Tim and Becky Smith browse the selection of handguns Wednesday at Midwest Gun Exchange in Mishawaka. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ
Tim and Becky Smith browse the selection of handguns Wednesday at Midwest Gun Exchange in Mishawaka. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ

Following the national trend on gun sales, Indiana is sighted in on obliterating last year’s record background check numbers.

According to the FBI, retailers performed more than 730,000 criminal background checks through April, dwarfing the total of 302,672 in the first four months of 2015 and putting the state well ahead of the pace that led to a record of more than 1 million background checks for gun purchases through the end of last year.

Indiana State Police statistics appeared to also show more local people seeking licenses to carry handguns, as the 1,258 new licenses issued in St. Joseph County through March were on pace to surpass the 2,285 licenses issued in the county for all of 2015.

In the Hoosier state, background checks for gun purchases have increased every year since 2004, but the spike through April this year is by far the greatest yet. Background checks and licenses do not always reflect purchases and can leave out some cases, such as purchases from private sellers at gun shows, but local retailers say they have seen a considerable increase in both sales and general interest from prospective first-time gun owners.

“We’re seeing more and more first-time buyers with concerns about their own safety, for their home and out in public,” said Rocco Rigsby, retail manager with Midwest Gun Exchange in Mishawaka. “Personal protection handguns are something people are really focusing on right now.”

The increased sales and interest in gun ownership at the local and state levels follows a national wave that has led to skyrocketing sales for some manufacturers. Across the country, background checks increased by 34 percent through April, according to the FBI. Earlier this week, gun maker Sturm, Ruger & Co. reported a 26 percent surge in sales through the first quarter and a 50 percent increase in earnings compared with the same period in 2015.

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Sturm Ruger said the higher earnings could be traced to a twofold fear of violent crime and the potential for stricter gun control, CNN reported — a theory that was echoed by local retailers, who added that political uncertainty often provides an extra bump in election years.

“There tends to be a little bit of a surge in election years,” Rigsby said, “especially if people are undecided on what way it’s going to go and people feel their ability to purchase firearms may go one way or the other.”

Tim Smith, who was browsing the selection at Midwest on Wednesday, said Donald Trump’s emergence as the presumptive Republican nominee has caused even more uncertainty because Trump does not seem to fall in line with the classic conservative stance on some issues.

“With the way the political parties are now, you don’t know how things are going to go,” Smith said. “Trump or Hillary — you don’t know what they’re going to do.”

Mass shootings involving certain types of semi-automatic weapons, such as the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., have often led to rushes for so-called “assault” rifles as people fear bans on those types of guns. Last year, December set a single-month record for the number of people undergoing background checks for gun purchases after mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., and Colorado Springs.

In Indiana, that surge mounted further in January, as the state set its own monthly record with more than 230,000 background checks. Those numbers have subsided each month since then, though they remain far higher than the same months in 2015. And retailers say a boom in sales through April is not uncommon, as people spend money from the holidays and tax refunds.