YAKIMA, Wash. — Within the past two years, Steve Simon said he’s had to chase unwanted people from his West Valley home on two occasions.
The first time, a group of teens pounded on his door late at night, saying they were looking for someone. A car’s headlights were beaming into his front door, Simon recalled. Another time, his wife caught a man inexplicably walking around in their home. When she told him to leave, Simon said, the intruder said he was interested in buying the house.
“This home invasion thing and people wandering around at night, we’ve had people looking in people’s windows,” Simon said.
Both incidents prompted Simon, 66, and his wife to learn from a professional how to handle a handgun for protection. Simon was already skilled with a shotgun.
While the Simons armed for personal protection, they are also representative of a growing number of people in the Yakima Valley buying guns, ammunition and taking handgun classes since President Barack Obama took office. Now with the massacre in Newtown, Conn., and the resulting push by Obama and others to ban assault weapons as well as large magazines that hold a lot of ammunition, the rush to bear arms is on.
For example, in just six days last week, Grumpy’s Outdoor Store in Yakima sold 26 AK-47 rifles. Overall gun and ammunition sales at the store have been soaring, said co-owner Steve Van Klinken.
“It’s a feeding frenzy,” he said. “Everybody is afraid of what Obama is going to push through. They have no confidence (in proposed gun control) so they are trying to get whatever they can.”
Sales have been similarly brisk at Ace Arms in Selah, said owner Greg Turk.
“Most (customers) just want to own (an assault weapon) because they didn’t in the past and if they can’t in the future, they might as well now,” he said. “But the big thing is the big (ammunition) magazines — I’m selling five times what I would in a normal day.”
And Hammers Outdoor World in Union Gap has been having a tough time ordering more guns since Obama’s Dec. 17 speech following the Newtown shooting, said owner Linda Hammond.
“When we got on the phone to buy guns that day, everything was gone,” she said. “I mean, you go down the list and everything was zero. It was crazy.”
New gun owners are also seeking training. National Rifle Association certified instructor Verne Bakker in Yakima said he normally teaches one eight-hour class to 10 people a month. But last month increasing demand led him to add two additional classes, and he has four classes booked this month. His students mostly are first-time gun owners.
“A lot of people are wanting to secure their rights to bear arms,” Bakker said.
And women older than 50 make up the largest group seeking handgun training, he added.
Protection is why Nancy Baisinger, 62, and her 67-year-old husband, Steve, recently took the handgun class. The Terrace Heights couple recently bought three new pistols.
“That’s the main reason — personal protection,” she said. “I almost feel like the older I get, the more I need protection. The older you get, the meaner the world gets and I just felt like I needed some protection.”
For retired Navy veteran Jerry Ford, 54, his right to own a gun is also his responsibility.
“I believe that I am the first and primary person responsible for my and my family’s safety,” Ford said. “I live 30 miles out of town. It’s not going to do me any good to call the police if someone crawls through my window.”
In his concealed weapons class, Bakker said he teaches people how to respond to certain situations and when to shoot.
“If you reasonably believe that your life or a loved one’s life is in danger or face bodily injury, then you have the responsibility to act,” he said.
But as far as being in public when an active shooter begins to fire, the decision to act is an individual one, Bakker said.
“It’s not an easy decision to make, but it will change your life forever.”
And if you do decide to intervene, “you fire at center of mass until the threat is gone,” he added. “Once the threat is gone, you cannot keep firing. And that’s the same a police officer would do.”
Many local gun rights supporters accuse the Obama administration of using the Newtown incident to justify measures to erode the right to bear arms. The rush to buy guns and ammunition and get handgun training isn’t new to Oatmeal Graham, who sells guns at Grumpy’s.
“I’ve been through this about four times now,” Graham said, referring to the customer reaction to previous gun control laws. “This is the worst.”
Gun owners are frustrated, said Graham, an accomplished competition shooter. “Every day I have this conversation — 30 times a day,” he said one recent afternoon at the store.
Many supporters of gun rights are not shy about protecting their right to bear arms. More than 100 gun owners attended a meeting late last month hosted by Yakima County Sheriff Ken Irwin. While Irwin told the crowd he does not favor a ban on assault weapons — because he does not think it would be effective — he did say he favors more thorough background checks on all buyers, including those who buy at gun shows. Those transactions currently are exempt from background checks.
Most who showed up at Irwin’s office voiced fear that any more gun laws would erode the Second Amendment. Some said they fear their guns will be confiscated by the government. Irwin encouraged them to write to lawmakers.
Irwin isn’t alone in his support for closing the gun-show loophole. Local gun control activist Larry Breer of the Yakima Valley Peace Advocates Network, said the lack of background checks at gun shows allows guns to fall into the wrong hands.
“Where is the sanity in having a place where any individual can just walk in, buy a gun and go out and commit a crime?” said Breer, who also is a gun owner. “We’re not protesting guns per say — we’re protesting unstable people being able to acquire a gun.”
But Graham, of Grumpy’s, said there are plenty of laws on the books to enforce tougher background checks. They just aren’t adequately enforced, he argues.
“The law requires extensive background checks,” he said pointing to a list of questions on the application to purchase a weapon. He argues that only gun dealers should be required to conduct background checks on buyers, not hobbyists at gun shows because they are not serious gun dealers.
But Breer doesn’t agree.
“The people who come in here (for guns shows) call themselves collectors,” he said. “They’re not collectors — they’re merchants.”
Gun-rights supporters say no one should forget that the Second Amendment was written to give people the right to protect themselves, and that it was born of the confiscation of colonists’ guns by the British.
“At the end of the day, here’s the deal,” said Ford, the Navy veteran. “The Second Amendment has nothing to do with hunting. The Second Amendment has everything to do with ‘I have a right to protect myself.’ ”
• Phil Ferolito can be reached at 509-577-7749 or firstname.lastname@example.org.