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Demand for guns rose sharply in California in 2012

There's been a run on guns in California in the past year. What's driving the demand?
There's been a run on guns in California in the past year. What's driving the demand?
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Data from the California Department of Justice indicates that firearm sales in California reached historic peaks during the year just ended. 

In 2012, the state agency processed more than 800,000 applications to purchase firearms. That’s a 36 percent jump from the year before and the highest number since 1991. To put that in perspective, about 500,000 babies were born in the state in 2010.

In the last decade, gun buying has risen steadily. Applications in California have risen in all but two years, dating back to 2003. 

Why the run on guns?

Bruce Colodny, a defense attorney who specializes in gun-related offenses, says, "people are concerned that if they don’t buy a certain firearm now, or an accessory, that new laws will be enacted and they will be unable to do so in the future.”

UCLA law professor Adam Winkler says it's important to know that while gun sales are up, gun ownership is not.

Related Chart: Calif. gun transactions at highest level since '91, still rising

“What we’re seeing is a huge increase in gun buying," Winkler says. "But I’ve seen no data to indicate that is anything other than people who already have a lot of guns buying more guns."

Available data suggest the opposite. A 2006 study in the Injury Prevention Journal found that half the country’s gun owners possess at least 4 firearms. The study concluded that gun ownership is becoming more and more concentrated. 

Colodny says it's pretty normal for people to own more than one gun. He likes trap shooting, so he favors a 12-gauge shotgun. 

"I also like the older guns, because I'm a history buff too," the defense attorney says. 

Handguns intended for self-defense came into vogue during the 1980s, when crime rates in the U.S. were high. Crime rates are much lower now, but Colodny says people don't necessarily feel safer.

"There's far more information available to people as a result of the internet and cable TV," he says. "People read about horrific crimes. I don't think people will give up their desire to be self-reliant."

These days, Colodny says, the broadly termed military-style assault rifles are popular among gun owners - particularly the extremely popular AR-15, a version of which is used in the U.S. military.

"When a firearm is adapted for use by U.S. military forces, it helps sales," Colodny says.

That raises an important facet of gun ownership: gun owners tend to be gearheads and gearheads always want the best and latest technology available. 

"I've heard the AR-15 called the iPhone of firearms," says Winkler, the law professor. "And that's because it's highly customizable. In our society, people want to have their own personal choices reflected in their guns, their phones, their homes, everything else."

Winkler, who's skeptical about the effectiveness of gun control laws, says that of all President Barack Obama's gun control proposals, the pledge to fund research into gun violence is perhaps the most promising.

Like the cigarettes that used to be ubiquitous in our culture, guns are not only glorified as cool, but are protected by a strong lobbying body. Demand for tobacco products only decreased when knowledge about cigarettes made them less attractive.

"We used to think the tobacco industry was immovable," Winkler says. "But over time, they weren't able to combat data that cigarette smoke was not only harmful to your health, but harmful to the health of those people around you. When that data came out, it really started to shift the culture of smoking in America."