The votes were barely counted and Barack Obama’s supporters were still dancing in the streets, buoyed by hope for a better tomorrow, when the news reports began to hit the wires. Obama’s victory brought a huge sigh of relief to those weary of the direction in which the country has been led for the last eight years. But on the other side of that coin, intense anger, fear and paranoia has sparked a flood of people nationwide to buy assault weapons and large amounts of ammunition.
Reports on the numbers of people buying guns and ammo over the last year has filtered out in blogs and tiny newspaper articles for some time. But as the election grew near, and especially after the outcome became known, a tidal wave of frantic buying has captured mainstream, front-page news from coast to coast and border to border, including a prominent Sunday spread in Missoula’s daily.
The most interesting thing is that the weapons and ammo most in demand are not the kind of rifles and bullets normally used for hunting, but the so-called “black guns” that are primarily for military and personal protection. These include, but are not limited to, the AK-47, undoubtedly the most widely used assault rifle in the world, and U.S. military counterparts such as the M-16 and AR15.
These guns all have one thing in common besides their military roots—they were outlawed for sale under the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The law banned all assault rifle semi-automatics with folding stocks, high-capacity clips, threaded barrels, pistol grips and grenade launcher attachments as well as certain types of pistols and shotguns.
The Assault Weapons Ban expired exactly 10 years later, on September 13, 2004, and neither President Bush nor Congress has attempted to re-instate it. More than a few political observers claim the ban was in large part responsible for the Democrats losing control of Congress for the ensuing decade.
But now, there’s fear sweeping the nation that the new and larger Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate will pass a new weapons ban and that President-elect Obama will sign it into law. If you don’t believe it, just go to a local sporting goods store that carries assault-style rifles and take a look around. Last week, following the election, the lines were three deep in front of every salesperson in my neighborhood gun shops. And late last week a front-page article in the Helena Independent Record interviewed the owner of a local sporting goods and gun shop who said he had just ordered 120,000 rounds of ammo, half of which was already pre-sold.
Or stop into the next gun show in your area. The gun show in Helena last weekend, for instance, set new attendance records and sold out of AK-47 ammo well before it ran out of customers. When I talked with one vendor about what was going on, he told me that the New York Times had called his Missoula shop last week and the reporter tried to get him to admit that it was just the National Rifle Association (NRA) spreading fear and driving the citizenry into purchasing assault rifles while they still could. Besides the gun ban, he added that there was great concern that Congress and Obama would approve a ban on any ammunition that could penetrate law enforcement body armor, which he said would include virtually all high-powered rifles. When I asked how the federal government would deal with those who reloaded their own bullets, he said that those kinds of questions remained unanswered at this time. The result is that the fear and apprehension continue to rise as the intentions of the new Congress and president remain uncertain.
While it would be one thing to say that right-wingers are up in arms (so to speak) over a potential future weapons ban, it would be incorrect to limit concerns only to them. There is considerable evidence that many from the progressive side of the political aisle are equally concerned—but for a different reason.
In their case, they fear that President Obama is literally walking around with a target on his chest. Given the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—as well as the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan—those fears are not unfounded. Pundits may proclaim that Obama’s victory has shown the nation is leaving racism behind, but it would be naïve to think that an almost evenly divided populace would somehow be purged of violent racists through the mere outcome of an election.
The supposition is that if President Obama is assassinated, the nation would be thrown into a violent and uncontrollable cataclysm that would pit citizens against each other in a way we haven’t seen since the race riots of the ’60s ravaged Watts, Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., leaving hundreds of dead and injured in their wake and millions of dollars in damages. Given the extreme polarization of the populace during the Bush administration, such fears are certainly within the realm of possibility.
Finally, the vast uncertainty over the nation’s economic future must be factored into the equation. It’s well known that, in times of economic downturn, people buy guns and ammo. We here in Montana like to believe it’s for hunting, so we can put meat in our freezers. But you don’t buy AK-47s for hunting in our mega-cities, where big game is non-existent. The only things to shoot there are fellow human beings—in this case, those who would theoretically threaten to harm or loot individuals or families.
No one knows what the future holds, but we do know what’s happening right now. All we can do is hope for cool heads—and cooler trigger fingers—in the coming months, and for the health and safety of our president-elect.
Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.