Gun sales in Hampton Roads are down, and experts aren't surprised

Contact Reporterkmishkin@dailypress.com

Nine months ago, Ray Furr could predict who was going to come through the door at Superior Gun & Pawn in Hampton.

It likely was someone looking for a rifle or shotgun. Many of his customers were buying the guns they always wanted, worried laws may change after the 2016 presidential election.

Now, he said he is seeing new faces. The majority of his customers are first-time buyers, women and millennials — people who, according to polls, didn't vote for President Donald Trump.

Fewer people are buying guns. Ten percent fewer background checks have been conducted between January and June 2017 than in the same time frame last year, data from the FBI shows. In Virginia, federal background checks jumped about 20 percent between November 2015 and November 2016.

Experts point to politics. Gun owners, worried their rights would be taken away with a Democrat in office, scrambled to buy guns before the 2016 presidential election.

"People who didn't have one got scared and bought guns, and the ones who already had one bought what they wanted," said Gary Dohey, owner of Hilton Sport & Hobby Shop in Newport News.

But with Republican control of the White House and Congress, potential buyers aren't as worried gun sales will be regulated.

It's a trend so easily predicted, anyone familiar with the gun industry hardly flinches when sales go up or down.

"Everyone knows it," Dohey said by phone. "It's hardly worth writing about."

Gun distributors aren't required to report or regulate sales, but data kept by the FBI on federal background checks is a good indicator of trends, said Lori Haas, Virginia State Director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Experts warn it's not a complete picture — someone may complete a background check and not buy a gun. Or, someone may complete a single check to buy six guns.

Private sales don't require a background check in Virginia.

"We don't know how many guns were actually purchased," said Cassandra Crifasi, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Virginia State Police doesn't regularly track gun sales, but a database shows 526,660 guns were sold throughout Virginia in 2016. Only 1,709 more background checks were completed.

Gun sale data from 2008 and 2012 was not available as state police records don't go back that far.

On a recent afternoon at Superior Gun & Pawn in Hampton, there was a steady flow of customers. Rifles and shotguns sales are low, but handgun sales are steady, Furr said. The store sold 2,985 guns in 2016, according to state police.

Deryk Robinson, who came to Superior's gun range, said he didn't stock up on guns before the election.

"But that's the case with a lot of us," he said, referring to his friends in the Navy.

If he had enough money, he said he'd buy a gun with every paycheck.

"I always carry, just in case there's a threat," he said. "I need to protect myself and my daughter."

Furr's familiar with the ebb and flow of gun sales. Customers used to come in all the time, worried then-President Barack Obama would regulate gun sales any moment.

"(Obama) never intended to take your guns away," Furr said. "They can't take your rights away."

The same thing happened in 2013, on the heels of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, when a man in Connecticut fatally shot 28 people, including himself.

"We'll never see anything like that again," Furr said. "Gun sales just went ballistic."

He said he has noticed focus is shifting toward self-defense and empowerment.

"Women are tired of being victims of crime," he said. His store has lowered the cost of guns, so sales remain steady, he said. A handgun averages $300.

Sales remain low at Superior Gun & Pawn's Virginia Beach location, though. There are guns sitting on the shelves that have been there nine months, owner Jay Dunbar said.

"We're scratching our heads," he said.

It won't last long, experts say.

"Any time there's a fear of regulation, that's probably going to be the main driver, and if that fear is no longer there, you'll see the opposite effect," Crifasi said.

Nick Mazarakis, a Newport News-based hairdresser, said he bought his first gun before he moved alone into an apartment downtown in 2014. Last week, he stood at the counter at Superior Gun & Pawn in Hampton to buy his third gun.

"People put fear in you," he said.

Mishkin can be reached by phone at 757-641-6669.

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