Background checks typically spike during the holiday shopping season, and some of the increases in the most recent FBI numbers can be attributed to that. But the number of background checks also tends to increase after mass shootings, when gun enthusiasts fear restrictive measures are imminent.
"It's a fear there will be a crackdown," said Thomas Wright, who runs Hoover Tactical Firearms near Birmingham, Ala. Wright said he took on more employees to handle the sales crush after 20 young students were shot to death in Newtown, Conn. "We used to have what was called our wall of guns. It's pretty much empty now." Every high-capacity magazine in his store was sold out.
The government's figures suggested far less interest in purchasing guns late in the year in Connecticut and Colorado, where 12 people were shot to death in a movie theater. Background checks in those two states increased but not nearly as much as in most other states. The numbers of checks in Colorado rose from 35,009 in October to 53,453 in December; checks in Connecticut went from 18,761 to 29,246 during the same period. Only New Jersey and Maryland showed smaller increases than Colorado in December from one month earlier.
In Connecticut, people were having second thoughts about whether it's a good idea to have a gun in the home after the Newtown shooting, the governor's criminal justice adviser, Michael Lawlor, said. The gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, first shot and killed his mother at their home using weapons she had legally purchased before he drove to the school. Lanza shot his way into the building and carried out the massacre before killing himself as police arrived.
Lawlor also said that in Connecticut it can take months to obtain a permit to buy a handgun.
A federal background check doesn't always indicate a new gun is purchased, but the firearms industry uses these numbers as an indicator of how well the gun business is doing.
After the Colorado shootings, the FBI conducted 1.5 million background checks across the country in August, compared with 1.2 million checks in June. Yet the Connecticut shootings energized gun buyers more: Background checks surged in December to nearly 2.8 million, compared with 1.6 million in October.
Even before the Colorado and Connecticut shootings, the gun industry was strong. Sales were on the rise so much that some manufacturers couldn't make guns fast enough. Major gun company stocks were up, and the number of federally licensed retail gun dealers was increasing for the first time in 20 years.
Many attributed the surge to Obama, whom the gun lobby predicted would be the most anti-gun president in American history.
After the Colorado shooting, during the final months of the presidential campaign, Obama spoke out against assault-style weapons but did not push for new gun laws. Just days after the Connecticut shootings, Obama said new gun laws would be a top priority.
"Gun owners are scared," said Dudley Brown, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a Colorado group that promotes gun rights.
People in the business are calling this rush to buy guns after the Newton shooting a "banic," meaning people are panicked that Obama would ban guns, said Bill Bernstein, owner of the East Side Gun Shop in Nashville, Tenn.
Tennessee saw among the highest increase in gun checks at the end of last year, with 91,922 background checks in December, up from 59,840 in November. Bernstein said sales after the Connecticut shooting "went on steroids."
Gregory Johnson, of Molalla, Ore., said he and his wife aren't afraid of Obama taking away their guns. He said they are signed up to take a required class to get a concealed license permit because they want to make sure they can protect themselves in a situation like the Dec. 11 shooting spree at an Oregon mall where a gunman killed two people before killing himself. Johnson was shopping in a Milwaukie, Ore., gun store Friday, looking for a small gun his wife could carry in her new job that will have her driving at times alone at night.
"I'm not expecting her to carry, but at least she has the option if she needs it, or at least have something available to her in her vehicle," Johnson said. "That's my priority, my wife's security."
Outside New Orleans, the manager of Gretna Gun Works, Jason Gregory, said surging sales were no cause for celebration. In Louisiana, background checks increased from 38,584 in November to 59,697 in December. Gregory said sales more than doubled in his store, spurred by politicians calling for tougher gun laws.
"They're causing such fear among the people," he said. "It's not the way the market should be working."