(Corrects date of shooting in fourth paragraph)
By Phil Wahba and Jim Forsyth
NEW YORK/SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The coming weeks may well be a banner one for gun sales in America - and the massacre at a Connecticut elementary school will likely be a reason.
The appetite for guns tends to increase following a mass shooting, according to a Reuters analysis of U.S. government data on background checks run on prospective gun buyers in the past 13 years - generally regarded as a reliable indicator of whether gun sales are increasing.
Gun dealers say after such shootings some customers fear for their personal security, while others are concerned the events will spur new restrictions on gun ownership.
Figures for the first few weeks of this month are not yet available, but anecdotal evidence from nearly a dozen gun shops nationwide suggests a similar response after the deadly shooting of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14.
At the Village Gun Store in Whitefield, New Hampshire, the phone was ringing almost continuously Thursday with gun buyers calling to see if the store had any AR-15 type semiautomatic rifles, the weapon used in the massacre.
Six people were browsing the rifles that line the bare plywood walls of the store, the largest within 50 miles, and the long rows of handguns in a glass case near the cash register.
"I have a ton of rifles and guns on my wish list," said Thomas Roads, 25, a gun collector who owns seven rifles and three handguns already. He was buying accessories for a vintage black powder (muzzle-loader) handgun for a gift, but he also said the rhetoric out of Washington is "speeding up" his decisions on gun purchases.
Demand in San Antonio, Texas, appears to be just as strong.
"Yesterday was the biggest day I have had in the gun industry, and I have been in the gun industry for twenty years," Jerry McCall, owner of Texas Guns and the Texas Thunder Gun Range in San Antonio, said on Wednesday.
U.S. gun sales have grown rapidly in recent years on the back of easing state and federal restrictions, and as savvy marketing by gun manufacturers has appealed to a broader base of customers. That is reflected in the increased volume of background checks logged in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), with November 2012 seeing a record number of queries, experts said.
Background checks are necessary for individuals buying firearms from federally licensed retailers. Actual gun sales figures are not easily trackable.
Reuters examined the number of background checks in the month of and the month after 15 mass shootings since 1999. A mass shooting was defined as an incident where at least five people were killed and where the event received sustained media attention over a period of days.
The analysis found that background checks in the month of and the month after mass shootings were on average 19 percent higher than checks in other months. The pattern holds even after 2006, when gun sales broadly started to rise.
Just this year, for example, background checks rose 17 percent in July and August, around the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, July 20 that killed 12 people and wounded 58.
To be sure, the NICS database is incomplete as it does not include many sales at gun shows, which do not always require background checks. Also, not every background check results in a sale, though the entire firearms industry uses the data as a sales proxy.
Reuters shared its findings with prominent criminologists, who said the results were consistent with their experience of how gun buying can be triggered by such events.
"People become concerned that the society is becoming more violent after the highly publicized mass shootings - as one response, they arm themselves," said Richard Rosenfeld, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and former president of the American Society of Criminology.
For Kyle Hunt, 32, a surgeon and father of two young children with a stay-at-home wife, the Sandy Hook shooting put a new urgency on protection.
"My wife and I have definitely thought in the wake of the Connecticut shooting of getting her a weapon," said Hunt, who was buying gun cleaning supplies for his hunting rifle and pistol at Bass Pro Shop Outdoor World in Brandon, Mississippi. "You should be able to have a gun to protect yourself."
That gun sales soar at a time when more people are talking about restricting ownership illustrates the deep ideological divide in America. The country enshrines the right to bear arms in its Constitution but also suffers from some of the worst gun violence in the developed world.
Events that create "anxiety-producing circumstances for gun ownership" will lead to a short-term increase in sales, said Frank Zimring, a criminologist and professor at the University of California - Berkeley Law School.
FEARS OF SECURITY
In gun shops across the country, owners said demand has been strong since the Sandy Hook shooting, particularly amid calls for tougher rules on gun ownership from President Barack Obama, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other politicians.
Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday convened the first meeting of a new White House task force charged by Obama with drawing up a plan to tackle gun violence in the United States.
McCall, from the San Antonio store, said political rhetoric is behind the rush to buy.
"They want to go after the inanimate objects. That's why our sales are going through the roof, because people know that these anti-gunners have to do some sort of feel-good legislation, and they use instances like what happened in Connecticut to push their agenda, their Bloomberg agenda," McCall said.
Before the Newtown massacre, firearm industry experts said gun ownership has become more socially acceptable, particularly among groups not traditionally seen as gun buyers. Women in particular have become a rapidly growing market for gun sellers.
The annual production of rifles and shotguns for the U.S. market rose nearly 40 percent between 2002 and 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates the size of the industry at roughly $4 billion a year.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N), the world's largest retailer, said in October that revenue from guns rose 76 percent in the first half of its fiscal year, while revenue from ammunition rose 30 percent.
Investors have taken note: shares of gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson Holding Corp (SWHC.O) had doubled in 2012 before the Newtown massacre, while shares of Sturm Ruger & Co Inc (RGR.N) were up almost 48 percent.
Smith & Wesson reported in early December that its sales in the six-month period ended October 31 were up 48 percent from the same period last year.
"These data points, among others, suggest to us that firearms have now taken their place in the basket of mainstream, durable goods that consumers want to buy on Black Friday," Chief Executive James Debney said on a conference call earlier this month, referring to the traditional day-after-Thanksgiving start of the holiday shopping season.
Since Friday's shooting, gun makers' share prices have plunged and major U.S. pension funds said they were reviewing their investments in the sector.
Cerberus Capital Management LP, the private equity heavyweight, said it plans to sell Freedom Group, the top U.S. manufacture of firearms, including the AR-15-style Bushmaster, the rifle that Newtown shooter Adam Lanza used.
Recent history has shown, though, that while gun makers come under pressure in the days after a shooting, over time their growth has been uninterrupted.
For example, shares of Smith & Wesson fell in the trading sessions immediately following five major shooting incidents since January 2011, but they quickly recovered each time and are up 133 percent since then.
Smith & Wesson did not return requests for comment.
While, some large, national retailers pulled rifles like the one used at Sandy Hook Elementary off shelves in nearby stores in Connecticut, most other gun stores nationwide said they were operating as normal - with some setting records.
That was the case all week at the Hyatt Coin and Gun Shop on the west side of Charlotte, North Carolina, which has been in business since 1959 and seeing record one-day sales all week.
"They're buying it faster than we're getting it in," said owner Larry Hyatt. "After this horrible tragedy, the whole country, it scared 'em to death ... People who were thinking about buying guns in the future want to do so now."
(Additional reporting by Barbara Liston in Orlando, Bill Rigby in Seattle, Emily Le Coz in Jackson, Mississippi, Martinne Geller in Danbury, Conn., Susan Heavey and David Ingram in Washington, Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho, Harriet McLeod in Charlotte, N.C., Jason McLure in New Hampshire, Siddharth Cavale and Arpita Mukherjee in Bangalore, and Janet Roberts in New York; Writing by Ben Berkowitz; Editing by Edward Tobin, Tiffany Wu and Steve Orlofsky)