Gun sales in Pennsylvania appear to be surging in the wake of the Dec. 14 mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, and ahead of proposed laws that would restrict firearm ownership.
One recent day, Weatherly gun shop owner Tom Sipos took a breather from waiting on customers to talk with a reporter about sales.
"There's a big time surge. It's crazy. My business is probably 10 times more than it used to be," he said.
Sipos said sales are so brisk the Pennsylvania Instant Checks System, the electronic unit that does background checks, had slowed because of the volume of requests.
Semi-automatic pistols are the hottest sellers in his shop, he said.
"People want to be able to protect themselves. You have the right to protect yourself, your home and your family," Sipos said. "That's what the Second Amendment is all about, right?"
The spike in gun sales was clear in the days following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 20 children and six adults died. On Friday, Dec. 14, the day of the shootings, the PICS unit handled 4,338 requests for clearance to transfer ownership of firearms. Six days later, the requests were up to 6,081 a day, according to Pennsylvania state police.
Requests for carry permits also rose, from 1,174 to 1,460 for the same time period.
"From December 1-20, the PICS unit handled 89,178 requests," said Tpr. Adam Reed, Coordinator of the Public Information Office for the Pennsylvania State Police. "These requests are for both license to carry requests as well as firearm transfer requests. Specifically, 66,486 of those were purchase transfer requests and 16,982 were license to carry concealed requests."
The recent spike is riding a trend: Gun sales and carry permits have been rising for years.
In 2010, there were 496,720 firearms purchased/transferred in Pennsylvania. In 2011, that number rose by about 22 percent, to 606,924. By Dec. 20, 2012, the PICS unit had logged 664,522 purchase/transfer requests, an increase of about 33.7 percent over 2011, according to Pennsylvania State Police.
Anecdotal evidence points to continued increases in sales in gun shops, and some shop owners have said sales are so brisk they are running low on product. The increase in sales extends to private transactions. On Monday, an ad appeared in the classified section of the TIMES NEWS, offering an AK47 for sale for $1,300.
As the numbers of gun sales go up, the numbers of carry permits is also rising. According to Pennsylvania State Police, permit applications increased by 64.3 percent from 86,706 to 142,477 between 2000 and 2010. In 2011, 167,656 carry permits were issued. By Dec. 20, 2012, PICS had logged 258,684 carry permit applications.
Why the surge?
Reasons for the increase in gun sales and carry permits varies. Some say more people are buying guns and getting carry permits for fear the government plans to take away firearms. Others say they want to be able and ready at any time to protect themselves or their families.
Sipos, who has owned his gun shop for 11 years, points to rumors of restrictions.
"People are afraid the government is going to change the laws. You tell someone they can't have something, and the first thing they'll do is go out and buy it," he says.
Carbon County Sheriff Dwight Nothstein says there are a "multitude of reasons." He cites the 39.45 percent increase in the number of carry permits issued in Carbon County from 2011 to 2012. The number rose from 1,503 to 2,096.
"The election, with the statements that they were going to tighten the gun laws; the shootings in Connecticut; the rise in the numbers of home invasions; and people looking for ways of self-defense because of police departments being cut. People want to be able to protect themselves," he says.
So far this month, people are still flocking in for the permits, he says. But Nothstein cautions that there is more to self-defense than simply buying a gun and getting a carry permit.
"People have to use common sense. Just because you have a gun doesn't make it right. You need training and education," he says.
Schuylkill County Sheriff Joseph G. Groody says "Everybody's looking at this shooting up in Connecticut, but it's just crime in general aggravated assaults, assaults, rape, robberies, burglary, and especially the drug problems. It's not just Schuylkill County, it's the whole country. People into drugs do anything they can to support their habit, and that includes stealing from their own family members."
Monroe County Sheriff Todd A. Martin says he, too, has seen a surge in the numbers of people applying for carry permits.
