MANATEE -- Gun laws have re-entered the political spotlight since the shootings in Newtown, Conn. And as Vice President Joe Biden heads a new gun violence task force, people are heading to local pawn shops and gun stores to arm themselves in fear that sales will be stopped.
"I've seen a major increase -- 700 percent. It's not an exaggeration," said Pat Flynn, owner and operator of Bullet Blasters in Palmetto. "I've literally sold out of my in-stock stuff."
AR-15s, similar in appearance to rifles used by the U.S. military, are selling quickly as fear spreads that the right to buy those might be removed, Flynn said. The sales of handguns have also increased, he said.
Bob Ranick, owner of Goldcoast Pawn in Bradenton, pawns guns, but rarely sells to individuals.
"I sell to local gun dealers," Ranick explained. "Wednesday afternoon, I got two phone calls from guys looking for AR-15s. I sell some here and there, but I don't have a huge showroom. I get people in all the time looking for a semi-automatic or a revolver. The problem is half of the people wouldn't know how to fire a gun if their life depended on it."
Ranick regularly sells to Red Barn Gun Shop in Bradenton. A man who answered that shop's phone Thursday afternoon declined comment. Why? "We're swamped with customers," he said.
Meanwhile, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who throughout his long political career has been staunchly pro-gun rights, said Wednesday that after the Connecticut school slayings, he now backs controls.
He expressed support for a renewed assault weapons ban, a size limit on ammunition clips and tougher background checks.
"We need to have some restrictions, that's pretty obvious to most people," Crist said before testifying before a Senate panel on voting laws. "What do you need a 30-clip magazine for?
"Not to go hunting deer. I can tell you that because I hunt deer."
Reminded Wednesday of his past and asked what changed, Crist replied: "We had a wake-up call.
"It says I'm a guy who is willing to listen, I'm willing to learn. I hope that we all are. I think life is a learning experience and the older you get the more wisdom you can accumulate. ... I have an open mind," he said.
But Ranick and Flynn both say gun restrictions are not the answer to reducing violence.
"I honestly don't know what the solution is," Ranick said. "Politicians have jumped all over this. There is going to be a lot of talk both ways. I could give you 20 theories, and you could dispute all 20 of them. But gun control is not the answer."
Flynn noted that previous gun control initiatives have been unsuccessful.
"History repeats itself," he said. "Everybody want to ignore history. Lessons have been learned. Some things work and some things don't. Everywhere they've taken away gun rights, crime has gone up."
Flynn said he believes mental health policies should be at the forefront of discussions.
"It's unfortunate that any of them happen, but it's mentally unstable people who are doing bad things," Flynn said. "I think we should re-evaluate how we address people with mental issues. Crazy people do crazy things. Everybody involved in the shootings has had mental issues.
"You can't hurt anybody's feelings anymore. We don't punish criminals properly and we don't address mental health properly."
Flynn said politicians, lobbyists and the media have categorized all gun owners, including recreational shooters and hunters, under a "black label."
"People always want to blame firearms," Flynn said. "Firearms are not assault weapons. They never will be assault weapons unless they're used to assault somebody."
Flynn added that commercial airliners were not banned after 9/11; vehicles are not banned despite drunk driving and fatal accidents; baseball bats, glass bottles and other items used in assaults have not been banned.
"People having firearms to protect themselves is not a bad thing," Flynn said. "I was in law enforcement, and you're not always there when bad things happen. People should be able to defend themselves. It happens every day that crime is stopped by law-abiding citizens carrying a firearm."
Flynn also brought up the issue of job creation and stability in the firearms industry.
"I sell to law-abiding citizens everyday. I've never had anyone do anything criminal with what I've sold them," Flynn said. "But I'm in fear for my own business because of what is going on. When you don't have product to sell, you go out of business."
-- Material from the Miami Herald was used in this report.
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald crime reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter @EJohnsonBHcrime.