As calls renew for a frank discussion on gun control in the United States, there’s a sense among many that this time conversations will move beyond rhetoric and into legislation.
That’s driven target shooters, collectors, and gun enthusiasts to stores in droves as they worry their time may be dwindling to buy certain types of firearms.
At Magnum Force, a gun store in Monroe, Mich., owner Terry Marlow had some of his most robust business ever last week. At the top of people’s shopping lists were tactical-style rifles — the guns under the most scrutiny following the heartwrenching shooting at a Connecticut elementary school on Dec. 14.
"There's been a tremendous increase,” Mr. Marlow said. “I've sold more in two days than I have in the past two to three months.”
He attributes it primarily to President Obama’s push for increased regulations, and what looks to be growing support for such measures on Capitol Hill.
"That's truly the only thing motivating this,” Mr. Marlow said. “[Customers are] anticipating some type of restrictions on the assault-rifle type of firearms, or high capacity type magazines, or both."
Authorities investigating the Connecticut shooting have said killer Adam Lanza used primarily an AR-15 Bushmaster rifle, a semi-automatic civilian version of the military’s M-16. The Bushmaster is among the most popular of those types of guns, though there are many other types of similar tactical-style firearms.
It took less than 90 minutes Tuesday morning for Todd’s Guns in Lambertville to sell out of its stock of AR-15-style rifles. Owner Todd Bruning said he was at the store until midnight completing a mound of paperwork from the especially busy day.
“Everyone’s worried they’re going to do it,” he said of an assault-weapon ban. “[Buyers] want to get them before they ban them.”
The guns are not often used for hunting, but they are popular among target shooters. After getting out of the Marine Corps, Mr. Bruning wanted one so he could continue target shooting with a gun he was familiar with.
“Everything has its purpose,” he said. "You can say you don’t need this, and you don’t need that. You don’t need a car that does 100 because the speed limit’s only 65.”
It’s not unusual for concerns over new gun-control measures to accelerate sales. Similar high-profile shootings have driven that response, as have concerns over who is in the Oval Office.
“It’s been ongoing for the last year. Consumers have feared the election of Obama would prompt some form of gun control. This is not something that just started five days ago,” said Rommel Dionisio, an analyst with Wedbush Securities who follows U.S. firearms manufacturer Smith & Wesson.
Indeed, sales of guns and ammunition have been exceptionally strong this year. Through November, the Federal Bureau of Investigations reported running 16.8 million background checks this year for the purchase of firearms. That compares with 16.5 million such checks in all of 2011, and 14.4 million in 2010.
The FBI cautions against assuming there is a one-to-one correlation between background checks and gun sales, but the statistics give some idea as to the number of people buying guns.
Still, attitudes toward some forms of gun control -- especially regulations restricting ownership of assault-style rifles and magazines that allow shooters to fire the weapon 30 times or more without reloading -- seem to be changing.
A handful of politicians in Congress with highly rated gun rights records from the National Rifle Association have indicated they’re willing to consider certain restrictions. Several polls have also found significant support from the public to end the so-called “gun-show loophole” that allows for some sales between private citizens without any type of background check.
“I think there’s a real feeling we’ve reached some type of tipping point. There’s an emerging consensus in the country that something needs to be done,” said Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in Washington.
The business world has also reacted.
Private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management said Tuesday it intended to sell the company that manufactures the Bushmaster.
Dick’s Sporting Goods, a publicly traded sports equipment retailer, suspended sales of “modern sporting rifles” in all 500-plus of its stores nationwide.
Tragedies such as the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School carry the potential to set the national agenda and steer political conversation. Perhaps the first shooting to do that was the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999 that left 15 dead, including the two students who carried out the attack.
Dave Cullen, a journalist and author who spent 10 years researching and writing his New York Times bestselling book, Columbine, said there was a sense after that incident that changes in America’s gun laws were coming.
But they didn't.
“That sort of died a slow death,” Mr. Cullen said. “Nothing really ever materialized. There was never any momentum even remotely comparable to this.”
By "this," Mr. Cullen means Sandy Hook. The killings there were the latest in a string of deadly incidents over the last year including shootings at a high school in Chardon, Ohio, a Colorado movie theater, a spa in Milwaukee, and a shopping mall in Oregon.
“There’s a lot of things ... that are coming into play where I think this is a vastly different opportunity than we’ve seen before,” Mr. Cullen said.
Politically, the timing is also good. It’s just after an election, so officials may be more willing to take political risks. Mr. Obama, never facing re-election for president, is also freer to pursue his agenda. Mr. Cullen also thinks gun owners and enthusiasts themselves may be willing to at least consider some discussion.
“I think there’s a lot of soul searching out there of people thinking maybe it’s time,” he said. “They’re not going to come take our hunting rifles. It’s not going to happen. Let’s do some sensible things.”
Many who support gun rights in America don’t believe more restrictions would do any good in preventing shootings in the future. Instead, they say restrictions would only serve to make those who follow the law more at risk.
“I’m a mother of two kids,” Temperance resident Melissa Green said. “My other half works at night. I feel I should have every right to carry a firearm if I choose to, especially if I’ve taken all the proper classes and done everything the proper way to be able to carry one.”
Ms. Green was shopping Wednesday for a high-end, single-shot shotgun — not the kind of firearm on which legislators are focusing. She hopes incidents like Sandy Hook encourage lawmakers to give responsible, certified gun owners more leeway in where they can carry their weapons. But she fears it will lead to more regulation.
Soon to get her teaching degree, Ms. Green believes educators — if properly trained and permitted — should be given the option of carrying a gun.
“I picture if I were in that elementary school and those were my kids, I think I should be able to protect them,” she said.
Like other gun dealers, Theresa Cleland, owner of Cleland's Outdoor World in Swanton, has seen her business spike in recent days. But with holiday shopping and deer hunt season bringing in customers, it's difficult to say how much is related to Sandy Hook.
If she thought new regulations would help stop events like Sandy Hook, she’d support them. But she doesn’t.
“I wish they would address the needs, which are education and mental illness,” she said. “These are types of things we need to address that we’re just ignoring.”
Ms. Cleland said she and other dealers are careful not to sell to people they’re not comfortable with, even if that person passes the background check.
“People think we do this willy nilly but we really don’t. Not only do they go through a federal background check, but if i’m not comfortable, you’re not buying anything here. Believe it or not, we have a conscience, and I think you’ll see that with most dealers.”
Decisions to make
Mr. Marlow, the Monroe gun dealer, believes some changes are coming after Sandy Hook. A horror of that magnitude motivates people to take action, he said.
“Everybody's pretty much fed up with the incidents we have -- the increasing number of shootings we have. It just seems like it's never-ending."
He’s not sure that outlawing large magazines or assault-type weapons will help.
But even so, he said he’s seeing a spectrum of viewpoints from people in his shop.
"I think a lot of people are getting swayed,” he said. “A lot of people who are hardcore gun fanatics are inching ever so slightly to the opinion that maybe there is something that needs to be done."
He also did some personal soul-searching when he learned about the shootings.
"It makes you wonder if what you're doing is somehow contributing to this,” he said.
Mr. Marlow said he’s decided to continue selling his existing inventory of AR-15s and similar style weapons.
But new regulation or not, he’s not sure what he’ll do when his current stock runs out.
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6134.