L.A. Now

Suddenly, there's a surge in interest to buy guns around San Bernardino

After Gun Boss Armory opened for business Monday morning in a Redlands strip mall, Matt Nicholson was among those who walked through the door.

"I've never owned a gun before," Nicholson told an employee behind the counter, who handed him a silver Beretta handgun from a display case.

Nicholson, a 23-year-old Redlands resident, said he had thought about buying a firearm in the past. But the attack that claimed 14 lives at a San Bernardino social services center on Wednesday — about five miles away from Gun Boss Armory — made up his mind.

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"It was a little too close to home," he said.

Nicholson was among a number of rattled customers streaming into gun stores this week in San Bernardino County, a relatively conservative region where gun culture has taken root more deeply than in California's affluent coastal areas.

The county has about six gun stores per 100,000 residents, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- twice the per-capita concentration of neighboring Los Angeles County.

As politicians and gun-control advocates have seized on the San Bernardino shooting as a reason to restrict firearm access, many of those on the front lines of the tragedy are seeking to arm themselves.

"This is basically home protection," said Doug Crossman, a 32-year-old resident of nearby Mentone who was also shopping at Gun Boss Armory. He said his wife works about a mile from the site of Wednesday's shooting and had been badly shaken by it, leading the couple to decide to buy a handgun.

"I'd rather be sitting on the phone with the cops with a gun in my hand than on the phone praying nobody's going to shoot," Crossman said.

Federal data on local background checks for gun sales since Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik opened fire on Farook's co-workers at an office event are not yet available. But there are indications that the tragedy has catalyzed a new interest in firearms in the Southland, especially in the firearm-friendly counties that spread east and south of left-leaning L.A.

San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputy Adam Cervantes said 75 applications for concealed-weapons permits were submitted last weekend, about seven times the department’s normal application volume.

Orange County Sheriff's Department Lt. Jeff Hallock said his office saw 130 applications for concealed-weapons permits last weekend, up from the roughly 30 applications that typically come in. Sheriff's officials in Riverside and San Diego counties said they had likewise seen new interest from people asking about concealed-carry permits.

"Public interest and questions usually increase subsequent to a high-profile tragedy such as San Bernardino," San Diego County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Jan Caldwell said.

Surges in the gun trade have at times appeared directly linked to horrific shootings. In December 2012 — the month that Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — more background checks for legal U.S. gun sales were performed than during any other month over the 17 years of available federal records.

Yet there are signs that the post-San Bernardino gun rush is different. Firearms dealers say previous spikes in sales after massacres were driven in large part by fear that impending government regulation could cut off the weapons supply. By contrast, the current wave of interest has a different and more basic impulse: self-preservation.

Terry McGuire, owner of the Get Loaded gun store in Grand Terrace, estimated that business at his store had jumped 25% since the San Bernardino massacre.

McGuire said he thought the surge of interest in purchasing weapons was different from what he witnessed after the Sandy Hook school shooting, when many Americans sought to stockpile firearms and ammunition in case more restrictive gun laws went into effect.

The reaction to the San Bernardino shooting is more visceral, he said.

"Sandy Hook was more, 'I need to get a gun because they're going to take them,'" McGuire said. "Now people are scared."

Such fear has spread well beyond San Bernardino County.

Liz Robinson, who teaches a course for concealed-weapon permit applicants at Ted's Shooting Range in Phoenix, echoed McGuire's view. While her uptick in business has resembled the one she saw after the Newtown shooting, she said, her customers' motives have not.

"They're not coming in saying the government is going to take our guns," she said. "The feeling I'm getting is they don't want to be caught without a way to protect themselves."

Such sentiments are not necessarily universal. In L.A., a county whose history of gang violence and overwhelmingly Democratic politics have dampened enthusiasm for firearms, Sheriff's Department Cmdr. Keith Swensson said there had not been any increase in concealed-carry permit applications or requests for applications.

Gun sales overall are steadily increasing in California, a state whose firearm laws are among the nation’s strictest.

Through November, the number of background checks performed in California had already surpassed any previous yearly total since 1999, the earliest full year of available data from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. More than 1.5 million people had their backgrounds checked in the state, compared to 1.47 million for all of last year.

That trend has been mirrored nationwide, even as scores of people have died in recurring shooting massacres. After mass shootings this year in South Carolina, Tennessee and Oregon, the Friday after Thanksgiving was the single busiest day for gun dealers since at least 1998.

On the same day, a gunman killed three people, including a police officer, at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

12:51 p.m.: This article has been updated to add that the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department saw a jump in concealed weapons permit applications last weekend.

This article was originally published at 11 a.m.

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