Nearly 50,000 South Carolinians tried to get guns or permits to carry the weapons in December — more than in any other month in history.
The spike, shown through statistics from the FBI’s criminal background check system, came during a holiday season when President Barack Obama hinted at the new gun control measures he was planning for the new year.
It was a fitting cap on a 2015 that was the system’s busiest year nationwide and the second-busiest in the Palmetto State, next only to 2013, when enthusiasts flooded gun shops and shows in the wake of a mass shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The data make it clear that South Carolinians’ interest in gun ownership isn’t fleeting even as talk of new laws and regulations ramps up. Instead, it’s strengthening and spreading to people who had never before considered such a purchase, some local dealers said. But the phenomenon could prove to further burden the system that didn’t catch admitted drug user Dylann Roof’s gun purchase until after he showed up with the pistol in June at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church and nine people were fatally shot.
Representatives on both sides of the gun control debate attributed the upward swing to each other. Gun rights advocates and sellers see Obama’s comments after mass shootings as their best marketing tool that drives Americans to buy. Their foes see it as a false hysteria that the government is going to take away guns.
Neil Schacte has been selling guns for 36 years. Customers lined up through the doors of his West Ashley store, Carolina Rod & Gun, after the Connecticut shooting.
“People respond with a knee-jerk reaction when politicians start talking about strict controls because they never know what that’s going to involve,” he said. “Now, I’m seeing a lot of older folks, seniors who put off buying a gun their whole lives until coming in here and choosing something ... for self-defense.”
‘The right message’
Each time someone wants to buy a gun from a federally licensed dealer like Schacte, a questionnaire is filled out and relayed by telephone to the FBI, whose examiners work to determine whether that person is legally allowed to have a firearm. The government has kept tabs on the number of times the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, has been used since its 1998 beginning.
The number doesn’t equal the amount of firearms sold because some requests are denied (people can appeal), some buyers get more than one gun and other checks are done when someone applies for a South Carolina concealed weapons permit. Permit holders can buy guns without a NICS check.
In 2015, 327,000 checks were submitted statewide, the FBI’s data show. The record was set at 335,000 in 2013 on the heels of the December 2012 shooting that killed 26 people at the elementary school.
The boost late last year was a reflection of brisk business at local shops like Schacte’s. For much of 2015, sales had been static as supplies finally caught up with the demand driven by the school shooting, Schacte said. And in June, he saw Charlestonians grieve over the deaths at Emanuel AME, but they weren’t expanding their arsenals.
On average, fewer than 30,000 checks were done monthly in the state until November, when the number topped that mark. Black Friday, a harbinger of the holiday shopping season, was the busiest single day ever for background checks nationwide. Palmetto State Armory, whose five stores in South Carolina include a Mount Pleasant location, lured shoppers through roadside billboards. One said, “Five golden rings,” and showed the head stamps of brass cartridges loaded into a five-shot revolver.
By Christmas, word of Obama’s plans to sign executive orders on gun control had spread. When December was through, about 48,000 NICS checks had been done — 5,000 more than the previous high mark set in the month of the Connecticut shooting.
Often after the president vows to close so-called loopholes — the kinks in law that can lead to criminals or the mentally ill getting guns when they shouldn’t — Merrill Chapman has noticed these spikes in gun sales. To Chapman, president of the local chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, they just beget more violence.
“I’m fearful that people aren’t hearing the right message,” she said. “They think the government is going to come take their guns, but more guns in the hands of more people promises more violence.”
‘Grasping at straws’
Part of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, the NICS program has aimed to keep firearms out of criminals’ hands. But in some cases, it hasn’t kept up with increasing demand.
When Roof asked to buy a .45-caliber Glock from Shooter’s Choice, a licensed retailer in West Columbia, an FBI examiner at the system’s headquarters in West Virginia set out to find information about a past arrest of his. But because of a clerical error, the employee never got the police report that indicated his admission of drug use, which bars him from gun possession. After three business days, the dealer was allowed to sell Roof the gun even though the check wasn’t done. Some retailers opt to wait until the check comes through.
After Roof’s alleged crimes, Obama spoke in favor of new measures. The plan he announced earlier this month would expand NICS checks from a 17-hour to a round-the-clock service and would improve notification of local authorities when a prohibited person tries to make a purchase. To do that, the FBI will hire 230 more examiners. Attorney General Loretta Lynch told a congressional committee last week that the moves will help make Americans safer.
“But I also have no illusions that these measures by themselves will end gun violence in America,” she said. “At a time when there is so much work to be done ... there are many areas where only Congress can act.”
Her words, though, can motivate more people to seek out weaponry at stores like Schacte’s. And as the background check system becomes more taxed by the demand, Schacte said it has gotten slower. He supports the NICS effort, but few people whose names are submitted by his store are denied, he said, indicating that retail customers like his typically are law-abiding.
But ensuring that criminals don’t slip through the system’s cracks is what Butch Kennedy hopes new legislative proposals will accomplish. As director of the local anti-violence advocacy group Project Unity USA, he backs state and federal bills to bolster the system.
But he’s also a strident defender of Second Amendment rights. He’s thinking about purchasing a second firearm, he said, and will have to submit to a check once he picks out one.
“People who are committing crimes generally aren’t going to a gun shop and getting a background check,” Kennedy said. “The criminals are always finding some other way to get a weapon. Until we focus on that, we’re grasping at straws.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.
Dylann Roof poses on April 27 with the .45-caliber Glock 41 he had purchased earlier that month. His drug use should have barred him from buying a gun, but a background check wasn’t done in time, and a West Columbia store was permitted to sell him the pistol he reportedly used in the June 17 killings of nine people at Emanuel AME Church.×
President Barack Obama has spoken often about gun control since the deaths at Emanuel AME Church, including during the eulogy he delivered in Charleston for Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s slain pastor.×
At the Justice Department in Washington, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announces the arrest of Dylann Roof in June. She has since supported the president’s moves to bolster the FBI’s criminal background check system that didn’t catch a gun purchase by Roof that authorities said shouldn’t have happened.×
Scott Hornsby, a Carolina Rod & Gun manager, in January 2013, shows off a military-style rifle that was the target of criticism that month, shortly after the shooting of 26 people at a Connecticut elementary school.×