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 Wednesday at a San Bernardino social services center — 5 miles from Gun Boss Armory — made him decide to buy a gun.
"It was a little too close to home," he said.
Nicholson was one of a number of rattled customers streaming into gun stores this week in and around San Bernardino County, a relatively conservative region where gun culture has deeper roots than in California's more affluent coastal cities. As politicians and gun-control advocates seize 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.
San Bernardino 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. This week, a number of those stores appeared to be doing a brisk business as people sought a way to defend themselves.
"Now people are scared," said Terry McGuire, owner of the Get Loaded gun store in Grand Terrace.
McGuire estimated that business at his store increased 25% since last week, and that he had more than the usual number of women customers. A stack of background check forms was on the counter one afternoon this week, waiting to be run for prospective buyers.
Federal data on local background checks for firearm sales — the most reliable indicator of trends in the gun trade — are not yet available for the days since Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik opened fire on Farook's co-workers at an office holiday party. But there are indications that the tragedy has catalyzed a new interest in guns in the Southland, especially in the firearm-friendly counties that spread east and south of left-leaning Los Angeles.
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 volume.
Orange County Sheriff's Lt. Jeff Hallock said his office received 130 applications for concealed-weapons permits last weekend, up from the usual average of about 30. Sheriff's officials in Riverside and San Diego counties also said they had seen new interest from people in concealed-weapons permits.
"Public interest and questions usually increase subsequent to a high-profile tragedy such as San Bernardino," San Diego County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Jan Caldwell said.
Surges in gun sales have at times appeared to be 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 records.
Yet there are signs that the gun rush after the San Bernardino shooting is different in California and elsewhere. Firearms dealers said previous increases in their business 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.
Liz Robinson, who teaches a course for concealed-weapon permit applicants at Ted's Shooting Range in the Phoenix area, said the increase in customers over the last several days has resembled what she saw after the Newtown shooting — although the customers' motives are different.
"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 feelings are what led Doug Crossman, 32, of San Bernardino County to Gun Boss Armory on Monday. 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.
"This is basically home protection," Crossman said. "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."
Gun purchases overall are steadily increasing in California, a state whose firearm laws are among the toughest in the nation.
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 with 1.47 million last year.
That trend has been mirrored nationwide. 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.)
Such sentiments aren't universal. In Los Angeles 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-weapons permit applications or requests for applications.
At Lytle Creek Firing Line, a shooting range deep in the scrub-covered hills of the San Bernardino National Forest, a different attitude prevailed.
Range safety officer Ivan Clevenger, 72, said he usually leaves home with a gun — he said he has a permit to carry a concealed weapon — and that he doesn't feel out of place in San Bernardino County.
"They like the idea of armed citizens," he said of his fellow residents as he sat in the trailer that serves as an office while gunfire boomed in the background. "You still have a lot of rural attitude out here."
Times staff writers Taylor Goldenstein and Nigel Duara contributed to this report.
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