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Gun sellers: Run on guns, ammo will only soar more under Biden proposals

Asheville Citizen Times logo Asheville Citizen Times 4/12/2021 John Boyle, Asheville Citizen Times
diagram: Empty rifle slots tell the story at Leicester Pawn & Gun on April 9, 2021. Between the pandemic, social unrest, a contentious election and talk of gun control, buyers have flocked to stores to buy guns and ammunition. © Angela Wilhelm/awilhelm@citizentimes.com Empty rifle slots tell the story at Leicester Pawn & Gun on April 9, 2021. Between the pandemic, social unrest, a contentious election and talk of gun control, buyers have flocked to stores to buy guns and ammunition.

When it comes to gun sales and gun control, "irony" might not be the first word that comes to mind.

But it should be up there at the top of the list.

For the past year, gun and ammunitions sales have skyrocketed, fueled first by a global pandemic that raised fears of societal breakdown, then social unrest after George Floyd's death in Minneapolis. A contentious 2020 election, the Jan. 6 insurrection in the nation's capital and continuing concerns about another surge of COVID-19 cases — as well as President Joe Biden's talk about curtailing access to AR-15 and high-capacity magazines — contributed to an already tense atmosphere.

a person standing in front of a computer: "A lot of newbies have been buying guns and ammunition," said Russell Whitmire, manager of Leicester Pawn & Gun in West Asheville. "And instead of going in and buying one box (of ammunition), they're buying five boxes, just because if they use it up at target practice, they may not be able to find anybody with more to sell." © Angela Wilhelm/awilhelm@citizentimes.com "A lot of newbies have been buying guns and ammunition," said Russell Whitmire, manager of Leicester Pawn & Gun in West Asheville. "And instead of going in and buying one box (of ammunition), they're buying five boxes, just because if they use it up at target practice, they may not be able to find anybody with more to sell."

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The upshot? Americans literally cannot buy enough firearms and ammunition.

"It used to be that me, as a retailer, I could basically go shopping and pick and choose what I want to buy," said Clint Shepherd, owner of Big Ivy Guns, which has a gun and gear shop in Mars Hill, a gear and ammo store in Candler and an outdoor range in Burnsville. "Today, there is nothing to shop for. You wait on on the phone calls from your sales rep, and you take what they've got."

So when Biden stepped into the fray April 8, announcing his plans to tighten restrictions on background checks, "ghost guns" and stabilizing braces that make it possible to shoulder high-powered pistols, local gun shop owners like Shepherd found it ironic.

a group of people standing in front of a building: Big Ivy Guns owner Clint Shepherd says it's been hard to keep the store fully stocked over the past year, as the pandemic, social unrest and contentious politics have driven a surge in gun sales. © Courtesy of Big Ivy Guns Big Ivy Guns owner Clint Shepherd says it's been hard to keep the store fully stocked over the past year, as the pandemic, social unrest and contentious politics have driven a surge in gun sales.

"Ultimately, all this does is actually generate more sales for more firearms to be on the marketplace," Shepherd said. "Criminals are going to be criminals, and bad people are going to find ways to do bad things, whether it's with a gun, a knife, a baseball bat or a vehicle."

Shepherd said short-barreled rifles, similar to the Ruger AR-556 pistol a man used to kill 10 people in a Boulder, Colorado, grocery store, have not been big sellers in his store, anyway. The Ruger pistol the man used closely resembles an AR-15, uses the same ammunition and has a 30-round magazine, but it's shorter and technically sold as a pistol, which made its purchase easier in Colorado.

In North Carolina, pistols are actually more difficult to buy from dealers, as they require a pistol purchase permit obtained from the county sheriff or a concealed carry permit, in addition to a background check. Long guns, including AR-15 rifles, require a background check.

'Everybody has just bought out everything'

At the On Target gun shop and range in South Asheville, co-owner Jeff Stucker said his gun sales have actually slowed in recent months. Once again, irony plays a role.

"It’s slowed down a lot because I think people are getting tired of trying to find what they can’t get,” Stucker said, adding that both guns and ammunition have been scarce. "Everybody has just bought out everything. Every time (Biden) opens his mouth, then we don’t have anything.”

a man standing in front of a store filled with lots of food: In this file photo, On Target owner Jeff Stucker examines a handgun at a display case. Stucker says while he has guns to sell, about 90% of them are consignment. A buying frenzy the last year has made it difficult to find new guns to sell. © William Woody / wwoody@citizen-times.com In this file photo, On Target owner Jeff Stucker examines a handgun at a display case. Stucker says while he has guns to sell, about 90% of them are consignment. A buying frenzy the last year has made it difficult to find new guns to sell.

The run on guns and ammo at On Target started in February 2020. Stucker said they've seen all sorts of new buyers from all walks of life, including those concerned about civil unrest or even a potential civil war — and that includes people on the political left and right.

On Target's overall handgun inventory has probably dropped by about 80% over the last year, according to Stucker.

"I probably only have about 10% of guns that are ours,” Stucker said. “Everything else is consignment."

With some popular guns, such as the Glock 19, a 9 mm handgun, Stucker will take orders from 20 customers and then call them when they come in.

“(The guns) don’t even make it to the counters," Stucker said. "Very aggravating.”

Those Glocks sell in the $500-$600 range.

Some of the ammunition at Leicester Pawn and Gun was out of stock April 9, 2021. © Angela Wilhelm/awilhelm@citizentimes.com Some of the ammunition at Leicester Pawn and Gun was out of stock April 9, 2021.

