SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Legal gun sales in California are on pace to set a record this year, according to state projections, although no one can say exactly why.
The state Department of Justice expects that 725,000 rifles, pistols and shotguns will be legally purchased in 2012. The projection is more than 100,000 more guns than were bought last year and nearly twice as many as were purchased five years ago.
Within the last decade, firearm sales have increased dramatically across the state, a rise that officials and experts say is difficult to explain with any precision because the state doesn't track why people purchase the weapons.
"It is very hard to speculate why someone purchases a gun," Shum Preston, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, told the Associated Press on Friday.
Chuck Michel, a civil rights attorney who represents the California Rifle and Pistol Association, said that among factors contributing to the spike include concerns about public safety in a faltering economy and the potential for new laws that might someday restrict firearm ownership.
Michel, whose 40,000-member organization promotes firearm safety and gun rights, also said that from a cultural perspective, Americans — and especially women — have become more accepting of the value of firearms for self-defense and recreational purposes.
"This is a national trend, not just in California," said Michel, who also represents the NRA in California. "It results from a combination of factors. One is a strong desire of the good guys to be able to defend themselves and their families from the bad guys, and another is a big increase in participation in the recreational shooting sports."
Ben Van Houten, a managing attorney with the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, also said it's difficult to pinpoint a cause for the increase.
"The gun industry is always trying to carve out new markets and a lot of the marketing is an attempt to get them to consumer bases they haven't reached yet and I would suspect that is driving it towards women and other groups," said Van Houten, whose group was founded after a 1993 mass shooting in San Francisco's 101 California office tower that killed nine people, including the gunman.
Michel said that buyers remain concerned that President Barack Obama will support more gun controls, a trend that emerged when he was elected four years ago and is resurfacing as he seeks re-election.
"Now the Obama factor is coming back into play again," Michel said. "Because while there weren't quite as many gun control efforts in his first term as originally feared, people recognize there will be more if he gets a second term in office."
Van Houten said the fear and misinformation has had an impact on legal gun sales, along with the possibility that legal gun owners are stockpiling firearms.
"But, just looking at overall sales numbers doesn't tell you who's buying them and what their motivations are," Van Houten said.
Overall, gun sales have been rising steadily in California since 2003. Last year, Californians legally purchased 601,246 guns compared to 498,945 in 2010. The 2011 figure was the highest gun sales total since 1993 when there were a record 642,197.
Traditionally, handgun sales far surpass those of rifles and shotguns. But that changed after 2000, when state lawmakers restricted buyers from purchasing more than one handgun a month.
However, there are no such restrictions for rifles. So, when more than one long gun is purchased at a time, the state records it as a single transaction, which means California's annual total could be underreported.