunting season — Mr. Kohstaedt and others talked about the national media buzz about gun laws provoked by recent shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin.

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, for instance, has blamed Congress for not tightening firearms laws to prevent such massacres.

But as with any highly charged issue, Mr. Kohstaedt said, there are two sides. He said if a moviegoer in the Aurora, Colo., theater were carrying a weapon, the gunmen who killed 12 and wounded dozens might have been stopped.

“The way I look at it is that it could have been over if someone was carrying a gun, but Aurora has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the state of Colorado,” he contended.

In the north country, outdoorsmen perceive their guns similarly to how tennis players view their rackets. They see rifles, muzzleloaders, shotguns and handguns as tools used for their hobby — not weapons used to inflict harm on human beings.

“People like to hunt and fish here, but they’ve had to learn to adapt over time to today’s laws,” said Mary A. VanTassel, who co-owns VanTassel’s Gunsmithing in Evans Mills with her husband, Dennis J. Dozens of rifles and handguns lined tables at the exhibit.

Looking around at the clusters of outdoor enthusiasts, Mrs. VanTassel said Saturday was one of the busiest days at the show she’s seen in her 25 years as a vendor.

“I know a lot of the people here who buy guns, and this is like the start of the hunting season for them,” she said. “The timing is great.”

Proceeds from the admission fee go to the Rotary Club of Clayton, which awards $9,000 in scholarships to graduating seniors from the Thousand Islands and LaFargeville school districts.

Rotary member Thomas H. Neely, who spent six months organizing the show on a committee with five other volunteers, called the large crowd a testament to the north country’s outdoor-sports culture, which has deep roots.

Along with the plethora of used, new and collectible firearms, a range of knives and archery and fishing equipment are for sale at the show.

“Most of these people here have grown up with an appreciation and respect for firearms since their youth,” Mr. Neely said.

On Saturday, a bearded man selling collectibles at a booth near the entrance was a prime example.

Jeffrey J. Backus, a native of Mexico in Oswego County, said he grew up hunting as a youngster in the Redwood foothills and Adirondack forest.

A rack at his booth is stocked with various animals hunted from the Adirondack Mountains: possums, muskrats, otters, foxes and coyotes.

Mr. Backus, who traded animal furs for a living in the 1970s, said he enjoys socializing with youngsters at shows who display an interest in trapping and hunting.

“I love to see the kids interested, and I’ll sometimes give them furs for free,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t get it through their fathers, so I like to encourage kids who are interested. It’s important for the younger generation to get involved.”

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