Editor’s note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for out print readers.
Gun and ammunition sales in Arizona are surging as several factors, including the upcoming presidential election, combine to spur buyers on.
It's the second major spike in sales since President Obama was elected in November 2008.
At that time, some types of ammunition ran out in Tucson and customers stocked up on high-powered rifles they suspected Obama would try to ban.
While that panic purchasing subsided by late 2009, gun and ammo sales have continued at a brisk clip since and are rising again.
"This is a surge within a surge," said John Lott, an economist and author of "More Guns, Less Crime."
In fact, the FBI conducted more instant background checks in Arizona in February - 30,320 - than in any month since the system went into effect in 2008. While not a precise reflection of gun sales, the checks are a strong indicator, experts say, because they are conducted each time a person buys a gun from a licensed firearms dealer.
Shopping last week at Second Amendment Sports, 5146 E. Pima St., Jesse Burton said he was living in Alaska in 2009 when some ammunition types ran out. Burton, a shooting hobbyist, said he's not going to get stuck buying outlandishly priced cartridges again.
"I definitely increased on my ammo," he said of his recent purchases. "The prices are just going to increase."
Asked about why their sales seem to be spiking, some retailers point to the upcoming presidential election. The NRA is warning members that Obama is engaged in a "massive conspiracy" to get re-elected, then crack down on gun ownership.
But local retailers and customers also noted that there is always an increase this time of year, when people get their tax refunds. This year it seems to be exaggerated not only by the election but by the economic recovery and the liberalization of gun laws.
Whatever the reason, the signs of surging sales are clear nationwide. On Wednesday, gun manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Co. announced it is no longer taking new orders because it received orders for more than 1 million units in January and February.
The company, which has one of its two manufacturing plants in Prescott, can no longer increase production to keep up with demand, it said.
Upon Obama's election, so-called "assault" rifles were in greatest demand, said Bret Jordan, a financial analyst of the firearms industry for Avondale Partners in Boston. As time passed and the administration didn't try to renew the ban on these weapons, demand for them declined, but demand for personal-defense weapons kept growing, Jordan said.
Now, once again, he said, there's "a strong demand in firearms viewed as politically vulnerable."
That's also true of the ammunition used in those weapons. Doug MacKinlay, owner of Diamondback Police Supply, has found it hard to keep up inventory of the .223-caliber ammunition, used in many high-powered semiautomatic rifles.
Demand for self-defense weapons also remains high. Ken Taub was looking at a Sig Sauer P250 pistol Friday at Second Amendment Sports. Taub already has a shotgun, he said, but the birth of a new child, the arrival of his tax return and the new state law eliminating the requirement for a concealed-carry permit inspired him to look for a handgun.
"The law that anyone can carry is cool - and scary," he said.
The "Obama factor"
The idea that Obama, unshackled by the need to pursue re-election, will go for gun control in his second term has spread since Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association, first said it in September. And it may be a factor driving the new surge in sales.
The "Obama factor" that caused the 2008-2009 sales spike has revived, said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms-industry group.
Some ridiculed LaPierre for saying Obama's inaction on gun control in his first term is evidence he plans to pursue gun control in a second term, but LaPierre repeated the assertion in February.
"All that first-term lip service to gun owners is part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment - during his second term," LaPierre said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Such rhetoric is designed to motivate gun-rights voters to work against the Democrats, said Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Cortland and author of "The Politics of Gun Control."
But it can also convince some concerned gun owners that they should buy firearms now.
What surveys indicate
The firearms industry argues that the surge in gun sales also represents a spreading of firearms ownership in American society. An October 2011 Gallup Poll showed a spike in the percentage of households where residents have a gun.
In 2010, 41 percent of respondents to the same survey said there were guns in their home, but in 2011 the number jumped to 47 percent. That jump followed a general downward drift in gun ownership in the history of that poll, since it hit 54 percent in 1993.
Keane, of the Shooting Sports Foundation, says those numbers reflect the fact that "there is a very large number of people who are exercising Second Amendment rights for the first time."
But Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., points to a longer-lasting survey, by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which shows a continuing decline in the percentage of households where guns are present. That survey started in 1972 and showed a peak in gun ownership at 54 percent in 1977.
That figure has declined consistently in their survey, to 32 percent in 2010, the last year for which results are available. What that means to gun sales is that the firearms industry must sell more guns and ammunition to the same, aging group of people, said Sugarmann, author of a 2011 report on firearms-industry donations to the NRA.
But Jordan, the firearms-industry analyst, says other indicators suggest that's not true. More people are getting concealed-carry permits, taking classes and telling surveyors they're buying their first gun.
"There's more public enthusiasm for the stuff," Jordan said. "It's politically more correct to own a firearm today than it has been in decades."
The recent argument of NRA head Wayne LaPierre, that President Obama would pursue gun control in a second term, can benefit the group financially in a roundabout way, critics say.
But his defenders say LaPierre is right about the threat Obama poses to gun rights in at least one key aspect.
LaPierre's scary rhetoric can serve as marketing for the firearms industry, which in turn supports the NRA, said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
He noted that gun manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Co., which is unable to keep up with demand now, is donating $1 to the NRA for every firearm it sells this year, up to a maximum of $1 million.
"The NRA's very good at dovetailing a political agenda with a marketing opportunity," he said.
But Todd Rathner, a Tucsonan who is on the NRA's board of directors, said Obama's possible re-election poses a real, not rhetorical, danger to gun ownership. He noted that the U.S. Supreme Court's 2008 Heller decision, which affirmed the people's right to keep and bear arms outside of the context of militias, was a 5-4 vote.
"We're one Supreme Court justice away from seeing the right to keep and bear arms reversed," he said.
As to the NRA's relationship with the firearms industry, Rathner said it's natural because gun owners and makers have shared interests.
- Tim Steller
Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or firstname.lastname@example.org