Barack Obama may not be coming to get your weapons – but he's sure doing wonders for gun and ammo sales
The most harrowing aspect of the monthly Saxet Gun Show at North Austin's Crockett Center is driving through the parking lot. On Saturday, April 18, the place is packed – traffic backs up in both directions for several blocks approaching the site – and some folks have given up finding a marked spot at all and instead slide up onto thin strips of grass that line the property. Still more cars drag slowly along down the lanes, avoiding the increasing number of people who are making their ways toward the line that's forming at the front door of the long, warehouselike facility.
Inside, a woman collects the entry fee – $5 a head – while an Austin Police officer sits opposite her at a folding table, waiting to inspect and temporarily render inoperable any firearms that pass through the door. The sign in front of him reads: "Do not work the action of your firearm. Hand it to the officer or lay it on the table, please." Good advice in a place packed tight with people and guns, ammunition, and knives.
The Saxet show is one of the largest organizations of its kind in Texas; including the monthly show in Austin, the group hosts at least 38 shows a year around the state. Exactly how many people attend the Austin show is unclear – representatives from Saxet did not respond to numerous attempts to contact them for this story – but it's apparent thousands drop by over the course of a weekend. On a Saturday afternoon just after lunch, several hundred people are pressing into the place to check out the stock. There are dozens of tables loaded with semiautomatic shotguns and rifles: AK-47s, AR-15s, .223s with 100-round barrel ammunition clips, and Mossberg pump-action shotguns, advertised as police quality. There are rows and rows of handguns: pistols and revolvers, from small two-shot Derringer pocket guns to the flashy, gold-plated .50-caliber Desert Eagle Pistol to the unbelievably heavy .460-caliber revolver advertised as the one sure thing that will get you out of a high-altitude confrontation with a grizzly. There are also vintage and military weapons, thousands of knives, books, and coins.
And there is ammunition – though not as much of it as there used to be. Indeed, since at least November (though some folks say it's been true as far back as last summer) ammunition has been in short supply. Some of the more established ammo vendors on the circuit reportedly aren't even bothering to attend the shows right now, because their small stock sells so quickly that it's not worth the time and expense to participate. Ammunition prices have accordingly skyrocketed – common 9mm rounds, for example, have risen in price from about $6 for 50 rounds two years ago, says Chuck Wagnon, who has owned and operated South Austin's Tex-Guns for 26 years, to roughly $25 today for the same 50 rounds – and even finding 9mm bullets can be difficult; both Academy Sports & Outdoors and Wal-Mart shelves, for example, have recently been completely emptied of all stock. Firearm prices have increased as well, especially for high-powered rifles and other similar weapons – the kinds of armaments that were banned for 10 years, until 2004, when Congress allowed the assault-weapons ban to expire.
In fact, price and demand are the talk of the show. It's hard to get very far down any of the aisles without getting into or overhearing a conversation about this – and about the person who many consider the primary cause: President Barack Obama. There are several signs that read "NOBAMA" at various tables throughout the place, and the general feeling seems to be that Obama represents doom for all God-fearing lovers of the Second Amendment. Not only does Obama want to reinstitute the assault-gun ban, I'm told, but he wants to enact regulation to control the sale of ammunition. He also wants to close the fabled "gun show loophole," which allows for the sale of a firearm between two private parties without a criminal background check, and he wants to force all gun owners to register those firearms with the federal government. Finally – and this is the most melodramatic – he wants to disarm everyone, rounding up all firearms in a modern-day version of Red Dawn, John Milius' 1984 film about a Soviet invasion of the U.S. and the citizen counterattack.
This is what I was told by one dealer, leaning back in a lawn chair, scratching his forehead underneath a red ball cap. "Sales have been up since Obama took office?" I ask. "Absolutely," he tells me. "So, really," I say, "so far everything is working out pretty well." Red Cap chuckles. "I suppose that's true," he says.
Later, when I relate this conversation to Erich Pratt, communications director for the national gun-lobbying group Gun Owners of America, he also laughs. The national joke right now, he says, is that Obama should be named "gun salesman of the year."
The push to buy weapons and ammo has created a palpable sense of excitement (perhaps better described as anxiety) at the gun show. There are hundreds of people looking to make deals – trying out new weapons, looking to expand their current collections, trying to find good deals on ammo before it disappears. The longer I stay, wandering the crowded aisles, the harder I find it to stay uninterested – after two hours, I'm pretty convinced I want to buy something, too. But what? I certainly don't have $500 or more for a 9mm – which, I decide, is probably the firearm I'd most like to have. In the end I plunk down my last $5 for the only thing I find that I can afford, a single round of ammo – specifically, a .50-caliber machine-gun bullet. I don't own a machine gun – and since it's one of the weapons most tightly regulated by the federal government, it is most unlikely that I'll ever own one – but I have a bullet. Round in hand, I make my way outside and back to my car.
