After the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., sales increased at Clark Brothers Gun Shop in Warrenton, Va. But there was a difference from the usual panic buying that ensues when gun violence sparks talk of gun control.
“I saw sales go up, but my AR’s not as much,” Steve Clark said, referring to the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle that was used to kill 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School . “They bought other kinds of guns — pistols, shotguns, hunting rifles. But it wasn’t like, ‘I better get one now before they ban them.’ It was more like, ‘I hadn’t been thinking about getting a gun but, yeah, I think I want one.’”
Such minor shifts in gun buying habits might seem insignificant, but that is how cultural change occurs. Small, sometimes imperceptible changes in attitudes that can be encouraged. Deciding to buy a target pistol instead of a military-style weapon to release their inner soldier — that’s progress.
Some call this kind of mellowing in the gun market the “Trump slump,” meaning that most gun owners aren’t afraid that President Trump will try to take away their guns, a fear that went haywire during the Obama years.
But another factor in the subtle changes of heart has been the passion shown by the surviving students at Parkland. A month after the tragedy, their influence has not waned.
When students from across the country hold their school “walkout” on Wednesday to protest gun violence, Clark will be paying close attention.
“I want to listen to the kids,” he said. That itself is worth noting. When it comes to gun issues, listening is not what either side is noted for.
As Clark spoke about the high schoolers, his voice softened and he spoke not as a gun store owner but as a concerned father. He and his wife, Allison, have a son who is 21.
“I understand their tremendous frustration,” Clark said. “ ‘Do something. Do something.’ I want to know, what do you want to do? I want to know, do you really think we can get rid of all the guns?”
Clark said he’d also like to hear more serious discussions about solutions to gun violence where it is most deadly: in urban areas, such as Chicago.
“It would make me crazy if my kids had to live in an environment where you have the equivalent of a mass shooting every month,” Clark said. “A lot of those victims are young and innocent, and nobody seems ready to fix that. How are you supposed to make their schools safe if the schools are in neighborhoods that aren’t safe?”
On Saturday, a group of students from Stoneman Douglas met with high school students from Chicago to share their experiences with gun violence.
Emma González, who attends Stoneman Douglas, tweeted afterward: “Those who face gun violence on a level that we have only just glimpsed from our gated communities have never had their voices heard in their entire lives the way that we have in these few weeks alone.”
In addition to the 17 people killed at Stoneman Douglas, 17 more were wounded. In Chicago this year, there have been 95 homicides — 79 of the victims were killed by guns. Another 341 were shot and wounded.
It should come as no surprise that Clark thinks that using a gun is the best way to fight someone with a gun. He favors training and arming teachers, at least in the kind of semirural schools he is familiar with.
“I know from experience that there are teachers who keep guns in their cars, and they have gone out to get them and stopped a bad situation from getting worse. I know there are people who, once they have fired a gun, they say, ‘I want to be good enough at this to protect myself, my loved ones, my school, because I don’t want to feel completely useless when something happens.’ ”
“If you have a better way, I’d like to hear it,” he said.
Clark does agree that in the absence of fear, for whatever reason, people tend to behave differently. Just before the assault rifle ban in 1994, fearful gun owners and others purchased hundreds of thousands of the soon-to-be-outlawed guns.
“People were lined up at the door for AR’s” Clark recalled. “When I’d lay a gun on the counter, before I even put a price tag on it, someone would ask, ‘Is that going to be for sale? Can I buy it?’ And they didn’t even know what it was. Then they’d take the guns and put them under their beds. Just silly.”
By time the gun ban was rescinded 10 years later, and the impact on gun crime proved to be negligible, many of the panic buyers had come to their senses.
“Several years ago, those guns started coming back,” Clark said. “They’d tell me, ‘I’ve never shot this. . . . I never had any fun with it. I want to sell it.’
“I got a whole bunch of them back,” Clark said.
It’s a small sign, but noteworthy just the same: Even though the gun debate remains far from settled, more and more gun owners are simply giving up their firearms. And the concerns of young anti-gun protesters can be shared by a die-hard gun enthusiast like Clark.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.