BLOOMINGTON — While guns and ammunition are flying off store shelves nationwide, they are winding up in fewer homes, according to many studies. But in Illinois, and particularly downstate, ownership trends seem to be bucking the wider national trend of more guns being held in fewer hands.
According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Gallup and the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, gun ownership in the United States has declined in recent decades, though there isn’t agreement on exactly how much. The survey, which has been asking about it since 1973, shows a drop from an average of 50 percent of households in the 1970s to 35 percent today. A Gallup poll shows a less steep decline — from a 51 percent high in 1993 to 43 percent in December.
Yet, Illinois Firearm Owner’s Identification cards, which are required to purchase weapons in Illinois, are being issued at a record pace. The past few years also have seen a record number of new applications. The most saturated months have all occurred since 2009, and the first two months of 2013 for which data is available show even higher interest: January 2013 saw about 61,000 applications, compared to 31,700 in January 2012. By comparison, the number was 21,900 in January 2006. Last month also saw higher applications than any February since 2006 — Illinois State Police received 56,000 applications, compared to 33,800 the year before and just 18,600 in 2006.
The backlog has police recommending those who want to apply for a new card allow 60 days for processing, according to the state police website.
Meanwhile, gun sellers across the country have had trouble keeping inventory on their shelves. Central Illinois gun sellers couldn’t keep up with demand for ammunition in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in December in Newtown, Conn., with stores in the area citing common types of ammunition such as 9 mm pistol or .22-caliber long rifle vanishing from their stores within hours. Likewise, the .223 ammunition used in popular semiautomatic rifles is hard to find.
Stephen Stewart, owner of 10-8 Outfitters in Bloomington, said his store is still having difficulty holding onto ammunition and, in an effort to maintain his stock, has placed limits on how many boxes of bullets an individual buyer can purchase. He’s familiar with a study that says ownership is going down nationwide, yet it’s contrary to what he is seeing in his store.
Stewart estimated about 40 percent of gun buyers at his store are new customers, and many are applying for a FOID card to pick up their first firearm. The volume seems to be consistent with the state’s all-time highs: Stewart said his store is assisting people with FOID card applications at a rate of about 60 new people a week, and has been for months.
“Probably half my customers who come in, I’ve never even seen before,” he said.
Dan Cooley, owner of the Bullet Trap in Macon, also is seeing an influx of new customers.
“We’re offering an NRA basic pistol class, which is sold out 60 days in advance and has been for three months,” Cooley said. “Almost all of them are new shooters.”
Cooley also expressed skepticism in the studies. He thinks some respondents may be saying they don’t have guns because they fear the possibility of someone coming to collect them.
“I would say the real culprit of all this, is that gun owners are no longer acknowledging they have guns in their home,” Cooley said. “Everyone is fearful of a government registration list and then confiscation. I think that’s a big part of it.”
Both businessmen also agree the large number of firearms and ammunition they’re selling to new buyers has something to do with anxiety over the mass shootings of the past year, fear of a tightening of regulations and anticipation that Illinois may soon provide a legal way to carry concealed weapons — as ordered by a federal court.
Nationwide, the story is much the same. The run started in November with President Barack Obama’s re-election, followed by the mass shooting in Newtown, which led the president to launch an effort to strengthen federal gun controls and several states to tighten their laws.
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Connecticut on Thursday became the latest to crack down as the governor signed a measure — effective immediately — that adds more than 100 firearms to the state’s assault weapons ban, creates a dangerous weapon offender registry and institutes eligibility rules for ammunition purchases.
The nation’s 100 million firearms owners are driving the market for 10 billion rounds annually, with demand and gun purchases increasing the past several months, driven partly by fear that tougher laws will restrict the ability to buy firearms, said Lawrence Keane, whose National Shooting Sports Foundation is based in Newtown.
“There’s a concern by firearms owners that this administration will pursue bans on products, bans on ammunition. ... It’s not limited geographically to New York or anywhere else. It is nationwide,” he said.
Some government critics attributed shortages of ammunition to federal purchases, accusing officials of trying to hoard a billion rounds and disarm the populace.
Keane, whose group includes manufacturers, said the reports of massive federal purchases were not true.
The government routinely buys products in bulk to reduce costs, and Homeland Security has said the latest purchases are no different.
Last year, the department put out bids for 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition over the next five years. The rounds are to be used for training, routine weapons qualification exercises and normal duty by various department agencies.
Devan Conley, 21, of Lincoln is one of the many new customers locally, purchasing a Ruger 9 mm semiautomatic handgun from 10-8 Outfitters. It is her first firearm. She sent out her application for an FOID card the day she turned 21. The gun is similar to one she previously fired with her father.
She said the anxieties gun sellers cite are related to the number of people, new and experienced with firearms, who are purchasing weapons now.
“I’ve really wanted a handgun for a while,” Conley said. “More people are picking them up, and a lot of people I know are buying more.”
Cooley also said the probability of a concealed carry law, coupled with the backlog that accompanies getting an FOID card, is driving the number of new applicants and the popularity of safety courses such as The Bullet Trap provides. She plans on enrolling in one soon in anticipation of getting a concealed-carry permit.
“I will definitely be taking classes,” Conley said. “Whatever I have to take to get the concealed carry.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.