A nation challenged: personal security; Steep rise in gun sales reflects post-attack fears
Gun and ammunition sales across the country have risen sharply since Sept. 11 as more Americans take what many consider to be the most personal step toward feeling safer: arming themselves.
According to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, surveys by firearms associations and anecdotal evidence from storefront gun shops and distributors from Arizona to Florida to Lower Manhattan, the jump in weapons sales followed quickly on the first jarring images of the terrorist attacks.
The rise was anywhere from 9 percent to nearly 22 percent during September, October and November, according to F.B.I. statistics on background checks for purchases. The total peaked in October, at 1,029,691, up from 845,886 in October 2000.
Those in the gun industry say a range of firearms have been purchased, from high-priced handguns small enough to fit inside a purse to shotguns and assault rifles that can be leaned against a wall inside a clothes closet. And, they say, there has been a steady stream of serious-minded first-time buyers.
”Sept. 11, like other catastrophes, makes people panic, makes them fearful, makes them want to protect themselves and their families against the enemy, who, in this case, is hard to identify,” said James Alan Fox, Lipman professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston. ”People may say: ‘Let Tom Ridge watch out for our shores. I’ll watch out for my doors.’ ”
To many in and out of law enforcement, such a proliferation of deadly weapons is unsettling, even as scores of new gun owners argue that their right to bear arms is worth exercising to gain a feeling of personal security in troubled times.
”We are always concerned with the overall numbers of guns that are available and out on the street making things unmanageable for law enforcement,” said William B. Berger, the police chief of North Miami Beach, Fla., who is president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the nation’s oldest and largest group of law enforcement executives, with 19,000 members worldwide.
Some gun manufacturers — like those in other industries — are aggressively seeking new clients because of Sept. 11. Ithaca Gun Company is selling its Homeland Security model for ”our current time of national need.” The Beretta gun company has its ”United We Stand,” a 9-millimeter pistol bearing a laser-etched American flag. The company sold 2,000 of them to wholesalers in one day in October, said Jeff Reh, vice general manager of Beretta U.S.A.
Gun control advocates have voiced strong concern about the increased sales, citing statistics showing that guns, though purchased by the law-abiding, sometimes end up later in criminals’ hands. Some law enforcement officials echo that thought. The advocates also say that more guns in circulation, particularly in the hands of the untrained, increase the chances of violence in the home, suicide, or accidental shooting.
Nevertheless, guns are being bought with the feeling that they will make the buyer safer. Scott Abraham, a Long Island investment broker in his 30’s, said he never dreamed of buying a gun until Sept. 11. Last month he bought a Mossberg shotgun because ”I don’t want to be caught shorthanded,” and made a spot to hide it in his house. Thomas M. Iasso, 53, a former police officer who stopped carrying a gun two years ago, bought a .40-caliber Glock after the terrorist attacks — and he carries it.
”You can’t sit there and tell me you can protect me anymore, because you can’t,” Mr. Iasso said, explaining his purchase.
Both Mr. Abraham and Mr. Iasso bought their guns at John Jovino Gun Shop, the city’s oldest, in Little Italy. The shop owner, Anthony F. Imperato, said there had been a steady increase in potential customers expressing interest in obtaining a New York City pistol or shotgun permit. Other people, with permits, want additional weapons, and some people just want to buy self-defense equipment, like pepper spray.
At Mr. Imperato’s gun factory, Henry Repeating Arms Company in Brooklyn, there has been a run on the Henry U.S. Survival Rifle since Sept. 11. It was first manufactured four years ago, but its ”name and style and features make it particularly desirable” now, Mr. Imperato said. The components of the gun, a version of the United States Air Force AR-7, can be disassembled and placed in its stock, which is waterproof and floats.
Gun shops and distributors across the country tell similar stories. Local reports in several states, including Texas, Nevada and Virginia, said officials have cited increases in gun sales, and in applications for concealed-weapons permits in the days immediately after the attacks. Members of the Air Line Pilots Association may soon be allowed to carry firearms in their cockpits.
According to Andrew M. Molchan, the director of the 4,000-member Professional Gun Retailers Association in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., firearms retailers have seen significant jumps in sales, especially among first-time buyers and the wealthy.
”Maybe they had more to protect or maybe they had more to lose, or, psychologically, they thought they had more to lose,” Mr. Molchan said.
