In Wake of Tragedy, Growing Gun Sales

Owners of large gun shops say that gun debate, politics, and fear drive sales.

A weapon confiscated by the D.C. police.

As of July 2012, an estimated 129,000 veterans had been entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System by the VA.

By + More

 "I own guns," said Graham Davis, a pastor from Annandale, Virginia. "I also own a beautiful child who's 15 months old."

Davis shopped at Atlantic Guns in Silver Spring, Md., on Monday, holding his young son as he browsed.

"I've been shopping for a home defense pistol for years," Davis said, but he thinks that demand for guns will drive prices up, making now the time to shop.

"It's a no-brainer," said Davis.

Friday's shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, will go down as the second-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. In the wake of a tragedy that took the lives of 20 schoolchildren, six school staff members, the shooter, and his mother, some gun store owners are reporting heavier traffic.

[PHOTOS: Madman Massacres Kindergarten Class]

"I believe it's definitely going to reignite the gun control debate. and everybody sees that," says Tom Grice, owner of Grice Gun Shop in Clearfield, Pa., which bills itself as the largest gun store in the Keystone State. He says that tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School don't cause upticks in gun sales; rather, he stresses, it's the ensuing debate over gun control that sends people out shopping.

"As the news media continue to report on the looming gun control responses from the government officials, I believe it probably will [drive sales]," says Grice.

Another proprietor who foresees an uptick in sales is Larry Hyatt, owner of Charlotte, N.C.-based Hyatt Gun Shop. His store calls itself America's largest independently owned gun store and keeps more than 7,000 guns in stock. He says that while some people react to events like the Sandy Hook shooting by wanting to limit gun availability, two other reactions can drive sales: fear and politics.

[RELATED: Congress Reacts to Shooting]

"You have other people say 'My goodness, these schools can't protect us, we've got to protect ourselves. We've got to buy guns.' And you have other people who say, 'They're going to pass [tougher gun] legislation. I don't want to be the only one who doesn't have one. I'd better get mine now,'" says Hyatt.

It will be difficult to know how much the shooting in Newtown might boost sales, but anecdotal evidence suggests that tragedies can mean a subsequent boost in sales. In the days following this summer's movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., state background checks rose dramatically in that state, as the Christian Science Monitor reported, and gun sales also rose in several other states. Sales also grew after the Columbine shooting in 1999 and the 2011 Tucson, Ariz., shootings that left six dead and wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Still, the firearm industry has seen sustained growth, independent of these intermittent tragedies. The gun industry's direct economic impact grew by over 100 percent, to $13.6 billion, from 2008 to 2011, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group.

[READ: Anti-Gun Rally: 'Today is the Day']

Background check data also suggest growing gun interest. The FBI reported that Black Friday (one of the biggest shopping days of the year) saw record activity, with nearly 155,000 background checks performed — 20 percent more than on Black Friday 2011.

All told, the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) performed just over 2 million checks in November 2012 — the highest monthly total since the system was put into place in 1998. And even without December's total included, NICS has already conducted more checks in 2012 than in any other year, with 16.8 million as of the end of November. However, one background check does not necessarily represent one gun sale — it may represent zero, or it may represent multiple sales — and it does not reflect transactions that do not require background checks, like sales at some gun shows.

What's driving Americans' desire to arm themselves? Hyatt believes that much larger and more constant forces than intermittent mass shootings drive gun sales.

[RELATED: Comprehensive Coverage of Gun Debate]

"I think the economic downturn was so severe that it made a good portion of the American people lose confidence in their institutions," he says. He adds that politics seem to drive sales, as people stock up when they perceive that the laws might grow stricter. President Obama, for example, suggested in a presidential debate the possibility of introducing an assault weapons ban.