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Gun background checks on the rise nationally
Local sales fall below Obama-era high
Bilson's guns
According to Bilson’s Sport Shop owner Brad Bilson, the Turlock store’s gun counter hasn’t seen an increase in sales recently, though he has noticed a rise in gun transfers (Journal file photo).

The weekend after Thanksgiving is the biggest shopping event of the year, and gun purchases are no exception. With background checks on gun purchases at the national level climbing toward a record high this year — thanks majorly in part to Black Friday alone — the trend reflects what the industry says is a rush to buy weapons in response to calls for tighter restrictions. Turlock, however, is not necessarily following this nationwide trend.

By the end of November, more than 25.4 million background checks had been conducted throughout the country by the FBI, putting 2019 on pace to break 2016’s record of 27.5 million during President Barack Obama’s last full year in the White House. On Black Friday alone, the FBI ran 202,465 checks.

According to Bilson’s Sport Shop owner Brad Bilson, the Turlock store’s gun counter hasn’t seen an increase in sales recently, though he has noticed a rise in gun transfers. These are the sales of guns from one citizen to another and also require the purchaser to submit to a background check.

“It means a lot of people bought guns over the years with Obama and bought them out in a frenzy,” Bilson said. “Come to find out, they don’t really use it and it just sits around, so they sell it and have to do a transfer. Artificially, it looks like there are a bunch of new guns being sold but really there aren’t.”

Bilson said that gun sales at his store were “crazy” when Obama was president, as more restrictive gun laws were put into place while the Democrat was in office. Now, sales are back to “pre-Obama normal,” in the years since Republican President Donald Trump took office.

“Gun sales now are just pretty steady,” he said. “They’re flat — not too low, but not high.”

The industry has struggled through what has been referred to as the Trump Slump, a falloff in sales that reflected little worry among gun owners about gun control efforts.

“The Trump Slump is real, but the politics of guns has changed a little bit over the last year,” said Adam Winkler, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law and an expert on gun rights and politics. “As we’re coming up upon another presidential election, Donald Trump is vulnerable, and the democratic presidential contenders are falling all over themselves to propose more aggressive gun reforms than their opponents.”

In Bilson’s experience, he’s noticed gun purchases increase tenfold in the months before a new, restrictive law is implemented. In 2016, California’s Legislature banned the purchase of semi-automatic, centerfire rifles or semi-automatic pistols that lack a fixed magazine and have one of a number of features, including a protruding pistol grip or a folding or telescoping stock.

Prior to the implementation of the law, Bilson saw a boost in his shop’s weapons sales in a short amount of time. Before the ban, assault weapons comprised just 10 percent of the store’s gun sales. After the law was announced, sales jumped by 70 percent.

The state’s gun laws became even stricter in 2019 due to a number of new regulations, including a law that prohibits those under the age of 21 from purchasing a long gun, like a rifle or shotgun, unless they are active law enforcement, military or have their hunting license.

At the national level, however, Trump has been viewed as one of the most gun-friendly presidents in modern history and has boasted of strong support from the National Rifle Association. Still, hopes of expanded gun rights under Trump’s watch haven’t materialized, with legislation that would make it easier to buy silencers stalling in Congress and a ban on bump stocks pushed through recently by the president.

The industry has been going through one of its toughest periods, with some gunmakers, such as Remington arms, filing for bankruptcy. At Bilson’s, Black Friday didn’t bring the same high sales seen around the country, but the store also hasn’t suffered the same fate as many gun dealers across the nation.

“We’re not only just a gun store, so we don’t suffer the highs and lows like others,” Bilson said. “We did see an increase in sales over the weekend, but it wasn’t too crazy. It was just a good weekend.”

The gun industry says the background check increases reflect the Second Amendment politics of the White House race, but it’s still too soon to declare the Trump Slump over. Checks have steadily increased since 2006, except for in 2014 and 2017. In 2018, there were 26.18 million background checks.

"Gunmakers are promoting the idea that you should buy these guns now because they may be banned in the future," Winkler said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.