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Gun buyers load up on high-caliber Christmas gifts

Firearms enthusiasts have been keeping gun stores busy.

Published December 24, 2005

PINELLAS PARK - With two shopping days left, the store was strewn with tinsel garland, boughs of holly and holiday sale signs.

But Friday was too late for most Christmas shoppers to cash in on the $20-off special at Wain Roberts Firearms.

Only people with concealed weapon permits are exempt from Florida's three-day mandatory waiting period on gun purchases.

The holiday rush is abbreviated but still very lucrative for the Pinellas Park gun shop.

"Christmas is always a big season when it comes to your firearms," said Pamela Roberts, who took over the store for her father, Wain Roberts, in 2003.

Several Tampa Bay gun retailers said the holidays always shift the typical gun store demographics.

"We see a lot of cops' wives buying gifts for their husbands," said David Harrison of Fort Harrison Firearms in Largo. "There's always the dad whose buying their son or daughter their first .22-rifle."

Harrison said he had just sold a man a .22-caliber, single-shot rifle for his 7-year-old daughter.

Despite new legal hurdles and increasing competition from big box stores and gun shows, some retailers said Christmas sales are up more than usual.

The state does not tally gun sales, but the number of background checks done for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Firearm Purchase Program is up considerably from last years holiday's season.

The agency had conducted nearly 27,000 background checks during the first three weeks of this month, compared with about 25,000 for all of December 2004, records show.

"This year we've been slammed," said Robert Kirkendall at Central Firearms in Tampa. In recent weeks, he's sold about five or six guns a day as Christmas gifts.

Wain Roberts, who still helps out in the store part time, estimated holiday shopping has increased sales more than 25 percent this season.

There has been an influx of new 30-something sport-shooting hobbyists, Pamela Roberts said. More and more, their children are getting involved through safety programs such as the Wyoming Antelope Club in Clearwater, she said.

Women shooters were a novelty when Wain Roberts first opened in the early 1970s.

"They've gradually become part of the market (and) now probably make up a solid 20 percent," he said.

"I think TV has a lot to do with it," Pamela Roberts said. "With Charlie's Angels, Angelina Jolie and Calleigh on CSI as the ballistics expert - there are a lot of strong female heroes."

Between running the store and raising her two daughters, Pamela Roberts, 33, gets to the shooting range about once a week.

"It's a relief," she said. "Seeing how close you can get to the center of the target, how quickly you can get a round off - it's competitive."

Although most women are drawn to guns for sport, others are interested in self-protection.

A woman shopping at Wain Roberts on Friday said she had just bought herself a Walther PPK - James Bond's gun - after being threatened by a relative. She seemed to be just one of a growing segment of holiday shoppers - the self-gifter.

"They're treating themselves more this year," Pamela Roberts said. "Generally it's a man buying a Christmas gift for himself, but yesterday I had a woman buying for herself."

Crime-fighting and anti-terrorism measures have made it difficult to give a gun as a surprise gift. The paperwork and background check must be done on the ultimate owner of the gun, not the gift-bearer. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Robertses said, authorities have cracked down on so-called "straw-man purchases," where legally purchased firearms are handed over to people with criminal backgrounds.

Now the only real under-the-tree-on-Christmas-morning surprises come from family members, such as David Schibler, who bought a box of 12-gauge waterfowl ammunition for his 14-year-old grandson Friday.

"His father is buying him a shotgun," Schibler said. He had another box of Winchester 20-gauge steel shot ammunition waiting at home, already wrapped.

[Last modified December 24, 2005, 01:09:13]

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