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High-Caliber Comfort 

September 11 has triggered a boom in gun sales.

Business is brisk today inside West of the Pecos Gun Shop, a squat, cautious building in a taut parking lot on east Pima Street. Customers wander the store, staring at gun grips, revolvers, holsters, hunting rifles. They're considering the options, dickering about prices and--most important to David Dodson--they're buying.

Dodson, who runs the store, says the past few months have been boom times. Sales have jumped 40 percent, and many customers are first-timers.

"I think a lot of people who might have been anti-gun no longer feel that way," he says. "And if they were already thinking about buying a gun, then [the terrorist attacks] pushed them over the edge."

Granted, packing firepower has long been a way of life in Arizona, where the frontier mentality--albeit slightly neutered by cul-de-sacs and cable TV--is still alive and kicking.

But since September 11, even normally genteel folk are finding comfort in a warm gun. Nor is our growing penchant for weaponry unique; in Massachusetts, gun instructors are reporting 50 percent increases in class size. In Virginia, the National Rifle Association says a class required for carrying a concealed weapon has a month-long waiting list. Florida saw a 50 percent rise in September in criminal background checks that are required for carrying a concealed weapon. And a Gallup poll taken a month after the attacks found American's desire for stricter firearms laws had dropped, with only 53 percent supporting such measures--the number had not been below 60 percent for nearly a decade.

Likewise, the rush for firearms and weapons permits in the wake of a crisis is not uncommon. The Second Amendment takes on increased relevance for many in shaky times. Following the Los Angeles riots of 1992, for example, there was a run on Southern California gun stores. Handgun sales in the state jumped from 329,000 in 1991 to 382,000 in 1992 and to 433,000 in 1993.

The drive for self-protection is similar today, says Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association. Buyers understand that having a gun or a concealed-weapon license would make no difference on an airplane, he says, but they worry about other aspects of the war on terrorism.

"People are unsettled in this country," LaPierre says. "They hear warnings of other threats that could come at anytime from anywhere. And they don't know if they might be on their own for a while if there is another attack."

This current gun rush has taken the concept of well-armed citizens to a new level, says Gary Lovetro of the Arizona Arms Association. Gun shows and stores flourish when people become "more aware of safety."

Just how much sales have risen nationally is open to question. Through October, the sales are up 20 percent from the year before, but only slightly from 1999, says the National Shooting Sports Foundation. And since sales are cyclical, the increase may not be that substantive, the group says.

Here on the frontier, there's little argument that the number of people buying guns has jumped. According to Terry Fuentes, firearms clearance supervisor for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, her office conducted 10,038 background checks on potential gun buyers in November 2000. That number climbed to almost 11,000 this past November.

The leap in concealed weapons is even more dramatic, nearly doubling to 1,253 this November, compared with the same month a year before. "We're still up," says Sgt. Bill Whalen, DPS supervisor of concealed weapons permits.

But the question on many minds, from gun shop owners to weekend warriors, is whether the growing acceptance of firearms has staying power. Some gun-control advocates think not. "People don't always act rationally in a time of crisis," says Nancy Wha, a spokeswoman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "But the effects aren't usually long lasting. There was a big increase in gun buying in California after Rodney King, but since then California has passed much stronger laws."

In fact, through October 31 of last year, California handgun sales were on pace to be at their lowest level in 30 years, the state says.

Still, political prophets say Washington's mood on guns has changed, at least for now.

Even before September 11, they say, Democrats had lost traction on gun control, and the recent elections did nothing but move the party further away from tighter rules. In the Virginia gubernatorial race, for example, Democrat Mark Warner's victory was sealed, in part, by blatant appeals to gun owners, using a group called "Sportsmen for Warner."

"Any gun-control legislation of any kind is a non-starter now," says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

Longer term, opposition to gun-control measures could be tied closely to patterns of gun ownership, says Bill Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

"If [the opposition] is attributable to the terrorist threat, then it will dissipate as the threat dissipates," Schneider says. "But if it is tied to an increase in gun ownership or weapons permits, that is something very different. That is people saying, 'I have this gun and ain't no one going to tell me what to do with it.'"

Back at West of the Pecos Gun Shop, a tall, gray-haired guy we'll call George is helping his wife fill out the concealed-weapon application. The Vietnam veteran says the permit became more desirable in the wake of September 11. "There's just too much stuff going on these days, from school shootings to these airplane attacks," he says. "Pull out a gun and stick it in their nose. I'd call that an absolute deterrent."

More by Tim Vanderpool

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