Virginians stock up on guns, ammunition | Richmond Times-Dispatch
Virginians stock up on guns, ammunition | Richmond Times-Dispatch

Virginians stock up on guns, ammunition
James H. Wallace/Times-Dispatch
Published: March 29, 2009

Ammunition was running out so fast at a gun show late last year in Richmond that one man tried to grab a big can of .223-caliber bullets just as another guy was trying to pay for it.

There was an argument. "One guy's coming over his shoulder trying to grab" his can of 500 rounds of ammo, recalled Josh Golden, a gun and ammo dealer who was selling items at the Richmond Gun Show that day on Nov. 15. "They were his, and he was going to let him know that they were his."

In November, firearms transactions spiked about 60 percent over November '07 in Virginia, and they're up so far this year, too, according to the number of state police background checks for firearm purchases.

Also, dealers in Virginia and elsewhere say ammunition sales are soaring and it is difficult to keep certain items in stock.

The reasons: worries about what President Barack Obama and a Democrat-controlled Congress might do with gun legislation, about the possible return of the assault-weapons ban and about increased crime during the recession.

In Virginia, background checks increased 19 percent in 2008 over the previous year. Across the nation, the increase was 13.7 percent. The number of concealed-handgun permits issued in Virginia last year was up 34.7 percent over 2007.

. . .

Gun sales increased in Virginia in the 1990s before the federal ban on assault weapons began. The ban expired in 2004, but several dealers and customers voiced concern at a Showplace gun show this month that Congress might bring it back.

Bill McKaig, a competitive target shooter from Chesterfield County, worries that "anti-marksmanship" Democrats will try to eliminate the sport by making it difficult to own assault-style, semiautomatic rifles such as the AR-15, which is the civilian version of the military's M-16.

"That's what everybody's afraid of," McKaig said at the gun show at the Showplace Exhibition Center off Mechanicsville Turnpike in Henrico County.

Dave Settle, an elevator maintenance worker from Rappahannock County who had bought some ammunition at the Showplace, said he was worried the government might tax ammunition sales to the point that buying ammo would be unaffordable. "You can use your gun as a club," he joked.

Others, including some gun buyers, say much of the fear is over-the-top. Democrats are advocating sensible gun laws, not conspiring against the Second Amendment, said Alice Mountjoy, government-relations coordinator for the Virginia Center for Public Safety, a gun-control advocacy group.

Some gun enthusiasts, she said, see themselves as "the vigilante saving grace for our country when we're invaded. I don't see life that way, but others apparently do."

Mountjoy said gun-rights activists apparently were not satisfied by last year's landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller. The high court ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to own guns for self-defense.

"You'd think that would quell that concern and make them happy," Mountjoy said. "They're pushing the envelope."

Obama has said he favors common-sense gun laws. As a U.S. senator, he voted to leave gun makers and dealers open to lawsuits. As an Illinois state legislator, he supported a ban on all forms of semiautomatic assault weapons and tighter restrictions generally on firearms.

He also has indicated support for closing the so-called gun-show loophole, which allows sales of firearms between private individuals at gun shows without requiring criminal-background checks.

. . .

Several customers at the Showplace gun show said they were looking for a weapon to protect themselves or for hunting purposes, and that they didn't buy into the hype about Obama.

Zayd Turner of Henrico sees a racial component in the mistrust of Obama.

"I believe it's a race issue everybody's dealing with," he said. "They don't know how to handle a black man being president." Turner, who is black, said he even has heard people suggest that Obama was a member of the Taliban.

"I like guns," Turner said, "but people are really ready for war. I think it's great for the gun dealers."

Attendance is up from 30 percent to 50 percent at gun shows across Virginia compared to this time last year, said Annette Elliott, a promoter of about 70 shows each year. A newspaper ad for the March 7-8 gun show at the Showplace read: "GET YOUR GUNS WHILE YOU STILL CAN!!!"

"They're coming in like locusts," Elliott said.

Joe Cacciotti of Chesterfield said people have learned they can't trust the government and they don't feel like they are being represented, adding that criminals get only a slap on the wrist.

The first time a law-enforcement officer goes into someone's home and confiscates his gun, he said, that will be "the first shot being fired for the second American Revolution to begin."

Meanwhile, the gun business is thriving. Bob Moates, who owns three gun stores in Virginia, including one in Midlothian, says he hasn't seen such brisk business since the mid-1960s, when there were raceand anti-war riots across the United States.

This will last longer, he believes, because there is a fundamental fear of what will happen to gun rights.

"People are very concerned about his allegiance to the Second Amendment," he said of Obama. The administration's stance on guns is "very dubious."

Jerry Thompson, president of Dominion Shooting Range on Turner Road in Chesterfield, said he is seeing ammunition shortages in almost every caliber. That is hurting his shooting-range business, he said, but he is seeing increased interest in firearm-safety classes for people seeking concealed-weapon permits.

"We're scheduled 60 days out," he said. "Before, every once in a blue moon, we would have an overflow class. Now we have three overflow classes going."

. . .

Gun and ammo dealers were competing with warm weather at the gun show March 8 at the Showplace, but business was brisk. Sales were going smoothly for Golden, operations manager for Southampton County-based Golden & Zimmerman.

He said he was having trouble keeping up with demand for AR-15 rifles and the .223-caliber bullets for those weapons.

Lonnie Maurer, owner of a Springfield, Ohio-based ammunition dealership, said he is having trouble getting enough of all types of military-style ammunition and bullets used for hunting. He uses eight distributors, and some of his orders are six months behind.

"I've never seen this level of paranoia . . . out of what I would call normal people," he said. He said his company did about $500,000 in sales in 2008 and already has tallied about $250,000 this year.

Another dealer at the show, Berry Johnson of Form and Function Firearms in Jetersville, said .380-caliber pistol ammunition was "near impossible" to find. "I've got five boxes left," he said, "and from what I understand, I'm the only one here that's got them." He sold out later that day.

One Missouri bullet manufacturing company is doing all it can to keep up with demand.

"We're making bullets like it's going out of style," said Carroll Pilant, spokesman for Sierra Bullets in Sierra, Mo. He said demand was up more than 50 percent since late last year.

He said the plant is working with two full shifts and a partial third one, and also is operating most Saturdays. He believes that demand will stay that way until people feel comfortable that their gun rights are here to stay.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said people are worried that law and order could collapse if the economy gets so bad that riots break out, or if the nation is hit by a massive terrorist strike. "Is that paranoid to worry about a collapse, when the government's warning us of an economic collapse?" he said.

Van Cleave said this year doesn't appear unusual in terms of the number of proposed federal gun-control bills. But lawmakers "have their hands full with the economy. Give it a little more time."

Joan Burbick, a professor at Washington State University who wrote the book "Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy," says gun ownership has taken on symbolic meaning for many Americans who equate weapons with freedom.

A lot of people buy guns simply because they see their purchase as a protest against the government when they don't like the way things are going.

"We do not think that government can solve the problems that we face -- the gun is the solution," she said, paraphrasing the viewpoint of some Americans. "I'm going to take my stand here on gun ownership."

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VA-ALERT is a project of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, Inc.
(VCDL). VCDL is an all-volunteer, non-partisan grassroots organization
dedicated to defending the human rights of all Virginians. The Right to
Keep and Bear Arms is a fundamental human right.

VCDL web page: Virginia Citizens Defense League, Inc. (VCDL)