HANCOCK COUNTY — A significant chunk of the revenue at Highsmith Guns is, of course, from gun sales. And yet, the shelves seem sparsely stocked. There are a few .22 and muzzleloader rifles on one wall, along with a smattering of more high-powered pieces. In one case is a modest collection of handguns: Rugers, Glocks and Smith & Wessons.
That’s not to say the gun shop on North State Street in Greenfield has fallen on hard times. Indeed, there is a steady stream of interested customers. But it’s not inventory as usual, and it’s a scenario playing out across the nation.
Why? There’s a run on guns.
Gun enthusiasts are snapping up weapons faster than they can be replenished. And applications for gun permits spiked sharply toward the end of 2012.
Highsmith Guns owners Mark Highsmith and son Shane will tell you this gun purchasing frenzy is not exactly new, but it has most certainly taken a greater turn of late.
“Everything is sold out. Suppliers are sold out. We can’t get anything,” laments Mark.
Why? The quick answer is politics.
The perception in some quarters is that Democrats are pro-gun control, and gun enthusiasts have been stocking up against the specter of potential gun-control legislation after President Barack Obama’s strong words in the aftermath of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn.
Some gun shop owners have gone as far as to say they’d like to hang a photo of Obama on their wall naming him employee of the month, according to national reports.
Mark Highsmith refuses to be disrespectful, but he admits there’s truth to the idea.
“Since Obama was elected the first time, we couldn’t buy anything for a year,” Mark said. “The supply has been way down in the last four years.”
News stories from many states report the sales of guns and ammunition spiked even more after the Dec, 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Afterward, Obama declared a need to stem gun violence.
According to a Los Angeles Times story dated Dec. 24, Brownells Inc., which claims to be the world’s largest supplier of firearms accessories and gunsmithing tools, said it had just sold 3½ years’ inventory of ammunition magazines in three days.
Still, Mark Highsmith won’t buy entirely into the theory where it concerns him. Though he’s been in business here on a small scale for 20 years, his new, larger store, which includes a shooting range, only opened in October.
“It’s hard to say what caused the increase in gun sales: politics or shootings or because we have a new shop,” he mused. “We’re fulfilling a need.”
Applications for handgun-carrying permits have also spiked, including in Hancock County.
At the Greenfield Police Department, the number of people applying for permits jumped from 29 in November to 60 in December, according to Dana Nance, who compiles the statistics.
The Hancock County Sheriff’s Department reported a jump from 70 completed applications in November to 150 in December.
“Over half of those came after Sandy Hook,” explained Amy West of the sheriff’s department.
The Indiana State Police keeps a running total of handgun permits on a quarterly basis. At the end of the third quarter, there was a total of 7,206 handgun permits in Hancock County. Permits are not required for other types of guns in Indiana.
Stock prices for some gun and ammunition suppliers have risen and crashed in the last several months as investors attempt to determine whether the current trends are good or bad for business.
One financial analyst, Cai Von Rumohr of with Cowen & Co., told CNBC he does not agree that fear, whether of gun bans or personal safety, are the primary drivers behind the current trends.
“We think there is broader drivers, broader acceptance of the use of guns and more target shooting,” he said.
The Highsmiths enthusiastically agree. Both are federally licensed instructors who are hired to teach firearms safety and proficiency by everyone from individuals to security firms to police departments to Indiana Department of Homeland Security.
They believe that gun sales will not slow and that the only way to avert shooting tragedies is to educate people about the safe and responsible use of guns – keeping them locked up when not in use is at the top of the list – and they promote that in any way they can.
And the younger the age, the better.
“We think it’s important to teach kids instead of them learning by TV and video games,” said Mark. “Even if it’s just firearms awareness. You don’t have to be a trained shooter to know you need to respect them, and they’re not going to learn that through what they see on TV.”
Brent Williams, 35, of Indianapolis, couldn’t agree more. On Friday, he brought in his two sons, 10-year-old Cooper and Christian, for shooting lessons at the Highsmiths’ range.
This outing, Williams, explained, was preceded by several gun safety lessons from Dad.
Hearing that, Shane Highsmith gave the family a free pass for the day.
“They will hopefully go hunting with me this fall. It will depend on their level of responsibility,” said Williams, casting them a serious eye.
Like many Hoosiers, Williams comes from several generations of hunters and gun enthusiasts.
“At the end of the day, we can’t sell something no one wants,” Shane Highsmith said. “The culture wants it. That shows you what people stand for. They’re on the same page with us. They want training, and firearms viewed in a positive light. We’ve sold thousands of guns in the last two years, and there haven’t been any shootings.
“Why is business good? People here want firearms. They want to hunt, protect themselves and shoot.”
That was the case with Jo McMillan, 55, of Madison County, who came with a local friend on Friday to try out the gun range.
“I have shot before, but this gun is new to me, and I think I want to keep it as a personal carrying gun,” McMillan said.
She said she often hunts arrowheads in farm fields, sometimes by herself. She wants to be prepared to defend herself in case of a run-in with a pack of wild dogs, coyotes or other dangerous animal.
“You don’t know what you’re going to run into or who might approach you. I’ve been spooked before. It’s better to be prepared,” she said.
McMillan said her home has been burglarized. She wants to practice with her gun, “to know how to use it quickly.”
Ownership and use of guns is multi-faceted,” Mark Highsmith explained. “Some people just like to shoot; some hunt; some want control, home defense.”
Another local facet is the Hancock County 4-H Shooting Sports program, which has grown significantly in the past five years.
Greenfield resident Bill Jor-dan has been a project leader since its inception. He is also president of the Indiana State Rifle and Pistol Association, the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association.
He points out that shooting sports predate other popular sports such as basketball, football, baseball and soccer. And it is more inclusive.
“It is relatively inexpensive, and because it doesn’t require particular body stature, it is available to anyone with an interest in shooting,” Jordan explained. “It is one of the safest sports available where, as in many other sports, our young people learn respect, discipline and responsibility.”
All instructors are NRA or Department of Natural Resources-certified. Disciplines range from trap shooting to rifles, pistols, shotguns, muzzleloaders and archery.
Shane Highsmith points out that more advanced adult competitions, which have existed since World War II, involve automatic and semi-automatic weapons, which is the reason some people collect and use them.
Tyler Hook, 23, of Morristown, has had all kinds of weapons training. He, too, grew up in a multi-generational hunting family. Later, he joined the Army and did one tour in Afghanistan.
He was browsing at Highsmith’s on Thursday, 11-month-old daughter Emma in tow.
He said he and his brother began buying weapons for target shooting after their Army stints.
“Guns were my job in the Army. I know lot about them, and they’re just part of me now,” Hook said, adding laughingly, “I also like to collect them like women like to buy purses, shoes and jewelry.”
Currently, Hook is looking for a rifle for Emma.
“When I feel like she knows she’s able, understands what a gun is, what it can do and is big enough to hold and shoot the right way, I will teach her how to shoot and handle a gun properly. Those are the rules of our household. I don’t want to shelter her from the guns, because I feel like if you shelter them and have them in the house, then when you’re not around and they’re curious, they might get them out. If you show them, there’s not that curiosity.”