Whenever a gun control debate comes up, gun sales go up too. But Indiana firearms dealers say the sales jump after the recent March for Our Lives wasn’t as significant as what happened under the last presidential administration.
Inside a Lafayette shop called Applied Ballistics, owner Aaron Lorton has a customized AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. It’s got some extra gadgets, but it’s functionally the same as the AR-15s for sale across the shop – and the one used to kill 17 students at Florida’s Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School earlier this year.
Lorton says they’re popular because they’re customizable, adjustable and – more recently – in the news.
“Six months ago, you couldn’t sell an AR rifle. Nobody was interested because everybody that wanted one already had one, or two, or three,” Lorton says. “Now, when it’s in the news, all of a sudden people are interested again.”
Lorton says the same happened when lawmakers proposed a ban on bump stocks – an attachment that allows a semi-automatic weapon to fire ammunition faster, and was used to help kill 58 people and injure hundreds more at a concert shooting in Las Vegas last fall.
But Lorton says he hasn’t seen not as significant a jump in sales as when multiple bans were proposed by President Barack Obama.
“Ironically enough, there would probably – in my opinion – be about half the number of ARs in circulation if nobody had ever talked about banning them,” he says.
Drive about an hour north and you’ll hear the same at another locally-owned gun shop. You might even hear this commercial on the way:
“Armed robbery, church or school shootings, home invasion…” the narrator lists. “Today’s world is not the world your parents grew up in. It’s an age of terror, and you shouldn’t have to live in fear. That’s why Liberty Arms in Monticello is ready to show you the best ways to protect your family, home or place of business…”
Next to Liberty Arms’ entrance is a sign saying unlawful activity will be met with lethal force. On the door, a note from owner Phil Hunt’s wife politely asks customers to please check their shoes for mud before coming inside.
“Obama was the best gun salesman out there,” Hunt says.
Indiana’s gun numbers back up Hunt’s statement. During the last decade, there’s been a steady increase in background checks. According to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the two highest counts of checks correlate to the months of mass shootings in San Bernardino, California and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Shortly after the shootings, assault weapon bans were proposed on the federal level, but were never close to passing.
Hunt admits in the wake of those tragedies, sales went up.
“I do not enjoy selling guns under those conditions,” he says.
The numbers show when people are afraid firearms will be restricted or taken away, sales spike. So it follows that a Republican-controlled administration – perhaps especially one that has been criticized by gun control activists for the amount of money it receives from the National Rifle Association – might put 2nd Amendment advocates at ease. That could be one reason the number of background checks had begun to dip in the last two years – until February’s Parkland, Florida school shooting.
But Hunt says he’s wary even a GOP Congress and White House might hurt his business.
“They always act like they’re the pro-gun people, but then they go ahead and they let them have the bump stock thing – even Trump,” Hunt says. “That was a negotiated thing, I suppose.”
Gun control activists are now pushing for a return of the national assault weapons ban that existed from 1994 to 2004, as well as halting the sale of high-capacity magazines and mandating background checks for all gun sales.
Hoosiers Concerned About Gun Violence President Ed Smith says the latter provision would close a loophole used to get around background checks at federally-licensed gun dealerships.
“All they have to do is go to a private seller and they get the same thing, even after they’ve been denied by the federal firearms dealer,” Smith says. “It’s a real problem, and it is the laws.”
And Smith says the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives should be given the authority to shut down gun shops linked to a high number of crime guns.
The ATF gives store owners sole discretion on who to sell guns to, and Liberty Arms owner Phil Hunt says that’s a serious responsibility.
“That could be good or bad. That puts a lot of weight on our shoulders,” Hunt says. “Obviously, if two people walk in together and the one person wants the gun, but the other one is filling out the paperwork for the gun, that’s a no sale.”
That’s called a straw purchase – buying a gun for someone else. At Applied Ballistics, Aaron Lorton tells his staff that if they have a bad feeling about a sale, they shouldn’t make it.
He says not every shop may be as careful, though.
“Any profession you pick, there are always going to be bad apples in it, so I can’t say it doesn’t happen,” Lorton says. “I can say that we do what we can to not let it happen here because I have no interest in that. I don’t need to sell a gun that bad. But it’s always a concern.”
Meanwhile, people are still buying guns. Both Lorton and Hunt say they’re not going to benefit much from retail stores including Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods pushing up their minimum sale age to 21, because 18-to-20 year olds make up such a small portion of buyers.
They both call the current debate frustrating and disappointing because they feel none of the proposed solutions will stop mass shootings.
And when the next mass shooting happens, FBI data suggest gun shops in Indiana and across the nation are likely to see business increase once more.