BY PAT HILL
Though it’s been only a month since the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that horrified the nation, it seems a lot longer—I think because scenarios like these have become a far too repetitive horror in the United States.
What happened in Newtown is not new in this country; a similar shooting at a mall in Portland, Oregon, took place only days before. Many of the responses and the rhetoric are not new—calls for gun bans on one end of the spectrum, and for more guns on the other. The ages of the victims at Newtown intensified calls for a ban on assault-style weapons like the Bushmaster AR-15 used in that massacre (the AR-15 is the semi-automatic version of the military’s M-16 that can be operated in a fully automatic mode). It has also led to calls for armed guards and even armed teachers at our nation’s schools, a call made most notably in a nationally-televised address by the National Rifle Association on Dec. 21.
One thing that’s happened since the Newtown tragedy is something I hadn’t noticed since the election of 2008—a marked increase locally and nationally in the purchase of weapons and ammunition. In the wake of the 2008 election cycle, people stocked up on guns and ammo like there was no tomorrow. Even .22 caliber ammo was hoarded up by those convinced that the Democrats would begin a renewed assault on guns once Obama was elected President. Guns like the now-infamous Bushmaster AR-15 used by the killer in Connecticut were bought up and back-ordered. But no weapons ban appeared, and, with the country in the grip of a looming recession, one sector of the American economy fired up without a single piece of new legislation or stimulus money: the arms industry. Americans went on a buying spree, and that trend went on unabated for about six months. It then tapered off, but it took the gun and ammunition industries another year and a half, or so, to catch up with the demand that Obama’s election had created.
Working at the counter of a business that offers firearms for sale, I halfway expected the gun market would jump again if it became clear that Mr. Obama was going to win re-election, but the race was close; gun sales didn’t really spike, at least not in this neck of the woods. But the murder of 20 schoolchildren and several of their teachers, and the perception that another weapons ban is on the horizon, has fired up gun sales nationwide to record levels, and in Bozeman and other Montana cities and towns, the sale of assault weapons, ammo, and high-capacity pistol and rifle magazines has followed the national trend.
One person working at the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which conducts Federally required background checks for firearms purchases, told me a few days after the Newtown incident that the number of background checks the agency was processing was “unprecedented.” Background checks normally take about 2 minutes to complete via phone or computer, but the volume of calls to the NICS had those calls taking 20 to 40 minutes (if one could get through).
After Christmas, NICS call volume started to tame down, but only a bit. And not because of a lack of people wanting to purchase certain firearms. It was due to a lack of those items on the market, most notably the AR-15 assault rifle. Though the price of AR-15s, components, and accessories soared after Newtown, anything associated with the AR-15-style weapon was pretty much gone from retail shelves by Christmas. One Bozeman gun distributor sold hundreds of AR-15 magazines within days of Newtown, emptying their inventory.
Though Internet sales continue to be brisk, many distributors of AR-15 rifles and components are not even taking orders anymore. One AR-15 manufacturer in Washington State, Olympic Arms, said they are back-ordered until July 2014, and will not be taking new orders until the back-log is met. If an AR-type weapon can be found at an online auction site such as Gunbroker, bidders are paying premium prices. And an AR-15 30-round magazine selling for $20 a month ago is now bringing as much as $70. Sales of the .223 caliber ammunition used in the AR-15 are also up sharply.
Sales of other assault rifles have also spiked, but the AR-15 is the weapon buyers want in particular, anticipating a possible new weapons ban that the president has “strongly” endorsed. And as the nation’s budgetary fiscal cliff looms, and talk of a slide back into recession reverberates among political pundits, one sector of the American economy is again booming: the gun business.