Gun sales have surged in the region and across the nation in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre as enthusiasts rush to buy firearms they fear will be outlawed by a fresh push for gun control.
Gun dealers requested nearly 5,150 background checks on purchasers in Virginia eight days after the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown, Conn. — the largest number ever in a single day, Virginia State Police said. And in the days since, the daily number of background checks has regularly doubled corresponding totals from the previous year.
In Maryland, state police project that they will receive 8,200 gun permit applications in December, more than in any other month this year and double the number received in June.
The area’s surge in gun sales is playing out in a year during which the FBI reported a record 16.8 million in background checks for guns.
It’s not the first time gun sales have surged after a mass shooting. Sales rose in some places after the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in 2011 in Tucson and the shooting that killed 12 in a movie theater in Auroa, Colo., in July.
“I’ve never seen shelves so bare in stores that weren’t going out of business,” said John Pierce, co-founder of OpenCarry.org, a Virginia-based gun rights networking hub. “It’s really shocking.”
The Nation’s Gun Show at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly on Friday was ground zero for the boom. Organizers expected twice as many attendees as came to a similar event last November. One dealer canceled because he ran out of ammunition to sell.
A line already snaked around the building shortly after the three-day event began at 3 p.m., and the parking lot was jammed. People heading into the gun show were met by protesters from the activist group CodePink, who held up a large pink cutout of a gun that read “assault weapons.”
With an AK-47 slung over one shoulder, Marco Hernandez offered one word when asked why he was in the overflow crowd at the gun show, billed as the largest east of the Mississippi.
“Obama,” he said, standing in front of the Expo Center. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the possible gun ban.”
Like others, the 29-year-old Wheaton resident was in the market for an accessory some lawmakers and anti-gun advocates want to restrict: a high-capacity magazine.
Inside, gun dealers said they were doing an amount of business they had not seen in years — or ever. The dozens of stalls in the cavernous hall were swamped with customers, picking over everything from vintage rifles to camouflage handguns.
Vendors said the hottest items were such weapons as the AR-15, a semiautomatic rifle that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has proposed banning as part of a package of gun regulations.
Attendees and vendors at the gun show said some firearms and ammunition were selling at prices two or three times what they were a month ago. “In 34 years, it’s never been like this,” said Jerry Cochran, the owner of Trader Jerry’s, a gun store with two locations in Virginia. “Each day, business escalates to a new level.”
Attendees said an anger was behind their burst of buying: They felt guns had been unfairly identified as the cause of the shooting that took the lives of 20 children and six staff members at the Connecticut school.
Some said they felt their rights were under siege and that the federal government should be directing efforts elsewhere rather than restricting the sales of some firearms and accessories.
“Restrictions won’t solve anything — they miss the point,” said David Grantham of Springfield, who was shopping for a handgun with his wife. “The point is identifying people that need help and who should not have guns.”
OpenCarry.org’s Pierce said gun owners worried about new restrictions are just one part of the boom in gun demand. He said Sandy Hook also has produced a crop of first-time gun buyers interested in arming themselves against a similar attack.
He pointed to a friend’s posting on Facebook in the wake of the shooting: “I will own a gun soon enough. Weird I don’t already. I dare someone to come shoot my kindergartner.”
Many at the gun show echoed a line uttered by National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre at a recent news conference: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Experts say other factors are driving the uptick as well. Before Sandy Hook, the reelection of President Obama had stoked worries among gun enthusiasts about new restrictions. The end of the year is also a popular period to buy guns for the holidays and for the start of hunting season.
The boom has left some firearms companies shorthanded. The large ammunition supplier Brownells announced that it sold 31/2 years’ worth of magazine clips in just 36 hours soon after the Newtown masscre. Its Web site advises customers of delays in shipping because of the volume of sales.
Some of those shopping for guns Friday came away frustrated.
“My dad was looking for an AR-15 rifle, but there were few, if any, left,” Patrick Roberts, 21, said after fighting the crowds inside the Expo Center. “They were going for $980 — now I’m seeing them on sale for $1,700 or $1,800.”
The surge in sales troubles some who advocate stricter gun regulations. They said an increase in firearms won’t make people safer; in fact, they said, owning a firearm places a person in greater danger.
“The mind-set is, ‘If only I had a gun, I would be safer,’ ” said Andy Goddard, president of the Virginia Center for Public Safety. “It’s a gut instinct, but it’s not based on what the data we have available tells us.”