Dealers point to typical holiday sales, fear of mass attacks
By Marcy Stamper
Gun sales and applications for concealed-pistol licenses spiked dramatically in Okanogan County last week, as evidenced by the huge increase in background checks for people wanting to buy pistols — 20 or 30 a day, compared with the usual average of just three or four a week, according to Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers.
Rogers and firearms dealers in the county speculate that the marked increase is associated with fears stoked by the Dec. 2 shooting in San Bernardino, California, in which 14 people were killed and 22 injured. Nevertheless, local dealers say part of the increase in sales is an annual trend, with people buying themselves guns during the holiday season.
“It always increases at Christmastime,” said Kim Anderson, owner of Dave’s Gun & Pawn in Riverside. Still, Anderson said the increase exceeded normal holiday purchases by about one-third, particularly in sales of handguns and other firearms designed for self-defense. “People are scared and want something to protect themselves,” she said.
“I hate to say it, but what really gets people going is the president,” said Rogers. “If anything bad happens, people start to worry that he’ll take away their guns, and we see a huge spike in concealed-weapons permits and in people buying guns.”
Anderson said the terrorist attack in San Bernardino “really got people jumping.” While she did not ask her customers, she said she had the impression that Obama’s statements about gun control propel some people to buy guns. “A lot of people don’t trust the government to protect us,” she said.
“You’ll never take all the guns out of the U.S. — and not this county,” said Rogers. “We’re a different nation — we’re not England.”
More seeking concealed-pistol licenses
Applications for concealed-pistol licenses in the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office also surged last week. Staffers processed 68 brand-new applications in the week of Dec. 7, said Rogers. “It’s been nonstop here, like a revolving door, with people getting weapons permits,” said Rogers.
By contrast, the first week of December, when the county received eight new applications, was consistent with the typical average of seven to 10 per week, said Rogers.
New permits require fingerprinting and a five-day wait for verification from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), said Rogers. A dealer can submit the background check to NICS for a rifle purchase, but all pistol buyers are verified through the Sheriff’s Office, he said.
This Monday (Dec. 14), the rate of background checks and applications for concealed-pistol licenses seemed to be settling back to normal, said Rogers.
Anderson said her sales tend to be evenly divided between hunting rifles and handguns, but they fluctuate depending on the time of year, with more people buying rifles during hunting season. Customers are equally split between men and women and are of all age groups, and many already have experience with firearms, said Anderson, who has been with the store since 1994.
“Everything has been busier lately — we just got through hunting season, and there’s been a slight increase in pistol sales,” said Stephen Clark, a clerk at Dave’s Gun & Pawn. On Saturday two weeks before Christmas, customers were checking out new and used hunting rifles, buying ammunition and waiting for background checks as NICS operators tried to cope with the high volume of sales nationwide.
“People are always buying themselves guns for Christmas,” said Mason Brandt, manager of Winthrop Ace Hardware, noting that it is illegal to buy a gun for another person. Ace Hardware sells only sporting rifles for target shooting and hunting, not tactical rifles, said Brandt.
Even merchants who don’t carry guns noted the heightened interest this month. Lance Rider, co-owner of The Outdoorsman in Winthrop — who does not sell firearms — said he got a few inquiries last week, which he called unusual.
At Walmart in Omak, last week’s sales were normal, according to sales associate Dennis Smith. The store generally sells two to three guns a week, and Smith said sales haven’t picked up recently. He said sales vary with the time of year — more rifles for deer season and more shotguns during bird season.
One change Smith has noticed is that, in the past few months, it has taken longer to complete a background check, which he submits to NICS via computer. Smith said it appeared the system has become stricter because there are more delays before a purchaser is cleared. Depending on the circumstances, a delay could mean a customer is cleared later that day, but it could take up to a month, said Smith.
The FBI implemented NICS in 1998. NICS checks are based on a name and other descriptive information, which are compared to millions of records in three national databases — one with criminal-history records, one with warrants and protection orders, and the NICS’ own index of individuals prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms under state or federal law. That could include individuals with a dishonorable discharge or who are under indictment for a disqualifying arrest.
NICS gives a dealer one of three results — proceed, delay or deny. The dealer doesn’t learn the reason for any outcome, said Clark. With a delay, NICS notifies the dealer, usually within a week, if the dealer can process the sale and release the gun to the customer, said Clark.
Despite the background-check system, some people believe there are ways around it. “If a bad guy wants a gun, he’ll get it,” said Rogers.
Rise in permits
Washington state keeps records on active concealed-pistol licenses going back to 2013, said Christine Anthony, a spokesperson for the Department of Licensing. There is no registry of firearms or tally of guns sold, although pistol transfers and sales are tracked by serial number, she said.
In Okanogan County, the number of concealed-weapons permits has gone up 13 percent in the past three years — from 4,064 in 2013, to 4,312 in 2014, and to 4,586 as of Nov. 30, 2015. The proportion of permits issued to women in the county has gone up by 1 percentage point each year, from 28 percent in 2013 to 30 percent today.
Statewide, the total number of permits has increased 12 percent.
Rogers said applicants for concealed-pistol licenses in the county don’t fit any profile — they include men and women and people of all ages. Over the past few years, more women have been applying for permits and enrolling in firearms classes, he said.
Free firearms classes
The Sheriff’s Office offers free firearms classes, usually in the spring and summer. They generally schedule classes based on citizen inquiries and interest, offering an introductory level, a more-advanced class, remedial classes, and classes for women only. They also teach a class with county prosecutors and judges so gun owners understand the law, said Rogers.
“If you’re going to own it, you need to understand it, know how to shoot it and — No. 3 — understand the law,” said Rogers.