In N.C. gun shop, plenty of sales and worries after Newtown shooting

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the caliber of a pistol purchased by Sarah Pike, a customer in Ken’s Gunsmith Shop.

December 20, 2012

A rack on the wall of Ken’s Gunsmith Shop displayed rifles in camouflage, wood and pink finishes, but the woman standing at the glass counter stocked with handguns didn’t want any of those.

She unfolded a wrinkled magazine advertisement for the Bushmaster AR-15 and asked the store’s owner, Allen McGrady, if any of the matte-black M16-style semiautomatic rifles at the end of the rack were a match. McGrady took down an XM-15, a .223-caliber rifle with a 16-inch barrel, priced about $900. It was, indeed, a Bushmaster. So, according to authorities, was the military-style rifle used to kill 20 Connecticut schoolchildren and six adults last week.

“Remington just announced they won’t offer the Bushmaster product anymore,” McGrady said, although the company has made no such public announcement. “Because they want to be politically correct.”

“But it wasn’t the gun,” the woman said with disbelief.

“That’s correct, ma’am,” McGrady responded before politely explaining that the gentleman next to her in the crowded store was ahead of her in line.

“Let me see that Bushmaster, please,” the man said as “White Christmas” played on the store’s sound system. As he inspected the rifle, McGrady informed customers that since the rampage in Newtown, Conn., demand for Bushmasters had gone up.

“That gun will pick up 25 percent before Christmastime,” he said. He saw a similar spike in sales after the 2008 election of Barack Obama, when gun owners feared that the government would pass tougher regulations. That panic settled, he said, when it became clear that the president had no intention of touching gun policy.

The Connecticut massacre has changed that. With Obama’s vow to pursue enhanced gun regulations, shares of publicly traded gun companies have plummeted, and retailers such as Dick’s Sporting Goods have announced that they will suspend sales of military-style rifles.

And there is perhaps no place in America that feels more under attack politically than this town of strip malls, car dealerships and shuttered downtown stores just below the Virginia border. Bushmaster, along with Remington, Panther Arms, Barnes Bullets and several other gun companies, belongs to a conglomerate called Freedom Group International, which is based here in Remington’s low-slung office building on Remington Drive.

On Tuesday, Cerberus Capital Management, a New York private equity firm, announced that it would sell its controlling interest in Freedom Group. A day earlier, the California teachers’ pension fund said it was reviewing its $500 million commitment to Cerberus as a result of its ownership of the highly profitable gun group.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Stars and Stripes and a green Remington company flag flew at half-staff in front of Remington headquarters. Behind glass doors bearing a sign that read “Unauthorized firearms prohibited,” an officer with the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office leafed through a hunting magazine under buck heads, a stuffed duck, men-in-the-wilderness paintings and frosted Christmas decorations. He said the company had requested added security.

Across the street, a Wal-Mart — the chain accounted for more than 10 percent of Freedom Group’s sales — had removed Bushmaster guns from its shelves. A spokeswoman at Freedom Group headquarters, Jessica Kallam, referred inquiries to the firm’s public affairs director, who did not respond to a request for comment. On the way out, a sign read: “Thank you for visiting. Buckle Up. Drive Safely. Shoot Responsibly.”

Bushmaster’s 2011 annual report acknowledged that a reinstated ­assault-weapons ban and regulations to better track firearms could be bad for business, though it has done its best to keep that from happening.

“Every Republican opponent I’ve ever had was invited to tour [the Bushmaster] plant,” said Brad Miller, the Democrat who represents most of Madison in Congress. Miller, a supporter of the assault-weapons ban, is retiring after a Republican-favoring redistricting. “I cannot see a sudden outbreak of political courage on this issue.”

