“Stand Your Ground” laws, which have come under fire as a possible factor in the Florida shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, may be having another impact, too — helping fuel a surge in gun sales.
Gun buyers swamped retailers nationwide last year, prompting a record 16.4 million instant criminal background checks of potential owners, up 14.2 percent from 2010, according to FBI figures. While some buyers may not have followed through with gun purchases or may have been denied, others bought more than one, so background checks are considered a good proxy for sales in the industry.
On Wednesday, gun maker Sturm, Ruger & Co. announced the company was forced to temporarily suspend its acceptance of any new firearms orders due to a barrage of wholesale orders — more than 1 million in 2012 alone. Last year the company shipped a total of 1.1 million firearms. This massive push "exceeds our capacity to rapidly fulfill these orders," the Connecticut company said in a news release, adding that it expects to resume normal operations by the end of May.
While "no true stats" exist reflecting actual U.S. gun purchases, Ginger Colbrun, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms pointed to a report the agency published last year citing a significant spike in gun manufacturing. According to the report, 5.5 million firearms were manufactured in 2009 (the most recent year for which such figures are available) — 1 million more than in 2008, and the highest number since at least 1986. A rise was seen in all four primary categories: pistols, revolvers, rifles and shotguns.
"There’s a reason: Because they’re selling. They aren’t just sitting on the shelf if they’re being manufactured," Colbrun said.
Relaxed gun laws are likely a factor behind the boom in sales, although not the only reason and perhaps not the primary one, industry experts say.
Many point to fears stoked by gun-rights advocates that President Barack Obama, if elected to a second term, will push legislation to rein in gun ownership.
Wayne LaPierre, chief executive officer of the powerful National Rifle Association, told a meeting of conservatives last month that the president’s gun strategy is “crystal clear,” saying that Obama wants to “get re-elected and, with no more elections to worry about, get busy dismantling and destroying our firearms’ freedom, erase the Second Amendment.”
Jim Barrett, an analyst at CL King & Associates, an independent investment research firm who tracks the gun industry, said both the Obama factor and gun laws are at play.
“You have conceal-carry laws being enacted by more and more states. That tends to spark an immediate jump in gun ownership in those states,” he said.
“And the fact that Obama may get re-elected makes gun owners nervous,” Barrett added.
Conceal-carry permits are now allowed in 49 states (Illinois and Washington D.C. do not have conceal-carry laws), and “Stand Your Ground” laws are on the books in 21 states. In Florida, police have cited the state’s seven-year-old “Stand your Ground” law in deciding not to charge George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, 17, last month. The law says citizens do not have to retreat before using deadly force against attackers. The Justice Department and FBI now are investigating the killing, and a state grand jury is being convened.
Correlating state laws and gun sales is difficult, but in Utah and Texas — two states that have "Stand Your Ground" laws" — pre-purchase background checks rose by 84.5 percent and 19.3 percent respectively in 2011. In California and New York — two states that do not have "Stand Your Ground" laws — background checks rose by 10.9 and 12.6 percent respectively, according to the FBI.
Asked this week whether a loosening of gun-owner rights, including “Stand Your Ground” laws, might have contributed to rising gun sales, NRA spokeswoman Stephanie Samford said: “People are really just putting a premium on personal safety. … We’ve noticed that due to the economic downturn, prisoners are being furloughed, police officers are being laid off. And despite all their good intentions, police can’t always be there the exact second a crime occurs.”
In Florida, criminal background checks — a federally mandated step retailers must take before selling a weapon to a potential buyer — rose by 13 percent from 2010 to 2011, FBI stats show. In fact, the pace of such background checks increased last year in every state except Kentucky.
Nationally, the last time the annual background-check rate jumped as dramatically came in 2009, when Obama took office.
“We know that Obama is certainly not a pro-gun president, and that has caused people to go out and purchase more firearms,” Samford said.
The NRA website lists a timeline of what it calls "Obama's Anti-Gun Agenda," including a proposed budget for next year that "cuts in half" funding for the a federal program that allows pilots to carry handguns in the cockpit. The NRA also says Obama "wants to kill" a law that would ban government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from producing "anti-gun propaganda."
But Obama has also been criticized for supposedly failing to crack down on gun proliferation. Last summer, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., led an investigation into an ATF gun-tracking operation and said the Obama administration has been less stringent than the Bush in gun-law enforcement. In 2009 Obama drew criticism from the left for signing a bill that allowed gun owners to carry concealed weapons into national parks.
Politics aside, many of the new firearms buyers are women, said NRA spokeswoman Samford. That trend has helped pumped sales at stores like Tommy Hoss Fly Atchison Guns & Trades, Inc. in Midland, Texas.
“I was selling a few (guns) a week not long ago. Now, I’m selling a few a day,” says owner Tommy “Hoss Fly” Atchison, who earned his nickname during a 35-year rodeo clown career.
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, gun-store owners have reported a 73 percent increase in female customers in recent years, and the number of women buying guns for specifically for personal defense has climbed by more than 83 percent.
In West Texas, where men are flocking to jobs in the local oil fields, more women are home alone at night, Atchison said, are consequently home alone at night — a trend that's leading some of those women to visit his store.
“Women are buying guns because they feel the need for more protection,” Atchison said. “There’s also a lot more mischief and criminal activities” around town, leading to the desire among some local women to feel safer.
At Atchison’s store, the calibers most popular among female buyers are 9 mms, .380s and .38s. Those guns produce somewhat smaller recoils, can fit snugly into smaller hands, and “are more concealable,” he added.
For another unknown slice of buyers, a sense of bleak fatalism may be at play, several gun owners suggested. Look no deeper than “Doomsday Preppers,” a program on the National Geographic Channel that explores the lives of ordinary Americans who are preparing for the end of the world as we know it. The website promoting the program offers a glimpse of two young men aiming rifles in a desert landscape.
Or could it be that some gun newbies are worried about solar flares or listening to the ancient Mayans? The Mayans planned to reset their long count calendar on Dec. 21, 2012, a date that some now see is the possible end of the world.
“I'm not convinced it's fully Obama,” said John Schulte, a Minneapolis resident who teaches people how to obtain gun-carry permits. “There are a couple other things like the end of the Mayan calendar, and the sun changing its 11-year cycle … which means more solar storms that could knock out our satellites, electrical grid, and more. I think you will find more people becoming ‘Preppers’ as well as gun owners.”
Which simply shows that when you ask people why their fellow Americans are gobbling up guns, their theories can -- in a click -- turn from dark pessimism to bright light.
Bill Briggs is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com and author of “The Third Miracle.”