"The surge has been since the Sandy Hook incident, and our local gun dealers have also seen a huge surge in sales of all kinds of firearms; long guns, semi-automatic and handguns," he says. "It would appear that the purpose for the surge has been two-fold, one being the current talks about gun control, and the other being residents who in the past who never had safety concerns, but have now changed their perspectives toward their right to protect their homes and themselves and their families.
"The Sandy Hook incident has proved to be one of the most disturbing incidents in my 31 years in the Sheriff's Office, and the thought that our own children can no longer be considered safe within our own school districts, playgrounds, movie theaters or even in some cases across the nation their own homes, is disturbing," Martin says.
He, too, urges education and training before acquiring a firearm.
"My only true concern for those who have purchased firearms for their protection is to be sure that they consider taking a personal safety handgun course prior to their purchase or carrying a concealed firearm. Statistics show that most times, an individual without that type of education is more prone to having an accidental shooting, or if confronted with a situation as a victim of a crime, the firearm has been forcibly removed from their possession and at times used against them. Safety and education should always come first," he says.
The numbers of murders committed using guns hasn't changed much in Pennsylvania over the past six years. In 2011, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the state had 636 murders, of which 470 involved firearms. In 2004, it had 632 murders, 449 of which involved guns.
Those who favor stricter gun control point to the Sandy Hook, Aurora, Illinois, and other recent mass shootings as reasons to make it harder to for people to buy and keep guns. The push for more restrictive gun laws starts at the top: President Barack Obama in December established a task force, overseen by Vice-President Joe Biden, that would develop "concrete proposals" by the end of this month to "reduce gun violence."
Biden has recently suggested that Obama would use executive orders, which would not need Congressional approval, to enforce stricter gun laws. The proposals have yet to be revealed.
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein plans to introduce legislation that would stop the sale, transfer, importation and manufacturing of more than 100 specifically-named firearms as well as certain semiautomatic rifles, handguns and shotguns that can accept a detachable magazine and semiautomatic rifles and handguns with a fixed magazine that can accept more than 10 rounds.
Feinstein's law would also stop the sale, transfer, importation and manufacturing of large-capacity ammunition feeding devices (magazines, strips and drums) capable of accepting more than 10 rounds.
Closer to home, state lawmakers have offered a slew of new laws, even though Pennsylvania already has fairly strict gun laws.
Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, proposes legislation that would "address public safety and gun ownership accountability through registration of firearms in the Commonwealth. Currently, the Uniform Firearms Act does not require registration of all firearms."
Sen. LeAnna Washington, D-Montgomery/Philadelphia, says she plans to introduce legislation "amending the firearms law to include recreational centers, parks and playgrounds as prohibited areas one may carry a firearm, and increase the penalty from a first-degree misdemeanor to a third degree felony."
Sen. Lawrence Farnese, D-Philadelphia, proposes enacting a "strict assault weapons ban in Pennsylvania, modeled after the federal ban in effect from 1994 to 2004. This would include a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines."
But at least one lawmaker believes more rules won't necessarily curb gun violence.
Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Bucks/Montgomery, who noted that "Ironically, Connecticut has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation. But those laws did not prevent the Sandy Hook school tragedy," wants to get at the root cause of gun violence.
He proposes to "establish a Task Force on the Prevention of Violence to study the underlying causes of mass shootings and other violent crimes. There are some common themes in many of these cases; mental illness and a history of being bullied are often involved. So, in addition to looking at the gun regulation proposals that are being introduced, I believe that we must look at proposals to strengthen our mental health laws so that people receive treatment before they commit criminal acts and we must see if there is more that we can do to combat bullying including cyberbullying."
Locally, state Sen. David G. Argall believes more laws are not the answer.
"Gun control laws have not proven successful in the past," he says. "The evil massacre that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut revived the public debate on violence and mental health. It is my hope that we can find more effective ways to curb violence than policies that have failed. We have to keep our children and communities safer."