Interest in guns stays high

March 27, 2013 01:59 pm

Wallowa, Union counties see significant increase in concealed handgun permit requests

by KATY NESBITT / The Observer 

Gun ownership is one more issue that runs along the urban/rural divide, the imaginary line that divides philosophies between city dwellers and their country cousins. 

Ten percent of Wallowa County residents have concealed handgun permits, according to the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office. 

“There’s a significant difference in totals this year,” Wallowa County Sheriff Steve Rogers said.  

In 2012, 38 women and 64 men applied for new concealed weapon permits, and 70 women and 137 men applied for renewals. In the first three months of 2013, 29 women and 58 men were first-time applicants. The biggest increase has been women in the past four years. In 2009, only 14 women applied for the permit.

“I think people are concerned about whether the government will behave itself,” said county commissioner Susan Roberts, referring to new gun control bills being considered on the state and federal levels.

In Union County, numbers are up drastically as well. 

In 2011, total new applicants and renewals totaled 490. In 2012, there were 588, and since January, the sheriff’s office received 370 applications for new and renewing permits.

Nearly 80 people signed up for two concealed weapon trainings conducted recently in Wallowa County. The classes were taught by Joseph Melow of U.S. Firearms Training in Pendleton. 

“Business is hectic with the political turmoil going on,” said Melow, a certified weapons instructor. 

He teaches Oregon, Utah and Arizona gun safety and regulation courses. If a permit holder has all three trainings, he or she can legally carry a handgun in 34 states.

Melow, who is a firearms instructor at Blue Mountain Community College and teaches classes in Northeastern Oregon communities, said the interest has been overwhelming.

“There’s a lot of concern about the rhetoric and some of the bills introduced on gun control,” he said.

Melow said he’s seen a dramatic decrease in ammunition supply as well as a 300-percent increase in the price of some rounds. In September he paid $270 for 1,000 rounds and now that same box costs $1,000. He said he’s heard that supply could be tight for the next couple of years.

Increases in gun and ammunition purchases across the country have cleared shelves in box stores. In Wallowa County supplies are minimal.

At Joseph Hardware, handgun purchases are up as well as guns with high-capacity magazines, but owner James Johnson said you can still get “long guns,” like shotguns or rifles. Ammunition is scarce all across the board, he said.

“We have multiple suppliers and there’s no ETA. I don’t even ask about availability,” Johnson said.

He said he gets calls on a daily basis about their stock.

“Historically, December is a great month for sales. This year, in January and February, we had record sales,” Johnson said. “We can’t get stuff back in stock and we’re going to be hurting in the future.”

Johnson said he has seen an increase in backpackers and hikers buying handguns for protection from wildlife. Politically, these customers may be very different than his typical gun purchaser, but they, too, are applying for permits. He said it comes down to a matter of being legal.

Johnson said the average citizen in urban areas, who doesn’t hunt or spend time in the back country, may not think to own a gun.

“In an urban area, you think there is always someone to help, whereas in the backcountry you may be alone with no cell service,” Johnson said.

Dan Morse at Wallowa County Grain Growers in Enterprise said he hasn’t seen a huge spike in sales, but this year was better than last. He said with ammunition supplies down, some customers don’t want to buy a gun when they can’t get the bullets to go with it.

Stores in bigger areas are showing empty shelves where ammunition is sold, and the lack of supply is trickling down to the corners of Oregon as well, Morse said. 

“Dealerships are running out of things to sell,” he said.

He said the big rush on sales this winter is slowing down some. A month ago, background checks took four to six hours. Now they are taking about 20 minutes.

Ace Hardware in Enterprise doesn’t sell guns, but it does sell ammunition and its shelves have a limited supply. The clerks said that shotgun shells are still readily available, but most handgun ammunition and .22 shells, used this time of year by squirrel hunters, are hard to come by despite the store having seven different suppliers.