On Kevin Wence's 10th Christmas, he opened a gift from his father and discovered what would become A Christmas Story legend: a Red Ryder BB air rifle. His first gun.
On Monday, Wence bought his 15th, a stainless-steel Smith & Wesson Model 686 revolver. Unlike the air rifle, this gun won't sit under the Christmas tree, he said. But it would be a family gift that he, his wife and his 24-year-old son, all trained in shooting, could use to protect their St. Petersburg home.
"In responsible hands, they're safe. They're fun. It's a hobby," Wence said as he signed a form authorizing a background check at the Pinellas Park Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure. "Once you fire a bullet, you can't take it back. But you can still have fun with them."
The desire for fun, the hunt or self defense has drawn shoppers looking for the perfect Christmas gift to gun stores across Tampa Bay, dealers said. At most stores, the shopping is a family affair — a father and daughter firing at the range, husbands semiauto shopping with their wives, parents price-checking hunting bows for their young son.
"It's a feeling of confidence, like having a shield," said Tony Orifici, a salesman at Dunedin's Florida Survivalist gun shop. "Grandpa wants a shotgun. Mom wants a revolver. … We had a family come in and buy an AR-15, a shotgun and two handguns, one for each of them."
But the season's real present may go to the gun dealers, many of them still counting the post-election profits of an "Obama rush" that saw shoppers stockpiling in case a new administration banned firearms. As other businesses hope for the year's low sales to turn around with the holidays, firearms dealers say they're simply waiting for their revenue to shoot even higher.
"The one thing I've realized is constant is guns, along with gas and groceries," said Frank Desrosiers, the sales manager at Clearwater's Knight Shooting Sports. "We don't have to push anything. We have a built-in attraction."
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In the 11 years since the FBI began requesting background checks from all potential gun buyers, November and December have been the gun stores' busiest months. Add that to this year's performance — each month has set gun sale records — and the holidays look likely to be the firearm industry's best season yet.
Buying a gun as a gift is legal, as long as it's not for someone banned from ownership, and dealers say they have already seen dozens of Christmas and Black Friday shoppers ask about guns and ammo. A Consumer Reports holiday survey last month declared guns a "new favorite" at the top of many respondents' Christmas lists, alongside purses and pajamas.
Dealers say their inventory boasts some unique benefits. Many gun shoppers don't use the recession as an excuse to save; in fact, as the economy worsened, fears of increased crime motivated increased sales, said Gerald Erdman, owner of Clearwater's Gun City, whose sales tripled earlier this year.
And online stores, known for cutting into brick-and-mortar profits, must match regulations and ship guns to federally licensed firearm dealers, said Tampa's Shooting Sports supervisor Mark Little. Online sales middlemen charge about $50 in transfer fees, tacking on an extra cost that motivates some to shop in-store.
Even with the season's benefits, dealers don't expect the holidays will match the election boom that propelled sales through the end of this summer. Based on National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates from the first half of this year, guns and ammo are on track to bring in $1.2 billion more than last year's $3.13 billion in sales.
Florida Survivalist owner John Mockler said the election, which cleaned out his inventory of high-capacity rifles, netted him a month of profit in one day.
"We had AR-15s flying off the shelf," Orifici said. "You couldn't get in the door."
At Cole's Gun Shop in Clearwater, a portrait of Obama defaced with a Hitler mustache was titled "Firearms Salesman of the Year."
Dealers say the Obama boom could inflate again, fueled by the administration's support of a United Nations arms trade conference and the National Rifle Association's claim that "the most anti-gun president in American history" will push for banning guns nationwide. (Politifact called that assertion misleading and dishonest.)
"Do I think it will come to that? No," Mockler said. "Will I reap the rewards from people who are worried about it? Yes."
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"It's like a candy store. You come in and decide what flavor you want," said Eddie Carter, manager of Dade City's Pasco Gun Sports. "You might like Fords. I might like Chevys."
Still, dealers have noticed some patterns for wish lists. Veterans tend toward what they trained on, like World War II infantry sidearms and M1 Garand rifles. Buyers interested in home protection gravitate toward Glock pistols and Winchester shotguns. Concealed-carry licensees stick with pocket-sized .22s and .380s.
Yet most dealers disagree on what appeals to a market they say is underserved and growing: women.
At Pasco Gun Sports, they'll guide women toward simple load-and-fire weapons like revolvers and 20-gauge shotguns. At Knight Shooting Sports, trainers talk up semiautomatic pistols for their higher accuracy and clip size. At Bill Jackson, salesmen display .22 rifles and snubnose weapons painted pink.
Dealers say they've seen more women shopping for guns and training this season than ever before. Maybe more Christmas mornings will include a firearm, they said, or maybe more women will learn to shoot on their own.
"The mama instinct is big time," said Bill Jackson's salesman Mark Rutan. "Mamas want to protect their babies, and they will."
Christy Pemberton and her husband, Dennis, of Largo, took their 7-year-old daughters Amelia and Kelsey Pemberton to Bill Jackson's last week for a birthday trip. The parents showed Amelia the difference between the toy gun in her room and the pink gun behind the glass.
That's one way, Christy said, to protect her daughter from guns without buying one. But the parents didn't rule out buying one as a gift — when Amelia gets a little older.
"For whatever reason, she wants to be a hunter," Christy said. "She wants to own a gun."
Drew Harwell can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4170.