By Tim Gaynor
TUCSON, Arizona (Reuters) - Thousands of shoppers browsed for guns at a trade show in Tucson on Saturday, a week after a brutal shooting rampage that killed six people and raised questions about permissive gun laws in the United States.
"People see it as either guns are going to get banned, or I'm going to get shot," said stall holder Randall Record, 27, explaining the mood driving trade at the Crossroads of the West Gun Show on the outskirts of the city. "Either way, it drives sales," he added.
The show comes exactly a week after a college dropout pelted a crowd gathered outside a grocery store with semi-automatic fire, killing a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl and four others.
Thirteen people were injured by the hail of bullets, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who remains critically ill in a city hospital, shot through the head.
Private citizens in the United States are the most heavily armed in the world, according to a study issued by the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, and gun ownership is a cherished constitutional right.
In 2009, the FBI ran more than 14 million criminal background checks on people seeking to buy firearms, although no records for the number of guns actually sold is kept.
As a stars and stripes flag fluttered at half staff outside the show to honor the dead, shoppers picked over stalls crammed with AR-15 assault rifles and semi-automatic pistols, including the popular Glock 9mm model used in the killing spree.
Others bought hunting and target rifles, pistols for self defense, or bought and sold antique weapons for the love of collecting.
"It's just a hobby," said chemist Donald Macaulay, 62,. who hoped to sell several reproduction flintlock and cap lock rifles at the show. "I get a lot of pleasure from it."
'A WAKE UP CALL'
A troubled 22-year-old college dropout was arrested for the shootings at a "Congress on the corner" event, after being wrestled to the ground by victims and bystanders as he tried to reload.
He is charged with five federal counts, including the murder of a federal judge and the attempted assassination of Giffords.
The shooting highlighted permissive gun laws in the United States, and in Arizona, where a state law allows citizens at least 21 year of age to carry a gun in their pocket without special training or permits.
Gun control advocates said they would to close one loophole in the law that allows the purchase of guns at gun shows, such as the one in Tucson on Saturday, without going through a background check.
Some in the U.S. Congress want tighter regulation of some semi-automatics and the extended magazines of a type Loughner is accused of using to spray dozens of shots in just a few seconds.
But some people at the Tucson trade show drew the opposite conclusion and said the deadly spree showed that Americans need to go out and buy more guns for self defense.
"This incident shows very, very clearly why it is so vital to have more people armed and ready and prepared to defend," themselves and others, said Charles Heller, 53, a founder of the Arizona Citizens Defense League, a civil defense rights group.
Suspect Loughner had a history of emotional problems that have emerged since the shooting. Calls by some groups have focused on the weaknesses of the system used to prevent people with mental illness from buying guns. Loughner successfully bought a gun from a store last November.
"I'm in favor of possibly doing a bit more of a thorough background investigation before just handing someone a firearm," said Steve Smith, 53, a commercial collections investigator carrying a Beretta carbine strapped across his chest, and a Colt pistol in a holster.
But others at the popular arms bazaar, where traders sell holsters, knives and other shooting regalia, wondered whether an appropriately armed citizen at the scene of last week's shooting might have been able to stop the gunman.
"If a responsible person carrying a gun had been there, he could possibly have helped control the situation," said nurse Jim Hague, 50.
(Editing by Greg McCune)