More in US carry guns; restrictions lose support

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It's a busy shopping day at the Pecos Gun Shop. Customers wander the store, staring at gun grips and revolvers and hunting rifles. They consider the options, ask about prices, and - most important to David Dodson - they buy.

Mr. Dodson, who runs the Tucson, Ariz., store, says the past few months have been boom times. Sales have jumped 40 percent, and many customers are first-timers.

"I think a lot of people who might have been antigun no longer feel that way," Dodson says. "And if they were already thinking about buying a gun, then [the terrorist attacks] pushed them over the edge."

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Granted, guns are a way of life in Arizona, but since Sept. 11, it appears that Americans nationwide are finding comfort, increasingly, in a warm gun.

In Massachusetts, gun instructors are reporting 50 percent increases in class size. In Virginia, the National Rifle Association says a class required for carrying a concealed weapon has a month-long waiting list. Florida saw a 50 percent rise in September in criminal background checks that are required for carrying a concealed weapon. And a Gallup poll taken a month after the attacks found American's desire for stricter firearms laws had dropped, with only 53 percent in support of such measures - the number had not been below 60 percent for nearly a decade.

A familiar pattern

The rush for firearms and weapons permits in the wake of a crisis is not uncommon. The Second Amendment takes on increased relevance for many in shaky times. Following the Los Angeles riots of 1992, for example, there was a rush to southern California gun stores. Handgun sales in the state jumped from 329,000 in 1991 to 382,000 in 1992 and to 433,000 in 1993.

The motives are somewhat similar this time around, says Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association. Buyers understand that having a gun or a concealed-weapon license would make no difference on an airplane, he says, but they worry about other aspects of the war on terrorism.

"People are unsettled in this country," Mr. LaPierre says. "They hear warnings of other threats that could come at anytime from anywhere. And they don't know if they might be on their own for a while if there is another attack."

In Arizona, a state where guns are so common that many roadside cafes admonish patrons not to bring firearms inside, the gun rush has been large scale, says Gary Lovetro of the Arizona Arms Association. Gun shows and stores boomed as people become "more aware of safety."

Just how much sales have risen nationally is open to question. Through October, the sales are up 20 percent from the year before, but only slightly from 1999, says the National Shooting Sports Foundation. And since sales are cyclical, the increase may not be that substantive, the group says.

But there is little argument that the number of applicants for concealed-weapons permits is up. Standing at the counter of the Pecos Gun Shop, Tom Burdon helps his wife fill out the application. The tall, white-haired Vietnam veteran says the permit became more desirable in the wake of Sept. 11.

"There's just too much stuff going on these days, from school shootings to these airplane attacks," he says. "Pull out a gun and stick it in their nose. I'd call that an absolute deterrent."

Will change last?

The question is whether the change in attitude toward firearms has staying power. Some gun-control advocates believe the shift will prove temporary.

"People don't always act rationally in a time of crisis," says Nancy Wha, a spokeswoman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "But the effects aren't usually long lasting. There was a big increase in gun buying in California after Rodney King, but since then California has passed much stronger laws."

In fact, through Oct. 31 of this year, California handgun sales were on pace to be at their lowest level in 30 years, the state says.

Still, political analysts say Washington's mood on guns has changed, at least for now.

Even before Sept. 11, they say, Democrats had lost traction on gun control, and the recent elections did nothing but move the party further away from tighter rules. In the Virginia gubernatorial race, for example, Democrat Mark Warner's victory was sealed, in part, by blatant appeals to gun owners, using a group called "Sportsmen for Warner."

"Any gun-control legislation of any kind is a non-starter now," says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

Longer term, opposition to gun-control measures could be tied closely to patterns of gun ownership, says Bill Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

"If [the opposition] is attributable to the terrorist threat, then it will dissipate as the threat dissipates," Mr. Schneider says. "But if it is tied to an increase in gun ownership or weapons permits, that is something very different. That is people saying, 'I have this gun and ain't no one going to tell me what to do with it.' "

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