Americans are afraid of this economy. As a result, they're getting locked and loaded. To wit: Jacquita Baker, a soft-spoken single mother from Kentwood, Mich., near Grand Rapids. She works as an administrative assistant at the Grand Rapids Urban League and is studying criminal justice at a local university. As of Monday, she's the proud owner of a shotgun. Why bear arms now? "The economy played a large part in my decision," says Baker, 27. "When people don't have jobs, they might go breaking into people's homes. I want to be safe in my home."
She's not alone. Three recent tragedies have thrust gun control back into the national discussion. On April 3, a Vietnamese immigrant in Binghamton, N.Y., shot and killed 13 people at an immigrant service center before taking his own life. On April 4, a Pittsburgh, Pa., man opened fire on three police officers responding to a domestic-disturbance call. All three officers died. That same day, a man from Graham, Wash., distraught that his wife was planning to leave him for another man, shot and killed his five children and then committed suicide. These horrible tragedies are already roiling gun-control advocates. But those who strive to see shotguns sidelined have to cope with another stinging reality: gun sales are soaring. (See pictures of America's gun culture.)
According to the SportsOneSource, a research firm that tracks the sporting-goods industry, firearms sales in large retail outlets are up 39% this year. Shops across the country are reporting ammunition shortages because stores can't meet demand for bullets. Data from the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which the industry uses as a proxy for overall firearms sales, are also revealing. From November 2008 through March 2009, FBI background checks, which are required every time a federally licensed gun dealer makes a sale, rose 29.3% over the same period a year earlier. In November alone, checks jumped 42%, to 1,529,635, the largest monthly total in the decade that the system has been in place. "Consumer demand is unprecedented," says Larry Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the firearms and ammunition industry.
Two factors are fueling the rise. The first is political. It's no coincidence that a record number of background checks occurred in November, the month Barack Obama was elected President and the Democrats took control of Congress. People grew anxious that the Obama Administration would ban semiautomatic weapons, so they rushed to buy guns before legislation could be passed. In a December survey by the research firm Southwick Associates, nearly 80% of active hunters and target shooters said they believed firearm purchases would "become more difficult" under the new Administration and a Democratic Congress. "Everybody is waiting for when the next foot is going to fall in taking away the right to bear arms," says Doug VanderWoude, owner of Silver Bullet Firearms in Wyoming, Mich., near Grand Rapids. He estimates that business is up 50% in 2009. (See pictures of an ammunition plant.)
The last Democratic President, Bill Clinton, put into law an assault-weapons ban in 1994. President George W. Bush allowed that ban to expire, but last month Obama's Attorney General, Eric Holder, said the Administration wanted to reinstate Clinton's ban. "The gun culture is hypersensitive," says Miles Hall, an Oklahoma City gun-shop owner. "If someone sneezes in Washington, we hear it and get nervous. There's a lot of anxiety out there."
A new market of gun buyers is emerging. Hall estimates that some 80% of his sales since the election have been to first- and second-time gun purchasers, many nervous that this may be their last chance. "Thus far, the Obama Administration has done what they set out to do," says Joe Keffer, who owns a shop in New Holland, Pa. "And therein lies the concern." (Read "The Future of Gun Control.")
For gun-control advocates, this dynamic is bitterly ironic. Tough government talk against firearms, amplified by the Obama Administration's popularity, has actually helped spark a sales increase. It's yet another cost of good intentions.
The recession is another factor in the sales jump. Guns are expensive Baker, for example, paid $200 for her shotgun yet fear trumps the cost of a weapon for people worried that the economic crisis will lead to more crime. "Protection of the family, protection of the home, is utmost on people's minds," says Keffer. Many big cities have indeed seen crime tick higher during the downturn. But in the wrong psyche, this sentiment can carry deadly consequences. For example, the mother of the Pittsburgh man who shot and killed the police officers said her son had been stockpiling guns and ammunition "because he believed that as a result of the economic collapse, the police were no longer able to protect society."
Gun advocates stress that a few extreme cases shouldn't penalize law-abiding citizens who exercise their Second Amendment right to bear arms. Roy Richmond, for example, just bought his first small handgun. He's the heat-packing pastor of a nondenominational church near Oklahoma City. He's carrying the weapon for protection. "Things are getting worse and worse," he says. "There needs to be some people out there with guns." With the weapons business booming, Richmond and his fellow firearms advocates are seeing their wish fulfilled.