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Updated: Wednesday, 23 Jan 2013, 7:02 PM CST
Published : Wednesday, 23 Jan 2013, 4:10 PM CST
AUSTIN (KXAN) - With the second inauguration of Barack Obama in the history books, all eyes return to the president’s ongoing political shootout with Congress, including the emotional debate about gun control in this country.
But in a quiet neighborhood just east of Austin, a gun collector thinks he has a way to “downsize” the argument a bit.
Instead of hollering about guns that kill, he suggests, people might set their sights instead on guns that don’t: miniature weapons.
“Miniatures have been around for centuries, they tell me,” said collector Joe Menefe. “I mean, from what I understand, only kings and queens could afford to own miniatures.”
That changed, though, after firearms made their way into the public at large.
“Salesmen for full size makers,” Menefe said, “would make the guns in miniature because it was easier to carry around with the transportation they had back then.
“So they would make them fully functional, scale them down and go around showing possible distributors what they look like and how they function. And it was less burdensome than carrying full size, because they were really big and heavy back then.
”They started off with half-scale and someone said, 'I think I can make that in one-third scale,’ and then there was a race to see who could make it the smallest, fully functional.”
The result was a host of guns, exact working replicas, many of them no longer than two centimeters and some even smaller.
All of the parts that move, click and shift on the big ones also move, click and shift on the tiny ones. Some of them even fire, expelling sparks and smoke from the end of the barrel, and a few actually project little “bullets” a few feet through the air.
Pricey and pricer: The cost
And while the market for the things has moved well beyond kings and queens, you still have to have a pretty penny to participate.
“This is a half-scale Winchester,” said Menefe, holding a small rifle. “It's hand-engraved. I mean, it is just an amazing piece. The craftsmanship is unbelievable. Something like this sells for $8,000.”
And believe it or not, that’s on the low end.
“It is actually cheaper to buy the full-size version of these guns,” Menefe said. “I mean, they're a quarter of the price or less compared to the miniatures.
“I guess the least expensive is about $400 and they go as high as $50,000, $60,000.
“The miniatures are collectible. I mean, they take a lot of intricate detail. They're hand made, each piece, and they're rare.
They're workable pieces of art, in the sense that they're hand made. They are scaled, fully functional to the full-size specifications and they're something you can pretty much just frame and sit on a shelf and say, 'I collect miniature guns.'
“The highest price I've actually sold one for is $15,000 for one piece.”
So no, Menefe doesn’t just sit around admiring his collection. He buys, sells, trades and barters his tiny items. Or at least he used to.
“The first year I moved to Austin,” he said, “I must have sold $150,000 worth of miniatures. It was unbelievable and it came to a halt, a complete stop. The economy just totally tanked. I mean, collectables are the first thing to go whenever, you know, there's a downturn in the economy.”
Now though, with the economy showing signs of renewed life, some of Menefe’s miniature guns are finding their way out of the safe that is their home and into the marketplace.
“I had forgotten,” he said, “that I even had a Web site where I sell miniatures because once the economy tanked, I mean it just stopped, came to a standstill.
“So fast forward a year, someone calls and says, 'Hey, do you still have this or that miniature?' And I had to think for a minute: 'Oh yeah, I sell miniatures.' So it was really refreshing.”
Big and little: The connection
Now Menefe has no illusions about gun lovers around the country flocking to miniatures and actually ending the gun debate.
In fact, he is right-of-center in that argument.
“I actually would prefer,” the collector said, “that this miniature collecting would be the alternative to gun collecting. However, I still feel that people collect different things and full size guns happen to be one of them.
“And I believe that there's no ambiguity in the Second Amendment right. So, you know, I may not personally collect full size guns but I support people's right to do that.”
Indeed, big guns and little guns are joined at the hip.
Old and young: The generation gap
Still, Menefe points out that as gun collectors age and mature, their interest in miniatures often grows.
“Miniatures,” he said, “are pretty much collected by old-timers. Forty is probably the youngest of the newest people that are becoming involved with miniatures.
“I think it's because they appreciate the art of the pieces and the work that goes into making a miniature and how intricate the detail is.
“I think members of the younger generation are probably more interested in actual fully-functional firing guns.
“So many of them will email me or call and ask, 'Will this kill somebody?' And of course, I explain to them what miniatures are and that, of course, I can't sell a gun that will kill someone and ship it through the U.S. Mail out of state. So you get those idiots.”
In fact, on the YouTube channel where he posts videos about his guns, Menefe had to disable the “Comments” section.
“I blocked it,” he said, “because I was getting so many emails that didn't lead to the sale of a miniature. It was just kids getting online and asking crazy questions.”
Still, Menefe wants to spread the delight he experiences as he marvels at his collection.
“We'd like to see more members in the Miniature Arms Society,” he said, “and have it grow.
“Part of the whole deal with what's going on in the news today with full size guns is that if people have this desire to collect something and guns happen to have been what they're interested in, look into miniatures. There's no danger in collecting miniatures.”
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