Nearly 370,000 criminal background checks were requested by Oklahoma gun store owners in 2012, the highest total in state history.
According to records kept by the FBI, the 367,976 background checks requested by store owners last year topped the previous record — set in 2011 — by nearly 100,000.
Gun shop owners say background check statistics don't necessarily reflect actual sales as much as they gauge public interest in purchasing a firearm.
“Some people have their application rejected or may change their mind or whatever, but those numbers show you how many people are at least considering buying a gun,” said Darren Burger, co-owner of Choctaw gun store Locked and Loaded.
Until their numbers exploded in 2012, background checks performed on potential Oklahoma gun buyers had experienced slow, steady growth since they began in 1998, records indicate.
Last year's figures grew so much they nearly doubled the number of checks performed just five years earlier, in 2007.
Background check statistics in Oklahoma mirrored the national trend, FBI records show.
In 2012, the federal agency conducted 19,592,303 criminal background checks on potential gun buyers, the most ever. The previous record, when 16,454,951 checks were performed, came in 2011.
On the national level, the number of criminal background checks performed on potential gun buyers grew by roughly 230 percent between 2002 and 2012.
Explanations are unknown
The numbers don't appear to be misleading here in Oklahoma.
Gun stores in the metro area have shelves that are conspicuously bare. Ask for an AR-15 rifle — which has become a top seller in recent weeks — and you may get laughed at.
In late December, just weeks after a mentally unstable young man shot and killed 20 first-graders and several adults in a Connecticut elementary school, the owner of H&H Shooting Sports Complex discussed the spike in gun sales with The Oklahoman.
“The largest gun sales in the history of the industry are happening,” Miles Hall said at the time.
“With everything we're hearing, December's numbers will be off the charts.”
Possible explanations for the increase in criminal background checks and gun sales are plentiful.
In July, a graduate student armed with a rifle shot and killed 12 people during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Colorado.
There was a presidential election in November and fringe hype about the end of days, which according to a supposed ancient prophecy was to happen Dec. 21.
But most gun store owners believe the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School had the most to do with the spike in sales, especially weapons like the AR-15 rifle.
Hall and Burger, whose stores are vastly different in size, both said that AR-15 rifles are extremely difficult to get from manufacturers. Locked and Loaded is a small-town gun shop, while H&H Shooting Sports Complex sprawls over 72,000 square feet in the heart of Oklahoma City.
Even individual sections of the guns — which can be mixed and matched with other parts to customize a weapon — are selling out.
“We sold completely out of all platform units that could be sold to the general public, as well as magazines and many other accessories for these firearms,” Hall said.
Hall said he sold 2,000 military-style rifles like the AR-15 in two days following the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook.
Burger said the wait time for new inventory is virtually unknown at this point.
“We've never seen anything like this before,” he said last week. “They are not even bothering to keep waiting lists right now.”
Contributing: Staff Writer Vallery Brown