As Washington focuses on what Vice President Joe Biden will propose next week to curb gun violence, gun and ammunition sales are rising sharply in the United States as people rush to expand their arsenals in advance of any restrictions that might be imposed.
People were crowded five deep at the tiny counter of a gun shop near Atlanta, where a pastor from Knoxville, Tenn., was among the customers who showed up in person after the store’s website halted sales because of low inventory. Emptying gun cases and bare shelves gave a picked-over feel to gun stores in many states.
High-capacity magazines, which some state and federal officials want to ban or restrict, were selling briskly across the country: One Iowa dealer said that 30-round magazines were fetching five times what they sold for just weeks ago.
Gun dealers and buyers alike said the rapid growth in gun sales shows little sign of abating. Sales began climbing dramatically after President Obama’s reelection and soared after the Dec. 14 shooting at a school in Newtown, Conn., prompted him to call for new gun laws.
December set a record for the criminal background checks performed before many gun purchases, a strong indication of a big increase in sales, according to an analysis of federal data by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry trade group. Adjusting the federal data to try to weed out background checks that were unrelated to firearms sales, the group reported that 2.2 million background checks were performed last month, an increase of 58.6 percent over the same period in 2011. Some gun dealers said in interviews that they have never seen such demand.
‘‘If I had 1,000 AR-15s I could sell them in a week,’’ said Jack Smith, an independent gun dealer in Des Moines, Iowa, referring to the popular style of semiautomatic rifle that attracted national attention after Adam Lanza used one to kill 20 children and six adults in Newtown.
Smith said many people were stocking up on high-capacity magazines in anticipation that they might be banned. Two weeks ago, he said, a 30-round rifle magazine was $12, but it now fetches $60. Popular online retailers were out of many 20- and 30-round rifle magazines.
In Washington, Biden said the task force he leads is hoping to make its recommendations on Tuesday to Obama about preventing gun violence. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the nation’s leading gun control groups, said its top priority was to close the loopholes that allow 40 percent of gun sales to be made without background checks.
Some groups that support gun control urged the White House not to focus too much energy on an assault weapons ban, which they said could be hard to persuade Congress to pass. Officials at Third Way, a left-leaning research group in Washington, urged Obama to save political capital for higher-priority goals like universal background checks and cracking down on gun trafficking.
Outside Greta’s Guns in Simi Valley, Calif., several customers said that they opposed any assault weapons ban, but would support more thorough background checks.
George Gray, 60, who said he owned ‘‘more arms than arms to bear them,’’ said he was in favor of more background checks. ‘‘If you own a weapon, you should be stable,’’ said Gray, who said he had come from Los Angeles to buy a gun for his daughter. ‘‘You should be accountable for your actions. I don’t mind stricter background checks. What we’ve done with the mental health in this country — these people used to get care and were in facilities. And in most of these instances, it’s been people with mental problems.’’
The possibility that the federal assault weapons ban — which lasted from 1994 to 2004 — might be reinstated was enough to spur sales of semiautomatic rifles with military-style features.
Joel Alioto, an Iraq war veteran said he sold an AR-15 rifle at a gun show for $1,700.