Gun sales boomed in Sacramento and across California to record levels last year as horrific mass shootings reignited the gun control debate, new state figures show.
A growing number of Sacramento-area gun dealers – about 200 and counting – sold a total of 74,000 firearms in 2012, roughly 20,000 more than in the previous year.
That's enough guns to provide a new firearm to every resident in the city of Folsom. And sales are still going strong.
"We anticipate higher numbers for the end of 2013," said Michelle Gregory, spokeswoman for the California Department of Justice, which tallies the figures based on dealers' records of sale.
The trend has its roots in a series of high-profile mass shootings last year – and the gun control debate that followed, several gun dealers and buyers said.
In December, Adam Lanza opened fire in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 children and six adults and then himself. That attack followed a July shooting in which a gunman shot and killed 12 people and injured 58 more during a movie screening in Aurora, Colo. James Holmes faces charges in the shooting and has entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.
Following those killings, state and federal legislators proposed a range of gun control measures.
At the federal level, most of those proposals have not become law. But in California, already one of the toughest states in which to buy a gun, legislators continue to debate and approve gun control bills.
Gun sales, already trending upward, jumped as buyers rushed to beat legislators to the punch.
By the end of 2012, California gun dealers had sold 818,000 firearms, roughly 215,000 more than in the prior year – and more than any in a year on record.
A slew of new gun shops opened to meet demand. The Sacramento region now has twice as many gun dealers as it does McDonald's restaurants.
Those stores have trouble keeping guns and – in particular – ammunition in stock.
"The first thing that people do when you tell them you can't do something is to go and do it," said Adam Fahlbusch, manager of the Big Horn Gun Shop in the El Dorado County community of El Dorado.
Residents buy guns for hunting, target shooting and protection. Advocates for gun rights argue that putting firearms in the hands of responsible owners deters crime. Criminals, they say, don't want to get shot.
The relationship between crime and guns, though, is not clear.
Violent crime rose last year across the region and state, along with gun sales. But violent crime declined over the previous 10 years; again, as gun sales increased.
Several gun dealers, gun owners and law enforcement officials said one reason for that disconnect is because criminals don't walk into a gun store to buy weapons. Instead, they often use stolen guns, weapons obtained on the black market, or guns obtained illegally from other states.
"I've carried a gun since 1977," said Wesley Lewis, owner of Guns N Stuff in North Highlands. "And I've never pulled it. It's the crazy people.
"The crazy people, they don't care – they're crazy. The gangbangers and hoodlums – they don't follow laws anyway."
Gun control advocates, however, point out that several recent mass shootings have featured assault weapons that are easily obtained from many gun stores.
Melissa Bauman, a UC Davis neuroscientist and president of the Sacramento-Davis chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said such shootings show the nation needs better background checks, a ban on assault weapons and increased restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Most gun owners wouldn't be affected by those reforms, she said.
"For a long time, the gun lobby has really controlled the national conversation," she said. "They are very effective at conveying information that could lead people to believe that any compromise would keep them from owning guns."
Meanwhile, high demand for guns and ammunition has created a shortage and driven up prices.
At Guns N Stuff, a small shop partly devoted to fishing supplies, Lewis finds it tough to get guns from suppliers fast enough to keep his shelves stocked.
A couple of years ago, Lewis sold about 45 guns a month. At the height of the fervor over Newtown, he was selling 100. Now, he's selling about 70.
"Two months ago," he said, "I opened my doors and had three handguns. Usually, I have 45."
Chiew Saechao recently came into Lewis' store to buy a Smith & Wesson M&P 9 mm compact handgun for about $550. He said he has seen less selection of popular guns at shops over the past year.
"I buy for the range, protection, everything," he said, attributing the rise in gun sales to "the laws and stuff. It's these crazy things that people are hearing."
Ammunition is especially tough to find, Saechao and others said.
Manufacturers aren't making bullets fast enough to meet demand, Fahlbusch said. And opportunists are clearing the shelves at mass-market stores to sell ammo on the black market.
One of Saechao's friends, who declined to give his name, asked if Lewis had ammunition for a gun that caught his eye. Lewis shook his head.
When demand exceeds supply, prices tend to rise.
"I've seen a 500 pack of .22 (caliber) long rifle ammo going for $80 to $100 at some gun shows," Fahlbusch said, adding that the same ammo would normally sell for about $25.
Both Lewis and Fahlbusch said gun sales have slowed some since immediately after the Newtown shooting, but remain brisk.
Statewide, dealers sold almost 150,000 guns in April and May, up about 25 percent from the same months in 2012, Department of Justice figures show.
"As long as demand is like this," Lewis said, "I think we are going to be a little bit behind."
Call The Bee's Phillip Reese, (916) 321-1137.