Harry Ferguson's gun store resembles a grocery seller days before a major hurricane is set to hit.

Harry Ferguson's gun store resembles a grocery seller days before a major hurricane is set to hit.

The walls of Ferguson's 2,800-square-foot store are mostly bare, and customers, concerned about gun control legislation brewing in Washington, D.C., and Salem, file regularly through the door willing to pay steep prices for assault rifles they fear could be banned within the year.

The most popular items disappearing from Jackson County Armory's shelves are Colt AR-15 rifles and Glock handguns, Ferguson said.

"I can't keep either one in stock," he said.

Ferguson opens his sales book and begins counting the AR-15s that he's sold over the past month. It takes him a while to compute the final tally.

In the end, 45 AR-15s were sold in December and the first days of January. He expects to get six more AR-15s in this week. These will disappear before the weekend, Ferguson said.

And at $2,100 per rifle, AR-15s don't come cheap. But this is the market value in an era that sees rumors of gun bans pushing sales through the roof.

"This is the first wave of the tsunami," Ferguson said. "Once they make the decision and decide to ban assault rifles, you'll see even more people scrambling to buy what guns are left."

The recent shootings in a Connecticut elementary school and a Clackamas County mall — both of which involved .223 caliber AR-15s — have thrown gun ownership into a realm of controversy not seen since the 1994 assault weapons ban enacted by Congress.

Rumors of gun control coming down the pike and the fear of murderous gunmen firing on schoolchildren and theater crowds have led to a substantial spike in both gun sales and applications for concealed handgun permits in Jackson County.

No one really knows whether AR-15s will be banned once Congress decides how it will respond to the shootings in coming months. However, those who are willing to drop more than $2,000 on such a rifle aren't willing to take the chance on missing out.

"Basically, right now you can only get what you can find in gun stores," Ferguson said. "If they ban, say, the AR-15s, then the price will go up even more on them, and you'll have people paying even more on the black market."

Meanwhile, employees at the Jackson County Sheriff's Department have been busy processing concealed handgun permit applications at a brisk pace since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut on Dec. 14.

Since that day, when 20 elementary students and six school staff members were shot and killed by a man armed with a .223-caliber Bushmaster XM-15, a 10 mm Glock 20 handgun and a 9 mm SIG Sauer handgun, the call for concealed carry licenses has increased, sheriff's Capt. Monty Holloway said.

Since Dec. 14, 119 concealed handgun permits have been approved in Jackson County. Another 199 are pending approval, according to numbers provided by the sheriff's department.

The number of concealed licenses granted in Jackson County has been up and down in recent years. The department granted 2,457 licenses in 2010. 2,994 in 2011. The number dropped to 2,606 licenses in 2012.

"The number of applications comes in waves," Holloway said. "We are just coming off the heels of a tragic incident with the Connecticut school shooting, and there are also people trying to stay ahead of any gun legislation that might come into place."

Holloway said that all of these applicants are screened by state background investigators before they are granted a concealed carry permit.

"The folks who come in are not the ones we have to worry about," Holloway said. "They go through the process and are exercising the constitutional right to own firearms. It's the ones who are able to get firearms illegally to use in crimes that concern us."

Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau echoed Holloway's sentiment, saying that law enforcement does not seek to infringe on gun owners' rights, but he does ask that they show strict responsibility with their firearms.

"We see people leaving their guns in cars, sometimes unlocked cars," Budreau said. "That is just asking for someone to steal them and use them in a crime, or use them against law enforcement officers."

Guns have a high resale value on the black market, Budreau said. That value could increase if certain rifles and magazines are banned this year.

One of the steps to procuring a concealed handgun permit is attending a firearms safety class hosted by a licensed instructor.

Don Smith of Medford holds classes each month, where he teaches the proper handling and care of firearms.

He said the number of people seeking his services has spiked in the past month. He links this in part to the school shooting, which has left people feeling vulnerable.

"They want to protect themselves more than anything," he said.

Smith said he preaches safety above all else in his eight-hour class. He expects students to have at least passing familiarity with guns before he will accept them into his class.

"It's my decision who to let in my class," he said. "And if you've never held a gun before, then I'll send you somewhere else."

Smith hosts classes of between 10 and 20 students in Jackson County. He is heading to Portland soon to teach a class of 35 people seeking concealed carry licenses.

At the end of the class, students are given a certificate they can bring to the sheriff's office. The department checks to see whether the teacher is a certified firearms instructor before allowing them to proceed in the application process.

Several certification classes are held throughout Jackson County every month. Most gun stores post classes on their websites. A quick look at local gun store websites, such as Good Guys Guns in Medford, shows that many upcoming classes are full.

Smith said pending gun control legislation probably won't affect the ability to buy and carry handguns. But he doesn't know what Congress is cooking up.

"Who knows what they'll do, but nothing would surprise me," Smith said.

For Penny Okamoto, executive director of Ceasefire Oregon, an advocacy group based in Portland that seeks tighter gun control measures such as a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, possible new legislation couldn't come soon enough.

"We are optimistic about the new laws that could come from these senseless shootings," Okamoto said. "People are just sick of it. They are sick of the NRA calling the shots."

Okamoto's group has spoken to several legislators in Salem and they feel there is enough political will there to enact an assault weapons ban, as well as a ban on magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

"The people in this country have had enough of these weapons of mass slaughter," Okamoto said. "There have been too many years of lax gun laws and it has finally worn people down."

She points to the Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic assault rifle that Adam Lanza used to massacre the Sandy Hook schoolchildren as proof that these weapons are far too dangerous to sell on the open market.

"We've talked to people at our gun turn-in events and they are saying that we need sane gun laws," Okamoto said. "We had a person give us an assault weapon and told us to melt it down."

The one thing linking gun rights and gun control advocates is the unknown. Until specific laws are handed down, no one knows what guns will be stocked in the nation's stores this time next year.

As far as what to do about gun violence, gun owners such as Central Point resident Ryan Prentice, who was buying a receiver for an AR-15 in Jackson County Armory on Thursday, have an idea.

"I think we need to do away with the austerity measures in this country that are keeping the mentally ill from receiving the help they need," said Prentice, a Southern Oregon University senior. "You just can't keep cutting health care and these services."

Holloway agrees, saying that the key is to keep guns out of the hands of those who can't be expected to use them responsibly.

"We are surrounded by people with mental health issues who have fallen through the cracks," Holloway said. "We can either deal with the problem on the front end and get them the help they need, or we can deal with it on the back end when they use guns to commit these crimes."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or cconrad@mailtribune.com.