Note: This story has been edited to reflect that language allowing the purchase of a firearm for a third party as a bona fide gift is included in a 4473 form, the document completed before the purchase of a gun.
When a 12-year-old Adam Ruonala rounded his family Christmas tree after unwrapping his presents, he saw his father standing there, holding one of the greatest gifts he would ever receive.
In his father’s hands was a .410 shotgun, a firearm that for generations had passed through the hands of many Ruonalas.
It was the same firearm Ruonala had seen and revered from a locked case but never imagined would one day be his.
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His father placed the gun in Ruonala’s hands, an invitation to manhood and trust, and told him something he’ll never forget: “This firearm is like fire. It can warm your home, it can cook your food and it can keep away evil. But if you don’t respect it, it can burn your whole world down.”
Today, Ruonala is chief marketing officer for Palmetto State Armory, a firearms retailer and manufacturer that has a location in Ridgeland. He said he still has his father’s firearm, the first gun he would ever own, and would only give it away to a child who would appreciate it.
“It was one of those things that still stands out to this day, not just because it was a cool gift but because it was, you know, a part of a legacy,” he said.
Ruonala’s gift of gun ownership is not an uncommon present. In fact, the holiday season is typically the highest for gun sales in the United States.
According to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, “a national system that checks available records on persons who may be disqualified from receiving firearms,” the highest number ever recorded for firearm background checks was on Nov. 25 of this year — Black Friday.
Since the government began documenting background checks in 1998, four of the 10 highest dates for firearm background checks fell on a Black Friday, and four other record breaking days were within a week of Christmas.
From 2010 to 2015, every year except 2013, December was also South Carolina’s most popular month for firearm background checks.
Though background checks do not represent the number of firearms sold within a single purchase, Ed Soto, owner of Palmetto Indoor Range in Hardeeville, said gun dealers must perform these background checks with NICS for every purchase. He said the only exception to a background check is for buyers with valid conceal and carry permits, which already require an NICS background check and a government-issued state ID.
“It doesn’t matter whether it (is) Walmart or Palmetto Indoor Range or Bass Pro,” he said. “Everybody’s going to go through the same background check. We all fill out the same form. It’s a 4473 form, and if the FBI approves the transfer, then you can go home with your gun. If they delay it or deny it, under no circumstance will you go home with your gun.”
But background checks aren’t the only numbers that soar during the holidays.
Palmetto State Armory has posted several Christmas-themed gun billboards around the state, including signs on S.C. 170 in Beaufort County, for its third year in a row. Ruonala said the signs are meant to start a dialogue among those who see them, though some people have found the advertisements offensive. He said the firearms industry experiences a boost in sales this time of year like many other areas of retail, and many hunting seasons fall within the holiday season.
“I mean, it’s really hard to kind of put an exact sum on it, but I would say if you compared that weekend, Black Friday weekend ... as opposed to a weekend in the middle of summer, you’d see a 200 percent increase,” he said.
At Palmetto Indoor Range, Soto said his primary source of income is from education, training, conceal and carry permitting, and contracts with law enforcement, but he does end up selling more firearms than usual in December. He said merchants throughout the country will reduce prices for their products, from sneakers to books, and people are going to take advantage of the deals.
“Thanksgiving week, believe it or not, is my busiest week,” he said. “It’s not only great for gun sales and merchandise sales, but we have a lot of folks that visit our area to come in and shoot. And they like to try guns before they buy them, and then they might turn to their wife and say, ‘Honey, this is the one I want,’ and she will either purchase from us or from another dealer.”
Soto also cited the recent political climate as a reason for why 2016 was the biggest year for firearm background checks with the NICS.
“The primary reason is because everything pointed to Hillary Clinton getting the nomination and the presidency,” he said. “There’s no other reason. That’s why. It’s not because our society is breaking down any faster than it was six months ago.”
But for those who are worried about a loaded gun under the tree, the chances of you opening one on Christmas morning are slim, thanks to the regulations of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
According to Corey Ray with the ATF Charlotte field office, a firearm purchase for a third party as a gift is legal as long as the intent is to give the firearm to a person who can legally take possession of the weapon, and dealers with a Federal Firearms License can transfer the weapon to the receiver. Ray said in an email that states can regulate this process, but South Carolina laws and regulations do not.
Ray said a firearm purchase for a third party as a bona fide gift is allowed and that language is included on the 4473 form, the document submitted to perform the NICS background check.
But business owners like Soto have policies to avoid firearms falling into the wrong hands and suggest customers either buy a gift card or wrap the empty box and retrieve the firearm later.
“Once you’ve told me that this is for a brother or spouse or somebody else, I consider it a straw purchase, and the best thing to do — and what we do — is we sell you the weapon, (and) we’ll give you the box for the weapon that doesn’t have the weapon in it,” he said. “You wrap it as a Christmas gift with the receipt. That person opens up their box. They now how have a revolver waiting at Palmetto Indoor Range. They’ll come down here, and that person will fill out the paperwork. This way under no circumstances is it a straw purchase, and it is going directly to the person that you intended to have it legally.”
Ruonala said similarly that Palmetto State Armory suggests buying a gift card or that customers bring their loved ones into one of their retail stores to apply for the background check while they pay for it.
“So, unfortunately, sometimes, it’s not exactly the most traditional way of gift giving. ... What we are very adamant about is making it as enjoyable for the customer as possible but still making sure that we are being responsible to the firearms laws,” he said. “But not only that, but also to our community and making sure that the firearms end up in the right hands, with the right people who have the right and the legal permission to own them.”
Regardless of the process, Soto, who still has pictures of himself at 4 years old in a deer stand hunting with his father, said the gift of a gun is personal.
“It’s like me giving you a Rolex,” he said. “It’s something that you’re going to have forever; we intended to give it to you forever.”