December was biggest month for RI gun sales since Sandy Hook

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – December was the busiest month for background checks to purchase guns in Rhode Island since the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012, according to federal data reviewed by Target 12.

Numbers from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) show 3,363 people went through a federal check to purchase a firearm in December. The figure represents a significant increase over the last few years where numbers normally hovered below 2,000 checks per month.

The highest number of background checks for a firearms purchase in the last decade was in December 2012 in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, where 20 children and six staff members were gunned down by 20-year-old Adam Lanza who later turned the gun on himself.

A background check is conducted when someone seeks to purchase a firearm, so it does not represent how many guns were sold during that time. People can purchase more than one weapon in a transaction on a single background check. Potential buyers can also walk away from a sale after going through the process.

Larry Phelps, manager of Hope Valley Bait and Tackle, a Richmond store that sells firearms, said December was a robust month for gun sales. He said sales are up because the government is “trying to tighten the noose” on who can purchase a firearm.

“The honest person wants to have a firearm before they say no,” Phelps said.

The December spike followed the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., where 14 people were killed in a mass shooting.

One customer filling out paperwork to buy a firearm – who asked not to be identified – said it was the Paris bombings that made him consider buying a handgun, and potentially stricter laws that prompted him to actually make the purchase.

“Because of all the laws going on in the state and everything with the government, I believe it’s time,” he said. “I never thought I’d own a gun until everything that has been happening, so I figured it would be time to protect me and my wife.”

In all, 22,129 federal background checks for a firearms purchase were conducted in 2015. The highest number of checks in the last decade was in 2013 when there were 26,666.

The federal data also reveals there has been a dramatic shift in the types of guns Rhode Islanders are buying.

In 2005, there were 4,257 applications for handguns in the state and 4,416 for “long guns,” which are considered rifles and shotguns. In 2015 the data shows there were 11,274 applications for handguns and 8,402 for long guns.

The Gun-Buying Process

A Rhode Island resident looking to purchase a gun must go through two background checks. First the retailer calls the federal government to conduct an NICS check. The government looks at the prospective buyer’s criminal and mental health history as well as immigration status, drug use and if they have recently been indicted with a felony.

In Rhode Island there is a seven-day waiting period and the buyer must also go through a state background check which is handled by the local police department. They examine the individual’s criminal history in the state. Those looking to buy a handgun must also apply for a “blue card” with the Department of Environmental Management which involves taking a test.

Phelps said he can also deny the sale of a firearm to a potential buyer if he has a bad feeling about the person.

“We’ve done it to a few people,” Phelps said. “They get a little upset but I’m doing my job to protect the innocent, I don’t want a gun to get into the wrong hands.”

Phelps said with President Obama’s announcement on Tuesday, he expects sales to continue to rise.

“I’m sure it’s not going to take effect today,” Phelps said. “[But] within that timeframe you’re going to see an increase in sales of both types of guns, long guns and handguns.”

According to the FBI’s website more than 100 million NICS checks have been made in the last decade nationally, with more than 700,000 denials.

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @TimWhiteRI

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