MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. -- Requests for gun permits soared in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties last month, mirroring a nationwide buying spree fueled by fears of tougher gun laws after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
In all, 1,971 people applied for handgun purchase permits in Mecklenburg in December, compared with 860 who applied in December 2011, according to data from the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Julia Rush said the department has a backlog of applications and has used overtime to deal with what she called a “deluge of requests.” North Carolina law requires that handgun purchasers get a permit from their local sheriff’s office. The permit must be presented to the gun shop before the purchase can be made.
Such permits are not required for shotguns and rifles, including the Bushmaster AR-15 assault-style rifle used in the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 schoolchildren and six faculty and staff members dead. Federal law does prevent felons, certain types of domestic abusers and people with a history of mental illness from possessing the firearms.
Local gun stores have had lines of would-be purchasers stretching out the front door in some cases. Larry Hyatt said the crush of sales at his gun store on Wilkinson Boulevard in December was remarkable.
When The Observer visited the shop Dec. 21, a wall that had held assault-style long guns was nearly empty. Before the Newtown shooting, it had been full.
“It was just overwhelming,” Hyatt said. “We couldn’t even (get) people in the store. It’s like going to the grocery store when it snows. We started running out of some things.”
Surrounding counties are reporting similar increases in the number of permit requests. In December, the number of gun purchase permits more than doubled in Lincoln, Catawba, Rowan, Union and Iredell counties compared with the prior year. In Union County, permit applications were up more than 200 percent.
And FBI data on national criminal firearms background checks, required before firearms purchases, shows there were 74,023 such checks in North Carolina last month. That’s 50 percent more than in December 2011 and the state’s highest monthly number in at least three years.
“I think there’s a lot of paranoia now that President (Barack) Obama has spoken up and said something will be done,” said Gail Neely, executive director at North Carolinians Against Gun Violence.
Potential gun regulations introduced Thursday in Congress include a ban on high-capacity magazines and a bill to stop the online sale of ammunition. A ban on assault weapons and stronger background checks could also be put up for consideration.
Paul Valone, president of the self-described “no compromise” gun rights group Grass Roots North Carolina, said many firearms purchasers are worried that more sweeping gun regulations will be passed, eventually banning firearms.
“This is about a general agenda to disarm the American public,” Valone said. “Consequently, what we see is people seizing the opportunity – what they assume might be the last opportunity – to purchase firearms for self-protection.”
Sales in overdrive
Gun sales typically increase in the fourth quarter for a number of reasons. December is the last month of deer season in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties. Gift-wrapped guns also find their way under Christmas trees.
Sales have also risen since the 2008 election of Obama, who was expected to be tough on gun control. The National Shooting Sports Foundation said that November was the 30th straight month that national firearms background checks increased, and Black Friday this past year saw the most background checks ever for a single day.
But gun buying has gone into overdrive after the Connecticut school shooting.
Mecklenburg gun permit applications soared immediately. In the first two weeks of December, the Sheriff’s Office received 671 requests for handgun permits. In the final two weeks, 1,300 permits were requested.
That was likely due at least in part to calls for gun control that followed the Newtown shooting. At an emotional memorial a few days after the shooting, Obama said the nation needs to do more to stop such shootings.
“In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens – from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators – in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this,” he said. “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”
Hyatt Gun Shop saw a jump in customers the day after the president made his remarks, Larry Hyatt said. December became the single busiest month Hyatt has had since his gun store opened on Wilkinson Boulevard in 1959.
Hyatt typically has 12 or 13 staff members working the counter. During December, he had 30 coming in early and leaving late. His gunsmiths – the people who repair guns, or add accessories – were drafted as salesmen. Still, there were times when the store was full and the shelves emptied quickly.
The permit statistics likely don’t reflect the total number of guns being sold.
The Mecklenburg sheriff’s office says it takes 30-45 days to process permit applications, and the high volume of requests is causing delays.
Ammo also a hot item
After the Sandy Hook massacre, the National Rifle Association suggested there should be armed guards in every one of the nation’s schools to prevent future shootings; the group has said more gun control legislation isn’t the answer.
Valone, of Grass Roots North Carolina, said the group will push a bill in the North Carolina legislature this year to allow the concealed carrying of guns on school property. He said the bill has a sponsor but declined to name the legislator.
The surge is showing up in gun manufacturers’ bottom lines. Firearms maker Smith & Wesson said in December that it expects sales for its full fiscal year to rise more than 35 percent, totaling as much as $560 million.
Lynn Elmo, co-owner of Elite Training Academy & Indoor Shooting Range in Monroe, said people are seriously concerned that gun rights will be curtailed.
“People do have the fear that they’re not going to have the freedom to purchase what they want to purchase,” she said. People are also stocking up on ammunition, at least according to anecdotal reports.
Elmo said she couldn’t get a box of normally common 9 mm pistol ammunition from her distributor last week, and she has heard that .223 rifle ammunition, another popular caliber, is running short.
An increase in the sale of guns – and the ammunition they fire – can affect police departments In 2007, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department had to switch suppliers because of concerns over an ammunition shortage. Police spokesperson Officer Jessica Lawrence said the department doesn’t have any such worries this year.
But the Sheriff’s Office is placing its order for ammunition for next fiscal year now. Rush said that’s because there is a minimum backlog of six months for the .40 caliber pistol ammunition the department’s pistols fire.