WASHINGTON — Renewed calls for more restrictive gun laws, following a succession of fatal shootings in the United States, immediately appear to be generating a boost for the gun industry.
Newly released August records show that the FBI posted 1.7 million background checks required of gun purchasers at federally licensed dealers, the highest number recorded in any August since gun checks began in 1998. The numbers follow new monthly highs for June (1.5 million) and July (1.6 million), a period which spans a series of deadly gun attacks — from Charleston to Roanoke — and proposals for additional firearm legislation.
While the FBI does not track actual gun sales, as multiple firearms can be included in a transaction by a single buyer, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System’s numbers are an indicator of a market upswing in the face of growing anxiety about access to guns.
“Whenever there is a call for gun control, sales increase,” said Larry Keane, general counsel for the firearm industry trade association National Shooting Sports Foundation. “Unfortunately, this is a pattern that repeats itself.”
The summer trend is not on par with the panic buying boom that followed the 2012 Newtown massacre, which jump-started state and federal campaigns for a host of new firearm measures. During the months that followed the Connecticut attack, which featured new calls for an assault weapons ban and expanded background checks, apprehensive gun buyers emptied the shelves of dealers across the country. Yet, the recent uptick represents a similar buying pattern that dates to the uneasy period before 1994 adoption of the assault weapons ban. (That ban expired in 2004.)
Virginia Del. Patrick Hope, a Democratic member of the state Assembly who proposed an expansion of background checks following last month’s shooting deaths of two journalists near Roanoke, said the stockpiling of weapons represented an “over-reaction.”
“We’re not at all threatening any one’s ability to get a gun,” Hope said. “What we’re talking about here is common sense legislation. I don’t think any one is threatened by background checks.”
In the recent Virginia shootings, an attack carried out on live television, gunman Vester Flanagan passed a background check prior to last month’s purchase of two Glock handguns, including the weapon used in the Aug. 26 assault in which reporter Alison Parker, 24, and Adam Ward, 27, were killed. A third person, a local chamber of commerce official, was wounded. Flanagan later used one of the weapons to kill himself.
Hope said his expanded background check proposal, supported by a petition containing 28,000 signatures, is aimed at the unchecked market of private firearm transactions, mostly over the Internet and at gun shows, that account for about 40% of firearm sales.
“I chose background checks, not because it would have prevented (the Virginia shooting) but because this would be easiest to pass,” Hope said. “We will not be able to prevent every single incident. We need to do something.”
But Keane said the legislative proposals commonly offered in the emotional wake of fatal shootings often do not account for specific circumstances leading up to the attacks.
“These things are being offered up before the person is even arrested or before (investigators) even know what happened,” Keane said. “For people concerned about their Second Amendment rights, the concern never goes away.”
Keane said the gun purchases prompted by calls for new restrictions are “certainly legitimate to the person exercising their fundamental civil liberties protected by the Second Amendment.”
“The concern that anti-gun politicians are seeking to infringe and restrict the right to keep and bear arms is very real and well-founded,” he said.
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said there is risk during periods of increased sales when all purchases are not covered by background checks.
“When gun sales rise, more and more weapons find a set of dangerous hands to call home,” Gross said. “There are people in this country, people like felons, fugitives, and domestic abusers who we all agree simply should not have guns.”