Guns are flying off the shelves of Maryland shops The fear of crime is responsible, store owners say

December 11, 1992|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer

Maryland citizens are buying new handguns at the fastes pace in years.

Handgun registrations are up by 17.6 percent over 1991, and by a startling 23.5 percent for the second half of the year, according to Sgt. Bernard Shaw, supervisor of firearms licensing for the Maryland State Police.

Through last month, 29,178 people had applied to register handguns, up by 4,358 over the same period last year.

"On a normal day we might get in 100 to 125 applications," Sergeant Shaw said. "One day in November, we received 374 applications."

Many first-time buyers are women, according to those in the business.

"I'd say 60 to 75 percent of the people who come to us are women, and about 10 percent are senior citizens," said Carl Rich, part owner of Firearms Inc., a firm that holds classes for people who want to learn how to handle guns safely. "We have all nationalities and races, and we have people in wheelchairs, who feel especially vulnerable to crime."

The registration figures don't include a large market in used guns, which can be sold without supervision by any agency. There were 15 ads for used guns in the classified section of The Sun on Sunday.

Applications for permits to carry a handgun are also up slightly this year, according to Sgt. Dave Keller, supervisor of handgun permits for the state police. But he said this category isn't as indicative of general public interest as gun registrations. People don't need a permit to keep loaded handguns in their homes or businesses if they're not carrying the weapons elsewhere.

National figures on handgun sales are hard to come by, because Maryland is one of the few states that tracks them.

Under Maryland law, the buyer of a new gun must wait seven business days before he can pick it up while state police check for a record of criminal activity or mental illness. Because of the heavy load, Sergeant Shaw's small department has fallen two to three weeks behind.

After seven days, the law allows the dealer to release the gun to the customer whether the application has been processed or not. But many dealers are cooperating with police by holding guns longer.

"We've been waiting 14 days to deliver a gun to give the state police the chance to catch up," said Tom McCann, owner of Nicoll's Gun Outlet at 2200 E. Joppa Road.

While gun registrations are high, they're not challenging the surge of 38,000 that was set when panicky buyers stocked up on cheap handguns shortly before the Maryland General Assembly banned them in 1988.

Still, Mr. McCann estimated that his handgun sales have increased about 30 percent over last year. His most popular models for personal safety are five-shot revolvers made by Taurus or Rossi, which range in price from $179 to $289.

"The Glock is actually the hottest handgun on the market right now," Mr. McCann said, referring to a 13-shot semiautomatic manufactured by an Austrian company, which is popular with police and others looking for heavy firepower. It sells for $400 to $500.

Why the upsurge in gun sales?

"There's more publicity about crime now," said Glock vice-president Karl Walter. "I think the most recent surge could be due to the presidential election. People -- rightly or wrongly -- -- believe [President-elect] Clinton will push for tighter gun laws and people are buying to beat the legislation. There's also the carjackings, which I believe have frightened people as much as anything."

Mel Abrams, owner of the Valley Gun Shop at Harford Road and Taylor Avenue, is seeing many first-time gun buyers, especially women who live alone or with another woman.

"We had one woman come in who was robbed of her purse, then the guy enters her house that night with the keys from the purse before she can change the locks," Mr. Abrams said.

Mr. Abrams has been in the gun business for 43 of his 69 years, and twice this year thieves have rammed through the front of his store with stolen cars and made off with weapons inside.

"Unfortunately, because of the crime atmosphere, I think many otherwise law-abiding citizens are carrying guns illegally," Mr. Abrams said. "They're asking for trouble, but you know that old saying: 'I would rather be tried by 12 than carried by 6.' "

Mr. Abrams refers his first-time customers to firearms training, but Mr. Rich advises people to train first, then buy a gun.

"Some people find out it's not for them," Mr. Rich said. His company offers a full day of training, including classroom work, legal advice, time on a firing range, bullets and the loan of a gun -- for $30.

"We're happy just to break even on it," Mr. Rich said, "but I'm anxious to see guns handled properly so that no one gets hurt." His company also teaches gun safety to security forces at several businesses.

Mr. Rich says the recent wave of carjackings has influenced people to buy guns. "Also, many of our people live alone or have been crime victims," he said.

But he warned about a catch for people who want to buy guns to protect against carjackings.

"It's illegal to carry a loaded gun in your car unless it's noted specifically on your gun permit," he said. "That permission is hard to come by, because the police don't want people shooting up each other over minor traffic accidents.

"So if you're attacked in your car and you shoot the guy, you can be liable for five years in prison regardless of the self-defense plea," he said.

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