Thirty-six hours after the Obama administration banned importation of the classic brand of AK-47 assault rifles as part of sanctions against Russia, a Maryland dealer specializing in the weapon took stock of its inventory.
There was nothing left.
Laboring almost nonstop, workers at Atlantic Firearms in Bishopville, a Worcester County community on the Eastern Shore, had shipped hundreds of Russian-made AK-47s — an assault rifle prized by both consumers and despots — as buyers wiped out gun dealers’ inventories around the country. The frenzy was brought on, in part, by a suspicion among some gun owners that the Russia-Ukraine conflict was a backdoor excuse to ban guns many Democrats don’t like. Some customers bought eight to 10 rifles for nearly $1,000 each or more, stockpiling them as investments.
“The gun community moved very, very quickly,” said Blaine Bunting, president of Atlantic Firearms. “I don’t see this ban going away.”
The AK-47 buying frenzy presents yet another example of a paradoxical consequence of trying to limit gun sales: booming demand. During the debate over the measure commonly called the Brady Bill in the 1990s, gun purchases skyrocketed. When the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, sales soared again. When President Obama tried to pass sweeping gun control laws after the 2012 Sandy Hook School shooting, some dealers even sold out of ammunition.
“The great irony here is that the threat of regulation has the perverse effect of stimulating sales, and not just by a little,” said Philip Cook, a Duke University gun researcher and author of “The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know.” “The numbers are impressive. You have millions of extra sales.”
For gun dealers, the threat of increased regulations is frequently seen as a form of economic stimulus. Some display and sell posters declaring Obama the gun salesman of the year — or century. But the surge in sales troubles advocates of gun control, who fear some buyers will flip their purchases in private sales at gun shows or through online auction sites, where background checks aren’t required.
“This has for decades worried people on my end of the business,” said Stephen Teret, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University who studies firearms. “This is a way for guns to move from the licit to illicit markets.”
Gun control advocates struggle with the unintended consequences of restricting or banning weapons. “It might mean a sudden increase of guns in the hands of people who didn’t have those guns before,” Teret said, “but you may want to accept that short-term problem for a long-term gain by banning a high-powered gun.”
Designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov near the end of World War II, the AK-47 is the most popular assault weapon around the world, treasured for its reliability, ease of use and low maintenance needs. Tens of thousands of the semiautomatic versions are imported and sold every year in the United States.
In July, Treasury Department officials notified executives at RWC Group, a Pennsylvania importer, that the Office of Foreign Assets Control was adding Kalashnikov Concern, the original maker of AK-47s, to its list of sanctions against Russia because of Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. A department spokeswoman said that “the steps taken against Kalashnikov Concern are intended to further exacerbate Russia’s economic problems and isolate those contributing to Ukraine’s instability.”
Jay Portz, vice president of RWC, said a run on the Russian-made rifles began almost immediately. While the sanctions didn’t impose any restrictions on sales of the more plentiful European or American knockoffs — and even a Russian variant not made by Kalashnikov Concern — Bunting said buyers learned of the ban on social networks and raced to get the real thing.
“The Russian originals are considered to be the best of the best,” he said. “You can use the analogy of wine. When you think of wine, what comes to mind? What comes to mind is French wines. It’s the same situation. It’s the best because it’s the original one. Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter.”
Gun control advocates argue that buying frenzies are often stoked by the National Rifle Association. In a lengthy message to members after the Obama administration’s announcement, the NRA’s legislative organization said: “We of course recognize the important role that enacting sanctions can have in furthering legitimate U.S. foreign policy interests. However, in this instance the extent to which these actions coincide with the stated domestic policy goals of gun control supporters is more than a little unsettling.”
Four days after the NRA’s statement, The Truth About Guns, a popular firearms blog, proclaimed the AK-47 “buying panic begins,” adding, “Once again, the firearms industry owes President Obama a debt of gratitude.”
The post prompted some heady foreign policy analysis in the comments.
“The Russians will no more leave the Crimea than we would walk away from Puerto Rico, Guam or American Samoa under pressure from other nations,” one commenter wrote. “Still, I don’t think this ban will get lifted unilaterally because a liberal president would never, and a conservative one would not want the liberal news headlines reading ‘President X lifts ban on AK imports!!! OMG!!!’ ”
Meanwhile, the buying surge was underway. Bunting said he noticed some of the weapons purchased from Atlantic Firearms showing up a few days later on online auction sites for several hundred dollars more than the buyers had paid.
On Armslist, an online marketplace that has come under scrutiny from gun control advocates, sellers posted dozens of ads for Russian-made AK-47s. “As of a couple weeks ago, these are now banned from import and totally sold out,” one ad read. “Get this gun while you can!”
Background checks are not required for private sales in most states. “If you’re buying these guns and selling them on the second market, we’re talking about potentially dangerous people getting high-powered weapons,” said Brian Malte, director of federal and state mobilization at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “That’s a huge concern.”
While gun control advocates fret about the secondary market sales, gun stores and dealers are beginning to worry about the long-term implications of these buying frenzies. Seeing sales go up 200 percent in an instant is a nice jolt to the bottom line, but if it’s a sign that the pro-gun community might be losing the longer war, that’s not so good.
“Yes, Obama is the world’s best gun salesman,” said Tyler Whidby, the owner of TW Firearms in Leesburg , Va., which still has some Russian-made AK-47s on its shelves. “Every two to four months, somebody says something about gun control, and people turn around to get a gun.”
Another Democrat in the White House, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, would “financially benefit us in the short term,” Whidby said. But in the long term, “it might put us out of business.”
Bunting agreed. Selling several hundred Russian-made AK-47s in just hours was impressive, but the ban on the weapons is disastrous over time.
“A two- or three-month jump in sales, only to have the rest of your lifetime to not have those sales, is kind of stupid,” he said. “Yes, Obama is influencing sales. Yes, he’s driving sales. But they’re getting drunk at a three-month party, only to be hung over the rest of their lives.”