By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 27, 2008
Americans have cut back on buying cars, furniture and clothes in a tough economy, but there's one consumer item that's still enjoying healthy sales: guns. Purchases of firearms and ammunition have risen 8 to 10 percent this year, according to state and federal data.
Several variables drive sales, but many dealers, buyers and experts attribute the increase in part to concerns about the economy and fears that if Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois wins the presidency, he will join with fellow Democrats in Congress to enact new gun controls. Obama has said that he believes in an individual right to bear arms but that he also supports "common-sense safety measures."
"Even though [Obama] has a lot going for him, he's not very pro-gun," said Paul Pluff, a spokesman for Massachusetts-based Smith & Wesson, which has reported higher sales. Gun enthusiasts are "going to go out and get [firearms] while they still can."
Gun purchases have also been climbing because of the worsening economy, which fuels fears of crime and civil disorder, industry sources and specialists said.
"Generally, we know that hard economic times always result in firearm sales," said James M. Purtilo of Silver Spring, who publishes the Tripwire Newsletter.
Gary Kleck, a researcher at Florida State University's College of Criminology and Criminal Justice whose work was cited in the District's recent Supreme Court gun-control case, said that although there are no scientific studies linking gun sales and economic conditions, people often buy firearms during periods of uncertainty. People often buy weapons because of concerns about personal safety or government actions to limit access to firearms, causing spikes in sales, Kleck said.
Industry experts and law enforcement officials point to several examples over the years. In 1994, there was a rush to buy guns when President Bill Clinton pushed for a ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles. Handgun sales jumped last year after the massacre at Virginia Tech as some worried about personal protection and others feared sweeping restrictions on handguns, pushing applications for concealed gun permits in Virginia alone up 60 percent. People also rushed to buy guns after the 1992 riots in Los Angeles and the breakdown of order in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Bob Leyshion, who visited a gun shop in Manassas recently, said the economic crisis and Obama's lead in the polls were on his mind.
"People are preparing for catastrophe right now," said Leyshion, 55, of Nokesville. "It's insurance. With the stock market crash and people out of work, and the illegal aliens in this area, the probability of civil disorder is very high."
Gun owners haven't been especially thrilled about the prospect of Sen. John McCain in the White House. They see the Arizona Republican as less of a threat than Obama, but they are still angry over McCain's support for certain gun-control measures in the past, such as requiring purchasers at gun shows to undergo background checks.
Gun owners said McCain's moose-hunting running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, is far more likely to champion Second Amendment rights.
"The industry and sportsmen have not been in love with McCain, but the selection of Palin wiped that all away," said Anthony Aeschliman, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
More than three dozen interviews with gun dealers and buyers in Virginia and Maryland and with experts nationwide indicated that the increase in gun sales appears to be driven predominantly by concerns about the presidential election and the economy.
Gun buyers were more likely to say they were responding to the political situation than to the economy, and all but three people said they feared that Obama would restrict gun rights. Two who indicated that they would support Obama anyway said their concerns about the economy and health care outweighed those about gun rights.
Most buyers who emphasized the economy said they thought the worsening situation could lead to an increase in crime and jeopardize their safety. A few said they were buying guns as an investment.
"Look at the political situation and the financial situation," said Fred Russell, owner of Russell's Gun Emporium in Hagerstown, Md. "It's common sense. People are scared."
Brad, 42, and Margaret Marcus, 47, who were at a Fairfax County shooting range recently with their two children for weekly target practice, said they sped up the purchase of two semiautomatic rifles that had been banned during the Clinton administration because they feared they could become illegal again if Obama wins. The couple, who run an online retailing business from their Ashburn home, said they viewed Obama's remarks about protecting the Second Amendment as campaign trail "pandering."
"I think right now people are scared Obama is going to take their rights away," said Margaret Marcus, who was carrying a Glock 19 9mm semiautomatic pistol under a blue jean jacket embroidered with "Winnie the Pooh" characters. "He's definitely anti-gun, despite what you see in the mainstream media."
Law enforcement and industry data and anecdotal reports show that guns are selling well this year. In 2008, there were 8.4 million background checks from Jan. 1 to Sept. 28, compared with 7.7 million in the same period last year, a 9 percent increase, according to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
The increase is also notable because it follows a heavy year for gun purchases, which industry officials and experts link to the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007 and a burgeoning housing market crisis. NICS checks show a 20 percent increase in April 2007, compared with the previous year.
This year's jump is a continuation of a trend that began in 2006, about the time the housing bubble popped in parts of the nation, and remained steady last year as the political season began to take shape and the housing crisis grew. It is also a bigger jump than the average annual increases of about 5 percent or less typical since instant background checks began in 1998.
Federal tax data also show that quarterly excise taxes collected on sales of firearms and ammunition have increased about 10 percent this year, compared with last year, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Gunmakers see the same trend. "We're ahead of last year," said Pluff, of Smith & Wesson. "There's a few things that drive the market, and one of them is political elections."
On a recent weekend, a crowd of lookers and buyers milled around in the Virginia Arms Co. in Manassas. Some were shopping for large-capacity magazines, or clips, that attach to firearms and hold additional rounds of ammo. Those were banned during the Clinton administration and became legal again when the ban expired.
"I'm looking for gun clips because I got the funny feeling that prices are going to rise, or they're going to be banned," said Wayne Heglar, 48, who lives in Aldie and builds custom motorcycles. Heglar said he also planned to stock up on ammo.
"When the Democrats are in office, it seems like anti-gunners come out of the woodwork," Heglar said. He said he expected Obama to use tax law to restrict gun ownership. "A bullet will be a luxury," he said.
At Clark Brothers Gun Shop in Warrenton, a sign over the door says: "Experts Agree . . . Gun Control Works!" Underneath are photos of Hitler, Stalin, Fidel Castro and Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. There are also posters that criticize Obama's record on guns.
Steve Clark, the shop's owner, said customers have been buying weapons they fear would be restricted and that have been before, such as Colt AR-15s, semiautomatic rifles that go for $1,100.
"What I hear a lot is fear that Barack will win the election and tax everything to the point that you can't afford anything," said salesman Eugene Proko, 51.