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Ill. sees jump in background checks for guns

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CHAMPAIGN – Background checks for gun sales in Illinois have almost doubled since the school shootings in Connecticut a week ago, according to data from Illinois State Police.

Gun sellers said some buyers appear concerned about self-defense, but many already own guns and appear to be adding to their collections amid talk of tougher restrictions on gun ownership. Semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15 used in the school shootings in Connecticut are generating much of the interest, sellers said. Those guns are being mentioned as the mostly likely target of tougher laws.

More than 12,500 background checks were done in Illinois between Dec. 14, when 28 people were killed in Newtown, Conn., and Tuesday, according to data provided to The Associated Press by state police. In comparison, 6,870 checks were done during the same time a year earlier.

The state’s Firearms Transfer Inquiry Program is processing about 2,500 requests a day, compared with about 1,370 a year ago.

“I’ve done almost seven to 10 times the business that I do in a normal day,” Kenny Polhamus, the owner of KAP Guns in Love’s Park, said as he helped customers. “Everybody wants to get it before [potential toughening of gun laws] and they run up all the prices and they run out all the inventory.”

One customer who came in to have a shotgun worked on quickly turned his attention to a gun he said he thought tighter gun control laws would soon take off store shelves.

“I’m contemplating getting an AK-47 today,” said Christopher Studly, a 41-year-old truck driver from nearby Rockford. “I can think of a whole lot better things to do with $750. ... However, I would rather have it in my own possession rather than [not be able to buy it].”

Gun shop owners weren’t surprised by the sales boom.

“Every time something like this happens, people scurry out to purchase guns,” said John Thurman, who owns Bullet Express in Auburn, about 10 miles southwest of Springfield.

His sales also increased amid talk about tougher gun restrictions after President Barack Obama’s 2008 election. No new gun laws were enacted then.

But state and federal officials have been talking about new legislation since the shootings in Connecticut. Both Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said this week that they would support a ban on assault weapons, either at the state or national level, and Quinn said he’ll propose one after the legislative session starts Jan. 3.

“This is the moment to do it,” he said Monday. “All of us who are parents watching those grieving parents losing their children, their precious children, we have to make sure they did not die in vain.”

It was a stark change from earlier this month when gun-rights advocates were celebrating the Legislature’s rejection of an assault weapons ban Quinn pushed this year and a Dec. 11 federal court ruling striking down Illinois’ ban on carrying concealed weapons, the only one of its kind in the nation.

The court gave Illinois six months to put a concealed-carry law in place.

Store owners say the court decision drove a strong interest in handguns, and state police figures back that up. In the two days after the court decision, background checks increased 87 percent over the same period in 2011 to 1,610 a day.

The Connecticut shootings cut gun-rights advocates’ elation short. Gun purchases now are being driven by “feelings of anxiety, feelings of vulnerability,” said John Boch, president of the Champaign-based organization Guns Save Life. “Some people are probably worried that our illustrious president is going to try to pass some gun-control legislation, so they’re going to get their firearm ahead of.”

The firearms they were considering have changed too, from handguns to semiautomatic rifles. Sellers said in some cases, people are buying weapons they don’t even know how to use.

“It’s all panic buying,” Polhamus said.

Boch believes the talk about restrictions will soon ease, and gun sales with it.

“All this is talk right now – it’s all fueled by hysteria,” he said. “When people calm down in the next week or two things are going to return to where they were before.”

But Mark Walsh, the campaign director for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, isn’t so sure. He says the group’s phones have been ringing more than usual with calls of support, and he believes Quinn and other politicians pushing for tougher gun control laws may have better luck now than in the past.

“There’s panic among some firearms owners that they have to stockpile now because it seems that the national sentiment has kind of changed,” Walsh said. “I do think that that’s the case.”

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