Handgun sales have skyrocketed locally and statewide over the past two decades, according to data from the Pennsylvania State Police annual reports on firearms.
Handgun sales across Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties increased 106% from 1999 to 2018, with the biggest increase coming in Washington County (143% to 13,304).
Sales statewide rose 131% over the same span, and the number of pistols manufactured in the U.S. more than quadrupled from 1986 to 2017, according to an annual firearms manufacturing and exportation report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
In his estimation, people have been wanting to get their hands on handguns because they want protection, said George Romanoff, the owner of Ace Sporting Goods in South Strabane Township.
“People want something in their home to protect themselves,” he explained. “It’s just the way things are in the country today.”
Sam Salatino, owner of Salatino Gun Shop in Dunbar Township, Fayette County, said customers are looking for a self-defense weapon as well, recalling a man interested in buying a pistol recently who had never previously had the urge to buy a gun but now said he felt unsafe in public.
Romanoff noted that while handgun sales have increased, sales of guns for hunting, target shooting and other sports have dipped in recent years.
But fear of safety threats in public or at home hasn’t been the only alarm triggering local gun sales.
Fear of who’s in the White House has influenced gun sales, too.
“Politics has a lot to do with the sale of guns,” said Buddy Marra, longtime owner of Marra’s Mountaineer Sporting Goods in North Union Township in Fayette County, who has seen a “big increase” in handguns sold at his shop in the last five years.
President Barack Obama, Marra noted, was inadvertently a great gun salesman, as his repeated calls for gun control pushed sales upward, with gun owners fearing that their ownership rights would be restricted.
“When Obama was first running (in 2008), sales went through the roof,” Marra said.
Handgun sales did jump 27% to 16,560 in 2008 from the previous year across the four-county region, eventually peaking at 46,557 in 2013.
Long gun sales have not increased as much over time throughout the four-county area or Pennsylvania as much as handgun sales, but long gun sales did increase 26% in the four-county area from 2008 to 2016, Obama’s final full year in office, significantly more than the 3% increase from 1999 to 2007.
In more recent years, though, there’s been a “Trump slump” under President Donald Trump, who was backed by the National Rifle Association during his 2016 presidential campaign and has not been an advocate for gun control. Handgun sales across Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties declined 15% from 2016 to 2018, although they still remained well above pre-Obama totals. Long gun sales throughout those counties dropped 10% in the same span.
“I think it takes the scare factor away,” Salatino said of the Trump presidency impact on gun markets.
But the fear on the other side of the gun control debate is registering as well.
Earlier this month, Walmart, Kroger, Walgreens and Giant Eagle asked customers to no longer openly carry firearms into their stores. Walmart cited fatal shootings in its stores in El Paso, Texas, and Southaven, Miss., and mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and Midland and Odessa, Texas, which left 40 dead. Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, a native of El Paso, has backed implementing a national buyback program for assault weapons and a voluntary buyback for handguns.
But guns remain popular locally not just because of the protection they offer.
“Our other No. 1 selling thing is (the) long-range rifle,” Salatino said. “All the movies and stuff today, everybody wants to be a sniper. They come in and buy their big guns … (they’re) more so target shooters than deer hunters.”
ArmaLite Rifles, better known as ARs, are “a lot of fun,” Marra said.
“It’s a sporting rifle,” Marra said.
The guns are for fun at Washington County Machine Guns, too.
The Donegal Township machine gun rental outlet allows customers to shoot machine guns, with staff a few feet away from the shooter at all times. Guns rented for shooting don’t leave the facility, which is located behind a locked fence. No one under 16 is permitted to be on the property.
Tredd Barton of Washington County Machine Guns said his business attracts 20 or more shooters on most weekends. For the $145 package, a shooter can shoot any three machine guns plus two bonus firearms.
“We have what people just can’t afford to buy,” Barton said.
The idea of machine gun rentals is disturbing to some, and among the phone calls Barton gets are angry inquiries with pointed questions like, “How could you do this?”
“Half of the people hate us and half of the people love us,” Barton said.
What Barton is selling, he says, is an experience, one that he reported that bachelor parties from Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Washington, Pa., plus separate customers from China and Wheeling traveled to the range for on one Saturday alone last month. He recalled a Vietnam veteran shooting an M16 rifle for the first time in 40 years and sharing the moment with his son.
Whether they’re for protection or recreation, guns have grown more prominent by numbers across Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties over the years.
“We’re not trying to go kill people,” Barton said.
Staff writer Brad Hundt contributed to this story.