Why gun sales spike after mass shootings: It's not what you might think

After the Colorado shooting, gun sales have risen around the country. For some, it's because they want to buy a gun for self-protection. But there's a bigger reason, gun-shop owners say.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
A Palmetto M4 assault rifle is seen at the Rocky Mountain Guns and Ammo store in Parker, Colo. Gun sales have gone up around the country since last week's theater shooting in Aurora, Colo.

As sure as summer follows spring, gun sales rise after a mass shooting. It happened after the shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. It happened after the Tucson, Ariz., shootings last year that killed six. Now, after the killing of 12 people last week at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., gun sales are spiking again - not just in Colorado but around the country.

“We were overwhelmed Saturday,” says Larry Hyatt, owner of Hyatt Guns in Charlotte, N.C., one of the biggest gun stores in the country. “We had to have 25 people on the counter to help customers. That’s very unusual for this time of year.”

Self-protection is part of the reason. But a bigger factor, say gun dealers, is fear of something else:  politicians – specifically, their ability to enact restrictions on gun ownership and acquisition of ammunition.

When a high-profile shooting takes place, invariably the airwaves are full of talk about gun control.

“Once people start hearing about that, they say, ‘Wow I was planning on doing this. I better do it now,’” says Mr. Hyatt.

A gun-store owner in Virginia reports the same phenomenon.

"Normally what happens - and I've been doing this for 30 years – is whenever they start talking about gun control on the news and they start pushing that, people have a tendency to think they're going to take away their right to buy the gun, and that usually spurs sales,” says Paul Decker, owner of Hunters Heaven in Hayes, Va.

Never mind that few members of Congress, or the Obama administration, are willing to stick their necks out on gun control. With Election Day drawing near, and gun advocates on edge that President Obama will end up being “the most anti-gun president in American history,” as the National Rifle Association says, that may be one more impetus for those contemplating gun purchases.

Gun dealers, in fact, owe a lot to Mr. Obama. Before his election in 2008, gun sales spiked in anticipation that he would promote a gun-control agenda – even though he did not campaign on the issue and the Supreme Court had just handed down its landmark Heller ruling, which asserted an individual right to keep and bear arms.

Since the Aurora movie theater massacre July 20, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has not released national data on background checks for gun purchases. But anecdotal evidence from around the country shows that gun sales have spiked since Friday.

In the four days since Aurora, dealers submitted 3,647 requests for state background checks for the purchase of a firearm, a spokesperson for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation told Bloomberg. That’s 41 percent more than the 2,583 requests during the same four-day period the previous week, and 38 percent more than the first Friday-to-Monday in July.

Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement reported a 10 percent increase in gun-related background checks from July 20 to July 23, Bloomberg reports. King County in Washington State, where Seattle is located, saw nearly twice as many requests for concealed pistol licenses in the three days after the Aurora massacre, compared with the same period a year ago, according to The Associated Press. Oregon and California also saw increases.

• Monitor intern Kimberly Railey contributed to this report.

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