AUGUSTA — Surrounded by an impressive collection of vintage machine guns, ammunition and military items he had for sale at the Augusta Gun Show, Steve Cooper said he doesn’t do background checks, for the simple reason he’s not required to, as a collector instead of a licensed gun dealer.

However, the Somerville resident said he has no problems with the part of President Barack Obama’s recent gun control proposal that would require all gun sales, even those at gun shows or between private individuals, to be subject to background checks to make sure the buyer is not a criminal buying a gun illegally.

“I’m all for it. There’s no harm in that. What’s the big deal?” said Cooper, whose guns on sale at the show Saturday included a pair of M1919A4 .30-caliber machine guns mounted in tandem and capable of firing 1,000 rounds a minute.

Cooper and others at the gun show have plenty of objections to other parts of proposed federal gun control legislation, however, including a possible ban on military-style rifles, many of which were prompted by the recent school shooting in Newtown.

Cooper said a gun is just a tool used by people who enjoy target shooting or collecting them.

“A gun is just a tool. It’s not evil or anything,” Cooper said. “Unless someone picks one up who has evil thoughts in their head, it’s not going to cause any problems. It’s people with mental health issues that are causing the problems. No sane person would pick up a gun and shoot at 6-year-olds.”

United States law has banned the manufacture of new machine guns for private citizens since 1986. Private citizens may still own, sell and buy older machine guns; though doing so requires payment of a special tax, and the weapons, and their owners, must be registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Glenn Barbour, of Waldoboro, who was helping Cooper sell guns Saturday, said they’d sold about half their inventory already, including a .50-caliber gun for $3,100.

Cooper said he figured he’d sell his collection because interest in guns was so high, especially in weapons that could be subject to the proposed federal assault rifle ban.

The Augusta Civic Center, where the gun show continues today, was packed with gun enthusiasts — so many that the line to get in wove back and forth through the lobby, out through the front doors, and, at times, to the edge of Community Drive where it passes by the building.

A representative of DiPrete Promotions, the New Hampshire company organizing the gun show, simply pointed to the long line of patrons waiting to get in and declined to comment when asked to discuss the show.

Barry Wheaton, a licensed firearms dealer from the Downeast town of Alexander, said there is a rush on to buy guns, probably fueled by people who think gun control legislation could make it impossible to buy military-style rifles, which he said people use to protect themselves.

As a dealer, Wheaton is required to, and does, conduct background checks before selling firearms; but he does not believe that requirement should be extended to private sales, or gun show sales, which he said, in most cases, usually go through background checks already.

He said criminals still will find ways to buy guns, no matter what gun control laws are passed. He warned that making it harder for law-abiding citizens to get guns would make the country less safe, not more, citing the rise of organized crime during the prohibition of alcohol.

“The Prohibition is where organized crime came from,” said Wheaton, sitting behind a table of pistols and related gear. “If you outlaw guns, it will be another opportunity for organized crime.”

He said the Second Amendment was not meant to preserve citizens’ right to hunt; it was to preserve their right to have guns to protect and defend themselves, and the country, up to and including protecting themselves from an oppressive government.

Wheaton said he is a retired school principal, a job he held for 28 years. While he was principal, he said, he carried a .45-caliber pistol with him, and he thinks schools would be safer if they had someone armed inside them.

Peter Anderson, of Lincolnville, said he has been around guns all his life. He and other family members spent time in the military, and he has hunted and collected guns. He owns 17 guns, all of them legal and safely locked up, except one he keeps out in his home, unloaded, for protection. Saturday was the first time he’d come to a gun show, out of curiosity.

Anderson said he’s a strong believer in the right to own guns but said he supports the proposals to require background checks for all guns sales and the proposed ban on military-style rifles.

“I don’t see any sense of having them in society,” he said of assault rifles. “I think background checks are a must. There are just too many people buying guns that shouldn’t be.”

However, Anderson worries that gun control laws could get carried away.

“I’m not into gun control, because it’s like anything else. It always goes too far,” he said.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
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