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Gun enthusiasts are stocking up

Fueled by rumors that the Obama administration will ban assault weapons and heavily tax ammunition, gun enthusiasts are stocking up.

Ben Stipe (left), 49, Oxford, tries out a .45 caliber Taurus PT145handgun as Targetmaster general manager Bob Bonnett looks on. ( ClemMurray / Staff Photographer )
Ben Stipe (left), 49, Oxford, tries out a .45 caliber Taurus PT145handgun as Targetmaster general manager Bob Bonnett looks on. ( ClemMurray / Staff Photographer )Read more

Fueled by rumors that the Obama administration will ban assault weapons and heavily tax ammunition, gun enthusiasts are stocking up.

Handguns, semiautomatic weapons, and all types of ammunition are flying off store shelves, despite the recession.

The FBI reports a 27 percent increase in background checks for guns purchased by federally licensed dealers for the first three months of this year compared with the same period in 2008.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade association, notes on its Web site that manufacturers are working at "full capacity (24/7)" to keep up with the "unprecedented" demand for ammunition.

James Mastroddi, director of the Philadelphia Archery and Gun Club in South Philadelphia, said the furor was probably being caused by the "Obama factor."

Even though the president has pulled back on his campaign promise to reinstate the 1994 assault-weapons ban, and no serious legislation is pending on the state or national level to restrict the sale of weapons or to tax ammunition, many gun enthusiasts remain wary of Obama.

Don't be lulled into a false sense of "complacency," National Rifle Association vice president Wayne LaPierre is urging his members. He predicts it is only a matter of time before the Obama administration launches a campaign "to deny our firearms freedoms."

"There is a fear there, but it is a fear based on facts, not a fear based on lies," said Alexa Fritts, an NRA spokeswoman.

The reaction is evident at gun shops throughout the Philadelphia metropolitan area and across Pennsylvania, which boasts one of the largest hunting and sportsmen communities in America, even if the debate is far more nuanced.

At Bob's Little Sports Shop in Glassboro, N.J., owner Bob Viden senses fear. "People are afraid of what is going to happen next year, next month, or six months down the road," he said.

At Cabela's, a huge gun and ammunition store in Hamburg, about 25 miles northwest of Allentown, manager Bruce Biedenharn isn't sure it's rational. "People are spending their extra money on something due to fear, not because they need it."

But spending they are.

Winchester Ammunition says on its Web site that its operations are "running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week." The Federal Premium Ammunition Web site says demand for its products is at an "all-time high"

Neither manufacturer would take calls on the subject.

"Everybody is busy. There is no downtime," said Mike Shovel, national sales manager for Corbon, an ammunition manufacturer based in Sturgis, S.D. He said Corbon just added six people to its 19-person workforce and expects to hire more to cover the 50 percent increase in orders.

Throughout the Philadelphia area, gun shops can't keep up with the demand.

At the Philadelphia Archery and Gun Club on the 800 block of Ellsworth Street in South Philadelphia, where patrons are scooping up armloads of ammo to a muffled pop, pop, pop from its attached shooting range, director Mastroddi's frustrations are manifest.

Six months ago, he could pick up the phone, order any kind of ammunition he needed from his distributors, and get it.

Now, he said, everything is in short supply.

The largest jump in sales, according to manufacturers, has been in ammunition for handguns.

"There is so much demand, I don't think they can produce it fast enough," said Tom Clayton Jr. of Clayton's Hunting and Fishing in Horsham.

His said his sales for some handgun ammunition has jumped about 125 percent since last year.

Steve Maskin, press secretary to the GOP leader of the Pennsylvania House, Rep. Sam Smith of Jefferson County, finds the partisan emphasis on Obama unfortunate, since Pennsylvania's sportsmen community is made up of Democrats and Republicans alike.

"This gun legislation is not a partisan issue," he said. "I know some people try to make it that way, but it isn't."

Indeed, finding the archetypal gun enthusiast is as difficult these days as purchasing a box of shotgun shells.

Mark Pyle, a hunter from New Castle, Del., has heard about "what Obama might do" but is not bothered by the rumors. He was recently out shopping for a new gun scope at TargetMaster Indoor Firearm Range & Gun Shop in Chadds Ford. Pyle said the only time he buys ammunition is during hunting season.

"I'm not a stockpile person. It is just ridiculous to me," Pyle said.

Ron Helker, 76, of Concord Township, another TargetMaster customer and a target shooter for "50 years on and off," agreed. He said he has not bought any extra ammunition for his hobby. "The rumors are unsubstantiated," said Helker.

But Jack Curro, a competitive target sportsman from Thornton, doesn't see it that way.

He is concerned his Second Amendment rights are in jeopardy.

"The world is becoming very volatile," said Curro, 54. "And, we just want to have something to protect ourselves if it ever gets that bad."

Curro, who handloads his own ammunition, usually keeps enough materials to make 3,000 rounds. Now he has enough for 10,000 rounds, a year's supply. And, he estimates, he and his friends have access to supplies for another 90,000 rounds at his gun club.

That amount might seem excessive, but it is not illegal.

"Ammunition is a legal commodity, and for those with a clean criminal record, they are free to purchase as much as they need for sporting purposes and for their protection," said John T. Hageman, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.