Thom George may have been a foreigner in North Idaho, but he wasted little time in adjusting to the area’s outdoor-oriented lifestyle.
After moving to a sprawling plot of countryside south of Coeur d’Alene roughly eight years ago, the Queens, N.Y., native immediately set out with an Idahoan-inspired shopping list to obtain a few necessities: his driver’s license, a pickup truck, one golden retriever and a 12-gauge shotgun.
“They told me that was as close to being an Idaho native as I’d ever get,” George said, recalling the friend’s advice. Having never owned a gun before, his wife questioned the spree, but George told her, “We live on 23 acres and our nearest neighbor is down the road, so I said we are 911 if something were to happen because it could take an officer a while to get to our place.”
While that attitude is widespread in traditionally red-state Idaho, where gun ownership is an ingrained part of the outdoor mindset and hunter’s education serves as almost a rite of passage, what is outside the majority is his political affiliation. “I’m a gun-toting Democrat,” offered George, who serves as chair of the Kootenai County Democratic Party and has a concealed-weapon permit, which allows him to carry the .357 Magnum he bought for personal protection when he sold real estate in rural areas.
Gun advocates and proponents regularly cross party lines in many states, particularly in the West and Midwest regions that boast strong traditions of hunting and shooting sports. However, one thing remains constant across the country: gun and ammunition sales surged in the last year.
Reaction to election
In the wake of last November’s general election that saw President Obama sworn into office and gave Democrats control of Congress, gun shop owners experienced record earnings amid customer fears that gun control legislation would restrict their right to bear arms. While the tidal shift in the political landscape played a major role, local store owners also attribute the soaring sales to economic uncertainties.
So far, Obama appears to be courting both sides of the issue. He said last year that he supports an individual’s right to own a firearm, but it’s a privilege just like other personal liberties and is subject to “common-sense regulation.” He’s proposed strengthening background checks, more effectively enforcing gun laws, tracking guns used in violent crimes to unscrupulous dealers and closing gun show “loopholes.”
Yet despite the administration’s thus-far inaction on gun control, consumers have reacted in record-setting droves.
At Black Sheep Sporting Goods in Coeur d’Alene, sales have remained steady all year. The numbers, however, are not nearly as high as the spike seen in the fourth quarter of 2008, said company spokesman Brian Knoll.
“I think that after the election there was some concerns from gun owners, sportsmen, Americans in general – and here in this area I can speak to specifically – about gun rights and gun ownership rights being modified in some way negatively,” Knoll said, adding that high-capacity handguns and semiautomatic rifles were the most in-demand guns at the beginning of the year, while hunting rifles recently bumped them off the top of the list.
“It’s not like it was. Gun sales have, what I’d like to say, normalized,” he added.
Ammunition in short supply
But the effects are still sending shockwaves across the industry. Ammunition is the new sought-after commodity. Signs limiting daily ammo purchases hang above many aisles inside Black Sheep, a local indicator of the problem plaguing gun shops nationwide as bullets continue to be in short supply. And many gun supporters believe that it’s only a matter of time before the Obama administration tackles firearm legislation.
The surge in gun sales “created this false hysteria, so to speak, and caused people to buy more (ammunition) than they normally would, and compound that across the entire country and that’s where we are,” Knoll said. For hunters planning trips, he added, “they are used to seeing ammo in the aisles in large stacks and they’re not seeing that.”
That account was echoed by Ed Santos, owner of Target Center Sports in Post Falls, which specializes in personal-protection and home-defense firearms. For several months earlier this year, the typical concealed-carry handguns, especially high-capacity pistols, rarely even made it out to display cases.
“We sold them just as fast as we could get them in,” Santos recalled, adding that the demand has finally settled down to the point that the display cases are full again. “We sold a ton of those smaller, compact guns. Now, of course, we are paying the price trying to get ammo for it.”
Santos, an Army veteran who offers a free one-hour class with every gun sold to acquaint the owners with their weapons, spends much of the year traveling around the U.S. to teach law enforcement training seminars. When on the road, he said he stops by as many gun stores as possible to see how business is beyond North Idaho’s borders.
