RIPON — Richard Hodder browsed the safe room at Barnwood, stopping to examine a firearms storage unit as tall as him.
He swung open the heavy door, unlocking a thought that’s been gnawing at him for more than a month now:
What purpose does an assault rifle serve?
“It’s not for sport,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s for hunting people.”
Hodder, a Turlock resident who recently purchased a rare handgun from Barnwood Arms, represents the mood and plight gripping the country.
He is an out-of-work law enforcement officer, an NRA member with a strong passion for firearms. Hodder believes deeply in the Second Amendment – the right to bear arms – but he’s not naive either.
He’s torn, embroiled in a debate being waged in backyards and bar rooms, on the Web and in the White House.
“My view point has changed. The desire for the Average Joe to have an assault weapon doesn’t outweigh public safety anymore. It just doesn’t,” he said. “I know (the NRA) doesn’t want to hear that, especially from one of its members, but...”
Last month’s tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. – a deadly massacre that claimed 27 lives, including the gunman’s in a murder-suicide – sent chills down his spine.
“That could have been a cousin, an aunt, a nephew,” Hodder said.
He fiddles with the safe door, collecting his thoughts before he explains the depth of his fear. Hodder has relatives that live within minutes of Newtown. He wondered how long it would take for a similar tragedy to rock a community closer to home.
And then it did.
One day after Hodder verbalized his fears on the showroom floor at Barnwood Arms, a Kern County teenager walked onto the campus of Taft Union High School with a shotgun and a pocket full of ammunition.
The 16-year-old shot one student and fired and missed at others before school officials coaxed the shotgun from his hands.
The injured student was listed in critical condition with injuries to the right side of his chest and is expected to pull through, according to a Kern Medical Center physician.
“I’m all four safe, legitimate gun owners. I’m not looking to take away peoples’ rights, but it’s a problem,” Hodder said, speaking specifically about assault-style weapons. “We can’t keep digging our heels into a principle that doesn’t work anymore.”
The fear of new gun legislation and a heightened sense of personal security have produced record sales across America, Barnwood Arms owner Paul Mangelos said.
Barnwood Arms has been a staple of the Central Valley since 1981 and never has it enjoyed a month quite like December.
Sales were through the roof, spurred on by national events and international phenomena: first, there was the re-election of President Barack Obama in November; then the school shooting at Sandy Hook; and finally, Santa Claus.
“It was the perfect storm,” Barnwood Arms employee Gary Boucher. “We’ve seen this before.”
The tale of sale never gets old, though, and Mangelos beams when he recounts December’s highlights. Product flew off the shelves, everything from sport rifles to home-defense shotguns, ammunition and assorted gear.
“It’s been insane in the store — and that’s what you’ll see in all gun stores,” Mangelos said.
“Our shelves are depleted. It’s been the busiest month in our history. I can say that without a doubt. I don’t know if there was a 20 percent bump or a 40 percent bump, but there was a significant increase over what we expected.”
A closer look reveals Barnwood Arms did much better than that.
The store exceeded its December 2011 profits by 78 percent. Barnwood’s hot-ticket items were assault rifles, semi-automatic hand guns and ammunition, and its buyer wore many faces and titles: men, women, hunters and first-timers filled the store.
“Every day, when you walk into the store,” Mangelos said, “the store is filled.”
On this Monday afternoon, he’s spot-on. The floor is alive with sale. As many as 40 people fill the nooks and crannies of this tight-quartered shop.
A gentleman peeks down the barrel of a matte black shotgun, tracking imaginary duck across the ceiling.
Two men tour a back room, where a case of hand guns grab their attention.
A group clusters in a separate wing, where ammo and gear are stored. One man takes a seated position on the floor, rifling through the inventory on the lowest shelf.
Through the tinted windows of the indoor range, targets hang in the distance and the Bang! Bang! of a discharged gun echoes through the walls into the street.
“There’s a winning formula to running a firearms store,” said Boucher, a former Modesto-area gun store owner, “and that winning formula is to (offer everything) —classes, a gunsmith of some sort, a place to shoot the firearms.”
IN SHORT SUPPLY
Still, Barnwood Arms’ full complement of services won’t grant it immunity from the first-quarter hangover forecasted for the firearms industry.
While his store prospers, and the desire to own a gun burns throughout the community, the unavoidable truth is that the industry is struggling to meet the demands of the marketplace.
Has been for awhile now, Mangelos says, and it will all come to a head this month.
Tis the season of the tradeshow.
Mangelos boarded a plane Monday for a small gathering in Las Vegas. His father, Joseph Mangelos, president of Barnwood Arms, has been in South Carolina all week. The two will re-connect next week in Las Vegas for the Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show, a dealers-only convention with a natural draw.
Paul Mangelos left Ripon knowing the gamble that lay ahead in the high desert. Manufacturers have been operating at capacity for half a decade now, and recent events – the November election and the Sandy Hook tragedy – have finally tipped the scale of supply and demand.
“If I had product to sell, I could be selling a lot more,” Paul Mangelos said. “But everyone is out of product. … The inventories in the distributors’ warehouses and factories have dried up in a matter of days.”
Stag Arms, one of the nation’s leading makers of the assault rifle, has stopped taking bulk orders on all rifles, according to its website. The company is also working around the clock – three shifts a day, seven days a week – to complete orders placed before the freeze.
With fewer guns and ammunition available, Modesto’s Feliciano Camarillo raced down to Barnwood Arms Wednesday to purchase a pistol before a possible price hike. Or it was gone.
“I’ve always been involved with guns, from hunting to sport shooting. With everything going on right now, you see everything doubling in price,” he said. “Even ammunition is twice as much.
“It makes you think” about buying now, “especially if you don’t have that extra money.”
Hodder observed the feeding frenzy –customers cradling shotguns, feeling the weight of a pistol in their hand, and fiddling with cartridges. He noticed more blue velvet liner than cold steel in the counters.
And he was there when Barnwood Arms salesman Larry Cruce placed an AR-15 in the hands of Kristi Kramur.
Kramur was shopping for her first gun and was clearly overwhelmed by the weight and ferocity of the assault rifle.
“It’s a cannon,” she said.
Hodder tends to agree.
“It’s the election, coupled with tragedy and the holiday. The combination of the three is why Barnwood is almost sold out,” Hodder said. “When I was in here two weeks ago, they had a clipboard with people on a wait list for ARs. People are afraid that right might be taken away … that they’ll be banned altogether.”