Seems a Lot of People Got Guns for Christmas

GUN-control advocates cheered last month when Wal-Mart Stores, the largest United States retailer, announced that it would no longer sell handguns. But more than 20,000 other businesses will continue to sell handguns. And lately their business has been very good.

During the Christmas shopping season, sales went ``right through the roof,'' says Mike Saporito of RSR Wholesale Guns in Winter Park, Fla. ``We have done five to six times what we would [normally] do in the same time period.''

A privately held company with revenues that Mr. Saporito puts at ``well over $100 million,'' RSR has seven US warehouses. Saporito says overall sales are up by 49 percent and demand is strong at all of the locations. ``I'm selling everything I have right now. Everything that is coming in the door is being sold.''

Gun retailers say the buying spree has been fired by the recently passed Brady bill, which mandates a five-day waiting period for gun buyers, and an amendment to the US Senate's $22 billion, five-year anticrime bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California. Her amendment would ban sales of 19 ``assault weapons,'' including the AK-47. The Brady bill will take effect at the end of February. The House of Representatives will act on the crime bill when Congress returns later this month.

Richard Feldman of the American Shooting Sports Council claims the surge in firearms sales is ``nothing less than a frenzy.'' Mr. Feldman, who represents gun manufacturers, retailers, and others in the firearms industry, says the Feinstein measure, more than the Brady bill, is driving sales. ``Dianne Feinstein, unwittingly, has had more to do than anyone with the arming of the American population with the very guns she would like to ban,'' he said. ``We should give her a saleswoman of the year award.''

Gun-control advocates doubt the gun dealers' appraisal of the current market. Cheryl Brolin of Handgun Control Inc., a Washington-based lobbying group, says, ``Don't believe the hype. It's totally self-serving for gun dealers to tell the public that sales are through the roof. They want you to believe everybody else is buying weapons and that you are the only unarmed person left. The only evidence we have is that handgun production has been down over the past four years.''

While retailers are excited about recent sales, manufacturers are downplaying the trend. ``We really haven't seen an increase because of the Brady bill,'' says Ken Jorgensen, a spokesman for Smith & Wesson, the Springfield, Mass., gunmaker. ``We are selling pretty much everything we can make. We have had very strong sales for over a year.''

Figures from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms show that the number of handguns in circulation is rising. From 1989 to 1992, the number of handguns in the US increased by 5 million. The ATF now estimates there are 212 million guns in the US, a third of them handguns. And while the gun population continues to grow, another 7.5 million guns change hands every year.

Gun dealers and manufacturers doubt the new federal measures will make any difference in the fight against crime.

Jeff Muchnick of the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence says the Brady bill and the Feinstein measure will reduce gun sales over the long term, despite higher sales now.

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