At home, with my bullet on my desk, I can't help but wonder: Is Obama really out to take away our guns? And if so, should I go ahead and buy that 9mm on credit? What exactly are people afraid of – is it realistic to think that Obama's "Red Dawn" is coming, or have we all gone just a bit gun crazy?
Here We Go Again
Local gun sellers say sales of guns and ammo hit a fever pitch just after Obama's election. "With the election last November and leading up to the election, [we saw] the same sort of anxious moments" that came in the early Nineties, with the impending passage of the assault-weapons ban, said Tex-Guns' Wagnon. "I said, 'Oh, here we go again.'" Indeed, since November, the number of applications for concealed-handgun licenses made with the Texas Department of Public Safety has also spiked – the number of new applications rose from roughly 5,500 in November to more than 9,500 in January; including renewals, the number of applications received for processing went from about 8,500 in November to more than 13,000 in January. The number of background checks processed by the FBI, done every time a firearm is purchased through a federal firearms licensee (which includes all retailers – from family-owned shops like Tex-Guns to large outlets like Academy), was up 29% in March, compared to the same period in 2008, the Houston Chronicle reported last month.
At the heart of the current rise in gun prices and runs on ammo are fears that the Obama administration, with the aid of a Democratic Congress, will take further steps to regulate firearms – either through purchase bans, registration laws, or some combination of the two. To be honest, says GOA's Pratt, neither candidate for president in 2008 – Sen. John McCain nor Barack Obama – was exactly impressive to the rabid Second Amendment crowd. Both advocated for some form of gun control, but certainly Obama is "the more aggressive of the two." Obama has said in the past that he supported the assault-weapons ban, but to date, his administration has not made moves to reinstate it.
There is one bill currently pending in Congress that seems to be the lightning rod for fears that Obama will push for more stringent gun control: House Resolution 45 by Chicago Rep. Bobby Rush, which, among other regulations, would require background checks on all gun sales (thus closing the gun show "loophole" that allows private gun owners to sell personal weapons without being registered as dealers and without running background checks on buyers) and gun owners to register every firearm with the feds. The bill would also require a photo and fingerprint for firearm license applications. This bill (and similar legislation) has become a perennial favorite for filing but has yet to get much serious consideration. This time is different, says Pratt, because "the fact is that we have a president" who is (presumably) amenable to such legislation and a Democratic Congress in which (again, presumably) one would find less hard-line resistance to such "reforms."
Like Gun Owners of America, the National Rifle Association has not been shy – nor even mildly reserved – in promoting the notion that Obama and Democratic lawmakers are champing at the bit to get their hands on all privately owned firearms. The NRA has predicted that Obama would be "the most anti-gun president in American history," and a recent article posted to the group's website asserts that comments U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made on Good Morning America last month about wanting guns registered means that it will happen: "They're coming after every law-abiding gun owner in America – and they want your name and personal information in a federal database," it reads. "They can't deny it. And they can't deny the determination and might of America's lawful gun owners, who don't want their names in some national ... database, just waiting to be abused by gun-hating bureaucrats." Yet while it is true that Rush's bill is pending, there is no evidence to suggest that Congress intends to move it forward. Moreover, on its face, the notion of a national firearms registry seems almost ludicrous: According to a 1997 study on private gun ownership conducted by the national Police Foundation, there are roughly 200 million firearms already in private hands, and recent press reports suggest the number is now closer to 300 million. More to the point, says Wagnon, "People wouldn't do it anyway."
Does Gun Owners of America really think that registration is coming? Well, not necessarily, says Pratt. But the group is vigilant about anything that even smells like a possible infringement on the constitutional right of an individual citizen to bear arms. With all the recent talk about Mexican drug cartels acquiring weapons from the U.S. (the extent of which the group disputes), GOA is wary of a proposed international treaty that on its face is aimed at stamping out trafficking but which Pratt says could also threaten U.S. gun owners' rights. The group warns that even health-care reform will be used to take guns from owners who see psychiatrists – this is already happening, Pratt says, with military vets who have sought help from a mental-health professional for post-traumatic stress disorder, for example. Perhaps it isn't that some major change is afoot but that it could be, says Pratt. "What we're always surprised by are the new irons that are thrown into the fire," he says. "It's hard to predict" what will happen.
