Armed America: Behind a broadening run on guns
Firearms sales have their cycles, but types of buyers – and their motivations – have shifted.
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They're all part of America's massive gun-and-ammunition buying spree – a national arming-up effort that began before last year's election of President Obama and continues unabated. Across the United States, it has led to shortages of assault-style weapons, rising prices, and a broadening of gun culture to increasingly include older Americans, women and – gasp – liberals.
The causes are varied – from fears over crime, both rational and irrational, to the concern that Second Amendment rights will be curtailed by a Democrat-controlled Washington. With the stock market deeply uncertain, some buyers simply think guns are a good investment. The run on guns suggests a shift in public attitudes about gun rights, and it presents a snapshot of a country that has historically turned to powder and balls in times of turmoil.
"There's the sort of stereotype that gun owners were middle-aged Republican white men who were fairly easy to isolate ... in order to regulate them out," says Brent Mattis, a shooting instructor in Florida. "Now that more women are owning guns, more liberals are owning guns, and just average everyday people who want to keep themselves and their family safe. It's turning into an incredibly strong political phenomenon."
This is most evident on store shelves. Select types of ammunition – ranging from the .308 caliber typical in self-defense guns to the .223 caliber usually associated with assault-style weapons – are nearly impossible to get in many parts of the country. Prices are up by more than half over last year. Assault-style weapons are back-ordered for months. Springfield, Mass., gunmaker Smith & Wesson is one of the few brights lights on Wall Street, its stock price up by 70 percent on the year. A few weeks ago, the gunmaker took orders of over $9 million in one day.
The FBI is hiring extra processors to deal with a glut of background checks that have increased by 25 percent year to year every month since November – a good indicator of sales. In the wheat-and-cattle corner of Oklahoma patrolled by Sheriff Bill Winchester, concealed-carry permit applications are up by 300 percent, including a request by an elderly man whose hands were so unsteady that he could barely scribble his name.
"There's just so many people that would never have knocked on our doors before that are now coming in," says Bob Roddy, a longtime clerk at Chuck's Firearms in Norcross, Ga., outside Atlanta. "There's a level of desperation which I don't ever recall seeing before."
It is not uncommon for gun and ammunition sales to cycle, sometimes dramatically. They spiked after the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, for example. Mr. Clinton had promised more gun control, resulting in the 1994 assault weapons ban (which expired in 2004). Mr. Obama, for his part, hasn't made any overt gun- control gestures. To the contrary, he has expounded on his support for the Second Amendment. Even recent court decisions are in gun owners' favor: The Supreme Court upheld the right of homeowners to keep handguns for self-defense in the so-called Heller decision last year.