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Lock and load up on guns

In the wake of numerous national shootings, Columbia County residents are flocking to gun safety classes and gun shops


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - Gregg Smith, gun safety instructor and range master at the Clatskanie Rifle and Pistol Club, shows students the proper way to hold and aim a gun using plastic replicas that replicate the weight and feel of real firearms. In the three weeks after Christmas, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office was flooded with requests for concealed firearm licenses.

In Clatskanie, Sporty’s Gun Shop has been the busiest owner Khosro Peiravi can remember it being in more than 20 years, and local gun safety classes that normally see only six to 10 students per class welcomed more than 20.

Last year’s multiple, violent shootings brought familiar arguments for and against gun control back into sharp focus.

In Oregon, Democratic Sen. Ginny Burdick is seeking to ban the sale of magazines with more than 10 rounds. Across the country, people are discussing a ban on the high-powered and versatile AR-15 semiautomatic rifle beloved by recreational target shooters and hunters — and the same style of gun investigators say was used by many of last year’s shooters, from James Holmes at the movie theater shooting in Colorado and Jacob Roberts at Clackamas Town Center to Adam Lanza at the elementary school shooting in Connecticut.

The shootings and the debates over gun control have made people reexamine their own safety and, said Peiravi, sent them to his shop in droves.

“Anytime you say, well, you can’t buy something anymore, whether it’s Cabbage Patch dolls or AR-15s, there’s going to be a rush,” said Gregg Smith, gun safety instructor and range master at the Clatskanie Rifle and Pistol Club.

He remembers when President Barack Obama was first elected in 2008. People began hoarding ammunition, worried that his election would trigger more stringent gun control laws. As supplies became scarce, prices skyrocketed, Smith said.

“It was capitalism at its finest,” he said.

Now the same situation appears to be happening again.

Elderly customers have told Peiravi they’re buying AR-15 rifles for grandchildren or great-grandchildren, afraid the guns will not be available by the time these descendants might want to own one. In the last couple of weeks, when Peiravi has called around to dealers to stock up on his supply of firearms or ammunition, there isn’t much to be had.

“We can barely keep up,” he said.

Violent events, such as the Newtown school shooting — or, locally, the shooting of Police Chief Ralph Painter in 2011— heighten people’s awareness of guns: what they can do and who might be carrying them, Smith said.

Although he is an electrical engineer by trade, Smith’s work as a gun safety instructor takes him into gun and ammo shops on a regular basis. Recently, he’s seen people in these shops who he wouldn’t expect to see: a lot of women, a lot of elderly people and a lot of first-time gun buyers.

Unlike the “normal, gun shop denizens,” these are people not looking to pick up an additional firearm, they are people who have rarely or never handled a gun in their life, Smith said. An oddity in a rural county that is not shy about gun ownership.

In Columbia County, the Sheriff’s Office oversees the issuing of concealed carry licences. An average month sees roughly 50 requests, a combination of new requests and renewals, Sheriff Jeff Dickerson said.

“I think a lot of people are just comfortable with the idea of owning guns,” Dickerson said.

At an eight-hour long Jan. 5 gun safety class in Clatskanie, Smith’s students ranged in age from 20 to 70, and nearly half of them were women. But not all of Smith’s students were there to meet concealed carry license requirements.

“We have a gun in the house,” explained one woman who asked to be identified only as Diana. She wanted to know how to use the weapon safely. She listened intently as instructor Ben Stroup showed her the proper way to hold her firearm. Then, setting her gun on a folding table in front of her, she picked up a plastic, canary yellow gun, designed to replicate the feel and weight of the real thing, and carefully took aim.

Sometimes after completing a class, people who attended simply to learn firearm safety decide they would rather leave guns alone and install burglary alarms or carry mace, Smith said.

“Owning a gun is a tremendous and terrible responsibility,” he said. “You have to know where it is at all times ... Buying a gun is one thing. Being a responsible gun owner is another.”