December 22, 2012

Region's gun dealers report spike in military-style rifles, high-capacity magazines

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

WINDSOR -- Local gun shops report a dramatic increase in sales recently, with many buyers concerned that President Barack Obama and Congress will begin to take away their ability to buy assault rifles and large ammunition clips in the wake of last week's mass murder at a Connecticut elementary school.

click image to enlarge

Jasen Pelletier prepares a Ruger Mini-14 rifle he sold in the gun department at Hussey's General Store on Saturday, in Windsor. Gun sales are strong, according to store staff.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

click image to enlarge

Jeffrey Fortin, of Augusta, fires a pistol Saturday, at a range in Augusta. Fortin, who recently purchased an assault rifle, said the recent surge in gun sales is from fear. "Everybody is scared," Fortin said.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Gun sales increased before Newtown killings

Even before the tragedy in Newtown, gun sales were soaring in Maine and across the country, according to FBI statistics.

In October, 9,748 Maine residents underwent criminal background checks for firearm purchases — more than in any other month since data began being collected in 1998.

Since the FBI began performing the checks in 1998, they have been seen as an indicator of gun sales.

Background checks spiked in Maine in October and November, when 18,842 checks were performed, an increase of nearly 22 percent from the 15,500 from the same period last year.

Since 2005, the number of annual background checks in Maine has increased steadily, from a low of 50,319 in 2005 to 73,127 in 2011.

This year will set a new record; with numbers for December not yet available, 79,418 checks already have been performed, more than were done all last year.

The numbers mirror a national trend. Nationwide, the total number of checks nearly has doubled, from 8.5 million in 2005 to 16.8 million this year through Nov. 30.

According to its annual report on the background check program, the FBI associates heightened annual sales in November and December with major hunting seasons and year-end holidays.

 

— Matt Hongoltz-Hetling

"Taking guns away from us hunters isn't going to solve the problem," said Larry Keating, of Waldoboro, as he scanned the gun case at Hussey's General Store in Windsor.

The store, best known for a sign that promotes "Guns, Wedding Gowns, Cold Beer," has seen a huge rush for high-capacity magazines and assault rifles in recent days, sales clerk Dawn Vigue said.

"Everybody's scared they are going to be banned," she said. "Lately, it's just been crazy."

On Dec. 14, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother at their Newtown, Conn., home before heading to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he killed six more adults and 20 children before taking his own life. The incident prompted Obama to call for action, including a renewed ban on assault weapons, closing a loophole that allows some people to buy guns without going through a background check, and possible restrictions on high-capacity ammunition clips.

On Friday, the National Rifle Association said armed guards should be placed at schools, an idea that some local gun owners believe has merit.

John Hallett, of Fayette, an NRA training instructor, called it a reasonable approach.

"We protect everything in this country we hold dear, but we don't protect our kids," he said. "A guard at a school will send a message. Guns are not the evil thing in this world; people are."

In Vassalboro, Jim Smith, owner of Jim's Gun Shop, said sales of ammunition, guns and clips have been so strong that he's worried about meeting the demand.

"They're buying anything they can get their hands on," Smith said.

He said his customers have expressed worries about increased government regulations that could threaten their ability to buy firearms.

In the short term, he said, it's a business boom.

"It's good for now," he said, "but my concern is for the future. You can't sell much from empty shelves."

Smith said distributors are feeling the pinch, and he anticipates struggling to replace his inventory promptly.

Smith said he has increased modestly the prices of certain items in his store and that he expects the increased demand and shortened supply will drive increases nationwide.

"Prices are just going to go through the roof," he said.

During his 37 years of running the store, Smith said, he hasn't seen such a wave of sales since the 1990s, when Bill Clinton brought on concerns about tough new gun control laws.

At Neilson's Sporting Goods and Hamilton Gun in Farmingdale, owner Gary Hamilton said sales are up 100 percent over this time last year. Rather than a ban, Hamilton said, it makes more sense to train some school personnel how to use guns, including bus drivers. He said he would never let his children ride a school bus, for fear they would be trapped by a gunman.

"You have to fight guys that want to kill with something that works, other than kind words and a lot of praying," he said.

At Hussey's, Vigue and other clerks have been put on hold for more than an hour recently as they call in background checks. Typically, calls go right through, Vigue said. From her perspective, it's better to teach children how to handle guns then to ban them.

"It just hurts the good people," she said. "(Criminals) will always find a way to get them."

At the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife public shooting area in Augusta, Jeffrey Fortin said he recently bought a rifle for self-defense and hunting. Between firing rounds from a handgun, Fortin said he's not sure how effective Obama will be in pushing for more gun control, but he knows people are stocking up just in case.

"It just takes one idiot to mess it up for everybody else," he said.

Staff Writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling contributed to this report.

Susan Cover -- 621-5643
scover@mainetoday.com

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