PACIFIC NORTHWEST— Summer is often a time of slim firearms sales, before the fall hunting boom. This year was a big exception.
Firearms are popular presents during the holiday season, evidenced by the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which tracks transactions for eligible gun buyers nationwide.
NICS figures reveal December as the most active month for 8 of the past 10 years.
The most firearm background checks nationwide occurred in 2016, when 27,538,673 checks were performed. However, nearly 600,000 more have been performed through September 2019 compared to the same period in 2016, a 3% increase.
The background check figures aren’t a direct representation of gun sales, as applicants could potentially purchase more than one firearm during a single check, but serve as a barometer of firearm activity nationwide.
What drives sales
Mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and calls for more-strict gun legislation can directly impact the sale of ammo and firearms.
The most background checks in history (3,314,594) occurred December 2015. The surge followed a Dec. 2 shooting in California, when 14 people were killed and 20 wounded when two shooters opened fire at a holiday party at a San Bernadino Social Services Center.
The second most background checks in history (2,783,765) occurred in December 2012. The upsurge followed a Dec. 14 shooting in Connecticut, when 26 people, including 20 children, were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Initiative 1639 impact
More than 83,000 background checks were processed for Washington in June 2019, according to NICS figures — more than double the usual number — and the most in any single month since March 2016.
The boom came weeks before Initiative 1639 took effect on July 1, which raised the minimum age of purchase of semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21, increased background checks and waiting periods, required buyers to take safety compliance courses and enacted new storage requirements for all gun owners.
“I had a surge in sales in June, then in July it fell 70 percent,” said Sandy’s Gun N Ammo owner Dallas ‘Sandy’ Bennett. “It’s made it a lot harder for small businesses. I’m working harder now for less. The paperwork load has doubled. I do it for an extra 2 to 3 hours a day.”
Bennett said the waiting periods — a minimum of 10 business days for Washington residents and up to 60 for non-residents — has had the biggest impact on his business.
“It cut a third of my business, because I can no longer sell to customers that live outside the area. The people who would buy from me won’t buy from me now because they would have to come back in a minimum of two weeks to pick the weapon up, because of the delays that 1639 put in place. There are some that take more than 30 days.”
Bennett said about 30 people are currently waiting approval to pick up firearms from his Long Beach store.
“Some are getting a little anxious because the hunting season opens up Saturday,” he said.
In order to avoid the wait, Bennett said some customers are resorting to buying rifles in Oregon.
“They can just go across the river to Oregon and pick up a long gun,” he said. Long guns are weapons including rifles and shotguns, typically used in hunting, in contrast to pistols that are primarily for self-protection and target shooting.
Meanwhile in Warrenton, North Coast Shooter’s Supply owner Jeff Kelland noticed a bump in his typically slower summer sales after Initiative 1639 took effect in Washington in July.
“There was a last-minute push in Washington for sure, and obviously some of that translated over to here for people buying long guns, because you can buy those out of state,” Kelland said.
No more ‘panic’
The election of President Barrack Obama and fear of federal gun limitations spurred sales in guns and ammunition, eventually leading to a burgeoning demand for “black guns” and an ammunition shortage from 2008 until 2013. “Black guns” are typically rifles designed to look or perform like tactical military weapons.
The panic sent shock-waves through the firearms industry, leading some dealers to unwisely invest in inventory that soon dropped in demand, particularly AR-style rifles.
“While its good for the industry in the short term, in the long term it ended up causing a lot of discontent,” Kelland said. “Nobody was able to get anything, and then when you could, everybody jumped on it and it just snowballed. We are our own worst enemies in that respect — people would panic buy, then the next person can’t get it and the conspiracy theories start flying.”
Anxiety over weapon availability has since subsided and ammunition that was once scarce, such as .22 caliber bullets, is now readily available.
Walmart, America’s largest gun retailer, announced in September plans to reduce gun and ammunition sales, roughly a month after 20 people were killed in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.
Kelland is hopeful these policy changes will translate into more sales for smaller shops like his.
Ammunition sales account for about 30% of the business, he said, which was cut 50% after Walmart opened a store in Warrenton in June 2018.
“My ammo sales have dropped precipitously after Walmart moved in,” Kelland said. “I just don’t move the big lots like I used to.”
In December 2018, Kelland acquired his Class 3 Firearms License, which permits him to sell National Firearms Act (NFA) restricted weapons and components, from fully automatic machine guns to silencers.
“I had an initial burst of 10 suppressor sales, then nothing since May,” Kelland said. “Unfortunately, they’re all sitting in a safe because none of the paperwork has cleared from back in February. It takes that long.”
Conceal carry permits, personal safety trainings
In lieu of terrorist attacks and mass shootings, self-protection has become an increasingly popular segment of firearms sales nationwide. In 2015, more than 14.3 million conceal carry permits were issued nationwide, an increase of 1.73 million — the largest ever.
Currently, approximately 6% the U.S. adult population holds a permit, according to NICS. Washington has among the highest per capita level of permit holders with 515,065 registered conceal and carry gun owners, while Oregon has 226,255. Florida has issued the most, with 1.58 million. The number of women with permits has increased twice as quickly, according to data compiled by the Crime Prevention Research Center.
Kelland, who has more than 20 years combined in military and law enforcement training, offers a monthly Concealed Handgun License (CHL) in Warrenton, which he said has become increasingly popular. He’s now considering adding a new course focusing more on personal safety.
“It will open up another avenue for people who aren’t necessarily gun people to get into the mindset of personal protection and safety without having to use firearms,” Kelland said.
Kelland believes the course could have a broad appeal.
“Everyone should be cognizant of what’s going on around them and how to keep themselves safe in any kind of environment,” he said. “It’s a lot of situational awareness, danger cues, what to look for in your day-to-day routine, how to drive tactically but not offensively.”
Much of the training will focus on situational awareness, counter surveillance and the premise of “How to make yourself a harder target,” Kelland said.
“It’s not about getting into a gun fight with somebody, it’s about avoiding them. If you can keep yourself safe through observation, you’re already ahead of the game. There’s a certain segment of the population that doesn’t think that way and the idea is to give them the tools,” he said.
Details about the cost and location of the course are still being determined.