Background checks for purchasing guns have jumped in Illinois and nationwide, and buyers say it's due mainly to fears that the federal government will outlaw some types of guns and otherwise restrict sales.
The number of checks conducted through the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background System had already been on the rise in Illinois during the past few years. In December they reached a peak at 112,141 checks conducted, according to the FBI.
December is a busy month for checks because of Christmas sales. There were 97,520 checks in Illinois in December 2011, and 69,260 in December 2010.
Annually, background checks for Illinois breaks down as follows:
* 1,036,061 in 2012
* 828,692 in 2011
* 695,300 in 2010.
Experts say the longer-term increase in gun sales can be at least partially attributed to having a Democratic president, which often sparks fear among gun-rights advocates.
But buyers say those fears have increased exponentially since the Dec. 14 shooting deaths of 26 children and adults in Newtown, Conn.
Illinois State Police reported that background checks through the FBI system nearly doubled in the five-day period following the shootings. More than 12,500 checks were conducted during that period, compared to 6,870 conducted during the same five-day period in 2011.
In response to the Connecticut shootings, President Barack Obama asked Congress to pass laws that would outlaw certain military-style, semi-automatic rifles, as well as magazine clips that can hold more than 10 bullets. He's also asking Congress to pass a law requiring universal background checks for gun purchases.
The uptick in sales was on display at last weekend's Egyptian Collections Association gun show at the Belle-Clair Expo Center in Belleville.
Rob Lewis, of Springfield, who has been to the Belleville show several times, said attendance was "at least double" last weekend, compared to previous Egyptian Collections Association gun shows in Belleville.
"A lot of people are buying guns right now, because they're being told they might not be able to," Lewis said.
The show's promoter, Bob Leckrone of Centralia, said the estimate of a doubling in attendance was probably accurate. He said attendance has been up at shows everywhere, along with sales.
"Sales are way up. They're skyrocketing," he said.
The Belleville show has about 500 vendor tables. The busiest vendors were ones selling guns that are commonly described by opponents as "assault weapons," such as AR-15 rifles.
"Obviously, they're selling quite well right now," Leckrone said.
At one such vendor, buyer after buyer waited in a line, filled out purchase forms and counted out stacks of hundred-dollar bills.
The high-capacity versions of magazines for those guns also are selling briskly, noted one shopper, Jon Engelman of Springfield.
"People can't carry those away fast enough," Engelman said.
Engelman said he knows of one gun dealer who, about a month ago, was selling AK-47s for $650. Now, the dealer himself is paying $875 for that type of gun. Some dealers say AR-15s, a popular brand of military-type rifle, are selling for as much as $2,500.
"Everybody is worried to death they're not going to be able to buy anything," Engelman said. "I wouldn't put anything past this current administration, to try anything, legal or not."
Leckrone said he hasn't had time to fully digest Obama's proposals. He questions whether the ones requiring Congressional action will pass.
"Those senators have to face re-election," Leckrone said.
For one thing, he questions how lawmakers would define assault weapons.
"Back in George Washington's time, it was a muzzleloader," Leckrone said.
Jay Burgess, of Edwardsville, who was shopping at the Belleville show, said many of the proposals by gun-control advocates are misguided. For example, he said, the number of killings committed with rifles of any kind is miniscule compared to the number committed with handguns.
"They're focusing on guns that look a certain way or have scary names, but those guns aren't any more lethal than guns that people typically think of as hunting rifles," Burgess said. "There's a big misconception out there, by people who confuse semi-automatic weapons with machine guns."
Madison County Sheriff Robert Hertz, a lawman since 1972, said he can't recall the last time his department handled a crime involving a rifle that would commonly be called an assault rifle.
"Traditionally we don't see them, but that's not to say we couldn't have a situation here where that could be the weapon of choice for an assailant," Hertz said.
Hertz was president of the Illinois Sheriff's Association when it came out in support of concealed-carry of firearms. But Hertz said he questions the need for 30-round magazines and so-called assault weapons.
"I think they were created solely for war purposes, so I question the necessity of having those," he said.
Burgess, a medical researcher, said some people feel the need to have certain types of weapons to protect themselves, their families and their homes. But he said it's not a question of needing something.
"Do we need sports cars that can go 120 mph?" Burgess asked. "The CDC says drownings account for more deaths among children ages 1-4 than any other cause, except for birth defects, so do we really need swimming pools?"
Lewis said he'd be open to better screening for people with mental illnesses.
"I don't think anyone would argue that a person shouldn't have a firearm if they have severe mental-health issues," Lewis said. "The question is, how are you going to write the rules?"
Lewis said he wonders if, say, a couple could be denied gun ownership because they're experiencing marital difficulties and are seeing a marriage counselor in hope of saving their marriage.
Burgess said cases of crazed people getting a hold of guns and going on rampages are not the everyday occurrences that some people think they are. He said most killings and shootings are committed not by mentally ill people, but by criminals whose motives are robbery, jealousy, selling drugs or settling scores.
"If we gave those people the prison sentences they deserve, there'd be a lot fewer crimes with guns," he said. "Instead, we give them a slap on the wrist or early parole. And now I see where our governor wants to implement another early-release program at the prisons."
Hertz said the local example that comes to mind of a "crazed" person getting a gun and killing indiscriminately is that of Terry Sedlacek, who shot and killed Fred Winters, the pastor of a Maryville church, during a church service in March 2009. An attorney for Sedlacek has said his mental health deteriorated after he contracted Lyme disease from a tick bite several years ago. Sedlacek has been at the Alton Mental Health Center since being found mentally unfit to stand trial.
Sedlacek was armed with a semi-automatic pistol and three 10-round magazines. He fired four shots at Winters, then the gun jammed.
Hertz said anyone who murders another is unstable, to at least some degree.
"What degree of mental impairment they have, I guess it varies, but reasonable people don't take guns to resolve conflicts, and shoot people," Hertz said.
Mike Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, cheered Obama's plan to enact the final regulations on a federal law that requires group health plans to provide coverage for mental health services at the same level as general medical and surgical benefits. But he expressed caution about Obama's call to have mental health counselors provide police with information on potentially dangerous patients.
"On a given day, well over half of the people in this country with a diagnosable mental health problem don't get treatment," Fitzpatrick said. "And a lot of that has to do with the stigma surrounding mental illness. So we don't want to create gun laws that block people from taking that first step to get evaluated and treated."
Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at email@example.com or 618-239-2511.