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Gun-purchase surge levels off as concerns fade; Newtown triggered uptick

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The postelection, post-Newtown gun-buying bull market may have peaked.

After hitting an all-time high in December, background checks run through the FBI's national instant check system have declined year-over-year for the first time since October 2011 as fervor after December's Connecticut school shooting and the government's push for new gun controls appears to be waning.

The 1.3 million checks run through the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) in June are less than half of the 2.7 million in December, and are about 20,000 less than the same month last year — the first time since October 2011 there's been a year-to-year drop in checks.

"It seems that those motivated by fear to purchase a firearm over the past several months have acquired all of the guns they desire or can afford," said David Chipman, a former agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who now serves as an adviser to the gun control advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

NICS checks spiked by nearly 500,000 in November compared to the previous year, cracking the 2 million mark for the first time. In December, they increased by more than 900,000, hitting an all-time high of 2.7 million.

"People felt a threat," said John Hudak, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies gun issues. "The need created by that threat was then satisfied. The shock and horror has died down in pretty dramatic fashion over the past few months."

The desire for a gun fit into the psyche of the moment, Mr. Hudak said.

"At the same time, there was another type of fear or threat: The government would somehow stop gun sales," he said. "An irrational fear, but a fear nonetheless."

Supporting that theory is the defeat of a gun control bill in the Senate in mid-April despite months of administration lobbying and President Obama making extensive use of the public "bully pulpit."

NICS checks are not a one-to-one correlation to gun sales; for example, some of the checks are performed on active concealed carry permits, among other nonsale actions. But the number of checks, Mr. Hudak said, is a fairly decent — though imperfect — proxy for the number of guns sold.

The National Sports Shooting Foundation, the trade group for the guns and ammunition industry, keeps its own adjusted tally every month to account for such checks that don't translate directly into sales.

According to Mike Bazinet, a spokesman for the group, low numbers in the middle of the year aren't out of the ordinary.

"In a typical year, mid-year sales historically dip, but we haven't had a typical year in 3 years," he wrote in an email.

By the group's metric, the adjusted June figure of 872,025 is actually an increase of 3 percent over June 2012 and the 37th straight month of year-over-year monthly increases.

"Our retailers are telling us that their firearms inventories are still lean (there are regional variations), although the ammunition shortage seems to be easing somewhat in many parts of the country," Mr. Bazinet wrote.

Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, also cautioned against reading too much into any comparisons with figures from December, saying that's always the biggest month.

Year-over-year, he pointed out, the number of checks increased from January through May and were basically flat in June, adjusting for permit checks.

"Months always vary in a pattern," he said. "They vary in the same way."

The decline in NICS checks might signal to some that the issue is fading from the public eye, but Mr. Obama and groups like Mr. Horwitz's have vowed not to let that happen.

Immediately after the Newtown shooting, Mr. Obama rolled out an ambitious gun control package that included bans on semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines and near-universal background checks.

That package ultimately devolved into a compromise measure that would expand background checks to sales online and at gun shows. Even that measure failed to pass the Senate.

Mr. Obama and others, however, have reassured advocates that they will revisit the issue.

"The American people are there," Vice President Joseph R. Biden said last month. "In the meantime, the president is going to continue to take every executive action within his power to make schools safer for our children, churches safe places to worship, and significantly work on reducing the number of gun deaths in America. No matter how long it takes, we're determined to do something about it."

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