Two days before Christmas, a dozen men scan racks of firepower at Axmen South Mercantile and Pawn in Missoula. At least five employees are working the floor, but as the phone rings every minute, there are only so many hands to manage the demand. Rich Ochsner says his business is booming again.
"Things have definitely been brisk," he says.
As one customer peruses a case of pistols, he chats with a salesman on how the re-ignited gun control debate may limit his choices on munitions in town. "I heard Wal-Mart took all their AR-15s off the shelves after the shooting," the customer says.
No rifles have pulled from the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Mullan Road as of Dec. 28, but like nearly every other gun seller in Missoula, they are completely out of anything resembling an AR-15.
One week after the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., Axmen staff estimate the store sold nearly 115 AR-15 semi-automatic rifles. It's the same model of rifle used by the gunman who killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School before shooting himself. High-capacity magazines are also nearly gone from Missoula, as gun enthusiasts fear that the items made infamous by the attack could soon vanish from the market under President Barack Obama's vow to bring a new assault weapons ban before Congress.
"I think people are concerned more than anything," Ochsner says. "Everyone worries about Article 2 being jeopardized."
Those nerves are not necessarily acted upon every time there is a highly publicized mass shooting, such as the one in Aurora, Colo., last summer or in Tucson, Ariz., one year ago. Instead, Ochsner says his customers are more compelled to stock up as soon as the discussion leaves the evening news and enters the halls of Congress.
"Actually, it gets busy when there's talk of legislation," he says. "We saw it in the second (presidential) debate. We saw it during the Clinton days."
Axmen isn't the only store seeing demand spike. Over at Liquid Assets on North Higgins, owner Kevin Pfau says he sold the last AR-15 he had just before Christmas. Wholesale prices on all guns have been steadily climbing since Obama's election in 2008, and the recent focus on the AR-15's vulnerability under a new assault weapons ban has driven up its value even higher.
"Today if you were to get online, you're going to pay much more for an AR than you were last week," says Pfau.
Some customers bought handguns as Christmas presents this year, but Pfau says he has had to wait months for his wholesale orders to be filled. "Last month I placed an order for 22 guns, and I got two," he says.
Dan Louden, who owns Cash on Broadway, says he did not have any AR-15s on the shelf before Newtown, but that the gun now sells for between $800 and $1,000. He adds customers are calling him looking for the rifle and high-capacity magazines, and he is trying to stock what he can.
"I tried to buy magazines on the Internet the other day. No luck," he says.
Over at Alderwood Estate and Loan, Steven Briggs says his shop has not seen more gun customers than usual since the end of hunting season. He also doesn't carry the weapons now in highest demand, which he calls "black guns." But whenever he has to place a background check through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives call center, either for a new customer or somebody trying to get their gun out of loan, the process is excruciatingly longer.
"Yesterday, for one customer in the morning, it took me until 2:30," Briggs says. "There's a much higher call volume going through right now."
Tim Taunt at Nickel's Worth doesn't stock much more than 20 rifles and a dozen handguns. He says the prospect of Mitt Romney losing the election earlier in the fall was already contributing to an uptick in sales. The shooting, he said, hasn't made a difference so far.
"I try not to analyze how people think too much," Taunt says. "We didn't really see an increase any more than what was happening in the fall."
As he helped a UPS carrier unload boxes from his truck on a snowy Dec. 27 morning, Ochsner said that he had a few high-capacity magazines that made it through Christmas unsold. Until the gun control debate resolves itself in Washington, D.C., controversial weapons and their components will continue to be hunted down in Montana, price gouging be damned. As one of Ochsner's helpers hauled in a cardboard box easily long enough to contain a rifle, he made a reference to the coveted AR-15. "Could be one right there!"