April 3, 2009— -- In Binghamton, N.Y., and across the country, firearms sales have been among the few bright spots within the recession-battered economy.
But the shooting that took the lives of 14 people -- including the gunman himself -- at a Binghamton civic center today is adding fresh fuel to the fiery debate between those calling for more gun regulations and those who argue that today's gun laws are tough enough.
Watch a special edition of "20/20" on guns in America anchored by Diane Sawyer Friday, April 10, at 10 p.m. ET
According to a study from the University of Evansville in Indiana, at least 16 mass murders -- the deaths of at least five people in a single incident -- were committed in the United States since last year.
"We had 10 dead in Alabama, eight dead in North Carolina, 10 dead in California, including two police officers, 12 dead, reportedly today, in Binghamton and our political leaders say we should just enforce the laws on the books," Peter Hamm, a spokesman The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said Friday afternoon. "The laws on the books are not working."
Meanwhile, gun owners and merchants, including those in the Binghamton area, maintain that existing U.S. and state laws are tough enough.
"Every time there's an incident involving a shooting of any kind, automatically the cry goes out that we need tougher gun laws and more gun laws," said Chuck Sherwood, the owner of Timbercreek Sportsmanshop in the town of Maine, N.Y., about 14 miles from Binghamton. "All we need to do is enforce what we have now."
Notwithstanding today's tragedy, gun sellers like Sherwood are among the few business owners in the country experiencing boom times. Sherwood said his sales are up 40 percent over this time last year.
Overall, pistol permits have soared in New York's Broome County, which is home to Binghamton. The county sheriff's office has already issued 107 permits in the first three months of the year. Last year, the office issued 237 for the entire year.
"We're going to blow the 2008 number out of the water," sheriff's deputy Brian Curtis said.
Nationally, the picture is much the same.
In the past six months, the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System processed 8.1 million requests from would-be gun buyers (who are required by federal law to undergo background checks before purchasing firearms), a 27 percent jump from 6.3 million requests processed during the same period a year before.
In November, December and January, gun maker Smith & Wesson saw the sales of its handguns and tactical rifles climb 25.9 percent, compared to the same period last year, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Sturm, Ruger and Co. reported a $48 million backlog in orders as of Dec. 31 and a 42 percent increase in sales in 2008.
The jump in fire arms sales, some say, has its roots in both the slumping economy and concerns about future gun-buying restrictions.
During tough economic times, part of what motivates gun patrons are fears that the country's social order could break down in the face of continued economic decline, said Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank.
"There are certain segments of society that probably feel we're headed for a big depression and it will be every man for himself and you're going to have to scavenge for your own goods in a time of social breakdown, one of these kind of post-apocalyptic dystopias that many movies have been made about," Shapiro said.
Another factor motivating gun buyers, Shapiro and others say, is concern that the Obama administration will eventually establish tougher regulations on gun purchases.
It's about the "ability to have it before it gets overregulated," said Emil Masata, a member of the board of directors of the Binghamton Gun Club. "The gun laws are so prohibitive now for the most part, it's a joke."
As for concerns about any changes that Obama would implement to federal gun laws, the fact is that most gun regulations are made at the local level, Shapiro said.
He said he doesn't think today's incident, at least, will lead to tighter regulations.
"Whenever there is a story of a big shooting, it hits the media cycle for a while. Maybe some legislators will start proposing things but unless there is a pattern that develops, I don't know," he said. "There are a lot of gun laws on the books already."