Spending Spree

Annie, Get Your Gun! School Shooting Sparks Run on Firearms Sales

Terrified of a crackdown on guns, people across the country are stocking up, and gun sellers say they can barely keep up with demand, writes Matthew DeLuca

12.20.12 9:45 AM ET

Gun sellers say they are struggling to keep up as people have been rushing to buy firearms across the country. The sudden surge in rifle and handgun purchases has been driven by fears that the Obama administration may push for new restrictions on guns and ammunition after the killing of 26 people in a Newtown, Conn. elementary school last weekend, they said.

The spree comes as the debate around gun control rages with a political intensity not seen in recent years. Several pro-gun Democratic legislators have expressed their willingness to explore new restrictions on high-power weapons, and the National Rifle Association put out a press release pledging “meaningful contributions.”

Yet lines have grown at gun-store checkout counters, with owners saying they sometimes couldn’t process background checks fast enough to keep up. Employees at several stores said they were simply too busy dealing with customers to answer questions. The AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, the model of weapon police say Adam Lanza used to carry out his rampage, has been among the most sought-after items, several gun sellers told The Daily Beast.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous how many people are buying guns,” said Tim McFarland, an employee at K-5 Arms Exchange, less than 25 miles from Newtown. Customers have been packing the store since the weekend, he said. “It’s just astronomical. We sold out of assault rifles yesterday.”

Buyers began pouring in to Smokin’ Barrels Gun Shop in Naples, Fla., starting at 9 a.m., said employee Dustin Vickers, and they didn’t slow down. “A lot of them fear they’re going to be outlawing guns or certain kinds of guns,” Vickers said. Some of the buyers are return customers, he said, but there have also been plenty of new faces.

“We are seeing some panicked buying,” said Robin Ball, the owner of Sharp Shooting Indoor Range and Gun Shop. The Spokane, Wash., store specializes in handguns, shotguns, and defensive rifles. Ball said her store sold 47 firearms on Tuesday.

“It was our top-selling day ever,” Ball said. There’s no one kind of person buying up guns, she said. “It’s your doctors, your lawyers, your school teachers, your college professors, your guys in the military, your truck drivers—it’s across the board,” Ball said.

“There is a point at which we cannot sustain this because I will run out of product, and there is no product out there,” Ball said. Her shop had about 1,500 firearms in stock as of her last count. Forty minutes after opening on Wednesday, Ball said, sales were off to another “roaring start.”

The sudden rush to gun racks seems national in scope. A record 4,154 background checks were processed on Saturday in Colorado, according to the state’s Bureau of Investigation. The buying is not all a response to Newtown, store owners interviewed by The Daily Beast said. They said it’s been a great year overall. The FBI logged 16.8 million criminal background checks in 2012, up 350,000 over 2011. In 1998, the bureau recorded 9.1 million background checks.

Rance Spurlock of Spurlock’s Gun Shop in Henderson, Nev., described the rush on gun stores as “kind of a knee jerk reaction” after the killings in Newtown. Some 15 to 18 firearms would usually be purchased at his store on a given Saturday. This past Saturday, he sold close to 50. His store has been in business for 30 years, he said, and Saturday was one of the busiest days he’s ever seen. Spurlock said his shop caters mostly to sportsmen and people looking to buy a gun for personal defense—but he’s still been getting plenty of calls about AR-15s.

He was one of several gun store owners who said that a perceived anti-gun attitude among Obama administration officials is boosting sales.

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“You look at the current administration, and you have some of the most anti-gun, rabid anti-gun people in this administration right now,” Spurlock said, “who would love nothing more than to put me out of business.”

President Obama has mostly avoided talking about placing new restrictions on guns during his first term, despite public outcry over numerous mass shootings. He received an “F” from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in 2010. Obama said on Sunday that he would “use whatever power this office holds” to prevent further instances of gun violence like that in Connecticut, and on Wednesday announced the formation of a task force that will formulate policy recommendations.

“I really do think that it’s reasonable for people to make that purchase now knowing that they may not be able to do that in six months, particularly AR-15s,” Ball said.

“As soon as the president was reelected, we had people coming in and buying ammunition,” Spurlock said. “Everybody knows that he is not a pro-gun president.”

Erik Lowry of Pittsburgh Tactical Firearms said his inventory has been almost cleaned out entirely over the last three days. His store, which sells mostly to current and former police and military personnel, opened on Monday with 200 firearms. By midday Tuesday, his stock was down to just two guns.

“I am completely sold out,” Lowry said. “I’ve got maybe half a case of ammunition left, I have backorders for almost 250 rifles, my website has been bought out, I can’t fill orders.”

Many of the buyers who came into his store wanted to stock up out of fear that a ban may be enacted on assault weapons or certain kinds of ammunition. “I have police officers coming in and buying thousands and thousands of rounds of AR-15 ammunition,” Lowry said. “I have local militia members buying up ammo and any gun they can get their hands on.”

Sales have doubled over the past week at Blue Ridge Arsenal in Chantilly, Va., according to store manager Donnel Dover. His store had about 20 AR-style rifles in stock on Tuesday morning. By opening time on Wednesday, they were all gone.

At this rate, the supply of guns available may dry up well before the demand. “We’re calling our distributors and seeing what they have in stock,” Dover said. “You’re pretty much getting items that aren’t totally sought after,” Dover said, as more popular models of the semi-automatic rifle have been sold out.