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Guns Galore 

After Jan. 8, the firearms arms race didn't lose a beat

Scott Zike makes black holsters for pistols, assault rifles and any other manner of weapon in between. And he's selling them with a vengeance on this gray December morning, his inventory dangling overhead like so many dead crows.

Surrounding him is a sea of like-minded vendors at a gun show that fills one cavernous, rented room on Tucson's southside.

Zike is a straight-ahead fellow who retired from the U.S. Army after 22 years and started manufacturing his gear soon after. He's now based in Glendale.

His decidedly niche market became even more specialized over the past year. "One thing that happened was that people wanted my large magazine pouches because they wanted to use the 33-round mags," he says. "So I was making the large pouches to fit over those extreme mags."

He links this blossoming demand directly to the Jan. 8 shootings. That mass carnage was due in no small part to the fact that alleged shooter Jared Lee Loughner fitted his Glock pistol with a high-capacity, 33-round magazine.

After the shootings, Zike says, "people were worried those magazines were going to be taken off the shelf."

But it's not just endangered accessories that are driving folks to gun shows such as this one, operated by McMann's Roadrunner, also based in Glendale.

One after another, dealers at the chatty gathering claim to have enjoyed a robust 2011. Rather than dampening gun sales, the Safeway shootings have apparently heightened paranoia that new gun restrictions would soon follow. For gun enthusiasts, the logical impulse is to buy what you can, while you can.

That perspective is not baseless. For instance, the oversized magazines that expedited Jared Loughner's rampage and plumped up Scott Zike's bottom line were outlawed as part of federal assault-weapons ban in 1994—although that prohibition was allowed to expire in 2004 under the watch of then-President George W. Bush.

Nonetheless, rather than prompting reflection over the social costs of laissez-faire gun control, mass shootings seem to spur a corresponding jump in firearms purchases. Gun sales spiked, for instance, following the 1999 massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School. The same has occurred in the aftermath of Jan. 8; during the past year, an estimated 200,000 guns were bought from licensed Arizona dealers. That's on top of the thousands of weapons purchased privately, or at gun shows such as this one.

The combustible pattern is further fed by national politics. According to the dealers I spoke with, the Loughner shootings fueled already-existing fears that the 2008 election of President Barack Obama would precipitate more gun restrictions. That paranoia persists despite the fact that, three years in, the Obama administration has pushed few reforms beyond better state-to-state enforcement against gun-traffickers, and beefed-up background checks.

If paranoia about gun control is your thing, then Arizona is your paradise.

In 1994, the Legislature passed a bill permitting residents to carry concealed weapons—as long as they were toting a state-issued permit. In 2000, then-NRA president Charlton Heston was invited to give the legislative session's opening invocation. More-recent sessions saw the passage of bills allowing the possession of concealed weapons without permits or training, the designation of a state handgun—the Colt single-action Army revolver—and the strengthening of the ability for people to defend their homes or vehicles with firearms.

The Legislature also passed measures that block cities and towns from banning hunting within their boundaries (except in proximity to occupied structures), prohibit local jurisdictions from enacting gun ordinances more restrictive than state law, and ensure the right of citizens to carry guns in parks and preserves.

Last year, a law that would have allowed guns on college campuses was watered down and then ultimately vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer. However, last month, state Sen. Ron Gould said he would introduce a new version of the bill during the 2012 session.

All of this dismays longtime supporters of stricter gun laws. "Anyone who wants a gun for any type of purpose can go to a gun show, knowing there will not even be the semblance of a gun check," says Elliot Glicksman, a prominent Tucson attorney who specializes in representing crime victims.

Glicksman's caseload is grim testimony to the extent of gun violence. "I deal with this stuff all the time," he says, "and to me, it seems unbelievable that we live in a place where people really believe there should be no limit on who gets guns and what kind of guns they get."

Other reform advocates have personally felt the impacts of gun violence. It was 30 years ago that Susan Agrillo's sister was gunned down in Chicago during a botched mugging. Now a prosecutor with the Tucson City Attorney's Office, Agrillo spent years working toward even minimal firearms control.

She says her efforts were blocked at nearly every step by the National Rifle Association. "They have a lot of money, a lot of lobbyists, and they influence our legislators."

To Agrillo, the NRA's clout overshadows public sentiment. "Most people want reasonable gun control," she says, "and that's been the case since I started doing this 30 years ago."

Judging from the December Tucson gun show, that's also likely to be the case for years to come. On this day, NRA volunteers are out in full force, renewing memberships and hustling raffle tickets for a $400, .40-caliber Taurus handgun.

Among those volunteers is Jim Coniglio, a retired electrical engineer, a weapons instructor and an NRA lifer. "When you have very strict gun controls such as in Washington, D.C., and New York City," he says, "there's more crime there with criminals having guns and people being defenseless."

From that perspective, growing gun sales since Jan. 8 should surprise no one. "I think on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, they even set a record with gun sales to women," Coniglio says.

To him, the logic driving that trend is a no-brainer. "Would you prefer to call 911—and wait for an hour, and maybe a cop will show up—as your wife is being attacked by some guy?"

More by Tim Vanderpool

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