Curbs on guns are growing, but so are sales

May 15, 1994|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff Writer

The American firearms industry today might be said to resemble a gunslinger in the gory final minutes of an old Western: surrounded by enemies, running low on ammunition, nearing the end of an unchallenged reign.

This month, the House stunned the gun lobby by voting to ban 19 assault weapons and limit the capacity of all gun magazines to 10 rounds. If it survives a House-Senate conference committee, the magazine limit would require mainstream handgun makers to cut the firepower of many of their most popular pistols.

That gun control breakthrough came six months after Congress passed the Brady law, which requires a five-day waiting period and criminal record check for handgun purchases. The law was hailed by anti-gun forces as their biggest success in 25 years and was reviled by National Rifle Association militants as a step toward Nazi-style dictatorship.

In Maryland, too, gun control forces appear to have gained the upper hand. In March, after five years of debate, the General Assembly banned the sale of 18 kinds of assault pistols.

But the results of these gun control victories are not as simple as they appear. The Brady law detonated an unprecedented nationwide boom in handgun sales. Far from fading since November, when the Brady law passed, the run on guns seems to have gotten another boost from the latest House vote.

Meanwhile, the gun control strategy of concentrating on the most menacing weapons largely ignores the ordinary handguns most used in crime. The same Maryland officials who fought to ban assault weapons have offered political and economic backing for Maryland-based Beretta U.S.A. -- though Beretta handguns are used in crime far more often than even the most popular assault pistols.

The brisk sales at Maryland gun stores and the 10,000-a-month handgun production at Beretta's Prince George's County plant do not suggest an industry in distress. If the gunslinger is doomed, he's mounting one heck of a last stand.

"We may be facing a situation in which the Brady bill will cost more lives than it saves," says Lawrence W. Sherman, a University of Maryland criminologist just appointed director of gun-crime policy in Indianapolis, where he will be the first "gun czar" of an American city.

By requiring that every gun buyer's criminal record be checked, the Brady law already has prevented thousands of felons from buying guns in stores, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) says.

But Dr. Sherman says the flood of new guns into circulation as a result of the heavy sales inevitably will mean more gun homicides, suicides and accidental deaths. This surge in sales, touched off by economic recovery and fear of crime as well as apprehension about future gun bans, appears to be substantial.

"People are buying handguns and ammunition like crazy," says David M. Guthrie, a security analyst who tracks gun manufacturers at Morgan Keegan & Co. in Memphis. "I've never seen this strength of demand in my 30 years watching this industry. There's almost a buying panic now."

At Clyde's Sports Shop in Arbutus, vice president Bill Blamberg says he can't remember sales this heavy since 1968, in the wake of the Baltimore riot and major federal gun legislation.

"Usually, we can get guns from distributors in two or three days," Mr. Blamberg says. "Now it's 30 to 60 days. Manufacturers cannot keep up."

'Better get one now'

Mr. Blamberg cheerfully gives credit for the run on guns at the shop he operates with his brother, Clyde, to the success of the gun controllers.

"The criminal has guns. The law-abiding citizen wants them, and he's not going to be outgunned. People say, 'Better get one now, before they make it illegal,' " he says.

"We have customers who say it never occurred to them to buy a firearm until they were told they might be prohibited from buying one," says Jay Harrell, general manager of Nicoll's Gun & Hunting Supplies in Parkville. In keeping with Mr. Harrell's belief in the right to bear arms, the shop is taking a new name: Second Amendment Services.

Mr. Harrell has had calls from fellow gun retailers in New Mexico, Wyoming and Washington state who are desperate for guns to stock. Now, the impending federal ban has spurred sales of assault weapons, he says, doubling the price of a Colt AR15 rifle to $1,400 in six months. Pistol owners are stocking up on high-capacity magazines in anticipation of the 10-round limit.

'Shoot to kill'

Cheryl Brolin, spokeswoman for Handgun Control, which lobbied for the Brady bill, says any boost in sales has resulted from an industry campaign of misinformation, a claim that "the gun grabbers are coming" to ban all handgun sales.

She also suggests that pro-gun forces are exaggerating the sales. "They want you to think you're the only unarmed citizen left in America," she says.

No reliable national handgun sales figures are compiled. But in Maryland, where everyone who buys a handgun from a dealer must complete an application, the boom is not just hype.

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