Are gun buyers being too quick on the trigger?

Amid increase in gun sales fueled by recent shootings, local experts urge potential buyers to do research

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

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Note to potential new gun owners: Now is an awful time to buy.

After recent mass shootings and with federal gun laws somewhat in question, people have been flocking to stores and — often, in the case of new buyers — throwing money at whatever gun is still available on the racks without doing any research first, said Nick Pratka, owner of Brightwater Ventures Firearm Sales in Vancouver.

And that’s really not the best way to go about your first purchase, he said.

“Price-gouging is rampant right now,” said Pratka, who’s owned the store since 2010. “We’re kind of operating under the principle that people will remember that we didn’t raise our prices when this is over, but this is a very strange time in the industry.”

At Pratka’s store, guns are marked up about 10 percent to cover shipping, operations and other expenses. A handgun that costs $440 from the manufacturer goes for about $499, he said.

“With the panic, some dealers around here, and many at gun shows, will sell the same gun for $750 to $800, just because they can get away with it right now,” Pratka said.

In 2008-’09, when President Obama was first elected, there was a similar panic. People were afraid that all guns would be banned, so they headed to the stores en masse to buy them, Pratka said.

“Whenever there’s an election, there’s political instability around it, and you get people who buy things because they’re worried they won’t be able to in the future,” Pratka said. “That creates a lot of shortages.”

Like most gun store owners across the country, Pratka has had a hard time keeping ammo and guns — especially handguns — on his shelves in the past two months.

Beyond the political issues, customers are also worried about tragic shootings, including those at Clackamas Town Center mall in the Portland area and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December, he said.

“My phone’s been ringing off the hook,” he said. “People are scared after these (mall and school) shootings. All the safe places no longer seem safe. People are realizing that a critical incident, it could happen so fast, that cops wouldn’t be there in time.”

There’s a common slogan-joke among gun owners, he added: “Why do you carry a gun? Because a cop is too heavy.”

But buying a gun is not something you want to quickly rush into, especially now, he said.

During the 2008-2009 panic, gun manufacturers ramped up production to meet the demand, opening new facilities and hiring more workers. And then, by about April 2009, the panic ended and demand dropped to previous levels.

“Manufacturers … orders got canceled and they got hung out to dry,” Pratka said. “They’re not doing that this time. They’re just keeping their production steady.”

That means there’s no extra supply coming to meet the spike in demand.

Also, buying a handgun in Oregon won’t save you the sales tax if you live in Clark County, he added.

“Because we’re a heavily regulated industry, Washington gets to get its tax,” Pratka said. “If you buy in Oregon, you pay fees to transfer your gun here, there’s paperwork, shipping costs and Washington requires a use tax of 8.4 percent.”

If the current surge in demand is similar to the last one, things should taper off and guns and ammo should return to the shelves by the late spring or summer, he added.

“It’s funny, because after that last panic, nobody said another word about it until this December,” he said.

Beyond the desire to not get ripped off, the real reason you want to avoid buying a gun during a panic is that you won’t get to try a variety of gun types, said Gracie McKee, a National Rifle Association-certified training counselor and chief range safety officer from Vancouver.

Firearms feel different depending on the action, caliber, recoil and other characteristics. When you buy one, you want to make sure you’re getting one that feels right for you, she said.

“When you go shopping for a gun, if the store clerk tells you what you want, don’t give them your money,” McKee said. “It’s a very personal experience. I always say, it’s like buying underwear.”

McKee, 25, runs a gun-related website and blog for women at http://packingpretty.com.

“Everybody’s trying to get all sorts of guns right now,” McKee said. “But you really want to pick something you can control. You really should try a bunch out before you buy one.”

What both McKee and Pratka recommend is going to a range that rents guns to test several of them and how they feel in your hand before deciding what you want.

Two places Pratka recommends for that are the Clark County Gun Club Inc. at the English Pit, an outdoor shooting range in Vancouver, and The Place To Shoot, an indoor range in Portland.

“Always try it before you buy it,” Pratka said. “It’s better to spend $50 or $60 to try several guns at the range than to make a $400 to $600 mistake.”

Another thing to consider while choosing your gun is whether you plan to get a concealed carry permit.

Everybody who buys a gun needs to fill out federal form 4473, which is basically a background check that includes the gun serial number and some questions to screen out felons, drug users and others who are legally forbidden from purchasing a firearm.

“It’s a federal form and it looks complicated, but we fill out a lot of it and in reality it’s pretty easy,” Pratka said.

The firearm seller is required to keep that form on hand and accessible for the FBI or other federal agencies in case the gun is used in a crime.

For a rifle or shotgun, that’s all you need.

For a handgun, buyers who do not already have a concealed carry permit also need to fill out a Washington State Department of Licensing Pistol Transfer Application. The form gathers pretty much the same background information as the federal one, but it goes to the Clark County Sheriff’s Office for verification, which takes about five days, Pratka said.

If you have a concealed carry permit, which takes about 30 days to get from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, you still need to fill out the second form but, usually, you can take your gun home from the store after a phone call check, Pratka said.

If you want to conceal-carry a gun in Oregon, you have to get a different permit than the one in Washington, and you also have to take a four-hour class, Pratka said.

“Oregon is a whole other thing,” he said. “There’s no reciprocity between Oregon and Washington, because they disagree about how their permitting processes are done. That, and I think they both probably want the money from the fees.”

Permits in each state can be used in several other states with reciprocity, though; Washington permits are good in 25 states, including Idaho and Montana. Oregon permits, if you live in Washington, are good in 17 states.

Open carry means you can have the gun on you, but you have to have it visible on your body if you are in public.

“That’s sort of in vogue right now, because it’s a way for people to exercise their gun rights,” Pratka said.

The advantage of concealed carry in a dangerous situation is that dangerous individuals won’t know you have a gun and make you their first target, he said.

“Also, if you want to open carry, go for it — but that tends to draw attention, and some people don’t like that,” he said.

Either way, you can’t bring your gun into areas where firearms are prohibited, such as courthouses and other government buildings — although there are some exemptions in Washington law.

And after you get your gun, it’s a great idea to sign up at a gun range for some training so you know how to use it, McKee added.

“For training, I recommend looking for somebody who has certifications,” she said. “Look at how many hours they’ve taught. How much time they’ve had on the shooting range. And make sure they’re insured.”

A lot of information is available on the Internet, some good and some bad. But learning as much as you can before you purchase one is always a good plan, Pratka and McKee said.

“Usually an informed buyer is a happy buyer,” Pratka said. “You don’t want to get stuck with a gun you don’t like.”

Sue Vorenberg: 360-735-4457; http://www.twitter.com/col_suevo;sue.vorenberg@columbian.com.