Utahns made an all-time high 23,000 gun purchases in December, the same month as the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
That number more than triples the state’s gun-sale average from the first 11 months of 2012. And while December’s buying spree was a spike, firearms sales have seemed to settle in at a new, higher normal.
During the first quarter of 2013, Utah gun purchases doubled the prior decade’s average, while applications for concealed-weapons permits leapt off the charts.
According to the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification, requests for concealed-weapons permits hovered at 6,600 in the month before the mass shooting. They climbed to 13,000 in January, 18,000 in February and 19,000 in March.
“We’re getting more applications than we’ve ever had,” says Jason Chapman, firearms supervisor for BCI. “Those are the biggest months ever.”
Utah’s soaring number of Brady background checks, triggered before a gun buy at a store or pawn shop — or a concealed carry application — directly follow the November re-election of President Barack Obama, December’s shooting at Sandy Hook, and the fresh round of gun-control legislation rejected by Congress.
Does that trifecta motivate Utah’s gun-buying public?
“Daily, yeah,” says Mike Casey, co-owner of Smith and Edwards, the inimitable “Country Boy Store” north of Ogden. “We have an administration that openly talks about gun control, so in the back of a lot of people’s minds there’s a lot of fear. You throw in a national tragedy and that just heightens people’s paranoia.”
Casey says “pleasure shooters” now outnumber hunters — comprising more than 50 percent of his store’s firearms sales — while the bulk of recent buys are assault-style rifles or easy-to-conceal handguns. Smith and Edwards ranked 13th out of 40 among BCI’s statewide list of top gun-selling outlets in 2012.
“I’m not going to flower it up,” Casey adds. “Most of the buying public is aware now that as soon as we have another catastrophe, the people in power are going to try to ram through another ban. You throw in the politics, the rumors and the killings and it adds up to a wild and crazy time.”
Year of the Gun • Since 2000, according to BCI statistics, Utah averaged just shy of 75,000 background checks for guns — the best barometer of sales — each year. Before 2012, the high mark came in 2008 — with 89,555 checks.
“The only thing that happened that year was the election [of Obama],” notes Lance Tyler, Brady Section supervisor for BCI. “From about 2003 to about 2008 we were on an upward trend. ... And then last year just skyrocketed.”
The jump was unprecedented: 2012 notched 106,978 checks and sales — an increase of more than 26,000 gun sales from the previous year.
“During December 2012 and the first three months of 2013, we have experienced the highest volume of calls and checks for these months in the history of the Brady Section,” BCI’s newsletter reads. “December alone had more than a 60 percent increase.... Most of the month was an ‘all hands on deck’ situation all the way until 9 p.m. each night.”
The firearm frenzy “has not been any slower” through the first quarter of 2013, BCI reports, with checks exceeding those months’ previous highs by 2,000 to 3,000.
Tyler remembers his staff was so swamped in December he added four extra employees to handle a call volume that reached 40 every hour. “If the phones had stayed on, they would have kept calling,” he says. “I’d never seen anything like that.”
Epiphany of ‘vulnerability’ • Escalating gun sales are not unique to Utah but a national phenomenon, insists Clark Aposhian, chairman of Utah Shooting Sports Council, the state’s highest-profile gun lobby. He notes there have been one million more gun purchases each year since 2008 — nearly 15 million last year alone — and points to Sandy Hook for the continued surge.
“Absolutely,” Aposhian says. “As an instructor, I find every time guns are in the news I get an increase in concealed-carry class requests.
“People understand their vulnerability in life. They realize they are ultimately on their own.”
This weekend, Aposhian is in St. George, hosting a free concealed-weapons training session for teachers and school staff who want to carry guns on campus.
Despite guns getting “demonized” by the Obama administration, Aposhian says studies show a deep dip in gun crimes. “There’s a heck of a lot more guns out there,” he says, “and yet, there’s a lot less crime.”
Big boxes to Beaver • Cabela’s was Utah’s top gun retailer in 2012, according to BCI’s list, followed by Sportsman’s Warehouse. Gunnies in Orem, Gallenson’s in downtown Salt Lake City and Impact Guns in Ogden round out the top five. Two outlets in Vernal crack the top 20, while two more in Roosevelt make the list.
By county, firearm checks in 2013 mostly follow Utah’s population centers. But there are anomalies. Beaver County already has logged 319 gun-purchase requests, more than 17 other counties, including the much larger Box Elder, Wasatch, Summit and Carbon counties.
Sanpete (320 checks) sits alongside Beaver, while Tooele County has seen more 2013 gun requests than Cache, which is twice its size.
Revocations rising • Mirroring the buying trend, Utah’s concealed-weapon permit denials, revocations and suspensions also are on the rise.
From 1996 to 2006, permit denials remained near 100 each year, BCI records show, never more than 162. Those numbers tripled by 2008, peaked at 913 in 2009 and have stood above 600 every year since.
This year, there have been 254 denials, a pace that would eclipse the previous high. Felonies, including rape, kidnapping, armed robbery and attempted sexual abuse of a child are registered for 32 of the rejections.
Revocations paint the same picture. They logged as few as 13 in 1996 and 18 a decade later.
But by 2008 the number neared 300, then increased by 100 during the three ensuing years. This year, one permit was revoked for the felony crime of “manufacturing a firebomb.”
“A lot of it is we have more valid permits,” explains Chapman, the BCI firearms supervisor. “There’s more permit holders out there.”
Utah has issued more than 442,000 valid concealed firearm permits as of March 31. And they must be renewed every five years.
Concealed permit suspensions also have increased every year on record — from 46 in 2004 to 1,034 in 2012.
Since 2000, BCI has checked arrest records daily.