Gun sales surge as pandemic-fueled fear spreads

Posted March 19, 2020 9:32 a.m. EDT
Updated March 23, 2020 5:30 p.m. EDT

— Gun sellers across the United States are reporting major spikes in firearm and bullet purchases amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Pictures of long lines outside gun stores in California, Oklahoma and elsewhere have gone viral on social media.

The ammunition website said it has recorded an unprecedented surge in bullet sales over the last three weeks. Administrators for the site, which ships ammunition to all but four states, released sales figures last week showing a 222 percent increase in transactions between Feb. 23 and March 15, when compared to the first three weeks in February.

Revenue has increased 309 percent, according to the site, which said coronavirus fears are fueling the sales surge.

"The world has never seen anything like this, and people want to make sure they're prepared for whatever lies ahead, whether that be food shortages, government shutdown or worse," a spokesperson for said in an emailed statement. "When everything around you is uncertain, having a supply of ammunition can make our customers feel safer."

Fayetteville resident James Cook, who was testing a new handgun at the firing range at Jim's Pawn and Gun Shop on Monday, said he learned of the run on ammunition over the weekend.

"I had a guy call me [Sunday], and he was like, 'Hey, I'm at the gun store, and people are buying up all the ammo,'" Cook said. "So, I went and got a couple of rounds of ammo and am testing them out now."

Kevin Cole experienced the shortages firsthand on Monday.

"I heard about the gun panic and the coronavirus panic – grocery stores are cleaned out – so I figured I'd see firsthand how the gun stores were," Cole said. "No ammo in town – all the popular calibers are cleaned out."

Tony Jacobs, who runs the shooting range, said many types of ammunition are hard to find.

".223, 5.56, 9 mil is dwindling. Anything 12-gauge, especially 12-gauge slugs and double-aught buck – all of that is increasingly hard to get," Jacobs said. "I attribute it to people panicking because of the coronavirus and fearing that there's going to be some type of, you know, martial law put in place."

The manager at Jim's Gun Shop said weapons are being purchased at a record pace – so fast the the store had to briefly shut down because the computer system used to conduct background checks before purchases couldn't keep up.

Between 2016 and 2018, after the election of President Donald Trump, the gun industry experienced a decline in firearms sales, dubbed the "Trump slump," which insiders say is typical when Second Amendment-friendly Republicans control the White House and Capitol Hill.

But month-to-month gun sales rose steadily in 2019, a year after Democrats won back the House and presidential candidates like Beto O'Rourke proposed a mandatory gun buyback program to seize semi-automatic long guns, such as the AR-15.

This year, the coronavirus has been an unanticipated boon to the gun industry.

"All the anecdotal reports are sales have really kicked up higher here the last week or two," gun industry analyst Rob Southwick, founder of the market research firm Southwick Associates Inc, told CNN Business. "Whenever there's a period of certainty – 9/11, the stock market crash of '87 – firearm sales go up."

Fayetteville resident Victor Hawley agrees.

"With everybody going crazy – I mean, people are already snatching toilet paper out of people's [shopping] baskets and everything, so there's no telling who might come to your house – you need to be prepared make sure you have ammo and make sure your accuracy is on target," Hawley said.

Federal law requires anyone purchasing a gun from a licensed firearms seller in the United States to pass a criminal background check, which is submitted to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.

The bureau declined to confirm whether or not it has seen a coronavirus-fueled rise in background checks, but its latest available NICS figures show a 73 percent rise in background checks in February when compared to the same month a year ago.

Mark Oliva, director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the gun and ammo industry, routinely speaks with gun merchants across the United States. He said the rise in gun sales is nationwide and that coronavirus has sparked a pattern of panic buying and hoarding firearms and ammunition.

"I think everybody's a little bit concerned and they're still buying while they can, while it's available," he said.

Texas leads the nation in sales per capita, according to the website, which noted states and regions where the number of confirmed coronavirus cases are the highest have experienced the largest gun and ammo sales spikes.

In Delaware, sales rose a whopping 4,529 percent over the last three weeks, the website said.

A sales associate at Bullseye Tactical Supply, a gun and ammunition store in Woodbridge, N.J., said purchases have been up about 40 percent amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"Everyone, they want to have protection in case something happens," a salesperson who asked to remain anonymous told CNN Business over the phone. "There's just an overall feeling of fear of being stranded or having to be isolated to protect their home if, God forbid, supplies become limited and people start looting."

In Mt. Vernon, N.Y., which sits 17 miles north of New York City, Michael Timlin, 50, owner and operator of the Smoke N Gun Shop, said he saw a 50 percent increase in foot traffic over a recent weekend.

"Saturday was one of our biggest sales days," Timlin told CNN Business. "The only problem is the supply is running low. We're bound to what we can get."

Timlin said most of the increased traffic he's seen has been new customers who've never owned a firearm before.

"When the vicious coronavirus comes knocking at your door, you're getting [a gun]," he said.

The most popular gun tends to vary by shop and by state, according to firearms dealers. Bullseye Tactical Supply's staff in New Jersey said the AR-15 has been in high demand. In Ohio, an open-carry state, moderately priced handguns like the Taurus P2 111 G2C seem to be the weapons of choice, according to Daryl Upole, a licensed gun dealer based in the rural town of Ashtabula, which sits 56 miles northeast of Cleveland.

"The distributors are all sold out of that model," Upole told CNN Business.

Gun laws can vary greatly from state to state.

In New York, where counties require residents to obtain a license to carry a handgun, the most popular firearms purchase has been shotguns, according to Timlin.

"The shotgun is one of the easier firearms to use and understand," Timlin said. "It's the best choice to make if someone was trying to harm you because of the way it functions." said that .40-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun bullet sales have risen 645 percent recently, making them the most popular item sold on its website since the coronavirus started making national headlines earlier this year.

The reports of increased gun sales at a time when many K-12 schools have closed across the country have some concerned about the safety of children with potential access to their parents' new firearms.

Shannon Watts, founder of the gun safety advocacy group Moms Demand Action, expressed concern about the wave of new firearms purchases, pointing to a 2018 study Journal of Urban Health study showing 4.6 million kids in America live in homes with unsecured guns.

"I'm hopeful the people who are buying guns are going to store them securely," Watts told CNN Business. "People need to wash their hand sand lock up their guns."

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