SOUTH JORDAN — For the past two weeks at the Gun Vault, employees say every day has been like Black Friday.
A steady stream of customers moves through the showroom until closing each night while instructional and concealed classes have quickly filled. On the store's indoor range, men in business attire meet their wives for handgun instruction, occasional shooters stop by for overdue target practice and shoppers in the market for something of their own test out a number of rentals.
The holidays are a common time to load up on guns, said Dan Maynard, operations manager at the Gun Vault since the store opened three years ago. But as he has talked with shoppers, the majority this season say they're in the market for self-defense and home protection reasons, not gift giving.
They talk about mass shootings in Paris, Colorado Springs and San Bernardino as they peruse the store's glass cases, saying they intend to be ready should they ever face a similarly lethal situation, Maynard says.
"This has pushed it from being a busy season to being a really busy season," he said. "I think it's just the state of the world in general, they're seeing these reports coming in from all around the world. On the bright side of that, they're saying that, 'Hey, if I'm prepared I can protect myself and my family,' and they're seeing that as an outlet for that (anxiety)."
The motivations are also political, Maynard said, as many respond to national debates about tightening gun laws or restricting access to firearms. However, Maynard believes that over time the feelings of many of these first-time gun buyers will shift from wanting a firearm primarily for protection to genuine enjoyment of shooting.
Background checks record
As background checks for gun purchases were setting a new single-day high nationwide on Black Friday, Nov. 27 — with a new check being processed every two seconds, according to the Associated Press — the same held true in Utah.
The state's background check center with the Bureau of Criminal Identification surpassed its single-day record, processing 2,485 checks during the unofficial shopping holiday, with an estimated 1,300 more being run using existing concealed carry permits. Starting early and working late, the fully staffed division took about 4,000 phone calls that day alone, according to Lance Tyler, Brady Background Check section supervisor for BCI.
The numbers don't represent how many guns were changing hands, Tyler noted, just the number of checks being conducted.
"It was our highest day in the history of the program, and we've been doing this 17 years," he said. "On Black Friday, we have everyone available to work that day in here, we don't give that day off."
The totals for background checks conducted in December won't be available until after the first of the year, but it's clear that the frenetic pace is continuing, Tyler said. In the first week in December, the division processed between 1,000 and 1,200 more checks than it did during the same week last year. Those are the numbers he said he would normally expect in the final days before Christmas.
Despite those already high numbers, there are indications the demand is continuing to climb. According to Tyler, the division conducted between 500 and 600 checks per day on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of last week.
"Normally we would run 300 to 370 checks on those days," he said.
Like the Gun Vault, Impact Guns in Ogden experienced crushing Black Friday traffic, with in-store sales holding steady in the weeks since then. At Get Some Guns and Ammo in Murray, an employee who answered the phone confirmed they, too, have seen a spike in sales but insisted there was no one available to talk about it because of how many shoppers were in the store.
Craig Ball, operations director at Impact, said the store always sees increased sales through the holidays, but that has now compounded with additional gun purchases in the wake of recent mass shootings.
"We always get a bump in sales around this time of the year, this time we got a bump on top of a bump and it's been difficult to keep up," Ball said. "The shooting in California, that put the fear of God in a lot of people. There's no logic, no reason in it, and it has made people think, 'If it could happen there, is any place safe?'"
For Utahns stopping by gun stores, it's easy to see how quickly guns are flying off the shelves.
Brandon Pulsipher, a Cedar Hills resident who bought his first gun for home protection five years ago, hits the range every few months for practice. He's in the market for a new gun and met his brother at the Gun Vault range last week to test out his gun, but every store he has talked to about buying one has reported low inventories.
"I've called a couple of gun shops looking for what I'm trying to buy. It's a gun they normally have, but they're completely out of," Pulsipher said in between range time. "Home-defense kinds of guns are really difficult to come by right now."
When Pulsipher bought his first gun, he and his wife sat down and established a plan for firearm use and storage for their family. She isn't interested in shooting, though they took a concealed carry class together, and even hosted two more in their home. They regularly discuss gun safety with their four children, ages 9 to 17, and have taken them shooting "on a limited basis," he said.
Pulsipher believes everyone should at least familiarize themselves with guns, then decide for themselves what their feelings are. For those who choose to own a gun, he urges professional training and regular practice.