The Heller Decision
There is one legal issue that has recently been settled, at least for now: The Second Amendment to the Constitution protects an individual citizen's right to possess a firearm. The Supreme Court said so definitively in 2008, when it struck down the 30-year-old Washington, D.C., handgun ban. In a 5-4 decision (D.C., et al. v. Heller), Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, ruled that the amendment protects a personal right to possess a firearm, unconnected with military service, and protects the use of a personal firearm for "traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home," and therefore the D.C. ban on an entire class of weapons was unconstitutional. In its own right, this determination was a pretty big deal. For years, reasonably intelligent people – still including four members of the Supreme Court – concluded the opposite: that the point of the Second Amendment was to protect a collective right to bear arms. Nonetheless, says University of Texas School of Law professor Sanford Levinson, a national expert on the Second Amendment, "Heller is probably less important than people think, because it is easily confined." Indeed, while the right to individually keep a gun at home for protection has been affirmed, the court also said that like "most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited," concluding that various restrictions – such as the federal prohibition on gun ownership by felons; on the carrying of weapons in "sensitive" areas, such as schools or government buildings; and on the ownership of certain weapons, such as short-barreled shotguns and machine guns, restricted for private ownership and transfer under extremely tight regulation set forth in the 1934 National Firearms Act – could certainly remain in place. "I don't want to say that Heller is trivial," says Levinson, "but it doesn't change the world that much."
Where does that leave the world of gun control? For the most part, it leaves it back in the hands of the states, which vary in their approach to regulating guns. Some state constitutions have more detailed protections for individual owners (as does Texas'), and the vast majority of states now have gun laws that offer residents more "protection" for that right, such as the 40 states (including Texas) that allow the carrying of concealed weapons, says Pratt.
"The only thing we can say with confidence is that Heller encourages a lot of people to file lawsuits," says Levinson. Indeed, since the Supremes ruled in Heller last summer, some 80 or so related lawsuits have been filed. In essence, the suits seek to find that line where what is guaranteed – the right to keep and bear arms – meets what is permissible regulation. For example, a federal court in California has now ruled that the Second Amendment protection applies to the states but that a local government can refuse to permit a gun show on private property. Meanwhile, however, another court ruled that a person under federal indictment for possession of child pornography could not be restricted from owning a gun – so long as he wasn't yet convicted, there was no legal right to prohibit his ownership.
Yet the fallout from Heller isn't exactly encouraging for gun control foes, such as former Texas state Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, a Republican who for 10 years represented the Central Texas district that includes Lampasas. Hupp emerged into the national spotlight in the early Nineties, speaking to Congress against federal gun control regulations – specifically, against the background-check scheme and the ban on assault weapons. Hupp was a compelling witness in part because her life had been so altered by firearms: On Oct. 16, 1991, her parents were among nearly two dozen people gunned down by George Hennard, who drove his pickup truck into a Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen and opened fire. More than 20 other people were wounded in what was one of the worst massacres in U.S. history. Hupp, who hadn't been raised with guns and was not a hunter (a pursuit she "abhors," she told federal lawmakers), owned a handgun that she learned to use and kept for self-protection. That day, however, in compliance with what was then Texas state law, she had dutifully locked her gun in her car in the parking lot, and thus it was not in her purse when Hennard opened fire. Hupp became a staunch supporter of a broad reading of the Second Amendment and for the right to carry concealed firearms.
Hupp considers any form of gun regulation a breach of the Second Amendment. "I would say that I always default to freedom," she says. "I don't believe in the middle ground. My right ends at the point where yours begins. And I don't interfere with your happy, peaceful life by carrying a sidearm." That's what has people worried right now, she said: the notion that the government would try to say that the freedom to own a gun is somehow an infringement on another person's freedom. People are "scared. They are rapidly becoming scared of two things. They're scared that the government will take their right to bear arms away or [will] tax it into oblivion," she says. "I know that sounds black helicopter," she continues, but while she doesn't "believe there are a bunch of old guys sitting around, drinking martinis and smoking cigars and plotting to take over the world," she does believe that the "current administration" could provide a "fertile ground for tyranny." In the face of that possible takeover, the right to be armed is even more pressing. "And I know this sounds simplistic – but sometimes why it sounds simplistic is that it is accurate: An armed people are citizens; a disarmed people are subjects. That is 100 percent accurate."