In 2004, before its acquisition by Freedom Group, Bushmaster paid $568,000 as part of a settlement related to the use of a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle by the Beltway snipers. In recent years, the company, whose logo features a military rifle in the coil of a snake, has been less squeamish about its popular rifle and featured it in its “Man Card” ad campaign, which the company suspended this week. (“To become a card-carrying man, visitors of bushmaster.com will have to prove they’re a man by answering a series of manhood questions.”) Correct answers to such gender-defining conundrums as whether a person eats tofu or watches figure skating provide a path to Man Card ownership, though so does the purchase of a Bushmaster .223 rifle. The card can be revoked for acts of “unmanliness,” including avoiding “eye contact with tough-looking 5th graders.”

The gun dealership, a ma-and-son operation, had the more homey — if guns-and-ammo-accented — atmosphere of a neighborhood barbershop. Housed in a shopping mall at the town limits and wrapped in protective grating, the shop was so busy Wednesday that McGrady had 99 unchecked messages on his answering machine. The Remington Country clock read 3:30 p.m., but he still hadn’t had a moment to grab lunch.

“You didn’t eat yet?” a customer asked.

“I didn’t eat yesterday yet!” McGrady answered, wrapping up another gun.

Buyers filled out paperwork under a large Glock sign, with McGrady’s mother spending much of the afternoon reading serial numbers to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on an Interfax phone. McGrady and his mom wished everyone leaving the shop a “Merry Christmas to you and your family.”

The customers in the store presented a mirror image of the gun-control advocates who are seizing on the national disgust with the Connecticut massacre to get military-style firearms out of the hands of civilians. Guns, the people of Madison said, weren’t the problem. Mental illness was. If anything, the tragedy made the case for more guns like the Bushmaster line.

“It’s a good weapon to pick on. It looks bad. It looks military,” said James Kallam, a local postman. “They call it the black rifle. At its inception, it was olive drab. It’s adopted from the M16. . . . You couldn’t tell the difference. The difference is inside in the mechanics. Any of these guns could have done the same thing.”

Local police officer Charles Penn agreed. “It’s not the guns,” he said, suggesting that the Newtown schoolteachers should have been armed or at least have had a gun in the school. “He could have done the same damage with a .22. They were just little babies. They were going to sit there and look at him. I don’t think I should have to give up my Bushmaster because a guy flipped out and killed a bunch of babies.”

“If you had an ocean liner that sank today, everyone would be saying we need to cancel cruises because people are going to die,” Vernon Cardwell, a local lawyer, chimed in. “Just the words ‘assault weapon.’ . . . It’s not shotgun, it’s assault. It conjures something bad. But it will be like everything else. It will have its moment, and then it will pass.”

Penn and several other gun owners in and around the gun shop said they might be open to longer waiting periods and more stringent background checks for would-be gun purchasers, especially if there is a history of mental illness. But they were leery of making such concessions, they said, for fear of further encroachments on their Second Amendment rights.

“They will not stop,” said Jason Faries, 39, an engineering consultant, who was buying an FNH USA handgun. “If you give them an inch, they will take a mile.”

Sarah Pike came in as the men chatted and purchased a Ruger pistol. She asked McGrady about courses that would teach her how to use it. He wondered about her accent and asked where she was from. France, she said, and then she wondered out loud whether she could travel abroad with such a weapon.

“Not internationally, but you can travel anywhere in the continental United States,” he said, except Washington. “Just stay off the Beltway around D.C.”

Pike said she bought the gun for personal protection and because it was “easy.”

“This is more in the customs of this country. Over here, you feel you need one. In France, no one has a gun. I didn’t feel like I needed one. But here, everyone has one,” she said, adding that the massacre in Connecticut prompted her to make the purchase. “People who snap — that made me think. I got it to feel safer.”

At the counter, under a copy of the Declaration of Independence, the suspense heightened over who would get the last Bushmaster. “She ain’t pushing, no pressure on you,” McGrady said cordially to the man inspecting the barrel. “She’s just saying if you don’t get it, she’s going to.”

The man decided to take it. As the man filled out the over-the-counter firearm transaction report, McGrady put the gun in a Bushmaster box with a flier featuring Chuck Norris.

The woman who had come to buy her husband’s Christmas gift looked disappointedly at the magazine ad in her hand.

“But he wants a Bushmaster.”

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