Ammunition hoarding

Acquiring ammunition has become even more difficult, sellers say. And when they do get it in, buyers tend to overbuy, worried that they won't be able to find it again.

"A lot of newbies have been buying guns and ammunition," said Russell Whitmire, manager of Leicester Pawn & Gun in West Asheville. "And instead of going in and buying one box (of ammunition), they're buying five boxes, just because if they use it up at target practice, they may not be able to find anybody with more to sell."

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearm industry, said in a press release "that nearly 5 million Americans purchased a firearm for the very first time in 2020." The NSSF "surveyed firearm retailers which reported that 40 percent of sales were conducted to purchasers who have never previously owned a firearm."

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The NSSF tracks background checks based on the FBI’s National Instant Background Check System, or NICS. NICS checks for January-July 2020 set a record, at 12.1 million, NSSF said, noting that is a 71.7% increase from January-July 2019. 

Guns need ammunition to function, and Whitmire said ammo has doubled in price in many cases, "and a lot of the stuff, you just can't get it."

"Firearms are the same way — we're just having a hard time getting them," Whitmire said, adding that distributors won't even put some firearms on back order because they don't know when they'll become available. They've shifted to an allocation system that limits what stores can get.

"If you walked in my store right now, in an overall picture, I've probably got a third of the guns in stock that I'd normally have," Whitmire said. "It’s the same way with used guns. A lot of people this past year haven't been turning them loose."

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While the public may think the high demand translates into record sales, Whitmire said that's not the case. Initially last year, sales did soar, but then shortages in guns and ammunition caused sales to plateau, Whitmire said.

Shepherd said before the "perfect storm" of pandemic, social unrest and contentious election, a lot of shooters had shifted to .22 long rifle rounds for practice shooting, as it was plentiful and cheap. 

"We were buying it for 5, 6 cents a round," Shepherd said. "Now it's 18, 20 cents."

Some large buyers have placed enormous orders, essentially cornering the market at times, Stucker said. That means some sellers are peddling common ammunition, such as 9mm, at $50 a box when it used to sell for $15 or $20.

While ammunition of all calibers has been in short supply, Big Ivy Guns in Mars Hill has been able to keep a fair amount in stock over the past year. Prices have increased with the short supply, though. © Courtesy of Big Ivy Guns While ammunition of all calibers has been in short supply, Big Ivy Guns in Mars Hill has been able to keep a fair amount in stock over the past year. Prices have increased with the short supply, though.

Initially, COVID did cause lower inventory levels in guns and ammo, as manufacturers had workers out sick and had to put in place safety protocols, Stucker said. But now, demand is the main driver of shortages.

Stucker said manufacturers have raised ammo prices about 7%, and distributors bump it up another 5% or so. On Target passes on the extra cost but doesn't gouge buyers.

Shepherd said they try to do the same at Big Ivy. He's been working hard to keep ammunition stocked, but as with guns, he has to take what comes available.

"It’s completely hand in hand — without ammo, you've just got a fancy paper weight or a baseball bat," Shepherd said.

While some customers assume business is booming for gun dealers, those who also have firing ranges have seen another ironic twist: shooters are reluctant to blow through much ammo on the practice range because it might be hard to replace.

“And you can’t sell enough guns to make up the difference, because you can’t get enough guns,” Stucker said. “Everybody is like, ‘Oh, you guys are so busy.’ The range is not busy, and with ammo prices, we had to go up on ours because it costs us more. It doesn’t mean there’s more profit, because we’re not the ones who are profiteering. So it’s kind of very frustrating.”

Answer Man: Firefighters' union raffling off AR-15?

Demand will not flag

Whitmire said the limits on gun braces and ghost guns that Biden proposes will have no impact on his business. He actually favors stricter rules on "ghost guns," which are assembled from parts that can be difficult to trace.

If a person were trying to sell an AR-15 to him without a serial number, "that would be a red flag," Whitmire said.

Some of the ammunition at Leicester Pawn and Gun was out of stock April 9, 2021. © Angela Wilhelm/awilhelm@citizentimes.com Some of the ammunition at Leicester Pawn and Gun was out of stock April 9, 2021.

He's also not opposed to more stringent background checks for mental health, as long as those decisions were left to law enforcement or medical doctors.

"Honest, law-abiding citizens are going to do that," Whitmire said. "But at end of the day, most of this stuff they're talking about putting in place is not going to stop a criminal from doing what they do."

But he and other gun shop owners agree Biden's proposal will create more customers looking to buy guns and ammunition.

Ammunition prices have doubled or tripled in some cases, and it's tough to keep it in stock. Some of the ammunition at Leicester Pawn and Gun was out of stock April 9, 2021. © Angela Wilhelm/awilhelm@citizentimes.com Ammunition prices have doubled or tripled in some cases, and it's tough to keep it in stock. Some of the ammunition at Leicester Pawn and Gun was out of stock April 9, 2021.

"It gets people a little more on edge," Whitmire said. "When you tell someone they can't have something, people are more apt to run out to buy it. It's kind of like how people buy bread and milk before a snow storm."

At Big Ivy, Shepherd expects the demand to only grow, especially with talk of a fourth wave of COVID cases and continued edginess about gun control.

"I see there being a new normal, with a steady flow of business," Shepherd said.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Gun sellers: Run on guns, ammo will only soar more under Biden proposals

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