Charles Biddle of Downers Grove, Ill., considers himself a gun-control moderate. He said he is agnostic on whether the government should ban, for example, the kind of high-capacity magazines used in many of the recent mass shootings that occurred around the country.
But that hasn't stopped him from spending about $1,000 over the last month to stock up on high-capacity magazines and other assault-style accessories for his AR-15. He would have spent more, he said, but for a problem reported by many gun owners across the U.S. who are loading up on supplies in advance of proposed new legislation to restrict firearm sales: Gun store shelves are cleaned out, leaving only online retailers charging outrageous prices for what little inventory is left.
"Nothing makes people want something they do not necessarily need more than fear of never being able to get it," Biddle said, acknowledging that he is part of this constituency. "There's so much uncertainty that people are freaking out."
Gun shops have reported a surge in sales ever since the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., left 27 people dead and reignited a public debate over gun laws. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced his plan to make gun laws more restrictive, which may include an assault-weapons ban. But so far, any move to tighten regulations -- or even just chatter about it -- has had the reverse effect of the proposed laws: It has put more guns into the hands of the public, as gun sales have spiked. Increased sales have also helped to send gun manufacturer stocks soaring, and shares spiked again on Wednesday during Obama's announcement.
"Sales have been off the charts, and it has been that way at every gun store," Brandy Liss, the owner of the Arms Room in League City, Texas, said. "We have no inventory left." The store normally displays between 30 and 40 different kinds of 9 mm pistols, but by last Monday her supply of that size gun had dwindled to one, Liss said.
Other gun stores contacted by The Huffington Post on Wednesday repeated the same thing: They were swamped with customers as gun enthusiasts continue to stock up on weapons and ammunition. Some stores used their websites and answering machines to make out-of-stock announcements. "It’s just a zoo in here," said Henry Parro, the owner of Parro’s Gun Shop in Waterbury, Vt., on Wednesday afternoon.
Following the December shootings in Newtown, a gun rush caused the federal system that processes background checks for firearm purchases, known as the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, to experience heavy delays, according to reports. The FBI also reported that gun sales set a record last year.
During his speech, the president laid out a comprehensive plan for tightening gun ownership laws and reducing gun violence in the United States. He said the plan's goal was not only to "help prevent mass shootings" but also to "reduce the broader epidemic of gun violence in this country."
Some of the proposed law changes included universal background checks for gun sales; the reinstatement and strengthening of the assault weapons ban; capping ammunition magazines to a 10-round limit; and banning armor-piercing ammunition. Obama also proposed a number of measures aimed at beefing up public security and creating harsher punishments for gun-related crimes. Additionally, the president ordered more research into the health implications of gun violence.
At the Connecticut Gun Exchange near Newtown, store clerk Justin Fleisch was getting ready to eat a sandwich at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday because he had spent his lunch hour dealing with a constant stream of customers.
"Business has perked up," he said. "A lot of good people come in here, and we try to do our best to accommodate them." A few feet away, customers were browsing empty shelves in hopes of finding passed-over ammunition. One asked about a bayonet blade to affix to an automatic rifle, but the store did not carry the accessory.
Gun owner Biddle said that his biggest worry is that if certain weapons or magazines are made illegal, he will not be able to find replacement parts for his weapon if parts of it wear out. He is from Kentucky, he noted, and enjoys shooting targets with frends when he returns home. But magazines with 28-30 bullets that used to sell for $15 are now gone from store shelves, and online retailers are charging at least $50 for them. Biddle said that he wouldn't pay these super-inflated prices.
Even as the run on ammunition and weapons has led to inventory shortages for gun owners, the problem may have a very real public safety consequence: The shortages are even occurring for police departments. "It's never easy to get ammo, but since the tragedy in Connecticut, it's become even more difficult," Sgt. Chris Forrester of the Greer Police Department in South Carolina said according to PoliceOne.com, a trade publication about police.
"It’s difficult to get inventory," Texan gun seller Liss added, speaking on the phone from the Shot Show, an annual gun show in Las Vegas. "Manufacturers won’t be able to ship out until 2015."
Saki Knafo contributed reporting to this story.