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Originally published December 19, 2012 at 9:24 PM | Page modified December 20, 2012 at 3:19 PM

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Run on guns in Seattle area: Buyers fear limits on military-style weapons

In the wake of the massacre at a Connecticut elementary school last week, gun sales are booming around the Puget Sound area. Dealers say their customers want to buy before anticipated gun-control efforts.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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Saturday afternoon, business at Wade's Eastside Guns was on a record-setting pace, according to owner Wade Gaughran.

Then came Monday, and the real rush began. By Tuesday, the 16,000-square-foot shop in Bellevue had sold out of some of the most popular models, according to Gaughran.

"Since the tragedy, we've been doing three to five times our normal amount of business," he said.

By tragedy, he means the school shootings last Friday in Newton, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were gunned down by a killer using the sorts of popular military-style firearms that Wade's and other area gun shops were having a hard time keeping in stock, even as the particular outrage of these killings sparked another round of hand-wringing over what can be done to stem gun violence.

What may be different this time is that the talk seems serious, with President Obama calling for gun-law changes and even some gun-rights advocates finding it hard to defend the easy accessibility of weapons of the sort that allowed the killer at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week — or the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting in July — to kill so many so quickly.

So gun enthusiasts are rushing to Wade's and other gun shops around Puget Sound, buying weapons and accessories — like high-capacity magazines — that, if the past is any indication, are the likely first targets of gun-control efforts.

"This is kind of the perfect storm for anti-gunners," said Gaughran. "They have their president, they have their Senate and they have their tragedy."

Carry permits

There was a rush on at the King County Sheriff's Office, too, where people lined up to apply for concealed-carry permits. By late-afternoon Monday, permit seekers were standing 10-deep in the lobby, and the clerks had to start turning people away, telling them to come back tomorrow.

"We can only fingerprint so many people at a time," explained Sara Fitzgibbons, the records-unit supervisor.

On Monday, 71 concealed-weapons permits were processed; last year on that same date, the number was 38.

"This is nothing new," said Dave Workman, senior editor of The Gun Mag, a publication of the Second Amendment Foundation in Bellevue. "It's almost a cause-and-effect kind of thing."

Previous runs

In 1994, during the Clinton presidency, just before the passage of legislation that would limit sales of certain-types of semiautomatic firearms and high-capacity magazines, there was a big run on guns and other items that would be illegal to buy later. The same thing happened after President Obama was elected in 2008 — fears about his possible gun-control agenda sent sales through the roof. Gaughran, owner of Wade's, said 2009 was his best year.

The Clinton regulations were allowed to expire in 2004.

Workman said the Clinton-era bans drove a big run on AR-15-style weapons, the civilian version of the weapon used by the U.S. military. A version of that weapon, made by Bushmaster, was used in the Connecticut killings. Infamously, it was the same brand of weapon used by the D.C. snipers during their killing spree in October 2002. That gun was stolen from a Tacoma gun shop.

"People went out and bought AR-15s primarily ... just to have those rifles in case they get banned permanently," Workman said of the Clinton era.

Millions in private hands

The Connecticut gunman, Adam Lanza, used a Bushmaster that was owned by his mother, whom he had killed before his assault on the school, according to police.

The Bushmaster is one of several brands of weapons based on the AR-15. The M-16, a fully automatic version of the weapon, was adopted as the primary firearm of U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War, and a modernized version of it — the M4 — is carried today by U.S. forces around the world.

The civilian version of the weapon is extremely popular as a sporting rifle. It is relatively lightweight, accurate, and most are chambered to fire a .223-caliber round that is plentiful — it's the standard round used by NATO forces — and relatively inexpensive.

"They are the modern sporting rifle for the current generation of young shooters," Workman said. "That's just a fact of life. There are probably several million of them out there in private hands right now."

Back at Wade's, the basic model sells for $800; the higher-end models can run $3,000.

Last week, the shop had about 40 of these semiautomatic rifles displayed on the wall. Tuesday, Gaughran said eight or nine spots were empty.

They have no more. Distributors are out, as well.

"We can't order anything today that we want," he said. "We have a full bank account, and inventory is dwindling. Our distributor is a $300 million company, and they're basically picked clean right now."

He said he already knows what's going to happen next: With limited supply and big demand, prices will likely go up.

Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

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