Wednesday, December 19, 2012
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Saturday sets state record for gun background checks in Virginia

The combination of recent news and the holiday season has firearms moving fast.

Atlas Tactical co-owner Brooke Stallings handles a rifle for sale in her shop on U.S. 460 near Pembroke in Giles County on Tuesday. The shop, which sells a variety of guns and shooting supplies, has seen an increase in sales over the weekend.

Photos by Matt Gentry | The Roanoke Times

Atlas Tactical co-owner Brooke Stallings handles a rifle for sale in her shop on U.S. 460 near Pembroke in Giles County on Tuesday. The shop, which sells a variety of guns and shooting supplies, has seen an increase in sales over the weekend.

Atlas Tactical co-owner Brooke Stallings handles a rifle for sale in her shop on U.S. 460 near Pembroke in Giles County on Tuesday. The shop, which sells a variety of guns and shooting supplies, has seen an increase in sales over the weekend.

Atlas Tactical co-owner Brooke Stallings handles a rifle for sale in her shop on U.S. 460 near Pembroke in Giles County on Tuesday. The shop, which sells a variety of guns and shooting supplies, has seen an increase in sales over the weekend.

Atlas Tactical co-owner Brooke Stallings sets up a military-style rifle with a bipod in her shop on U.S. 460 near Pembroke in Giles County

Atlas Tactical co-owner Brooke Stallings sets up a military-style rifle with a bipod in her shop on U.S. 460 near Pembroke in Giles County

Many of the people who came shopping at Atlas Tactical over the weekend talked of the shootings in Connecticut, the owner said, and the possibility of new gun bans.

Many of the people who came shopping at Atlas Tactical over the weekend talked of the shootings in Connecticut, the owner said, and the possibility of new gun bans.

NEWPORT — Cars and trucks filled the parking lot of Atlas Tactical on Tuesday, a small Giles County gun shop on the side of U.S. 460 not far from Virginia Tech.

Customers filled out forms for instant background checks and brought in used guns to trade for new ones, particularly the popular AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.

Shop owner Brooke Stallings said she sold three of the military-style rifles on Tuesday alone. And she said sales of all firearms in the shop were up over the weekend following the tragic shootings in Newtown, Conn.

Adam Lanza, 20, killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, 52, in the family home Friday. Police have said Adam Lanza then broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School and opened fire in classrooms with a Bushmaster .223 rifle, fatally shooting 20 children and six adults before killing himself.

Many customers coming into Stallings' shop since Friday talked about the Sandy Hook shootings, she said, and about the possibility that Congress will now tighten gun regulations, including the possibility of a new ban on AR-15 rifles such as the Bushmaster.

That fear, added to regular Christmas firearms sales, helped set a record in Virginia over the weekend.

The day after the Sandy Hook tragedy, the Virginia State Police Firearms Transaction Center processed 4,166 instant background checks done through licensed gun dealers.

It was the "highest volume of transactions received in one day since implementation of the FTC program in 1989," state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller wrote in an email.

The actual number of gun sales could be higher. A customer who passes a background check may purchase multiple firearms, Geller wrote.

Furthermore, background checks are not required in Virginia for private firearms sales.

The fear of new and more stringent regulations may not be unfounded, particularly for weapons such as the AR-15, which can take high-capacity magazines of up to 30 rounds. From 1994 to 2004, the federal government banned assault weapons, including magazines with a capacity of 10 or more rounds routinely sold today. Efforts to renew that ban in 2008 following the April 16, 2007, shootings at Virginia Tech were rejected.

But some lawmakers, even conservatives, have signaled in recent days that they might support new regulations in the wake of the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

The attack at Tech, during which 32 students and faculty were killed, remains the country's largest mass shooting.

Gun advocates, including Stallings, argue that the answer lies not in further restrictions, but in allowing law-abiding citizens the same or even easier access to weapons.

"I don't think they are the cause," Stallings said of the popular tactical-style rifles. "I don't think taking them away will do any good."

Furthermore, Stallings said, there are legitimate reasons to own AR-15 rifles, including hunting and competitive target shooting.

"I hunt with one myself," Stallings said.

The gun-buying rush is not surprising, said Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.

Firearms sales typically increase before Christmas and after elections and high-profile crimes. And by itself an increase in sales is not a major concern for law enforcement.

"The concern for police is not how many people own guns," Schrad said. "It's how many people use guns illegally to kill or injure others."

Activists on both ends of the gun debate are already in full cry — arguing for everything from requiring public school teachers to carry guns in the classroom to absolute firearms bans.

But according to Schrad, for law enforcement and school officials there is a brand new discussion to have: Should we put school resource officers in elementary schools?

"We've never had to address that," Schrad said.

Police have for years been assigned to public high schools, and even middle schools where problems such as illegal drugs and bullying are more common. But should communities expand those programs to primary schools?

The discussion comes at a time when funding for new programs may be hard to get. In fact, some communities in Virginia have already pulled school resource officers out of high schools. As federal grants and other funding has decreased, many agencies have "scaled back to basic law enforcement," Schrad said.

But the loss of 20 first-graders to gun violence has shocked the nation, and new questions will require new answers.

"We have to respond reasonably," Schrad said. "There are a lot of neutral voices in the middle. It will take time to think through it."

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