More Western Pennsylvania gun sales go to 1st-time buyers |
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Chuck Biedka
Nate Gerheim sorts through some of the most popular handguns at the Shooters Bench in West Deer on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016.

Ed Negley has noticed an interesting phenomenon at his Shooters Bench gun store this year: A good chunk of the handgun sales are to first-time buyers.

“A lot of people have never owned one, but they feel they need to get one,” said Negley of the 30 percent increase in handgun sales at his store in West Deer. He said the store sells about 1,800 handguns a year either at the shop or via the Internet.

His experience isn’t unique.

The number of people seeking a permit to carry a concealed weapon is rising throughout the region. A contentious presidential election has fueled fears that a win by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton could result in tighter gun-control laws, but store owners in the area say increased purchases have more to do with concerns about crime than presidential politics.

“People are not scared they won’t be able to get guns. They are scared about where the country has gone. They want to protect themselves,” said Nathan Cary of Bullseye Firearms in New Alexandria. He said he has sold about 1,000 handguns this year — a “huge percentage” of them to first-time buyers.

Gun license approvals in Allegheny, Armstrong and Westmoreland counties are on track to rise again this year. Licenses to carry concealed firearms in the first 10 months of the year in the three counties are up 39 percent, rising by 8,741 to 31,011, according to data from sheriff’s departments, which conduct criminal background checks and issue the licenses.

Women are buying

The handgun sales trend has been building for a while.

A recent New York Times story noted 63 percent of gun owners polled in a 2015 survey said they owned handguns for self-protection. When the same question was asked in 1994, 46 percent gave that answer.

“We have been seeing this for 10 years or more,” said Dennis Giever, a professor of criminology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Pam Richards of Gilpin is among the growing number of new gun owners — although her first purchase was in 2015. She recently bought a pistol with a red-dot sight at Schultz’s Sportsmen’s Stop in Kiski to replace one she bought a year ago. The new gun sight casts an electronic dot on the target to increase accuracy.

For Richards, the outcome of the presidential election matters much less than overall crime.

“I’m in sales and I travel. I need something for self-protection. This is strictly for protection,” Richards said.

Debbie Schultz, owner of Schultz’s, said handgun sales at her Kiski store are running slightly higher this year. She said she sells an average of 400 to 500 handguns. Schultz said the number of women buying guns has doubled — from 50 to about 100 — so far this year.

“They are buying regardless of who wins. They are worried about crime,” Schultz said.

Crime or politics?

Giever said high-profile shootings — such as the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., and the gay nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fla., in June — usually spur an increase in handgun sales.

In 2013, after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, 7,233 carry licenses were issued in Butler County, Sheriff Michael T. Slupe said.

“Anytime there’s a tragedy, license applications increase,” Slupe said. “It doesn’t matter where it happens, our people feel it impacts them.”

So far this year, almost as many licenses have been issued because of people reacting to news about terrorism and cases involving shootings by police that have fueled a national debate about use of deadly force by law enforcement officers, Slupe said.

“Anytime there’s a shooting, the number goes through the roof,” agreed Armstrong County Chief Deputy Sheriff Terry Bish.

While some sheriffs said the increases in gun purchases and carry licenses appear to be linked more to news about acts of terrorism, Westmoreland County Sheriff Jon Held disagrees.

“With the election coming up, there has been a sharp increase in permits sought in the last month,” Held said.

Gun control is a key issue in the election. Republican nominee Donald Trump opposes tighter restrictions on gun sales and ownership. He has attacked Clinton on the issue because she supports expanded background checks for gun buyers and has suggested that she would nominate anti-gun rights judges to the Supreme Court. An ad by the National Rifle Association has fanned fears by saying Clinton would strip citizens of their Second Amendment right to own a firearm.

Trend confirmed

There were nearly 10,300 handgun permits issued for the first 10 months this year in Westmoreland compared with 8,000 during the same period last year, Held said.

“Applicants are talking about two things: terrorism and the election,” he said.

Gun sales go up “even if there is a hint that there will be restrictions on the purchase of guns,” said Giever, the criminology professor.

A Pennsylvania State Police report confirms the trend in rising gun sales. State police said 755,800 firearms were sold or transferred in 2015, up nearly 12 percent from 2014. Most were handguns. Firearms dealers reported selling 421,811 handguns in 2015 compared with 333,953 rifles and shotguns.

In Allegheny County, the pace of handgun licenses so far this year is rocketing ahead of 2015. Licenses are up about 40 percent, said Deputy Ryan Foster, who supervises the issuance of licenses.

On routine weekdays, 50 to 75 people apply for licenses and have their backgrounds checked for criminal records that would disqualify them.

“When the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino happened, that increased to about 200 a day,” Foster said. “We still have about 120 people seeking permits daily.”

Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4711 or [email protected].

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