Guns for Christmas: After year-long buying frenzy, dealers unsure what market holds
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Nov 29, 2013 | 6110 views |  0 comments | 60 60 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Stephen Evans at Mike's Treasure Chest with an assortment of guns.Photo by Bill Wilson.
Stephen Evans at Mike's Treasure Chest with an assortment of guns.Photo by Bill Wilson.
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Mike Burdett's Christmas season may already have come and gone.

As the holiday approaches, Burdett typically sees more people coming into his Anniston pawn shop, Mike's Treasure Chest, looking for guns to purchase as gifts. But he doubts the Christmas season will match the rush of customers he saw earlier this year.

"Back then, people were buying assault rifles two or three at a time," Burdett said. "They didn't even care what the price was."

For gun dealers, like other merchants, Christmas is is usually the busiest season of the year. Federal background checks, required for most gun purchases, have peaked in November or December in every year since 1998.

But 2013 isn't a normal year. In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting, nearly one year ago, President Barack Obama and other leaders pledged to take action to curb gun violence. And since then, sales of guns have skyrocketed — particularly in Alabama.

FBI statistics show that between January and October, Alabama gun dealers ran 427,293 background checks on potential customers. That's just 4,000 shy of the total for 2012, a record year for the state. In 2007, before the Great Recession, Alabama saw just 245,000 background checks.

For gun dealers, it was like a Christmas that never seemed to end. Before the recession, a typical December saw 40,000 background checks in Alabama. But gun dealers ran 51,520 checks in October 2013 alone, and they topped the 40,000 mark in five other months this year.

Even so, Burdett said he's now seeing sales begin to soften. And he's not alone.

"This spike in demand was more like a mountain," Mark Johnson, deputy chief operating officer in the Anniston office of the Civilian Marksmanship Program. "I think we're just beginning to come down from the top of the mountain."

The CMP is a federally chartered organization that rehabilitates surplus government weapons and sells them to the public — with the goal of promoting marksmanship and safe gun handling. The organization's M1 Garand infantry rifles typically sell to collectors, Johnson said, and are rarely impulse buys.

Still, the CMP now has a 30- to 60-day backlog of orders. Johnson said the increased demand in 2013 is the reason.

Johnson worries that the 2013 buying frenzy will cause problems for the gun market down the road. Spikes in gun sales have typically been followed by troughs, he said.

"People have overspent," he said. "I think we're going to see a deep valley now that we're coming off the mountain. A very deep valley."

That situation is complicated by a widespread shortage of ammunition. Prices for even the most common forms of ammo, such as .22 long-rifle shells, have nearly doubled in the past year, Johnson said.

The shortage has led some gun owners to speculate that the federal government is buying up bullets to keep them out of the hands of gun owners. Other gun owners — and ammunition manufacturers — say the industry is simply unable to keep up with the surge in demand.

“The current market and environment is causing stronger than usual demand for products in our industry,” wrote Tim Brandt, a spokesman for Federal Premium Ammunition, in an email to The Star. “The current increase in demand is attributed to the civilian market.”

Johnson said the shortage is driven largely by consumers' fears that ammo is simply going away.

"If you go to a couple of places and can't find the ammunition you need, fear sets in," he said. "The next time you see that ammunition for sale, you're going to buy everything they've got."

For gun dealers, the inability to sell ammo with a gun has added a wrinkle to the business. At Pawn Pistol Pete's in Anniston, gun sales have slowed because there's no ammunition to go with them, an employee told The Star. The employee declined to give her name.

For those who are planning to put a gun under the Christmas tree, Johnson offers a word of caution.

"Know the person," he said. The CMP doesn't sell to anyone who hasn't completed firearms safety training. Johnson said he wouldn't give a gun as a gift to an untrained person either.

Before people own a gun, he said, they need to know the basics.

"Always keep it pointed in a safe direction. Never trust a mechanical safety. Always treat it like it's loaded," he said. Minors should get that training before they get a gun as a gift, not afterward.

Johnson said he's taken his 6-year-old son with him on hunting trips this year, so he can learn safe gun handling.

"He gets to carry a BB gun," Johnson said. "Next year, maybe I'll let him put a BB in it."

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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