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Obama overshadows gun industry trade show

As the debate over tighter controls on firearms purchases rages in Washington, Las Vegas is gearing up for the biggest gun show of the year.

The SHOT (Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade) Show opens Tuesday. The only people you'll find buying guns there are retailers. And they'll have plenty to choose from.

Covering more than 630,000 square feet — with some 12.5 miles of aisles — the SHOT Show's popularity, much like the number of gun sales in America, is on the rise. Last year, nearly 64,000 professionals from the hunting, shooting and law enforcement industries attended the closed-to-the-public conference, the second-largest crowd in its history.

While it's primarily a show for manufacturers and retailers, the show's fastest growing segment is the one focused on equipment for law enforcement. When it was introduced 13 years ago, the category took up just 7,000 square feet. This year it will cover 170,000 square feet.

Regardless of where you stand on them, guns are big business in America. The firearms and ammunition industries took in a combined $6.6 billion in 2014, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearms industry and host of the show.

They're also a political hot potato. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced a series of executive actions that will require people selling guns, regardless of location, to be licensed and undergo a background check. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is also finalizing a rule requiring background checks for buyers of dangerous weapons.

Perhaps in part because of these looming restrictions (and in part because of a number of high-profile tragedies), gun sales have been steadily increasing in recent months. Sales began to spike in June after the slayings of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and continued to climb as the year went on.

December saw a record number of background checks, as attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, spurred people to purchase weapons. All totaled, 23.1 million people applied for background checks last year — the highest number on record.

Since Obama took office, gun sales have nearly doubled, and the share prices of gunmakers have taken off as well. Smith & Wesson shares are up more than 700 percent since Obama became president. Sturm Ruger shares are up nearly 800 percent as people bought guns in anticipation of tighter restrictions.

And an increasing number of gun owners are women. According to the shooting sports foundation, female engagement in target shooting grew 60 percent to 5.4 million between 2001 and 2013, and was up 85 percent for hunting to 3.3 million in that time period. And the group says more than 74 percent of its member retailers saw a rise in women customers from 2012 to 2013.

To woo those customers, firearms manufacturers will have a number of smaller, but effective, weapons on display this year.

But the real focus will be on Washington — and what it might mean for the industry in the months to come.