Nearly 800,000 people requested background checks so they could buy guns in Florida in 2012 — far more than in any recent year.
Statistics from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show 797,970 background checks were requested last year — nearly 200,000 more than were requested in 2011 and more than double the number for 2004, the earliest year for which statistics were provided.
The numbers were already higher than usual in the first 10 months of 2012, but surged after President Barack Obama won re-election in November and skyrocketed in the days after the Dec. 14 mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six adults.
The dramatic spike is likely fueled by fear that greater gun control laws may be passed after the Connecticut shooting.
"I don't think it has anything to do with the national tragedy. It's not the direct cause," said Marion Hammer, the chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association in Florida. "The direct cause is when politicians call for gun bans, that creates fear."
In December alone, there were 131,103 background checks requested through the FDLE — the highest number the agency has recorded in any single month. That beat the previous record, set only a month earlier, when 84,745 background check requests were submitted in the same month that Obama was re-elected.
"The White House has made it clear that they're going to push for gun bans," Hammer said. "As long as people have money and guns are available, I would imagine people are going to keep buying."
Whatever the exact cause, the most recent presidential election years do seem to have stoked fears of new restrictions on gun purchases.
FDLE numbers show that the number of gun background checks spiked significantly in November and December of 2008 as well, with nearly 64,000 requests during each of those months.
In 2007, the numbers were far less — 36,948 in November and 48,416 in December.
But the most recent numbers appear to show gun sales at an all-time high.
"The NRA is hard at work frightening people that Obama is going to take their guns," said Art C. Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "Why would you think these guns won't ultimately be a problem? If you're going to have a place saturated with guns, why would anybody be surprised if there's more gun violence?"
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he doesn't believe the increased sales are necessarily a cause for concern.
"I don't know of any incidents that have taken place because of law-abiding citizens and responsible gun owners that have created a problem for us," Gualtieri said.
The sheriff noted that most of the firearm-related crimes his agency deals with have to do with felons who have guns or guns that have been obtained illegally. Most gun owners are responsible with their weapons and purchase them through legal means, he said.
What would be of concern, the sheriff said, is if the surge in gun purchases is for assault rifles, and weapons bearing more power than what one might require for sporting or personal security. Some gun sellers have reported an uptick in sales of such high-powered weapons after the Connecticut shooting, but whether those sales are widespread is unclear.
"I think there is room for a good, solid discussion about what measures are appropriate and what policies we should set," Gualtieri said. "This is a tough issue, and it's an important issue."
Dan Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.