ALISON STEWART, host:
The surge in gun sales that started around the time then-Senator Barack Obama was elected president continues despite the recession. NPR's Joshua Brockman went to a gun show in Virginia to find out why.
JOSHUA BROCKMAN: On Friday afternoon, the start of this three-day gun show in Chantilly, Virginia, the expo center is already packed.
Is there a detectable rise in the number of gun sales, do you think?
Mr. JIM GOLDEN (Arms Merchant): Oh yeah, probably 60 percent higher than it was a year ago - 60 percent at least.
BROCKMAN: Jim Golden is an arms merchant based in Ivor, Virginia. He's busy looking over customers' background check paperwork and checking their IDs at his booth. It's shoulder-to-shoulder, as the crowd peruses thousands of guns laid out on tables.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER URBAN: Excuse me, I should be good to go. She said my paperwork's up here. Urban, Christopher.
BROCKMAN: Twenty-five-year-old Christopher Urban, who works in federal law enforcement, purchases a Walther PPS 40-caliber handgun from another dealer nearby. He wanted a 9-millimeter but there were none to be found.
Mr. URBAN: Everybody's a little nervous about Obama and everything that's going on with him and the legislation that John Kerry and the likes of him are trying to push through. So it has been a little bit harder to get things and the prices have gone up significantly.
BROCKMAN: There's no easy way to know how many guns are sold in the U.S. That's because the federal government doesn't keep a tally, and neither do the majority of states. The FBI, however, tracks background checks nationwide, which are required for all gun sales through federally licensed dealers. These figures provide the best estimate of where gun sales stand.
During the last quarter of 2008, background checks skyrocketed to their highest levels in the decade. For the first quarter of 2009, the number fell a little bit, but it's still far above where it was last year. But what the data doesn't tell us is why. One answer might be videos, like this one on YouTube…
(Soundbite of video)
Unidentified Man: Remember candidate Barack Obama, the guy who wasn't going to take our guns away?
President BARACK OBAMA: I will not take your shotgun away. I will not take your rifle away. I won't take your handgun away.
Unidentified Man: Well, guess what? Less than 100 days into his administration and President Obama appears ready to eradicate the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.
BROCKMAN: That's a video produced by the guns rights group Americans for Gun Safety. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin from Illinois says messages like this are fueling anxieties about the new president and the new Congress.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): And I think many gun dealers are using it as a marketing tool, playing on the unreasonable fears that people have that Congress is going to go too far.
BROCKMAN: Durbin notes that actually Congress has been moving in the opposite direction, notably with a measure approved by Congress and signed into law by the president allowing people with the necessary permits to carry concealed loaded weapons into national parks.
That may be because the public has taken a conservative turn when it comes to gun control, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Mr. CARROLL DOHERTY (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press): A year ago we had a solid majority - 58 percent - saying it was more important to control gun ownership than to protect the right to own guns. And now opinion is almost evenly divided.
BROCKMAN: Carroll Doherty is with the Pew Center.
Mr. DOHERTY: It's a pretty striking shift in a very short period of time - only a year.
BROCKMAN: A shift that has not gone unnoticed by Congressional Democrats and by the president.
Joshua Brockman, NPR News.
STEWART: To see how background checks have increased over the past decade and to watch a gun rights group's video about President Obama's past voting record on firearms, go to NPR.org.