Armed America: Behind a broadening run on guns
What do an elderly Oklahoma homeowner, a member of the Virginia Citizen Militia, and a Texas airline pilot all have in common these days?
They are all part of America’s massive arms and ammunition buying frenzy – a national armament that began before President Obama’s election last year and has continued unabated. In the United States, this has resulted in a shortage of offensive weapons, rising prices, and an expansion of the gun culture to include increasingly older Americans, women, and – panting – liberals.
The causes are many and varied – from fears to rational and irrational crime to concerns that the rights of the second amendment will be curtailed by a Democratic-controlled Washington. Because the stock market is deeply uncertain, some buyers simply think guns are a good investment. The run on guns indicates a change in public attitudes to gun law and presents a snapshot of a country that historically has turned to powder and balls in times of unrest.
“There’s the kind of stereotype that gun owners were middle-aged Republican white men who were pretty easy to isolate … to regulate,” says Brent Mattis, a Florida shooting instructor. “Now that more women own guns, more liberals own guns, and just average normal people who want to protect themselves and their families. It’s becoming an incredibly powerful political phenomenon.”
This is most evident on store shelves. Selected types of ammunition – from the .308 caliber, typical of self-defense weapons, to the .223 caliber normally associated with assault weapons – are almost impossible to obtain in many parts of the country. The prices have increased by more than half compared to the previous year. Assault weapons have been re-ordered for months. Springfield, Massachusetts, arms maker Smith & Wesson is one of the few lights on Wall Street, its stock price rising 70 percent year over year. A few weeks ago, the arms manufacturer took orders worth over $ 9 million in one day.
The FBI is hiring additional processors to handle a spate of background checks that has increased 25 percent each month since November – a good indicator of revenue. In the wheat-and-cattle corner of Oklahoma patrolled by Sheriff Bill Winchester, applications for concealed carry has increased by 300 percent, including one from an elderly man whose hands were so insecure he barely could could scribble his name.
“There are just so many people who would never have knocked on our doors before, coming in now,” says Bob Roddy, a long-time employee at Chuck’s Firearms in Norcross, Georgia, outside of Atlanta. “There’s a level of desperation I can’t remember ever seeing before.”
It is not uncommon for arms and ammunition sales to change dramatically at times. For example, they rose after Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. Clinton had promised more gun control, which led to the 1994 ban on assault weapons (which expired in 2004). For his part, Mr Obama has made no overt gun control gestures. On the contrary, he expressed his support for the second amendment. The latest court rulings also speak in favor of gun owners: in the so-called Heller decision last year, the Supreme Court confirmed the right of homeowners to keep handguns for self-defense.
Some gun control advocates are puzzled by the boom. “We find [it] worrying, “said Juliet Leftwich, legal director for Legal Community Against Violence in San Francisco.
But gun owners are seeing some worrying signs. A bill proposed in Congress would mandate microstamping of bullet cartridges to help law enforcement officers more easily track bullets used in crimes. But it also has the potential to raise prices and ban retail stores. South of the border, the fierce drug war battles, fueled in part by US-bought military-style weapons, have renewed calls for regulation from gun control advocates.
However, the buying trend is much deeper and longer-lasting than any knee-jerk reaction to a choice or possible legislation, experts say. Although Liberals are still far more in favor of gun control than Conservatives, Americans as a whole are leaning toward more gun rights, according to a recent poll by Rasmussen Reports, an independent polling firm in New Jersey.
An important part of the shift is the perception of many Americans that crime is rising rapidly. Almost a third of Americans surveyed in the Rasmussen poll say crime has increased in their neighborhood, and 72 percent say it is very likely that crime will increase in the near future.
The FBI reported in January that 2008 nationwide violent crime fell by 3.5 percent, robberies by 2.2 percent, and car thefts by 12.6 percent. These statistics contrast with 2006 when, for example, robberies increased by nearly 10 percent.
The fears assume, in some cases, a year 2000-like fervor and predict total social collapse. During times like these, Americans have always taken up arms, says David Kopel, director of research at the Independence Institute, a market-driven think tank in Golden, Colorado, digging up a clipping from a Massachusetts newspaper that was published three months before “Shot Heard Around the World” that started the War of Independence. The article documented a huge shortage of gunpowder due to “wolves and other predators” sneaking around. Modern fears are fueled by the prospect of apocalyptic economic failure.
“The logic is simple,” says Tom Lee, a member of the Virginia Citizen Militia, which has its roots in the Revolutionary War. “People are seeing an impending economic collapse that will lead to a persistent and potentially worsening breakdown of law and order and ultimately a We-the-People vs. armed government enforcers scenario, just one who sees through the Keynesian fraud and who Wisdom sees preparing for the worst. “
In Missouri, state police recently released a report of militia activity suspecting, among other things, cars with Ron Paul bumper stickers. (The state then removed references to politicians and political parties in response to an outcry.)
But as the total number of guns sold in the US rises, some Americans are wondering whether buying them up isn’t tied to business potential more than fear of upheaval. Airline pilot Jim Hamilton, a member of the newly formed Liberal Gun Club in Dallas, describes how a businessman in a red golf shirt and Dockers trousers in a gun store empties an entire shelf of .45 caliber ammunition into a shopping bag.
“He intended to clear the shelf and he looked up at me and smiled like a kid with his hand in the cookie jar,” says Mr. Hamilton. “I was expecting warehouse keepers to be something like the ex-military guy in ‘Camo’ burying it in his back yard for a zombie invasion. Now I am inclined to believe that people camp not for self-defense or civil unrest, but as an investment. Maybe they are not so concerned about political issues as they are about profit. “
Mr. Winchester, the sheriff in Enid, Oklahoma, has the same thought. “Guns have always been a good investment,” he says. “Guns are as good as gold.”