"If they decide it's for them, they should take classes to get familiar, and then it's great to see people at the range practicing," he said. "There are a lot of gun owners out there, but there are very few who probably come and practice that much. That's a bit of a scary thing, I think."
'More at risk'
Gary Sackett, a board member with the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, has watched the state's rising gun sales with rising apprehension. While many gun buyers say their purchases will help them be safe in their homes, Sackett believes they are doing just the opposite.
"It's pretty well established by a number of studies that the presence of guns in the home puts you more at risk than if there are no guns," he said. "It's mythological to say that if you have a gun, then you can prevent the kinds of things that happen when you're assaulted or your home is invaded."
The center has been around for about 25 years, organized by the parents of a young man who was shot and killed in his college dorm room. The organization seeks to highlight the risks that come from guns, ranging from heightened danger when they are used in violent crime to the potential for suicide or an accidental shooting when guns are kept in the home.
Following a tragedy like those that have played out in the past few weeks in the United States and around the world, the impulse to run for a gun is strong, Sackett said.
"We have to admit that (mass shootings are) actually happening and that the fear is real," he said. "What's not real is (the thinking) that, 'My fear will be reduced or the probability that I will suffer from one of these attacks will be reduced if I have more firearms.'"
Meanwhile, Maynard voiced frustration from those on the other side of the argument. On the Gun Vault's Facebook page, commenters have vented in the days after the California shooting about media reports with inaccurate portrayals of different kinds of guns and how they work.
The people who fear guns the most, Maynard said, are those who know the least about them.
"They've heard conversation, they've heard talk, but that's all they know. The reality is if they've come down to the range and fired a few times, they've taken instruction, they no longer fear that because they understand it," said Maynard, who works with groups who use the event space at the store and range. "Man, you should see the smile on their faces when they leave. We're there to keep them safe, to make sure they're not going to put themselves or someone else in harm's way, and they leave with a great experience."
Push for training
As he answers questions about the selection of firearms in the store, Maynard makes sure shoppers, especially first-time buyers, are aware of the regular safety and instructional courses taught in the classrooms above the showroom.
"It goes back to the premise of why we started this place, we wanted to give people a place where they're comfortable and they can also get the training to be safe," he said. "We realize that's part of it. If you're not safe with a firearm, you can become part of the problem."
Since the Colorado Springs and San Bernardino shootings, enrollment for concealed carry permit classes has also skyrocketed at both the Gun Vault in South Jordan and Impact Guns in Ogden. Both stores reported that their weekly courses, which usually draw no more than a dozen people, have drawn upwards of 40 people for the past two weeks.
Brian and Nichol Stephens held hands Thursday at the Gun Vault's instructional handgun course while they intently watched a demonstration about loading the gun's magazine. The West Jordan couple, who had never shot a handgun before the practical training that came with Thursday's class, took a concealed carry course earlier in the year but didn't buy a firearm at the time.
As they watched recent reports of the deadly San Bernardino shootings at a regional health center, the two thought about the buildings where they work and decided it was time to each buy a gun.
"We decided we might as well have that option, at least have it, have a gun to carry, but we know nothing about it so we're taking a class," Brian Stephens explained. "We walked in and there were guns everywhere and realized, 'I have no idea what I want, I have no idea what I should shoot, I've never shot anything.'"
Brent McNee, a regular instructor at the Gun Vault who taught Thursday's class, said that while the U.S. Constitution promises a right to own a gun, the moral responsibility to learn how to use it properly rests with the individual. He also recommends firearm education for those who have no interest in shooting just to help them be more aware of gun safety.
"(Gun owners) should take a personal responsibility, and not doing so is negligent. Not legally, but morally," McNee said. "It bothers everyone who sells a gun, everyone who works in a store like this, we feel badly when we sell a gun to someone and (we) can look them in the eyes and know that they're not going to train themselves and get used to it. They're going to go home, load it, put it between the mattresses on their bed, with no clue what to do with it at 1:30 in the morning when they might need that gun."
McNee calls the surge in sales and instructional courses "incredible," but not surprising.
"Every gun store you go to, any facility it's just packed," McNee said. "People will put up with cold, they put up with heat, when the political climate is what it is."
Halfway through the class, the Stephenses said they appreciated the hands-on training combined with gun use and safety instruction.
"We didn't think about any of these little basic things," Brian Stephens said, explaining some of the practices he had just learned about range safety.
"Who knew? We didn't," his wife agreed. "There are a lot of these things you have to think about to be a responsible gun owner."
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