A year ago this week the nation saw the stunning election victory of Barack Obama and the concurrent takeover of both houses of Congress by Democrats. Depending on who you are and where you stand, it was either cause for hopeful celebration or extreme consternation. One of the most prominent indicators of those who were concerned was the wildly escalating purchase of assault-style rifles and enormous quantities of ammunition by those worried that Obama and the Democrats would crack down with highly restrictive gun laws. A year later, a stunning change has taken place, at least here in Montana, that has little or nothing to do with the fears the election spawned.
Had you gone to a Montana gun show a year ago, you would likely have found tables full of variants of AK-47, SKS and AR-15 semi-automatic rifles. These are military-style guns that, by law, have been engineered to semi-auto performance instead of fully automatic fire. They commonly use large capacity magazines that hold 30 bullets but can accept drum magazines that will spit out 75 or more rounds as fast as you can pull the trigger. The difference, for those unfamiliar with such weaponry, is that "fully-automatic" military weapons shoot rapidly until you release the trigger or run out of ammo. "Semi-automatic" means you only shoot one bullet for every pull on the trigger.
There are many reasons why the populace suddenly bought such weapons and ammunition in enormous quantities, but the numbers speak for themselves. The taxes from firearms and ammo sales in the last year increased some 42 percent from the previous year, while estimates of gun sales easily surpassed that number. Permits issued for concealed-carry pistol permits likewise skyrocketed across the nation.
In fact, so many people bought so many guns and so much ammunition this year that, while the rest of the economy tanked, gun and ammo dealers were having a hard time keeping their shelves stocked. Entire pallets of ammunition were disappearing at gun shows, especially the most popular calibers such as those used in AK-47s and AR-15s. Prices soared for virtually every type of ammunition and, despite the price hikes, ammo was often simply unavailable to dealers as suppliers and manufacturers found themselves incapable of meeting the demand.
Jump forward one year, and the change in what's going on at those Montana gun shows is stunning. Yes, there are still assault-style rifles for sale, but not nearly in the numbers so frequently seen in the recent past. More to the point, those tables and pallets of ammunition are, once again, full of cartridges for even the hard-to-get calibers—but ammunition hoarding seems to be fading.
"People just aren't buying," one seller told me at the Helena Gun Show last weekend. "Attendance is okay, but money is tight and nobody's spending hardly anything. We're real ready to bargain this time around."
Indeed, although the large building at the fairgrounds was filled with the typical gun-show crowd of camo-clad shoppers, what they were looking at were not assault-style rifles, but the more conventional hunting rifles that have long been found in most Montana homes and ranches.
The story here is not that people are no longer worried about Obama and the Democrats passing new restrictive gun laws. All you had to do was listen in at the tables and it became clear that their concern in that regard remains high. But the effects of the recession have now come home—or trickled down—to the average Montanan. What most folks were interested in was a gun that you could reliably use for shooting deer or elk to put meat in the freezer for your family—and they weren't willing to drop a lot of dough to get one.
Noticeably, this sea change in disposable income has had an ancillary affect on the militia-style products. The tables full of pamphlets on how to make booby traps, the instruction manuals on military sniper techniques, and the various and sundry survivalist tomes were noticeably diminished, if not gone entirely. Also mostly gone was the virulent anti-government literature that ran the gamut of every paranoia one could possibly imagine.
More readily apparent were tables of equipment for reloading which, thanks to the ever-increasing cost of commercial ammunition, is enjoying a resurgence as people, primarily hunters, seek to make their own ammunition for a fraction of the cost of factory loads. For Montanans, this is really nothing new, but more of a return to the independence and frugality of life on the western frontier for which our state is justifiably well known.
While one wouldn't want to make generalized political assumptions based on the social barometer of Montana gun shows, it's not out of the question that such changes may well be precursors to wider trends. It seems obvious, at least from talking to many of the vendors, that the recession has narrowed the focus of many from the realm of fantasy to the reality of necessity. Having thousands of rounds stashed in the basement for your assault-style guns undoubtedly makes some people feel more secure. But having a good deer and elk rifle, with the ability to make your own ammo and keep food on the table, is undeniably far more realistic security here in Montana—the kind of security you can actually eat.
It would be a mistake to imply that concerns over what President Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress may do with gun control are suddenly gone. They are not. There's little doubt that gun shows in other parts of the country—and particularly in urban areas—are likely still heavily weighted toward military-style firepower and militia-style gear and publications.
But the good news is that Montan-ans, suffering the economic realities of the recession, seem to be going in a different direction right now—a direction that, for many of us, hearkens back to a happier, saner and more self-sufficient past.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org