The Gun and the Circumstances
Yet despite these widely expressed fears, all things considered, the current U.S. gun laws are in practice quite liberal. You can purchase almost any weapon – and as many of them as you like – or ammunition (if you can find it), so long as you are not termed a "prohibited person" under law. That category includes felons but also anyone convicted on a misdemeanor family-violence charge or anyone addicted to drugs or adjudicated mentally "defective," according to federal law. You can buy a firearm at a store, where you agree to allow a brief criminal background check – or you can avoid that and instead buy a gun from your neighbor or from someone on Craigslist or from a Chronicle classified ad and eschew the criminal background check altogether. The downside there, perhaps, is that you don't know where that gun comes from or who you're buying it from, but neither do they know you or your backstory – and that too is perfectly legal. Either way you go about it, if you so choose to do so, it is perfectly legal to fill your entire house with guns.
This makes actual gun-law enforcement a rather tricky proposition. Certainly, the high-profile debacle at the Mount Carmel compound outside Waco in 1993 didn't exactly help the image of federal gun-law enforcement or of the enforcers with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. But that sort of deadly disaster is far from the norm. At its most basic, the job of the ATF – and its equivalents at the local law enforcement level – is to try to figure out who isn't supposed to have a gun and to get guns out of the hands of those unlawful owners. Chasing firearms is not like chasing drugs, says Michael Reyes, Austin ATF resident agent in charge. A gun is "not like a pound of cocaine or a pound of weed. It's the circumstances of the person that make the gun legal or not," he says. If you "roll up on a car, pop the trunk, and it's full of cocaine, that's illegal. Roll up on the same car, pop the trunk, and it's full of weapons, that's where the investigation begins."
As it stands, a large number of gun-related police investigations actually start after the fact: A weapon shows up at a crime scene, for example, and gun cops have to work backward to find out where it came from and who owns it. But because there is no requirement that all guns be purchased through a licensed retailer, agents also do a fair amount of observing – especially of gun show visitors.
Because of the freedom with which a person can acquire a gun there, the shows represent fairly good ground to unearth prohibited persons and from which to detect trends in sales. Indeed, that's how ATF and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents caught up with Austin native and professional boxer James Kirkland and his girlfriend, Candice Jones, on Sunday, April 19, arresting Kirkland for being a felon in possession and his girlfriend for supplying him with contraband – a so-called "straw purchase," also a serious violation of federal firearms laws. (At press time, Jones had not yet been indicted on any charges.)
According to an arrest affidavit, Kirkland bought a .40-caliber Glock pistol from an unlicensed seller; after he tried to buy a second gun, this time from a dealer, but failed to pass the background check, Kirkland allegedly had Jones purchase for him a gun clip and box of ammo. (Apparently an ATF agent overheard a seller telling the couple that he could not sell to Kirkland, that he could "only sell the female a gun, and what she does with the gun after the sale was up to her.") The junior middleweight contender is still in custody under indictment and was unable to appear for his championship fight in Las Vegas May 2.
At least theoretically, if everyone were required to first pass a background check when buying a gun from any source, the ability of prohibited persons to purchase firearms would decline. Or if all were to be registered, perhaps that would help. Or perhaps not – no doubt it would be a bureaucratic nightmare to attempt or enforce and would undoubtedly be wildly unpopular with many gun owners. Reyes, for his part, takes no position on the state of firearms laws. In fact, it's safe to say that Reyes is a gun guy. He's an avid hunter and teaches shooting sports for the Boy Scouts of America. "We have a job to do. The laws are there, and we enforce them," he says. "That's exactly it." In short, he says, he has no means nor desire to disarm the American public.
The Ammo Bubble
That sort of assurance is undoubtedly small comfort to those currently feeding the ammo shortage and run on weapons. I mean, really, who is going to believe the assurances of an ATF agent? Or the speculations of an alt-weekly writer?
Standing outside the shop that has been home to Tex-Guns since 1983, owner and retired teacher Chuck Wagnon (he spent 32 years teaching history and government in public high school) sighs. There is no doubt that gun sales are up and ammo is scarce. It also isn't the first time he's seen this happen. He saw it first during the three-month period before the 1994 federal assault-weapons ban – which forbade the sale of certain semiautomatic weapons as well as certain accessories, such as magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. At that time, Wagnon says, a high-capacity magazine not covered by the ban would sell for nearly $100. When the ban expired in 2004, the price dropped back to normal, roughly $25. Now, though, he can barely get ammunition to fill his shelves, and for what's there, the prices have skyrocketed.
Take the 7.62-by-39-millimeter rounds used in one of the world's most common assault rifles, the Russian AK-47, he says. Two years ago, it cost roughly $1.99 for 20 rounds; now the price is up to $12 for 20 rounds. Ammo makers say they're working around the clock, but given that military and police orders are filled first (and military needs are currently high), it takes longer for Wagnon to get his orders, and they're costing a lot more for stock that disappears as soon as it arrives.
