Data: Fear often drives spikes in gun sales

Despite recent surge, Clark is 3rd-lowest among Washington counties

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter



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Are gun buyers being too quick on the trigger?

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Mass shootings in the Northwest

May 1998, Springfield, Ore.: Then 15-year-old Kip Kinkel gunned down his parents, two Thurston High School students and injured a dozen other students.

November 2005, Tacoma Mall: Dominick S. Maldonado, then 20, injured seven in a shooting spree at the Tacoma Mall. The most seriously wounded victim, Brendan “Dan” McKown, was paralyzed. McKown had drawn a pistol and confronted the gunman before he was wounded.

November 2009, Parkland: Maurice Clemmons, 37, shot four Lakewood police officers to death in a Parkland coffee shop. He was shot by police two days later.

May 2012, Seattle: Ian Lee Stawicki, 40, killed five people — four at a café and another in a carjacking — before he shot himself.

Vancouver resident Mark Havens learned to shoot his father’s rifles as a kid. He had never owned a gun himself until he bought one this week.

Even though the 43-year-old was already weighing the idea of buying a gun for sport and home defense, he found himself browsing firearms at a time when the issue of gun ownership is more explosive than ever. Last month’s shootings at Clackamas Town Center in the Portland area and Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut thrust gun laws to the forefront of national debate.

“It’s strange timing,” he said. “The political winds are swinging in a direction of panic.”

Data show interest in gun ownership spikes after mass shootings and other major events, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that rattle people’s sense of safety, even though they would probably do more to prolong their lives purchasing running shoes than firearms.

Violent crime and mass shootings grab media attention, but heart disease and cancer lead the causes of death in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children are most likely to die in accidents, not school shootings.

“People fear dying in spectacular ways, when in fact they’re likely to die when they’re old. There’s a disconnect between what people are afraid of and what’s going to get them. Irrationality drives our responses” said Jonathan Wender, who teaches sociology at the University of Washington.

Wender, who holds a doctorate and spent 20 years as a police officer in Montlake Terrace, describes himself as “neither pro- nor anti-gun.”

“People’s decisions to have guns for self-defense should be based on measured consideration of actual risk and hard data rather than a gut-level response to an occasional tragedy,” he said.

With people lining up out the door at the Clark County Sheriff’s Office to apply for concealed pistol permits in recent weeks, however, it’s clear “a lot of people believe it’s in their interest to have a concealed weapon,” said Erin Nolan, chief civil deputy. “It’s very much related to media attention.”

The sheriff’s office observed a similar increase in applications before the 2008 presidential election. Analysis of data on FBI background checks of Washington residents seeking to buy firearms shows a surge then, as well as leading up to other presidential elections and the Y2K crisis that never materialized in January 2000.

But the biggest jump came in December 2012, when three died in a Portland-area mall shooting spree and 28 died in the worst school massacre yet. That month, 74,447 Washingtonians filed background check forms, just about double the usual monthly total.

Even before then, Washingtonians seemed to grow more drawn to guns. In 1999, the FBI performed 133,674 background checks of Washington residents. That number jumped by 39 percent to 519,209 in 2012, exceeding the 18 percent increase in state population.

The number of concealed pistol licenses for Washington jumped from 38,598 in 2005 to 106,201 in 2012, nearly a threefold increase, outstripping the 8 percent population growth during that time frame.

Clark County is relatively light on gun ownership among Washington counties, judging by concealed pistol licenses issued by the state. Washington doesn’t require gun owners to register their firearms, but it does require a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

Clark County residents hold 19,539 concealed weapons licenses. That’s about 45 permits per 1,000 residents. Only King and Franklin counties have lower rates.

License seekers who continue to flock to the sheriff’s office may push that rate higher.

There’s no way to say for sure what’s motivating them. No question on the application asks about that. The licenses are exempt from Washington’s open records laws.

“People want (these mass shootings) to stop, so I think some people in that fearful mentality are thinking that guns are the solution,” said Heidi Yewman of Vancouver, who serves on the board of the national Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Yewman, 45, became a vocal advocate for gun control after her former teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado was killed in the shooting there in 1999.

It’s not fear of violence but of gun control that spurs gun purchases, said Dick Vrooman of Vancouver. The 80-year-old has been shooting competitively since 1957.

“It’s not self-defense so much as the Second Amendment — having the ability to buy a firearm,” Vrooman said.

Or maybe it’s a combination of both. People want to get their hands on guns — before anticipated restrictions — in order to defend themselves.

Lynda Wilson, 54, started shooting five years ago. She initially became interested in guns for sport, then her focus shifted to self-defense.

“I’m only 120 pounds,” Wilson said. “A gun gives me the ability to defend myself against any guy in any situation.”

Wender, the police officer-turned-college instructor, said that doesn’t always work out.

“People underestimate the training and experience necessary to use a gun safely in a self-defense situation,” he said. “I have seen cases where people have protected themselves with a gun. I have seen even more cases in which a gun is in an accident, a child finds it, it’s used in a suicide or domestic violence. The truth tends to lie between the extremes.”

Erin Middlewood: 360-735-4516;; .

Concealed Weapons Licenses for Washington