In a survey done about 10 days after the September attacks, the National Shooting Sports Foundation found that 15 percent of gun retailers who were questioned had reported sales increases of more than 25 percent, said Douglas Painter, executive director of the 1,800-member, Connecticut-based organization. The majority of those retailers were in places close to the attacks, like New York City and Washington, as well as in Florida, where some of the terrorists are believed to have lived for a time, he said.
Now the big question is how long the increase in sales will continue. Opinion is split. Many retailers say the buying habits may be affected by global events. ”Only time will tell if this current increase in sales will be long-term,” Mr. Painter said.
Some gun retailers say that sales have already begun to level off or decrease in recent days, and that they do not think overall gun sales for the year will break records.
The F.B.I. statistics show increases in the number of background checks for firearms sales and other transactions from September through November. But they had increased very slightly in August as well.
Daniel A. Wells, the assistant operations manager for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the F.B.I. section that keeps data on the sales of long guns and handguns, pawn shop redemptions and permit requests, said the number of checks increased 12 percent on Sept. 12 over the same day in 2000.
The number of background checks for gun purchases and other transactions increased to 864,038 for September, an increase of 10.5 percent over the same month last year. In October, they were 1,029,691, a gain of nearly 22 percent over October 2000. And last month, they were 983,186, an increase of more than 9 percent over November 2000, the F.B.I. figures showed. That followed declines in each of those months — traditional hunting season months — between 1999 and 2000. So far this month, however, the numbers are on track to be slightly lower than they were last December, though the holiday buying season is not over.
The checks are considered the most accurate gauge of the number of gun purchases. The totals are not precisely equivalent, because more than one gun may be bought after a single check, or the check may prevent any purchase at all.
The recent increases were expected, just as gun sales jumped in limited geographical regions after incidents like the Los Angeles riots or before the passage of the Brady Act of 1994, which established a nationwide system of background checks for handgun purchases.
”This time you can project it nationally,” Wayne R. LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, said of the increased sales.
No one can say for sure if the increase can be attributed solely to the Sept. 11 attacks, but many law enforcement officials and gun industry insiders agree it is a primary reason. Because the F.B.I. has been keeping statistics only since November 1998, it cannot determine whether the increases are part of some cyclical pattern. Some buyers said part of the reason was their feeling that crime was beginning to inch up and that a worsening economy might bring increases in crime.
”If they were sitting on the fence between ‘should I buy a gun or not buy one,’ well, this was the catalyst that pushed them over,” said a former employee of a major gun manufacturer who lost his job early this year as a result of slumping sales.
The gun industry has been in a general decline over the last three decades as the popularity of sport hunting has waned and fewer young people have been introduced to firearms. Low crime rates and a buoyant economy are also thought to have contributed to the downturn in gun ownership.
Still, the vast number of weapons already loosed upon American streets often wind up in the hands of those with insufficient training, gun control advocates say. And they stay in circulation for years.
”We will see the ultimate consequences of that down the road when we see death and injuries that are associated with the proliferation of handguns,” said Tom Diaz, senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit gun control group in Washington.
He said most guns would sit on closet shelves or in glove compartments, never used to fight crime, let alone terrorism. ”What are you going to do, shoot an envelope filled with anthrax or stop a 747 with a handgun?” he asked. ”It’s literally crazy.”
The executive director of Doctors Against Handgun Injury, Robert V. Seltzer, has said that people need to think before buying a weapon and that if they buy one, they ”need to store it properly: unloaded, locked, with the ammunition stored separately and securely.”
Around the country, gun instruction classes have shown significant increases in enrollment. Mr. LaPierre said the waiting period to attend courses for weapon-carrying permits had jumped to more than two months from two weeks.
At the Firing Line, a South Philadelphia gun shop and pistol range where gun sales have increased 20 percent since Sept. 11, the owner, Gregory J. Isabella, said economic fears have not stopped sales. He said he sold 58 guns in the first 20 days after the attacks, an increase of 20 percent or more over the same period last year, and sold 18,000 rounds of ammunition in the same period, an increase of more than 30 percent. Sales at his shop have steadied, but are still ahead of last year’s pace. He said women were buying their own guns, or ammunition for their husbands as a Christmas stocking stuffer. Other customers, he said, come by just to shoot at the Osama bin Laden targets.
”I got him!” Mr. Isabella said he could hear shooters saying, or, ”I got even with him!” He said: ”It’s a way to blow off steam and, perhaps, practice for some nebulous future event.
”Let’s just say that personal security is now on the mind of individual citizens,” Mr. Isabella said. ”Definitely.” Autor: Al Baker