Firearm background checks increasing in Ohio

Nicholas Johnson in The Ohio Reporter, July 22, 2012

Media Source

Jodi Nesbitt is considering upgrading from her .38-caliber revolver. This decision point reflects quite a change from just a few years ago, when she didn't know the first thing about firearms.

"It's not something I ever thought I would do," the Lancaster resident said of buying a handgun. "I'm not familiar with guns. I didn't grow up around them."

"I don't really have any friends that carry a gun. People are pretty surprised to hear that I do, probably because it's not in my normal character. Like I said, I never thought I would."

Pre-purchase background checks for firearms are up 26 percent in Ohio for the first half of 2012, when compared to the record-breaking first six months of 2011, according to new data from the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

This could mean the same people are buying more guns, but it also could mean the customer base in Ohio for firearms has widened as a series of state laws have made it easier to own and carry a gun in public.

Nesbitt, a single woman who travels often for her job, said she got the gun and a concealed-carry license for self-defense. She's had to pull the gun only once, when the wind blew open her garage door and set off her home alarm. Still, it makes her feel more secure.

"I gave it some thought because I think it's a big decision and nothing that I take lightly," Nesbitt said, "but I feel confident that if I needed to use it, I could. I don't want to, but I could."

An Obama effect?

Anecdotally, a Democratic president -- even one who thus far has not been outwardly hostile to gun interests -- remains the best singular salesman for gun makers, but there are other more seismic shifts in communal attitude that are making guns more mainstream.

There has been steady movement toward a greater acceptance of guns in society, but that's not the primary driver of gun sales, said Jim Irvine, chairman of the Buckeye Firearms Association, a gun rights advocacy group.

"I think certainly a fear of what the Obama presidency would do in a second term is a big piece of the puzzle," he said.

At Baker Brothers Sporting Goods in Bucyrus, business is good. It has been since the Barack Obama-John McCain presidential race, owner Bradley Stuckman said.

"I used to sell 850 guns a year before the last election, and now I'm selling between 1,200 and 1,300," he said.

"The first boost was because of what we feared from the Obama administration, and a lot of the rest is what I would say is from the snowball of effect of new buyers buying one gun and then another."

A change in thinking

The new buyers Stuckman is referring to are converts who have changed the way they think about guns.

A plurality of Americans think it is more important to protect the rights of gun-owning citizens than it is to regulate who owns guns, a reversal of sentiment from the pre-2008 U.S., an April poll by the Pew Research Center shows.

"If you think back to 1994 (the Brady bill and the assault weapons ban), it's pretty hard to imagine any bigger change in the way society was thinking about something," said David Mustard, a professor at the University of Georgia, where he has examined the microeconomics of gun control.

In decades past, the handgun was viewed negatively, said Nicholas Johnson, a professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York City.

That has changed, in part because of the proliferation of concealed-carry laws and the lack of accompanying violence, he said.

"The general political conversation about what the result would be if any state passed a concealed-carry (law) was typically that you would get objections like 'There will be blood in the streets,'" Johnson said. "The parade of horribles did not turn out."

People have witnessed the implementation of concealed-carry without the promised bloodshed and the loss of their sense of security. They've learned that neighbors, such as Nesbitt, whom they never would suspect to be packing, in fact are concealed-carry licensees. In short, the public at large has realized their lives have not been affected by the choices of others.

In a lot of ways, Johnson said, the wider acceptance of firearms resembles the destigmatization of same-sex marriage. Change is spreading, but it's running at a different course -- for both issues -- across the country.

"It's probably easier to be gay in New York City, and it's probably easier to own a gun in Ohio," he said.

Gun responsibility

Since concealed-carry was adopted in Ohio in 2004, it has been expanded to include state parks and restaurants and bars (although it has not yet been extended to college campuses). Ohio now has reciprocity agreements with 23 states to honor each other's concealed-carry licenses.

A preemption law was passed in 2007 that prohibited local governments from making more restrictive laws, like handgun bans, and the Supreme Court of Ohio later affirmed the Legislature's right to do so.

A not insignificant portion of the population thinks these steps were errors.

"We've made it way too easy for people to do such a serious thing," said Toby Hoover, director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence. "This is a serious responsibility."

Mustard said Ohio's relatively recent legislative moves definitely would act to encourage gun ownership among residents. The rising number of pre-purchase background checks would indicate ownership is spreading to some degree, although how much would be difficult to say, he said.

Ohio's increasingly permissive handgun laws have spurred sales of smaller weapons at shops such as Scot's Guns & Ammo, just outside of Chillicothe.

"Everybody's getting into the concealed-carry permits," owner Scot Hardesty said. "A lot of people are buying smaller guns."

At Williams Gun Shop, west of Waverly, owner Wendell Williams is seeing a similar spike in demand for small- and medium-sized guns, but he's struggling to keep up his supply, he said.

Williams said it's difficult for smaller shops such as his to get guns from certain manufacturers. His gun inventory, which hovers about 40, also has been hurt from a drop in trade-ins, he said.

"If they'd make more, we could sell more. ... It hurts when someone walks out the door without a gun, even though they're chomping at the bit to buy one," he said.

Female ownership

Gallup found in an October 2011 survey that national gun ownership was at its highest mark in two decades. Women and left-leaning voters had the biggest bounces, according to the poll. The Dayton Daily News found earlier this year that one in five concealed-carry license applicants in the Dayton area were women.

A few years ago, women who bought guns at D&D Shooter's Supply in Chillicothe would browse with a boyfriend or husband and ultimately rely on their guidance for what to buy. Not so much anymore, owner Douglas Terry said.

Women are being catered to by the firearms industry, he said, and he's selling to women who know what they want in a weapon.

"A lot of women are driving back and forth from Columbus, and they seem to be concerned about their safety," he said. "I had a lady in recently who had her purse taken while she was pumping gas."

The Ruger LCP is a short-barrelled, seven-shot pistol that weighs just more than half a pound. Rebecca Hampton, 42, keeps hers in a purse with a built-in holster.

The Newark mother of two said she got her concealed-carry permit in 2009, but before that, she never thought she would be a gun owner.

"I work part time as a Realtor," Hampton said. "I'm going to vacant houses and open houses with people I don't know that well."

There is no definitive answer to the central question: Is the increase in gun purchases fueled by new buyers such as Hampton or by traditional Guns & Ammo subscribers?

About 240,000 concealed-carry licenses have been issued or renewed since 2008, according to statistics from the Ohio Attorney General's Office. Hoover said the fact that that number remains relatively small shows gun enthusiasm isn't spreading.

"We've got 11 and a half million people in Ohio," she said. "We've still got fewer than 3 percent of people who think they have to carry a gun around with them. The other 97, 98 percent don't feel that strongly."

Gazette reporter David Berman contributed to this report.