On a recent Monday, the Smith & Wesson 9mm Model SD9VE handgun was selling briskly at the Westside Armory, 1,900 square feet of guns and ammo in a tidy shopping mall anchored by a Vons grocery and also featuring a nail salon, Starbucks, and Buffalo Wild Wings. The mall is 15 minutes southwest of the Las Vegas Strip but feels worlds away from the garish casinos. The store’s owner, Cameron Hopkins, bundles the SD9VE with a Streamlight TLR-3 flashlight, which attaches beneath the barrel, as well as two 16-round magazines. The package goes for $399.99, down from $526.70.
“It’s a nightstand pistol,” Hopkins says to one potential customer, a tall man in a blue sweatsuit. “Perfect for home defense, and you can’t beat the price.” The guy ponders for 20 minutes, musing about the danger of nighttime intruders entering his house from an adjacent golf course, and then buys one.
Handguns at Westside Armory—Glock, Smith & Wesson, Colt, and Sig Sauer—are displayed in waist-high glass cases. Rifles and shotguns hang from the walls. To get to the firearms, customers first pass racks of holsters, goggles, ear protection, magazines, speed loaders, range bags, cleaning solutions, and paper targets—zombies, grimacing thugs, Osama bin Laden. Boxes of ammunition line one wall, interspersed with such novelties as red-white-and-blue colored ceramic lawn gnomes bearing miniature guns and hand grenades.
The main business of Westside Armory, though, is handguns, mostly semiautomatic pistols, which carry ammunition in rectangular magazines that snap into the grip. Handgun sales outnumber rifle and shotgun sales by about 20 to 1, although some of the most expensive items the store sells are custom-made rifles that retail for $2,500 or more.
Westside Armory took in $190,000 in December, its highest mark since opening in the summer of 2014. That’s consistent with a nationwide boom. In December, the Federal Bureau of Investigation did a record 3.3 million background checks, half a million more than the previous monthly high in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre in 2012.
“It’s been this way for the last seven years,” since President Obama got into office, says Mike Moore, Westside’s account manager at RSR Group, a large national gun-and-ammunition wholesaler based in Winter Park, Fla. Moore and others in the industry marvel at the staying power of what they call “the Obama surge”—elevated sales driven by the (unfulfilled) fear of tougher federal gun control.
“There’s four things selling guns at the moment,” says Rocky Fortino, one of Hopkins’s employees. “One: ‘I’m afraid they’re going to make it harder to buy a gun, so I better get one now.’ Two: ‘I’m afraid of home invasions and other violent crime.’ Three: ‘I’m afraid of mass shootings.’ And four: ‘I’m afraid of terrorism.’” On the last concern, Fortino and I agree that Westside Armory doesn’t really offer much in the way of antiterrorism weaponry.
Reality rarely enters into the equation of fear. Crime is actually down in Las Vegas, as it is nationwide. And President Obama’s most recent executive actions on guns—announcing in January that his administration would more strictly enforce existing rules governing dealer licensing—“won’t have much practical effect at all,” Hopkins says. Yet any time the president opens his mouth about guns, anxiety jumps. “What if Obama does something that makes me have to give my new gun back?” one customer asks. “I don’t think that’s likely,” salesman Jeff Giese says, reassuringly, as he rings up the man’s transaction for another Smith & Wesson 9mm.
Offering firearms at a discount, as the Westside Armory often does, may increase the danger of suspicious transactions, especially straw purchases, where someone with a clean record buys one or more guns for a person prohibited by law from doing so. “The last thing we want to do is put a gun out there in the wrong hands,” says Fortino, a retired suburban police chief from Illinois.
With Hopkins’s approval, I spend three days observing from behind the counter at Westside Armory, on the condition I won’t risk driving away customers by interrupting to ask to quote them by name. On the floor, I listen to the sales patter and consumer comments. I observe diligence, for the most part, about following the rules. And yet I also witness some troubling slip-ups, including one that leads to a visit to the store by two agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “We’re not perfect,” Hopkins says.
Hopkins, the 59-year-old co-founder of Westside Armory, bought out his business partner last October. In 2014, Las Vegas already had 49 other gun shops, he says, but “the demand for new guns is there, and I saw it as a good investment.” A dedicated big-game hunter, Hopkins has worked in the industry for 35 years as a marketing executive, consultant, and magazine editor. Politically he’s libertarian; by disposition, he displays good-humored amusement at an outsider’s endless questions about the minutiae of his business.
With an estimated 300 million firearms already in private hands and surveys showing that a third or so of American households possess a gun, one might assume that the consumer market is saturated. “It’s not,” Hopkins says. “Gun owners are buying more guns, and lately we’re seeing some first-time buyers, too.” During my stint in his store, I meet both types of customer. One man wearing a sun visor says he already owns a Beretta pistol but has his eye on the flashlight-equipped Smith & Wesson 9mm that’s on sale. At the last minute, he changes his mind and purchases a five-shot S&W pocket revolver similar to one he once kept in the glove compartment of his car. “That one got stolen,” he tells Giese, the salesman, who nods sympathetically.
“I hope he’s more careful with this one,” Giese, a former police officer, tells me later, “because that stolen gun is being used for crime.”
Jay and April Randazzo are looking at a Glock 43, a sleek little 9mm six-shot pistol designed for people who take their gun with them to work and on errands. Jay plans to obtain a Nevada concealed-carry permit that will allow him to keep the Glock in a holster when he makes his rounds as a Coors delivery-truck driver. “Better safe than sorry,” he tells me after agreeing to be interviewed. April already owns a larger Glock 19, which she keeps at home. They pay $419.99 plus tax for the Glock 43. “It doesn’t matter whether you live in a gated community or not,” April says. “There are burglaries all the time.”
Read more: Bloomberg