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Politics, history factor in Steele’s gun shop business

October 13, 2017

Presidential politics can affect local businesses in many broad ways as part of the entire national economy. But the agendas of presidents can also have direct impact on local businesses.

Take Charlie Steele's gun shop on Route 9 as an example.

During President George W. Bush's eight years in office, when gun control wasn't a high priority, Steele's business teetered. With hunting in decline as well, those times were tough.

But things changed dramatically after the election of Barack Obama. His efforts to tighten gun laws sent people through Steele's shop door. "Obama was very good for my business," said Steele. "People were concerned that they might not be able to buy guns in the future, so they bought while they thought they could. Those were good years for me."

People concerned about rising crime rates bought pistols and rifles.

Those sales far outnumbered those of shotguns widely used for hunting all kinds of waterfowl and game on the Delmarva Peninsula. Steele said the pistol and rifle activity has quieted somewhat since the election of Donald Trump, who is seen as friendlier to gun rights advocates.

But Steele has seen a lot of changes through the years, and he keeps on. His Route 9 location, which a sign behind security fencing identifies as Stalag 13, is significantly larger than the shop he ran for many years at Midway. It was located at the end of his family's motel, fronting on Route 1.

The inside of his present location looks like a citadel, crammed from floor to ceiling with cardboard crates filled with shotgun shells and other forms of ammunition. His glass-cased counter is filled with pistols ranging from .22 caliber to revolvers engineered to fire .410 shotgun shells. The walls are lined with wooden racks stacked with a wide variety of new and used rifles and semiautomatic, pump, double-barreled and single-shot shotguns.

Antique weaponry hangs from the ceiling, making the shop not only a place to buy contemporary firearms, but also a museum of sorts for guns dating back a century to World War I vintage.

Retirees driving supply

Steele says his stock of used guns is almost overwhelming and driven by the flow of retirees into Sussex County. "Couples retire and move here, and the husbands bring their collection of guns with them. Then, whether because of death or just a desire to dispose of some of their accumulated stuff, they bring guns to me to sell for them. I have hundreds of guns on consignment. Many are from widows who don't want them around after their husbands have died."

Steele also buys and sells guns that have historical value. He recently acquired a special-edition .44-caliber Henry Repeating Arms rifle. Twelve of the rifles were made in 2008 to commemorate the 325th anniversary of Sussex County's establishment in 1683. "This is No. 2 of the 12," said Steele, "and it's a true collectors' item." The rifle features engravings emblematic of Sussex County including the courthouse and an image of Cecile Steele and a chicken. A distant relation of Charlie's, Cecile Steele is credited with pioneering the nation's broiler chicken industry, which now is a multibillion-dollar enterprise in Sussex.

Charlie's pride and joy, however, is an antique Winchester repeating rifle that he says was owned by Bob Dalton of the famous bank- and train-robbing Dalton gang. The gun hangs on the wall of his shop in a special case which includes a comprehensive written history of how it made its way through several owners from the streets of Coffeyville, Kansas in October 1892. That's the month when an infamous shootout left Dalton and several members of his gang dead after their foiled attempt to rob a bank.

According to a Wikipedia article, "Bob Dalton had ambitions. He would, he claimed, 'beat anything Jesse James ever did: rob two banks at once, in broad daylight.' On October 5, 1892, the Dalton gang attempted this feat when they set out to rob the C.M. Condon & Company's Bank and the First National Bank on opposite sides of the street in Coffeyville." They wore fake beards but one of the townspeople recognized them, and armed townspeople met them with a hail of bullets after they came out of one of the banks.

According to the history Charlie has with the Dalton gun, the rifle was snatched off the street by a townsperson when the shooting and killing stopped. It was treasured for years as a memento from that legendary day in Wild West history.

"It made its way into the ownership of a man in Sussex County, and he brought it in one day and asked if I wanted to buy it," said Charlie. "I did, and we struck a deal."

I asked Charlie if the Dalton gun is for sale.

"Of course," he said. "Just like every other gun in here. That's what I do."

He's hoping that even if presidential policies aren't in his favor now, maybe the constant interest in history will help keep him in business until political winds shift again in his favor.

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