“I can tell you that … none of these places have defensive ammo,” Santos explained. “We are having unbelievable trouble getting defensive ammunition, and only in the last two weeks have we started to see that loosen up.”
Law enforcement must wait too
The same goes for the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department, which is having a hard time outfitting officers with practice ammo. “It’s a long wait to get it in,” said Maj. Ben Wolfinger. “Part of it is the war effort, part of it is just availability of materials and things like that, and part of it is just the economy of people buying ammunition up.”
Ammo manufacturers are pumping out bullets as fast as possible, with the Lewiston-based company CCI pushing its production level to more than 6 billion rounds this year, according to spokesman Bryce Hallowell. That ammo covers a variety of firearm types.
“I can tell you that commercial demand is at an unprecedented level,” Hallowell said, adding that the company’s armament systems, which include law enforcement, commercial and military manufacturing, grew 25 percent over the past year.
A variety of factors
Like other gun shop owners in Kootenai County, Santos attributed skyrocketing sales to a variety of political and economic factors. Together, they added up to a surge not seen in years, with even more eager customers than in the early ‘90s when Democrats were previously swept into office.
Store owners said the most common motivation most customers cite is a fear of waking up one day and finding that they can no longer purchase a firearm.
“Without question, the number one reason is their fear that the government is not going to allow them to possess firearms anymore,” Santos offered. “They are trying to get ahead of that by buying a lot of firearms.”
Alongside the swell of gun sales, the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department witnessed a 65 percent increase in applications for concealed weapon permits in a year-over-year comparison during the fourth quarter of 2008, compared with 2007., records show. That number has since leveled out to a more average figure of 4,928 active concealed weapon permits as of mid-October, according to Wolfinger.
“That’s actually down a little bit. There are not as many people renewing their permits as have been in the past,” he explained.
Even as throngs of people snatched up weapons in record waves, some gun advocates watched the sales blitz in amazement. George of the Kootenai County Democratic Party questioned the intent behind some of the movement’s more vocal national supporters. For example, consumer fears of stricter gun legislation may have prodded some in the industry to push sales, he said.
‘A lot of fear-mongering’
“There’s been a lot of fear mongering in a lot of areas ever since the election. Some of these people are business people. There’s an opportunity to market their product and what better way to market your product than tell somebody it’s going to become rare or extinct and drive everyone out to get it, and they did it very successfully,” George said. “I’m a pro-gun person; the difference being that I don’t tend to make my decisions fear-based.”
Even with a Democratic president and Congress, George believes passing stricter gun laws is not at the top of any politician’s to-do list, especially by gun-advocating Democrats such as Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick, who will veto any moves to restrict firearms for hunting and home protection, he said.
Beyond that, George adds that gun-rights enthusiasts are divided by urban or rural upbringing, rather than red versus blue party affiliation.
“It’s just the nature of the culture,” he said, referring to the more rural environment in Idaho that has cultivated the area’s well-known support for firearms and shooting sports. “It’s just something you do out here; it’s a part of the lifestyle.”
More women interested
For those in the gun-selling industry, the surge has been a good-news, bad-news phenomenon. On the plus side, more people – especially women and families – are adopting the sport-shooting side of firearms, Santos offered.
“I would say we’ve seen a 35 to 40 percent increase in female shooters. We are selling pink now – we actually have a pink section and it’s great,” he said, adding that Thursdays have become “shoot free” days for women. “It’s been good for our industry, but it’s been somewhat of a sensitive issue to a lot of us who are active business people within the community … . I see businesses struggling around us and people in our line of work are having some of our best quarters ever. So it’s something I think we have to be sensitive to in the community.”
However, as Black Sheep’s Knoll offered, the sales surges will eventually subside, but what will remain is an industry that will be better off thanks to the slew of new gun supporters.
“It’s created a whole new audience of people that are now getting into the shooting sports. I’m seeing the old faces and a large variety of new faces whose motivation to get into it may not have been to have fun, but a lot of them are enjoying it,” he said.
And hopefully, Knoll added, consumer fears of Second Amendment rights being restricted won’t come true. “We all have some concerns, and continue to be concerned. But I think that for the most part we all have faith – again as I do – that our basic constitutional rights will be upheld. We have faith in our government.”