LAS VEGAS (AP) — A trade show expected to draw tens of thousands of gun enthusiasts and manufacturers opened Tuesday on the Las Vegas Strip with the head of an industry group preparing to tell convention-goers they weren't to blame for the recent mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.
"We are not the evildoers," National Shooting Sports Foundation chief Steve Sanetti said in remarks scheduled to be delivered Tuesday evening. "You didn't cause the monstrous crime in Newtown and neither did we."
The start of the annual Shooting Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show at the sprawling Sands Expo Convention Center comes amid a national debate on gun control following last month's shooting in Connecticut, which left 20 schoolchildren and six adults dead. The gunman, who authorities say wielded a military-style assault rifle, also killed himself.
President Barack Obama was expected to unveil recommendations Wednesday from Vice President Joe Biden, who in recent weeks has led a task force studying methods to curb gun violence.
Also, New York state lawmakers passed the toughest gun control law in the nation and were daring other states to do the same.
In his state-of-the-industry speech, Sanetti characterized weapons manufacturers, sellers and buyers as "misunderstood."
"Ours is a responsible industry that manufactures and sells lawful products to law-abiding citizens, who in turn exercise their constitutional right to own, use and enjoy firearms safely and responsibly for lawful purposes," he said.
Sanetti's remarks drew criticism from gun control advocates who said promoting and selling military-style assault rifles is the growth model for an industry that the foundation said is coming off a profitable $4.1 billion year.
"There's a dirty little secret here in the wake of Newtown," said Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "One of the primary areas for marketing and growth in the gun industry right now is assault weapons. The other is compact style handguns for people who carry guns in public."
"What's sexy and promoted is military-style assault weapons, not bolt-action deer hunting rifles," Everitt said. "In truth, the lobbying of the NSSF and their partners at the NRA is the sole reason we now live in an America where homicidal maniacs are allowed to stockpile firearms, often legally."
Sanetti said the weapons industry strongly supports severe penalties for those who misuse their right to own firearms.
The foundation, which is headquartered in the same Connecticut town where the school shooting took place, was hosting a show that it said would draw nearly 60,000 credentialed industry professionals, recreational gun owners and law enforcers.
The 35th annual SHOT show was closed to the public and was covered by a limited number of reporters and photographers. Foundation spokesman Bill Brassard Jr. told The Associated Press the group was swamped by media requests and stopped accepting applications following the Newtown shooting.
"By shutting out the news media, NSSF hopes that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," said Josh Sugarmann, head of the Violence Policy Center gun-control advocacy group in Washington, D.C., and a native of Newtown, Conn. He accused the foundation of "putting a happy face on the weapons of war it helps market ... while ignoring the inevitable tragedies that result."
The show offered 1,600 vendors with displays ranging from camping needs to pocket knives, camouflage clothing and tactical gear, along with handguns, hunting rifles and assault rifles. The sounds of bolt-action firing mechanisms could be heard throughout the vast convention hall.
Will Michael, whose family owns a sporting goods store in Homer, La., examined AR-15 military-style assault rifles and later paused during his trek through a maze of more than 12 miles of booth-lined aisles to talk by telephone with a reporter.
"There's a lot more interest in any and everything they're talking about banning," Michael said. "What I really enjoy about this show is you can hold the product, put your hands on it and pass that experience to the customer."
Michael said buyers have been joining waiting lists since a spike in AR-15 sales after a mass shooting last July 20 at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater killed 12 people and injured 70.
He said that until hoarders made ammunition costs soar, the inexpensive multi-shot AR model weapons were economical and efficient for hunters stalking nuisance wild pigs in his region.
A herd of pigs scatters after a single shot with a bolt-action rifle, Michael noted.
And with demand high, .223-caliber AR-15 bullets that used to cost 10 to 15 cents each in bulk now cost 50 to 60 cents, he said.
Associated Press photographer Julie Jacobson contributed to this report.