Wagnon chooses his words carefully: He is concerned about any infringement on his right to freely sell, acquire, and own firearms, but he also thinks there is hysteria at work. "The Internet has become a powerful tool" for spreading stories, he said. But why is this happening now, I ask. Wagnon shrugs slightly. "Anecdotally, I can tell you," he says. "My son has been working here since 1994. He had a guy come in the other day who said: 'I found 2,000 rounds of 9-millimeter ammo and bought it all! You think I should buy a gun that shoots 9 millimeter?" He chuckles; here's another one: "There was another guy in the store; he said, 'My buddy and I bought 14,000 rounds of 9 millimeter so we could [store] it in my garage.' Then, in the next breath, he said, 'Why do the prices keep going up?'" The point, says Wagnon, is that people need to take it down a notch: "You need to breathe, take it easy, and not run around buying up all this stuff."
The situation facing Wagnon and his supply – and his feelings about the causes – are familiar to Karen Ziegler, part-owner of Red's Indoor Range, Austin's indoor shooting site that boasts the popular Monday Ladies' Day, when chicks shoot for half-price and can rent any firearm for free. Red's is the sort of place that defies any stereotype one might have about guns and gun owners. The people who shop and shoot here represent a broad cross section of the community: On a recent Monday, two twentysomething professional women stopped by to shoot a few rounds during their morning break from work, two older women were getting shooting tips from the shop's helpful staff (it was their first time, they said), a man and a woman came in to shoot a hunting rifle, and a father and son practiced a few rounds with a .22.
Red's also sells guns and ammo, but for now, says Ziegler, she's not able to sell most of the popular types of ammunition. If she were to do so, she says, there wouldn't be enough to keep the range, her primary business, open. Ziegler is a competitive shooter who never picked up a gun until she was 30; it was given to her for self-protection, and she dusted around it for a few years, she says, until she finally took a gun-safety class – and found out she's a really, really good shot, the kind of shooter who can quickly paint a powder-burned smiley face on a paper target.
Ziegler's perspective is practical and reasoned. The current run on guns and ammo is similar to what she saw during the Y2K millennium madness. "I compare it to when they predict a hurricane or bad weather, and where do people run? The grocery store," she says. And people are saying "now that the Democrats are in control that we're going to lose our gun rights," so where do people run? The gun store. And that's what's creating the shortage, she thinks. "That has been the mentality. Then you have people buying things and stockpiling them, hedging against the future" – a modern-day bomb shelter, stocked with canned green beans and 9mm ammo. "I really don't have a clue what the administration is up to," she says. "But they're being painted as if they're going to stomp into your houses and take your guns away. Give this some thought." These sorts of panics, she says, "come and go."
According to UT's Levinson, that may be as close to the truth as one can get. Because what will happen – if anything – in the area of gun control is up to the American people. There is little reason to believe that the Obama administration will do much of anything on gun control, he says, for a couple of reasons. First, he says: "Obama went out of his way during the campaign to embrace the Second Amendment. And he didn't criticize Heller. Secondly, gun control has been a disastrous issue for the Democratic Party."
Indeed, the last time the Dems stuck their necks out to enact such measures – in the early Nineties – they quickly got their heads chopped off, and at least in part for that reason, the Congress turned Republican. Moreover, notes Gun Owners of America spokesman Pratt, public opinion seems to be slipping away from support for strict gun control. A recent CNN poll found that just 39% of Americans favor stricter gun control, down from 50% in 2000, and an April NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that support for an assault-weapons ban has dropped to 53% today from 75% in 1991. And any further regulation would almost certainly end up in the courts. "To some extent, the law is what the courts say it is," concludes Levinson. "I can't really believe that the courts are going to go out on a limb and be way in advance of where the public is on this."
Finally, I went to the source – the inner sanctum of the Obama administration – and asked for an official statement of the policy on guns. Not that I expect anyone lining up for the next Saxet Gun Show to take much stock in it – after all, the fear of the crowd pretty much always trumps reason – but a White House spokeswoman responded for the record: "Millions of hunters and shooters own and use guns each year. The President believes the Second Amendment creates an individual right, and he respects the constitutional rights of Americans to bear arms. His administration is committed to protecting the rights of hunters and other law-abiding Americans to purchase, own, transport, and use guns, while stopping firearms traffickers and keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, terrorists, and others prohibited from owning them."
Take that as you will. If you can bring yourself to believe it, it's likely that my right to own a .50-caliber machine-gun bullet is safe, even if I never get my hands on a machine gun with which to fire it.