A rush to bear arms
Indeed, sales of firearms in the United States began to rise in the lead-up to the November 2008 presidential election, including here in Democratic Massachusetts long viewed as a bastion for liberal, anti-gun politics. And they continued to soar for the first three months of 2009, according to the FBI's National Criminal Investigative Service, which performs background checks on people seeking to carry firearms.
The FBI noticed a particular spike during election week when polls indicated Democrat Barack Obama had pulled ahead of Republican John McCain in the race for the White House.
So, what's fueling this gun trend?
It depends on who you ask, of course. But at least three, clearly identifiable factors have contributed to a surge in background checks, the best index for estimating gun sales, which aren't tracked by the federal government.
The first factor the one attributable to the November spike is the "Obama factor," a fear that a Democratic administration will work with a Democratic Congress to restrict Americans' Constitutional right to bear arms.
The other two fear factors concerns about rising crime and a slumping economy have further fed the growing appetite for guns. Local gun shop owners credit all three for increased gun sales in the Berkshires.
"(Last) Saturday, we sold 20 guns in just four hours," said Tom Decker, owner of Pete's Gun Shop in Adams, which bills itself as the largest gun shop in Western Massachusetts.
"The number of people who are seeking new permits is phenomenal," said Decker, the gun shop owner responsible for this story's opening line about sales going through the roof.
Obama has been in the White House for nearly 100 days, and so far he has not done anything to curtail the Second Amendment right to bear arms. However, administration policy statements indicate that both President Obama and Vice President Biden "favor commonsense measures" that respect gun owners' rights, while also "keeping guns away from children and from criminals."
In short, the administration favors closing the gun show loophole the ability to buy a gun without undergoing a background check and making guns in this country childproof. Obama and Biden also support making the federal Assault Weapons Ban permanent. The ban expired in 2004.
Decker said the people buying guns at Pete's Gun Shop "come from all walks of life."
"You name it from blue-collar workers to white-collar workers to professorial types," he said, noting that he recently sold a gun to a Williams college professor.
Rick Kickery, who co-owns Pittsfield's Avid Sports with his brother Eric Kickery, said he's noticing a lot of first-time gun buyers at his West Housatonic Street shop.
"We're definitely getting a lot of new customers, and a lot of them are buying (guns) for home defense or self-defense," said Kickery, a West Side native who considers himself "fortunate" to now live on the city's more rural outskirts.
The perception that crime is out of control is definitely driving local gun sales, according to Kickery, who worries about his mother living on the city's West Side, the scene of recent gun violence and other dangerous crimes.
Crime in Pittsfield is "almost to the point where you don't even have a solid solution anymore," Kickery said. "I'm disgusted with it at this point."
Gun control proponents tend to take an all-or-nothing approach, said Kickery, noting that guns don't hurt people, people hurt people.
"Firearms, by themselves, are not a bad thing," he said. "Bad people with firearms that's the bad thing."
For Kickery, it comes down to increasing public safety: "If the criminals are armed, honestly, the good people should be armed."
Decker said his gun show sales have more than doubled this year. In the past, "we'd usually sell 30 or so guns," he said, "but now we're selling around 60 or 70."
Recent customers have included an elderly couple in their late 80s, who purchased two guns. Asked if the 87-year-old husband and his 85-year-old wife provided a reason for their purchase, Decker replied, "Because they're scared."
The National Rifle Association has done its part to stoke people's fears, including characterizing Obama as the most anti-gun president in U.S. history. The pro-gun lobbying organization created a Web site (www.GunBaNObama.com) to hammer home that message.
"We do feel like Obama is the least gun-friendly president we've seen," NRA spokeswoman Alexa Fritts told The Eagle last week.
Asked for evidence of the president's anti-gun disposition, Fritts said, "It's basically the things he's said and done that lead us to believe this."
She said the NRA is concerned Obama will use his political clout to woo like-minded allies in Congress to work toward making the assault weapons ban permanent.
The ban, which was signed into law by President Clinton in 1994 and expired a decade later required gun manufacturers to stop producing semiautomatic assault weapons and ammunition clips that hold more than 10 rounds, except for police and military use.
The assault-ban issue is "not on (Obama's) radar completely right now," Fritts conceded, but "there's definitely a chance" it will make it onto his agenda.
"(U.S. Attorney General) Eric Holder and (Secretary of State Hillary Rodham) Clinton have both expressed interest in reinstating the so-called assault ban," said Fritts, adding that the NRA views that as evidence that the issue will eventually become an administration priority.
The availability of assault weapons endangers police officers and private citizens alike, according to The Brady Center for the Prevention of Gun Violence. The organization's Web site reports that "at least 15 (police) officers have been killed and 23 wounded since the ban expired in September 2004."
Daniel Vice, a senior attorney for the organization, told The Eagle that The Brady Center is dedicated to reinstating the ban and to closing gun show loopholes.
"That's how the Columbine killers got their guns they went to a gun show and they got them no problem," Vice said.
The Brady Center is not overly concerned about the recent spike in gun sales, according to Vice.
"We've seen temporary increases before," he said. "The long-term trend is that gun ownership is declining."
That aside, there were 36 percent more FBI background checks in Massachusetts in January and February than in those months last year.
In November 2008, the month of the presidential election, the number of background checks in Massachusetts peaked at 5,501. That was an increase of 1,821 over November 2007, when 3,680 checks were performed. The Massachusetts data was not broken down by county.
Nationwide, the number of FBI checks rose 13.7 percent in 2008, a year in which requests outpaced the 2007 figures in every month. In the first two months of this year, background checks continued to rise, up 29 percent in January and 23.3 percent in February, according to the FBI.
Meanwhile, gun control advocates are optimistic that a bill filed last week by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., to close gun show loopholes will gain momentum. The measure has the support of Massachusetts Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, according to Vice, the attorney for The Brady Center, which wholly supports the measure.
To reach Conor Berry: firstname.lastname@example.org; or (413) 496-6249.
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