Protection, politics behind sales surge

Firearm instructor Carl Barber instructs a class in basic pistol shooting at Colonial Shooting Academy in Henrico County.

Pam Bates has grown anxious of the crime in her Chesterfield County neighborhood and is determined to do more than just worry about it. She plans to buy a gun for self-defense and obtain a state permit to carry it concealed.

“I can no longer defend myself or my property with a (Maglite) flashlight,” Bates half-joked, minutes after completing a basic pistol instruction class with 10 other students — four of them women — at the Colonial Shooting Academy in Henrico County. “The home invasion four doors down and the attempted break-ins (in the neighborhood) makes me nervous, makes me angry.”

Bates last week shot a .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol on the range — only her second time firing a gun — and felt satisfied about the experience and the instruction she received on how to use it. However, she plans to buy a small-caliber revolver, “something that I can conceal.”

Bates will soon join a record number of Virginians who are buying firearms — many for the first time — for personal safety, out of fear of crime or concern their gun rights may be in restricted with the re-election of President Barack Obama.

A growing number of federally licensed gun dealers in Virginia last year sold an estimated 420,829 firearms of all types, a 73 percent increase from 2006. Pistol sales, excluding revolvers, exploded 122 percent over that same period, according to Virginia Firearms Transaction Center data obtained and analyzed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Of the eight regions of the state, the Central region had the highest number of overall gun sales in 2011 at 82,206, or nearly 20 percent of the state total, the analysis showed.

“I think there are several issues that have driven gun sales over the last few years,” said Bill Prout, president and chief financial officer of Green Top Sporting Goods in Hanover County, which sold an estimated 18,385 firearms last year — by far the most of any gun dealer in the state.

Prout said one driving force that should surprise no one is Obama’s election in 2008, followed by his re-election this month. “It was everyone’s opinion that there would be some attempt to reinstitute gun controls, and gun owners reacted to that,” he said.

At the same, Prout said, the economy went south, “and in bad economies people become more mindful and more protective of their assets. So you had homeowners who had never owned a gun in their life coming out in large numbers for self-protection and home protection.”

Prout said a third category, while small in number, are what he calls the “Doomsday Preppers” after the popular National Geographic television show. They believe there’s “either going to be an international or national catastrophe with a breakdown in the social system in America, and they wanted to be ready.”

Robert Marcus, principal owner of Bob’s Gun Shop, the leading seller of firearms in Hampton Roads, said gun sales began to shoot upward when Obama was first elected and have never really abated.

“It kind of took the industry up and elevated the level at which people were buying,” Marcus said. “We’ve seen business go up and not taper off. It’s not with the same intensity over those four years as it was in November 2008, but there is no question that everyone has seen more business.”

The Times-Dispatch examined six years of gun transaction data compiled by Virginia State Police that break down the number of gun transactions for every federally licensed firearms dealer in Virginia. It includes the number and types of guns they sought to sell based on background checks of purchasers.

Terance J. Rephann, a regional economist with the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, was enlisted by the newspaper to help sort the data by the eight regions of the state to determine the volume of gun sales for each area.

The Central region had the highest overall gun sales through the study period of 2006 to 2011, followed in order by the Northern, Hampton Roads, West Central, Southwest, Valley, Southside and Eastern regions.

Hampton Roads had the highest sales of pistols for four of those six years, while the Northern region recorded the highest sales of rifles during that period. The Central region had the highest number of shotgun and revolver sales, the analysis shows.

The rankings changed when calculating gun sales by population.

The Southwest region had the highest sales of guns per capita, with a rate of 12,637 guns per 100,000 people in 2011. The Valley region ranked second with 9,348 guns per 100,000 people, followed by the West Central, Southside, Central, Hampton Roads, Northern and Eastern regions.

The state average in 2011 was 5,198 guns per 100,000 people, up from 3,181 guns in 2006.

The per capita rate of gun sales was skewed in some regions, particularly in the Southwest, where the leading gun dealer, Trader Jerry’s, made about 75 percent of its sales at Virginia gun shows outside its area, said owner Jerry Cochran.

