SAN FRANCISCO — Months after many members of a frightened nation rushed to gun shops seeking security in triggers and steel, mounting evidence suggests that the gun-buying spree is over.
For decades, handgun sales in particular have been a barometer of public fear rising and falling in lock step with crime rates and riots. So the drop is, on one hand, a sign of how America has acclimated to its new normal. Yet it is also part of a broader, and perhaps more lasting, trend: Before Sept. 11 and again today fewer Americans are buying handguns.
The decline in handgun sales since the mid-1990s has been attributed to many factors, from tougher gun-control laws to an increased feeling of safety as crime dropped throughout the decade. But to some, the roots go deeper, suggesting a subtle shift in attitudes, as America becomes ever more suburban and more likely to connect guns to shooting sprees than to weekend duck hunts.
Laura Kennedy has seen the shift at her Bay Area sporting goods store, where almost no one says they've "got to get a gun to protect themselves" anymore. Federal data show that requests for background checks a key indicator of sales are now below last year's levels.
"The long-term trend in the US is ... going down," says William Vizzard, a gun-control expert at the University of California in Sacramento. Sales of handguns like computers or armchairs are cyclical, and most experts say they will likely rebound at some point. Yet many add that the days of the 1980s and early '90s, when nearly one-third of American adults said they owned guns, might not return anytime soon.
"The culture of shooting," says Mr. Vizzard, "is slowly ebbing away."
Even with the post-Sept.-11 uptick, the news for handgun manufacturers has not been good. While tracing actual handgun sales is nearly impossible, a host of statistics reveal a dim picture:
Although FBI background checks for handgun sales spiked after Sept. 11 by 39 percent in October the buying binge has ended. Despite the jump, the FBI did fewer background checks in 2001 than in 2000, and checks for the first two months of 2002 are already 10.5 percent below last year's pace. The checks don't necessarily mean that a sale occurred nor do they record how many weapons might have been sold but they're widely seen as a useful gauge of interest in handguns.
California, one of the few states to keep track of gun sales, announced late last month that handgun sales in 2001 had hit their lowest level since the state began keeping data in 1972. Maryland also saw a drop in the requests for applications to purchase firearms in 2001.
The most recent figures from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms show that handgun manufacturing dropped by more than half between 1993 and 1999. In 1998, the latest year available, fewer handguns were manufactured than in any year since 1967.
The University of Chicago's General Social Survey shows that 24 percent of adults polled in 2001 owned at least one gun, down from 31 percent in 1996. Previously, the figure held steady near 30 percent for the survey's 16-year history.
The trends aren't industry-wide: Sales of long guns such as shotguns and rifles remain healthy. But historically, pistol and revolver sales have closely mirrored crime-rate fluctuations, from the 1960s until today. "The single biggest reason for having a handgun has been declining for the past eight years," says Tom Smith of the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, which puts out the General Social Survey.
OTHER variables also affect handgun sales. America's increasing immigrant population has less of a tradition with firearms: It lacks the iconography of John Wayne and the cultural history of dads teaching their sons to shoot a .22 or hunt partridge. In addition, some say, most people who want guns already have one.
Indeed, the biggest years for handgun sales in US history came not when new buyers sought to protect themselves, but when current handgun owners rushed to buy more. As President Clinton signed the Brady Bill gun-control law, enthusiasts stockpiled certain models, worried that it was their last chance.
"Bill Clinton was a great marketing tool," quips Ms. Kennedy of Canyon Sports in Martinez, Calif. Since then, she's noticed changes. While her shop manages fine, competition has diminished, unable to scratch by, or unwilling to fill out reams of paperwork.
Many in the gun industry say the handgun market is now stabilizing. But others aren't so sure. The fact that the average age of gun owners continues to increase is, they say, more than a statistical quirk tied to aging baby boomers. Rather, it's a sign that younger generations see guns differently.
"Young people are now coming of age in a time of high school shootings," says Desmond Riley, a spokesman for Stop the Gun Violence in Washington. "They're not used to guns as something being used for sport, but as something being used to kill friends."
But that portrait of gun use is misleading, say gun-control critics. Far more children die in swimming pools each year than in accidental gun deaths. And at least two school shootings in Pearl, Miss., and Grundy, Va., were stopped by armed citizens.
Yet such facts are rarely mentioned. "Over time, [the bad news] cannot do anything but wear on people and reinforce negative perceptions about guns," says John Lott, author of "More Guns, Less Crime," a controversial book tying the prevalence of concealed weapons to lower crime rates.
It is this combination of factors from negative perceptions and a dropping crime rate to an aging, diverse population that points, some say, to something more fundamental than cycles of boom and bust. "We might actually be reaching that point," says Philip Cook, a gun expert at Duke University in Durham, N.C., "where the number of people who own guns is actually going down."