Perched on the corner of Josh and Jocelyn Hirschfeld's bedroom dresser, a new deluxe gun safe sits right next to their framed wedding and family photos. Josh places his fingertips on the safe's slots and taps out a combination. The door pops open, a light goes on and the 36-year-old real estate agent grabs his new 9-millimeter handgun and snaps in a 19-round magazine.

He purchased his first handgun just days after the Sandy Hook school massacre, fighting the frenzied crowds that have swamped gun shops and flooded sheriff's offices around the country with record numbers of firearm-permit requests in the five weeks since the Connecticut bloodshed.

"I'm not a commando and I'm not Bruce Willis," Hirschfeld said. "I'm just a normal guy who wants a chance to protect his family and fears his rights might get taken away."

With President Obama vowing to tighten gun regulations, and a reluctant Congress poised to debate a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines, the Hirschfelds are among thousands of Minnesotans arming themselves in historic numbers a decade after the state started allowing average citizens to carry guns.

"The political rhetoric on both sides is moving, and suddenly we have this mass insurgence of people wanting to purchase guns and get permits," said Cmdr. Paul Sommer, who oversees gun licensing for the Anoka County Sheriff's Office. "We call it panic buying. It's not the first spike we've seen, but it's the most dramatic."

Across the country, firearms industry analysts point to soaring numbers -- including first-time gun buyers now making up a quarter of all sales and nearly 75 percent of gun retailers reporting sales boosts over last year. Minnesotans are riding that same wave, prompting more than 25,000 law enforcement queries tied to permit applications since Dec. 18. That's more than double the 10,681 checks run for permits during the same period a year ago, according the latest Bureau of Criminal Apprehension statistics.

Those burgeoning numbers worry gun control advocates, who are puzzled that the reaction to the Newtown tragedy has been this massive firearms buildup.

"The National Rifle Association has trained its members that common-sense gun laws are some kind of foot in the door leading to gun confiscation," said Brent Gurtek, who makes and sells guns at his French River Muzzleloaders outlet north of Duluth. An avid hunter and gun aficionado, he hopes the Newtown legacy includes closing loopholes in current federal gun policy.

Sommer now uses the terms pre-Sandy Hook and post-Sandy Hook to describe the changed gun-buying landscape since the elementary school shooting suddenly moved the gun control issue to the front burner -- from the White House to Hirschfeld's two-story house in St. Cloud.

Down the hall from his Anoka County office on Thursday, postal delivery supervisor Brendon Mulvaney and beer truck driver Dean Anderson were among the latest filing their paperwork to become Andover's newest firearms owners.

Mulvaney, 25, just learned his wife was expecting their first child. The baby, the Newtown shooting and prospect of stricter gun laws prompted him to buy his first handgun.

"There's an underlying concern or fear that there's going to be some legislation to take handguns away," said Anderson, 43, who wants to add a new handgun to his collection.

Gun shops picked clean

None of the nearly two-dozen proposals Obama outlined last week -- from deeper background checks to high-capacity ammo and assault rifle bans -- would have much of an effect on handgun sales. But jittery gun aficionados worry that more sweeping changes could be coming, so they're loading up.

"Get 'em while you can," Anderson said -- a sentiment shared by many of the Minnesotans behind this new gun boom.

Gun shop owners say their shelves have been picked clean and they're struggling to restock.

"After the Sandy Hook deal, it just went crazy -- utter chaos," said John Monson, owner of Bill's Gun Shop outlets in Robbinsdale, Circle Pines and Hudson, Wis. "We had people lined up four or five deep for each employee I had."

Sales are less chaotic now, Monson said from a Las Vegas gun show, "but the only reason is everybody is out of product. The whole nation has run out of everything."

Although there's a clear anti-Obama undercurrent, not all those arming themselves oppose the stiffer gun control measures the president pitched last week.

Hirschfeld supports deeper background checks to assure "only the right people have weapons." Mulvaney thinks no one needs assault rifles.

In Duluth, retired elementary school teacher, Vietnam War veteran and lifelong National Rifle Association member Paul Fleming says it's time to limit to 10 the number of rounds.

"If the NRA heard me talking right now, they'd probably revoke my membership but I don't care," said Fleming, 65. "I don't believe in their philosophy about rifles. My god, you don't need a Bushmaster [semi-automatic rifle] to go hunting in the woods."

Back in St. Cloud, when Josh Hirschfeld started talking about buying a handgun last year, his wife first said: "Absolutely not."

With 6-year-old Ava and little Ben about to turn 2, she feared bringing a gun into their home. Then two teenagers were shot to death breaking into a house in Little Falls, Cold Spring police officer Thomas Decker was gunned down behind a bowling alley, and children and teachers were killed in Connecticut.

Hirschfeld told his wife what his friends were saying: "There was a breaking point after that rash of violence; we'd come to a point when harder restrictions were coming and you'd better get what you want now, or your options will be limited."

He requested a handgun permit and signed up for gun safety classes, where the instructor stressed retreating from confrontations and using guns only as a last resort.

"As Josh went through the classes and background checks, I became more comfortable," Jocelyn Hirschfeld said.

A sales executive for a health care company, Jocelyn is now considering taking gun safety classes and learning how to use the new weapon locked in the safe on their mahogany bedroom bureau. As for proposed changes up for debate in Washington and St. Paul, Jocelyn remains skeptical.

"If you can prove to me that stricter gun laws around the country actually reduce crime and violence, I'm all for it," she said. "But if it's strictly politicians pandering to their bases so everyone feels good, I absolutely don't agree with that."

'Unfortunate phenomenon'

Supporters of strict gun laws, meanwhile, bristle at the fear-mongering they say is driving the gun rush.

"It's an unfortunate phenomenon that fear is being used as a way of marketing their products," said Heather Martens, the director of Protect Minnesota: Working to End Gun Violence.

She cites a study that shows when a gun is brought into a house, it's 22 times more likely to be used in an accident, suicide or homicide than thwarting an outside threat.

A few dozen people attended two St. Paul house parties Thursday night, hoping to galvanize support for more stringent gun laws and broader background checks.

"More guns in the community make more gun violence likely," said Leroy Duncan, 30, who hosted one of the parties.

Mike Clark, 66, a retired Anoka school librarian who keeps a gun in his nightstand, shrugs at such comments.

"There are people who wish guns were never invented, but they're out of the box," Clark said. "If I'm lucky, I'll go through the rest of my life and never have to use my gun. I mean no harm, and if someone kicks in my garage door, I won't shoot them. I'll call 911. But if you come in the house uninvited, that could be different."

Clark said this gun-loving nation is simply different than the rest of the world.

"In England you can say: 'All right, chaps, turn them in' and the Englishmen will turn in their guns," he said. "But America has the spirit of rugged individualism, a Western-type of frontiersman and it's just a different line of thought."

Edwin Olwin, an 80-year-old widower and ardent supporter of Second Amendment arms-bearing rights, keeps a revolver by his bedside in Maple Grove. He recalls the gangster era when you could buy machine guns and dynamite with little government regulation.

"Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and Pretty Boy Floyd never bothered shooting up schools," he said, chuckling about this latest surge in firearm purchases and permits.

"Obama," he said, "has been the best gun salesman around."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767