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Gun sales loosely tied to mass shootings, Tribune-Review analysis shows

| Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Sales clerk Jesse Sommers (left) shows an AR-15 rifle to Rick Smith of Hempfield at the  Army-Navy Indoor Pistol Range in Latrobe on Friday, Nov. 10, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Sales clerk Jesse Sommers (left) shows an AR-15 rifle to Rick Smith of Hempfield at the Army-Navy Indoor Pistol Range in Latrobe on Friday, Nov. 10, 2017.

The common belief that gun sales spike after a mass shooting is not always the case, a Tribune-Review analysis of federal data shows.

The FBI handled about 34 percent more firearm background checks than usual in the three months after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in December 2012, the analysis found. But it handled about 16 percent fewer checks than usual during the three months after the Washington Navy Yard shooting in September 2013.

Overall, an analysis of 10 of the more well-known shootings since the Columbine High School killings in April 1999 shows the response in gun sales varied considerably.

“It's a lot more complex than a yes-no,” said Lacey N. Wallace, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Penn State University Altoona who studies gun ownership and gun acquisition behavior.

Her 2015 paper on how mass shootings affect firearm sales is one of the few studies that comes up in a search on the subject. The lack of research in that area was one of the reasons she did the paper.

Her finding was that firearm sales, on average, tend to increase after a mass shooting, “but that doesn't mean it happens for every shooting.”

One reason for the difference is how the public responds to a shooting, she said. If the dominant response is a call for stricter gun laws, that leads to more sales. If the dominant response is that someone else with a gun did or could have ended the shooting, there's less of an effect.

“That response varies quite a bit from shooting to shooting,” Wallace said.

Another factor is how much media coverage a shooting gets, she says. Sandy Hook dominated the headlines for weeks partly because of the scale of the tragedy but also because there was no other major news, she said.

Other shootings quickly fall out of the public's consciousness because other stories take over, she said.

A third factor is who is sitting in the White House and which party is controlling the House and Senate.

“It really depends on what else is going on in the situation,” she said.

Two local firearm dealers said their own experience is that the reaction depends mainly on who controls Washington.

At the time of Sandy Hook, Obama and a Democrat-controlled Congress had gun buyers nervous, said Mark Boerio, owner of the Army-Navy Indoor Pistol Range in Latrobe. With Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress, the responses to the shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas, have been more muted.

“No one is in a panic,” he said.

Sales are up, but that's as much because of hunting season and people shopping for Christmas, he said. One shooting-related factor is that people see a need for protection, which is reflected as much in the increase in registration for gun classes as in firearm sales, he said.

“People don't want to buy one and be irresponsible with it,” he said. “People want to be safe and protect their family.”

Bullseye Firearms Gun Vault in New Alexandria has seen the same trend in increased registration for classes, said co-owner Nathan Carey.

“People are wanting to protect themselves,” he said.

Gun and ammunition sales spiked after Sandy Hook, but “what it had to do with was who was in office,” he said.

A three-month analysis of sales following the Las Vegas and Texas shootings has to wait on the passage of time and the release of data by the FBI. Wallace said she wouldn't be surprised if its shows a mild increase at most.

“That would be what I would expect,” she said.

Overall, you have to look at each event from the perspective of someone who owns guns or is thinking about buying one, Wallace said.

“With a Republican majority, it's unlikely that even if gun control measures pass that they're going to be dramatic,” she said.

Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1218 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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