Ads may spark ironic side effect Legislative debate on gun ban may be a boon for sales.

March 01, 1991|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Evening Sun Staff

If history is any indication, the $20,000 advertising campaign begun this week by gun-control advocates may have an unwanted side effect: the sale of more guns.

The General Assembly is considering a bill by Gov. William Donald Schaefer that would ban military-style assault weapons. Both sides of the issue have been very public in their views, and Handgun Control Inc. this week started a campaign of television and radio ads.

In other states that have passed such measures -- and in Maryland when it banned cheap handguns -- the debate itself proved a boon for gun sales.

Dealers say customers who are considering buying guns try to make purchases before the weapons are outlawed. In the case of assault weapons, the debate also may be informing people who didn't know that the weapons are available at their neighborhood gun shop.

"These guns were not selling all that well until people started trying to ban them," said Robert A. McMurray, with the Maryland State Rifle & Pistol Association. "I think sometimes the gun-control people shoot themselves in the foot."

Experts say an upturn in the sales of assault weapons nationwide in recent years is attributable to several factors, including the use of the weapons in popular television programs, such as "Miami Vice," as well as in highly publicized crimes.

Melvin Abrams, owner of Valley Gun Shop in Parkville, said he already has seen over the past two weeks an increase in interest by customers. Sales are restricted, however, by the $1,000-plus price tag of the weapons, he said.

Also, he has had a hard time stocking one of the most popular models, the Colt AR-15. Colt has shifted its production capacity to the military version, the M-16, for use by troops in the Persian Gulf, he said.

"People are very interested in buying them. . . . They are afraid they are going to be banned. This has pushed them over the edge," Abrams said. But, he added, "They are not standing in line."

Sales of all types of handguns increased in 1988 when the state banned the sales of so-called Saturday Night Specials, he said.

Joe Reger, manager of the Gun Locker II, said he also has seen a little more interest by customers -- but not much.

"The big thing now is the economy," he said. In past years when a weapons ban was in the news, sales really took off, he said.

A spokesman for the State Police, whose records of gun registrations are complete through last week, said, "We're not seeing a big increase in anything right now. Of course, money is tight."

Steve Helsley, assistant director of the California Justice Department, said there was a "tremendous surge" in assault-weapon sales before that state's ban. An official with the attorney general's office in New Jersey, which also has banned sales of the guns, reported a similar phenomenon.

David S. Weaver, with Handgun Control Inc., said, "There certainly are going to be people who are predisposed to buying these who will go out in anticipation of them being banned and pick one up."

But, he said, "That is a limited and short-term side effect to getting them out of the stores."

His group is planning to spend $15,000 to $20,000 over the next few weeks airing television and radio ads that call assault weapons "a drug dealer's best friend" and show a police cruiser being peppered with semiautomatic rifle fire.

The radio ads are running on WBAL, and the 30-second TV spot is being shown on cable in the counties of Harford, Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard. They will not be shown in Baltimore because the group believes it already has the support of the city's legislative delegation.

The ads urge supporters to contact their lawmakers. So far, the response has been good, Weaver said.

The National Rifle Association, an opponent of the ban, has increased its lobbying staff in Maryland and is depending on direct mail -- instead of mass advertising -- to reach members for the time being, said an NRA official.

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