In north Columbia, there is a store with guns displayed all across the walls. Slogan-covered T-shirts are also on sale: “Liberty not socialism.” “God, Guns, Glory.”

It’s a slow Friday morning, but the few customers who stroll in are all familiar faces.

“Helloooooo!” the owner booms every time a customer walks in. They inquire about guns and gun parts, and if they do buy a firearm, after a background check, they get to drive home with a new gun.

Larry Wayland has run Modern Arms for six years. He’s one of nearly 2,200 licensed firearms dealers and pawn shops in the state of Missouri, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

As the topic of guns becomes increasingly polarizing, access to guns has become an issue of debate — and the conventional way of access is still through gun stores.

In fact, as of August, Missouri had the sixth-most gun dealers and pawnshops with Federal Firearm Licenses out of any state and, when looking at states of similar population sizes or larger, the most firearm-related businesses per capita.

All states with higher per capita rates, such as Wyoming and Montana, have significantly smaller populations, no larger than 2 million. Missouri, meanwhile, has a population above 6 million.

Why is it more likely for an owner to open up in Missouri compared to other states? Experts and business owners cite several reasons.

Friendly laws

Legislation can play an important role, making it easier or harder to run a gun business.

In Missouri, for instance, you can buy a firearm and leave with it that same day. Across the border in Illinois, state law requires sellers to withhold delivery of any long gun or handgun for 72 hours after purchase.

“Missouri is better than a lot of states,” said Terry Oehrke, owner of KC Gun Sales. “Missouri is gun-friendly.”

Wayland agrees. “Things like that make Missouri a good place for consumers and retailers,” he said.

Even local laws have impacted the number of firearm dealers. Kansas City, despite being the largest city in the state, has 24 businesses licensed as firearm dealers as of August. That’s fewer than Springfield, Columbia and Jefferson City, which have 56, 36 and 29 such businesses, respectively.

The Kansas City division of the ATF attributes this discrepancy to a city ordinance outlawing home-based businesses that create foot traffic.

“As firearms must be transferred in person by licensed dealers, this prohibited many applicants from being licensed, as they could not get the required business license from the city,” the division said in an email.

Indeed, many of the firearm dealers’ business addresses in Missouri listed by the ATF are that of private homes, according to Google Maps searches. Especially with the internet, getting into the gun business doesn’t require opening an actual storefront and makes the industry a bit more accessible, gun store owners said.

Background checks

Mark Oliva, director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, doesn’t think laws or ordinances are the primary reason.

“It has very little to do with (Missouri’s) law,” said the NSSF director, whose organization is based in Newtown, Connecticut. “If anything, Missourians have an appetite to exercise their Second Amendment rights.”

There is no data to track how many individual firearms are sold, but each transaction at a firearms dealer has to go through a background check, per federal law. According to NICS background check data, Missouri was seventh in the nation for the number of checks last year. Take into account population, and the state once again has the most background checks per capita for states of similar sizes or larger.

Firearm dealers agree that Missourians love their guns.

“Here in the heart of the country, our values we have are still values we have from older times,” Oehrke said. “We believe in protecting ourselves.”

Oliva said that, beyond politics and laws, it comes down to individual business owners who decide whether they want to deal guns themselves. “Most firearm retailers are small businesses,” he said, “not big-box stores.”

Part of that decision-making in deciding where to start a business could be based on market research, Oliva added, but a huge chunk is based on personal matters. That was the case for Wayland, who is from Columbia.

“It’s where my family is. It’s where my property is,” he said. “I’m invested.”

Homicide rates

It’s been well established that gun ownership rates are linked with homicide rates. However, experts say there hasn’t been enough research on whether the number of gun businesses in an area is related.

One research paper did look into the issue and concluded that in major cities, higher gun dealer density correlated with higher gun homicide rates. But the reverse was true for suburbia, and no association was found for small towns.

Regardless, Wayland noted many of his customers buy more than one firearm and that defending oneself is a big motivator — and not simply for safety.

“It’s just another tool in the toolbox … (to) take responsibility for their lives,” Wayland said. “It’s a liberty thing. It’s a liberating thing to be responsible for my own life.

“Who wants to be a victim?” he asked.

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit,

  • Titus was a state government reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor at the Missourian.

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