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Guns flying off shelves in Hernando County

The main display wall at Fort Huffstetler Adventures looks a lot different these days.

The racks on the back wall of the Brooksville gun shop typically hold AR-15-style assault rifles. Ask owner Paulette Huffstetler if she has any in stock and she chuckles at the notion.

She ordered 30 of the semiautomatic rifles last week and expects to receive one. The shop has sold about 60 of the rifles since the week before Christmas — about the same number sold in a typical year, Huffstetler said.

After the Dec. 14 massacre of schoolchildren by an armed gunman in Newtown, Conn., however, the firearm business has been anything but typical, Hernando County gun dealers said this week.

"People don't know what's going to come down the pike, government-wise," Huffstetler said. "They're scared they're going to have their rights taken away from them."

The Obama administration is assembling proposals to curb gun violence that would include a ban on the sale of assault weapons and limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has said she will introduce an assault weapons ban. Vice President Joe Biden met this week with stakeholders, including the National Rifle Association, and plans to send ideas to the president by Tuesday.

In the meantime, the products continue to fly off local shelves — if they can be restocked by suppliers who struggle to keep up with demand and who jack up prices in the process.

"Guns that were $800 are now $1,600 or not available," said Peter Resnick, owner of Bullseye Gun Shop in Brooksville.

• • •

This week, a bright green sign stuck to the window of Graham's Guns and Accessories in Brooksville offered a handwritten message to passers-by on Jefferson Street: "AR15 IN STOCK."

When a Times reporter visited on Wednesday, owner Mark Graham had three left, two hanging on a wall behind the counter. One was for left-handed shooters.

Graham, who opened the store about 2 1/2 months ago, said he has sold 17 of the rifles since the holiday shopping season. He had to raise the price to $2,000, an increase of $500, because his supplier raised the price. Graham has 38 more on order but doesn't know if or when any of those guns will arrive.

Some customers walking out with the rifles don't try to hide their intentions at the time of sale.

"People say they're just going to turn around and sell it" for a profit, Graham said.

"I've had people call me and say, 'I don't know what an AR is, but I want one," said James Scavetta, owner of Shadow Hawk Inc. in Spring Hill. "That's why they call Obama the best gun salesman ever."

Crowder Hardware in Spring Hill also had a display wall full of AR-15s. On Thursday, the wall held just two, and an AK-47.

Owner J.C. Crowder said he spends two hours on the phone every day trying to round up merchandise from his dozen or so suppliers.

"When a sitting senator stands up and says we should outlaw these guns, that's going to increase sales," Crowder said.

The raging debate on control has created a paradox of sorts for gun dealers. Higher short-term sales are good for business, but a ban could spell trouble later.

The dealers were unanimous in their opposition to a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity clips, even shop owners like Resnick who don't stock many of the rifles.

"We tried that in 1994," Resnick said of a ban on assault rifles, "and it did absolutely nothing."

Dealers are, in fact, exasperated by use of the term "assault rifle," which they call misleading to describe a gun used by hunters and enthusiasts at target ranges.

The rifles are semiautomatic, meaning they reload automatically but fire only once each time the trigger is depressed. Semiautomatic pistols and rifles come in all shapes and sizes and are common in the United States. Fully automatic weapons, which fire continuously when the trigger is held down, have been strictly regulated since 1934.

"Yeah, they can be devastating, but anything can be," Matthew Graham, Mark Graham's son, said of the AR-15-style rifles.

A Hernando County firefighter who helps his father at the store, Matthew Graham walked over to a glass counter and pointed to a Glock 23, a .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun that could be outfitted with an extended magazine.

"It's a lot easier than using that," he said, nodding at the AR-15 on the wall. "It's just as quick, and concealable."

• • •

Josh Horwitz acknowledges the difference between the semiautomatic rifles sold at shops and the rifles soldiers carry into battle. But it's not an accident that the mass shooters in Colorado, Oregon and at Shady Hook all had AR-15s, said Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in Washington, D.C.

"What is similar is the high-capacity magazine, the pistol grip and the short barrel," Horwitz said. "Those allow you to keep your barrel on the target while you kill lots of people. That is what is it's designed for."

"You have to draw the line somewhere," Horwitz said, "and we suggest we draw the line here and say these weapons are too lethal."

Some gun dealers and gun-control advocates like Horwitz do share some common ground.

They support expanding background checks, which are currently not required in private sales by unlicensed dealers, including transactions at gun shows. They agree that dealers should have broader access to customers' mental health records to keep weapons out of the hands of unstable people. And they say it's time to station law enforcement officers at every school, regardless of the cost.

"I went to Best Buy a few days before Christmas, and there were three police officers there," Crowder said. "Maybe we should reallocate resources to things that are most important to us."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: @TMarreroTimes and @HernandoTimes.

Guns flying off shelves in Hernando County 01/11/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 11, 2013 7:56pm]

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