Gun rush: Weapons sales soar in Kentucky on threat of new federal restrictions

Vance Simpson held a Saiga-12 semiautomatic shotgun at his shop Friday. Simpson said demand for assault weapons is high.
Vance Simpson held a Saiga-12 semiautomatic shotgun at his shop Friday. Simpson said demand for assault weapons is high. Herald-Leader

The scene is the same at many gun stores: shelves that once held semiautomatic rifles, boxes of ammunition and high-capacity magazines are barren. Concealed-carry training classes are filled to capacity. And shooters have hit the gun ranges to pop off dozens of practice rounds.

In Kentucky, like other states with lenient gun laws and an entrenched gun culture, people are rushing to stock up on rifles, handguns, spare clips and ammunition. Prices are rising to meet the demand.

"It's a scare. A big scare over a lot of political backwash," said Michael Newsome, a 19-year-old gun enthusiast who spent Friday night shooting rounds at a Lexington gun range. "But people are running out to buy this stuff, and companies are cashing in on it."

As talk of stricter federal gun-control laws heated up, the FBI recorded about 40,000 more firearms background checks of Kentuckians in December than the previous month. It was the most drastic month-to-month increase in the state since July 2006, when authorities began using the background check system to verify eligibility of concealed-carry permit holders.

Data was not available for January, but gun shop owners say things have been busy. Days after President Barack Obama proposed a ban on assault rifles, AK-47s and AR-15s were hard to come by in Lexington. Only a few stores and pawn shops reported having them in stock Friday; prices ranged from $1,700 to more than $3,000 for ARs, and typically a little less for AKs.

James Humfleet, a banker from Corbin, drove to Lexington Friday to shop for ammo, which is hard to come by in his neck of the woods. "Our stores locally are sold out," he said.

The Gun Warehouse and Range, a high-volume dealer on Industry Road in Lexington and headquarters of, is currently selling about three times more guns, ammo and accessories than this time last year, co-founder Joe Murphy said.

Semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines were the most sought after, he said, but the store is experiencing record sales on all kinds of guns. Ammunition is getting scarcer by the week and prices have risen to cover increases from manufacturers and vendors, he said.

"It's unusual for us," Murphy said. "We've moved to a warehouse. We had to increase our shipping area and staffing."

Many customers are first-time gun buyers.

"We're seeing a lot of new faces, people who aren't our regular customers," he said.

Smaller shops, like Simpson Gun Shop in Nicholasville, also have seen an increase in clientele. Co-owner Vance Simpson said he doesn't stock many assault rifles, but whenever they come in, "they go out just as quick."

Like Murphy, Simpson said his prices have risen just enough to cover costs. But on a day-to-day basis he sees instances of price-gouging from less scrupulous businesses and private sellers alike.

"I've seen ARs that were worth $600 a couple months ago that are going for $1,500 to $1,800 now," he said.

Protecting a right

Kentucky is not alone in the dash to buy guns and ammo. Media reports describe similar scenes at gun stores across the nation, and all states saw an increase in background checks in December, according to FBI data.

A background check is required by all federally licensed dealers for each gun sale, but the FBI noted background checks don't always translate one-to-one with gun sales since states can conduct background checks for other reasons.

The rise in demand stems from a renewed focus on strengthening federal gun control laws in the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., where 20 school children and six adults were killed by a lone gunman Dec. 14.

Talk of a crackdown has persisted since then and, perhaps, heightened last week with discussions between U.S. lawmakers and White House officials.

On Wednesday, Obama signed 23 executive orders that don't require congressional action, including closing background check loopholes, improving school safety and mental health programs, and studying gun violence. He called on Congress to ban private sales of assault weapons and armor-piercing ammo, and limit magazines to hold no more than 10 rounds.

Legislators such as Republican U.S. Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell have publicly opposed the president, and politicians and pundits have repeatedly said the gun law changes will be a tough sell in Congress.

But not all Kentucky legislators oppose the changes.

Congressman John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, is co-sponsoring legislation that bans the sale of magazines and other devices that hold more than 10 rounds.

"High-capacity magazines allow for maximal destruction with minimal effort," he said in a recent op-ed column in the Courier-Journal.

States are independently weighing the pros and cons of gun control. Last week, New York passed the most stringent anti-gun laws on the books, restricting magazines that hold more than seven rounds, banning guns with more than one "military feature" and strengthening criminal penalties for gun crimes.

Kentucky's lenient gun ownership requirements do not appear to be in jeopardy.

"Sen. McConnell will continue to defend the 2nd Amendment rights of law-abiding Kentuckians," his office said in a news release.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he thinks it "depends on the measure, but, no, gun control is not going to be something that is popular — at least initially — in my district or in Kentucky."

State Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, said state legislators were considering listing Kentucky among states officially opposed to Obama's proposed laws.

Four pieces of proposed gun-related legislation have been introduced in the state's General Assembly this year, and none would impede Kentuckians' right to bear arms.

The bills are House Bill 56, which would make the Kentucky Long Rifle the official gun of Kentucky; Senate Bill 42, which would allow military members to forgo training requirements when applying for a concealed-carry license; and HBs 47 and 72, which would restore the civil rights — including the right to bear arms — to non-violent felons who have their criminal records expunged.

Legislators still have time to file bills before the General Assembly reconvenes in February, but Stumbo and Damron, both of whom described themselves as gun advocates, said they had not heard of any rumored gun-control bills.

Bills filed in response to the Newtown tragedy would be more likely to focus on school safety or mental health, they said. Stumbo appointed a special task force Wednesday, chaired by state Rep. Richard Henderson, D-Jeffersonville, to study school safety.

"No one is threatening to take away anybody's guns. Certainly not in Kentucky," said state Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington.

She said she is concerned because of how easy it was for the man accused of killing three people in Perry County last week to get a gun.

He bought the gun that he allegedly used just hours before the shooting and only one day after he and one of the victims had a court hearing in a dispute over custody of their son.

"That's what alarms me," Stein said. (The shop owner who sold that gun said the man cleared a background check.)

At least some Kentuckians are afraid they won't be able to buy semi-automatic rifles in a few months.

"Customers are coming in and they have no clue whether they're going to be banned or not banned," Simpson said. "Most of them say 'I've always wanted one. Just in case, I wanted to get one now.'"

'We grew up around guns'

Few states have a deeper gun culture than Kentucky.

Charles Riggs, co-founder of the Kentucky Concealed Carry Coalition, said tightening gun-control laws was tantamount to infringing on "individual and personal rights" Americans have enjoyed since the country's founding.

"We grew up around guns. We know people that have used guns responsibly their entire lives," he said.

Still, states and organizations that aren't as steeped in gun culture take issue with Kentucky's laws. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence routinely lists Kentucky among the states with the weakest gun laws on the books.

Kentucky scores just two out of a possible 100 points on the campaign's scale of gun safety. Kentucky lost points for poor record keeping, background checks and, among other things, child safety.

The waiting period to own a firearm in Kentucky boils down to the amount of time it takes a dealer to do a background check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Background checks can tell whether a customer has previous or pending criminal charges, but matters such as mental health and substance abuse are on the honor system. The buyer must self-report if he is addicted to drugs or alcohol, or if he ever has been judged "mentally defective."

Gun owners do not have to register with the state unless they apply for Carrying Concealed Deadly Weapon (CCDW) licenses. About 25,000 CCDWs were issued in 2011, the last year data was available, according to state police.

There is no apparent database that accurately tracks how many guns are sold or owned in Kentucky. The FBI's database of criminal background checks is not an accurate record of gun sales because state police periodically check all CCDW holders through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

"Kentucky State Police is authorized to revoke or suspend those who become ineligible to be issued a license," said Sgt. Richard St. Blancard, spokesman for state police. A person may become ineligible if they are convicted of a felony or domestic violence charges.

The FBI tallies the routine CCDW checks with checks related to gun sales, which increases Kentucky's figures compared to other states. There were more than 2.5 million firearms background checks in Kentucky in 2012, about a million more than Texas, the state with the second largest numbers, according to data provided by the FBI.

On Friday night, The Gun Warehouse and Range was packed with men and women, a group that included parents and grandparents, teachers, bankers, students and cops. Some priced ammo and guns, while others used the gun range. Many of them said lawmakers should focus on strengthening mental health services and protecting schools instead of restricting guns.

"We have the right to bear arms and it kind of seems like this is taking our rights away," Heather Davis, 43, of Winchester said. "It's like taking cars away from sober drivers."

Thousands of gun advocates gathered peacefully Saturday at state capitals around the U.S. to rally against stricter limits on firearms, with demonstrators carrying rifles and pistols in some places while those elsewhere settled for waving hand-scrawled signs.

The size of crowds at each location varied — from dozens of people in South Dakota to 2,000 in New York. Large crowds also turned out in Connecticut, Tennessee and Texas.

Some demonstrators in Phoenix and Salem, Ore., came with holstered handguns or rifles on their backs. At the Kentucky Capitol in Frankfort, attendees gave a special round of applause for "the ladies that are packin'."

The "Guns Across America" rallies were promoted primarily via social media, after President Barack Obama unveiled a sweeping package of gun-control proposals earlier this week.

Kentucky Tea Party leader David Adams spoke to the crowd in Frankfort, saying that the "government is out of control."

Associated Press

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