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Nearly 10,000 guns were bought in Sonoma County in 2012 from firearms dealers. That's an average of 27 a day, or enough to provide one new handgun, rifle or shotgun for every 49 residents.

The numbers are further evidence of a sustained explosion in gun sales on the North Coast, with Sonoma County leading the way with a 60 percent spike in just two years.

The increase dwarfs the rate of the region's population growth and comes at a time of declining hunting licenses and a long-term drop in crime rates.

Dealers sold 18,794 guns in 2012 in Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties. Over the past decade, 4.6 million guns were sold in California, including 125,869 in the four counties.

Some studies show that while Americans now own an estimated 270 million firearms, the percentage of the population who say they own guns has dropped substantially.<NO1><NO>

That has led some experts to say it not a matter of more people buying guns, but gun owners buying even more guns.

"The gun community has been beating the drums: &amp;&lsquo;Guns are going to go away; they are not going to be available; you better get them now,'" said William Vizzard, a Sacramento State professor emeritus of criminal justice.

Mass shootings such as the Dec. 14 massacre at a Connecticut elementary school and the resulting debate over gun rights and restrictions have prompted a huge uptick in sales in Sonoma County, gun merchants say.

But the rush simply adds to a gun-sales boom already fueled by factors that include having a Democratic president and fears of weapons shortages, said Vizzard, who worked for 27 years with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Gun sales historically have spiked during Democratic administrations, he said, and that has been especially true during President Barack Obama's tenure.

"Now the surge has been supercharged into a super surge," Vizzard said.

At Schmidt &amp; Titoni Firearms on Piner Road in Santa Rosa, the gun racks and glass cases are unusually bare these days.

Victor Titoni and his business partner are doing their best, but can hardly keep the shelves stocked. "I'm stunned. These racks are usually all filled," said Gary Greenough, 65, of Windsor, who stopped in to see if a Ruger Mini-14 rifle was in stock.

It was not.

"People are afraid, there's obviously something going on," said Ellishea Roberts, 31, of Guerneville.

<NO1><NO>Roberts and her fiance came to buy .22-caliber bullets. But there were none in stock. "There are none in Sonoma County," she said.

Six miles south on Dutton Avenue at Load-X Ammunition, an ammunition manufacturer, orders are at "lunatic levels," said Steve Paulick, the company president.

"My backlog on Christmas Eve was two pages long; right now it's 10 pages long," he said.

"The demand, it's nationwide," Paulick said.

The rapidly escalating sales of guns comes during a two-decade slide in crime rates. But nothing spurs gun sales like mass shootings, say firearms merchants.

Since 2010, there have been at least 11massacres in the United States that fall under the FBI's definition of a mass murder: the killing of four or more people during the same incident.

In the past two years, some of the best-selling types of firearms were used in the shootings that resulted in the most casualties.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

On Jan. 8, 2011, a gunman near Tucson, Ariz., wielding a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol outside a grocery store injured 13 people, including Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and killed six.

On July 20, a masked man in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater fired a .40-caliber semi-automatic pistol, a semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle and a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, killing 12 people and injuring 58.

Then on Dec. 14, a young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and fired a .223-caliber Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, killing 20 children and six adults.

Fearing that such weapons or their high-capacity magazines will be banned has helped fuel the sales, many observers have said.

California Department of Justice Firearms Bureau statistics show that handgun sales leaped 70 percent in Sonoma County in the past two years, rising from 2,228 in 2010 to 3,880 last year.

The sales of so-called long guns — rifles and shotguns — climbed 52 percent in the county in that period, from 3,991 to 6,085.

But sales figures don't really capture how many guns are in North Coast homes.

State figures are like sales receipts, said Michelle Gregory, spokeswoman with the state Department of Justice. The guns are registered, but gun owners are not. "And people aren't required to re-register their weapons every year," Gregory said.

Some national surveys indicate the proportion of the public that owns guns dropped by about a third from 1985 to 2010.

The Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., crunched 40 years of polling data on gun ownership in the United States. In 1985, 30 percent of Americans said they owned guns. By 2010, the number dropped to 20 percent, according to the analysis.

A Gallup poll in 2005, however, put the rate higher, with 3 in 10 Americans reporting they own a gun.

"The self-defense aspect lately is the primary reason for people buying guns," said Phil Graf of Sebastopol.

Graf works for a self-defense training business, Front Sight Firearms Training Institute, with headquarters in Windsor and training programs in Las Vegas.

He said school staff members should carry weapons to protect students. Greater gun controls will disarm law-abiding citizens and won't keep guns out of the hands of criminals, he said.

"If I thought (banning firearms) would be the answer, I'd turn in my guns tomorrow," Graf said.

Hunting has declined in popularity in recent decades, but if recent enrollment in hunting education classes is any indication, interest may be perking up.

Tom Henderson teaches state Department of Fish and Wildlife hunter education courses at a Rancho Cotati firehouse. The retired Sonoma County sheriff's sergeant said that when he started teaching six years ago, 15 to 20 people would enroll in a class.

Last December, he squeezed 45 people into a session and added an additional course.

"There are a lot of people who are taking it now who have never hunted before," Henderson said. He cited a greater interest in knowing where food comes from. People want to fill the freezer with their own meat, he said.

Membership is up at the Russian River Sportsmen's Club in Duncans Mills, said vice president and on-site caretaker Steve LaBranche. The outdoor sports group includes anglers, archers and shotgun shooters.

There currently are 135 members, an 80 percent increase in five years, he said.

"People are trying to find things to do closer to home," LaBranche said.

Inside Schmidt &amp; Titoni's yellow storefront, Roberts and her fiance looked at rifles. The Guerneville mother of an 8-year-old boy said that "four-wheelers and guns" are simply part of Sonoma County culture.

She wants to pass on her father's credo to her son that every person should know how to change a flat tire, milk a cow and shoot a gun.

Behind the counter, Victor Titoni pointed out his most popular models: a 9mm Glock, a Remington 770 30-06 rifle and a Remington 870 shotgun.

He's seen a few more first-time buyers recently, such as a single mom rattled by a recent break-in. But most customers are regulars who come year after year, most for hunting and protection, he said.

"They are concerned about gun control so they're going to buy them now," Titoni said.

Titoni picked up one of his best sellers, a short, pump-action Remington 870 home-defense model, and racked the slide, creating the distinctive chuh-chink.

The noise serves as an effective warning, he said: "Every bad guy knows what that sound is."

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