Local gun store owners said Friday they already were doing a booming business before Waterville police Chief Joseph Massey said that a recent home invasion and assault in Waterville is a good argument for people to buy a gun to defend themselves.

The owners of two local gun stores say Massey’s comments two weeks ago may be driving some sales, but with guns already flying off the shelves, it is hard to pinpoint what the effect is.

Adam Hendsbee, who owns A&G Shooting and Supply in Fairfield, said business spikes when gun violence such as the December attack in San Bernardino, California, or the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, occurs, but the attack in Waterville may have hit home for more people because it was local.

“I think when something like that happens, people realize they need to take responsibility for their own safety,” Hendsbee said.

Massey made his comments in the immediate aftermath of an assault on a 73-year-old woman Feb. 7 in Waterville. Mark Halle, a 32-year-old neighbor, has been charged with breaking into the woman’s home early in the morning and threatening her with a handgun, which turned out later to be a pellet gun, before assaulting her. He is being held in the Kennebec County jail on $500,000 bail.

In an interview after the assault, Massey said it was a case where a good argument could be made for citizens arming themselves.

“Someone said, ‘A gun in hand is better than someone on the phone telling you police are on their way,'” Massey said at the time. “In cases like this, you wish the homeowner had a weapon and was capable of defending themselves.”

Critics of Massey’s comments have pointed to research indicating gun ownership does not make people safer, including a 2011 study by Harvard School of Public Health researcher David Hemenway that concluded the health risks of having a gun in the home outweighed the benefits, especially for women and children.

But despite warnings, guns are selling like hotcakes both in the Waterville area and across the country.

Nationally, Americans have been buying weapons at a historic rate. According to FBI data, gun sellers conducted 23 million background checks for firearms purchases in 2015, compared to about 9 million in 1999, the first full year of the national database. There were 2.5 million background checks in the first month of 2016 alone, according to FBI statistics.

Although the FBI cautions background checks don’t occur in a 1-to-1 ratio with sales and the data doesn’t capture private sales, the statistics are a commonly used barometer for the rate of gun sales.

Getting data on how many guns were sold in Maine is difficult, according to David Heidrich, a spokesman for Maine Revenue Services. There isn’t a special sales tax on firearms and because of the large number of gun stores in the state and the fact that retailers, such as L.L. Bean, sell firearms along with other merchandise, compiling accurate figures on statewide firearms sales is “virtually impossible,” Heidrich said.

The parking lot in front of A&G Shooting and Supply was full Friday afternoon, and almost a dozen customers buzzed around the shop inspecting the racks of weapons and accessories mounted along the walls.

Hendsbee said Massey’s comments may contribute to the trend, but sales would have been heavy regardless.

“It is so hard to tell right now,” Hendsbee said. “Everything we get in just goes out the door the next day.”

Sales have seen a typical spike over the San Bernardino shooting, and sales are typically strong during a presidential election year, Hendsbee said. It’s also tax season, and lots of customers are coming in looking to spend their tax refunds.

“I think it’s always a good time to be in the gun business,” Hendsbee said.

There also has been an enrollment surge for a firearms safety class he teaches after a slump following the passage of a 2015 law allowing people to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. After the assault in Waterville was reported, a lot more people, especially women, signed up for the weekly course; and Hendsbee is booking private group classes.

“We are booked solid for the next three to four weeks,” he said.

Shawn Bickford, who works at the store, said he’s noticed more middle-aged and elderly women coming into the store to buy handguns for self defense in the immediate aftermath of the assault.

“They don’t want to carry it. They just want something in the house,” Bickford said. The store has sold out almost all of its stock of compact handguns designed explicitly for self-defense and concealed carry, he added.

About 20 miles away, in Vassalboro, Chuck Cabaniss also has seen more people sign up for his gun courses after the assault in Waterville. Cabaniss, who owns Fox Firearms, offers classes including a basic firearms training and concealed carry permit course and certification for the Utah concealed firearms permit, which is valid in roughly 30 states.

One of his new students was born in 1939, and Cabaniss said he got the impression she signed up because of what happened in Waterville.

“That was the final motivation for her to take this step,” he said.

Business has been “phenomenal” ever since he opened the shop five years ago, and like Hendsbee, Cabaniss said it spikes whenever there is a highly publicized episode of gun violence. Last December, right after the San Bernardino shooting, was his best month ever, he added. “The sales are off the charts,” he said.

Amos Herrera, a gunsmith and store manager, said he’s had only one customer who referred to Massey’s comments, but he has noticed more female customers recently.

“It’s not like they took what he said and started scrambling to come in,” Herrera said.

Cabaniss said he doesn’t believe the police are able to defend citizens from violent criminals and more gun control only makes law-abiding people more vulnerable. The Waterville assault and other violent crimes are forcing people to understand that owning a gun can make them safer, Cabaniss said, although he acknowledged that painting the world as a scary place ultimately benefited him, as a arms dealer.

“I think people are finally realizing the police aren’t going to protect them, the government isn’t going to protect them,” Cabaniss said. “People are starting to realize they are responsible for their own protection.”

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

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