In 2011, the Trader Jerry’s store in Cedar Bluff was ranked second in the state in sales, and the dealer’s Salem store was ranked third.

But most of the state’s top storefront dealers sell few, if any, firearms at gun shows in the state, according to a survey of some of Virginia’s top dealers.

“My impression is that for most people who have brick-and-mortar stores, the gun show is kind of a supplement to their standard business,” said Bernie Conatser, owner of Virginia Arms Co. in Manassas, which ranked first in gun sales in the Northern region last year and fifth overall in the state, with an estimated 6,350 firearms sold.

The gun sales boom has also resulted in a substantial uptick in the number of federally licensed firearms dealers operating in Virginia. That number hovered around 1,100 from 2006 to 2009, but then jumped to more than 1,300 in 2010 and exceeded 1,400 last year, state data show.

Those in the industry believe the increase can be attributed to what is commonly referred to as “kitchen table” dealers, small-time operators who are selling relatively few guns out of their homes to supplement their principal income, which has taken a hit in a bad economy.

While gun sales have been consistently strong over the past several years, Conatser and several other dealers said they have seen unprecedented levels of sales just in the past couple of weeks that they attribute directly to the results of the election.

And like other dealers, Conatser is seeing more first-time gun buyers.

“You can go through history — this election, the previous election, the Beltway sniper, Y2K, Katrina — any kind of major event like that there’s always a spike in sales,” he said. “And first-time buyers are generally over-represented in that group of people who are buying in large numbers after an event like that.”

Recently, new gun buyers have cited concerns about the economy and potential legislation that could restrict their Second Amendment rights, Conatser said.

Conatser said his sales also have increased as a result of state legislation this year that overturned Virginia’s one-handgun-per-month prohibition. A small core group of his customers are now buying more than one handgun “because they are able to,” he said.

Kevin Harris, co-owner of Dominion Outdoors in Fishersville, which ranked first in the Valley region in overall gun sales, believes more people are buying guns because they feel less secure.

“I mean, just ask the people in New Jersey (affected by Hurricane Sandy),” Harris said. “The government can’t take care of everybody.”

Harris said he enjoys selling hunting rifles and guns for sport that people can collect and pass on to their children. “But now what we have is people buying handguns for protection. That’s because of a spirit of fear. It’s not what I want as an owner or businessman, even if it’s going to benefit me for the short term economically.”

A combination of factors has fueled increased gun sales, Harris added, but Obama “is definitely the gun salesman of the decade.”

Mark Tosh, president of Town Gun Shop Inc. with stores in Richmond and Collinsville, does a brisk business at both locations, but his Southside Virginia store sold more guns despite the region being one of the most economically depressed in the state.

That store, ranked first in gun sales in Southside, is a major bulk supplier to police agencies. But since the election, the store’s biggest increase in sales has been to individual officers who are buying weapons they fear may eventually be banned.

“They’re concerned that we’re going to go back to the 1994 crime bill, where you have to have an act of God to get a high-cap magazine over 10 rounds,” he said.

Many gun dealers point to women as the most significant demographic of new gun buyers. “We are seeing far more women now — empowering themselves I guess is the word for it,” said Marcus, of Bob’s Gun Shop in Norfolk.

Colonial Shooting Academy in Henrico has been selling out its eight-hour women-only basic pistol instruction classes for the past three months, said Ed Coleman, the general manager.

“The fastest-growing segment of the gun-owning population is women,” Coleman said. “The numbers of women that are buying firearms for the first time are far exceeding men.”

Dee Rybiski, who at her husband’s urging bought a Glock 9 mm semiautomatic pistol several months ago for personal protection, was among four women and seven men who sat through a three-hour basic pistol course last week at the shooting academy. Rybiski took the class, in part, to satisfy a requirement to obtain a concealed weapons permit.

“There are so many things going on across the country,” Rybiski said, citing shootings in churches, schools, movie theaters and other public places once considered inviolable. “I’m not a fearful-type person,” but it’s hard to “have blind faith that you’re safe 100 percent of the time.”

“I just feel like it was the responsible thing to do, be educated, so I could better protect myself and family if needed,” she said.

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