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Americans Stock Up On Guns Amid Pandemic Fears

Hady Mawajdeh
Customers lined up outside Ray's Hardware & Sporting Goods in West Dallas, Texas, before the store opened on March 17 in hopes of purchasing ammunition and guns.

As people across the country stock up on supplies to prepare for weeks of social distancing, Americans are crowding into gun stores, with firearms on their shopping list next to toilet paper and canned goods.

At the Gun Room in Portland, Oregon, owner Shaun Lacasse says Oregonians are buying so many guns the Oregon State Police background check system can’t keep up.

“The whole state was slammed,” Lacasse said on Saturday.

Since fears of the Coronavirus set in, it has been taking up to two hours for a background check that would normally take about ten minutes — and that’s if the computer system is working at all.

Lacasse says more than a few of the buyers out Friday were nurses and doctors and nearly all of them were first-time gun owners. He says buying guns, like toilet paper, is a type of “pandemic retail therapy.”

“They’re buying guns and ammunition so they can go home and sit on their couch and defend their stash of toilet paper from the pending apocalypse,” Lacasse said with a smile.

In Colorado, gun store owners reported similar heavy business in recent days.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which runs the state’s gun background check system, had gotten more than 14,000 firearm background check requests over a recent week, compared to around 7,000 during the same time period last year.

In response, the CBI on Wednesday announced changes to its system, including expanding business hours and reassigning staff.

While people are generally waiting longer for their background check to process, turnaround times are remaining within the federally-mandated three-day window, according to a spokeswoman for the CBI.

Anthony Navarro, the owner of Colorado Shooting Sports in Greeley, Colorado, says business has been “crazy.” His store has already sold out of several types of guns and ammunition.

“When people are scared, there’s that sense of grasping and hoarding mentality,” Navarro said. “It’s part of our DNA as cavemen.”

Navarro said the unease about coronavirus was also expanding his client base.

“We’re seeing everything from your standard client that we see all the time, all the way to liberal, Democratic anti-gun people, buying guns for the first time,” Navarro said.

Protection likely driving sales

That Americans are stocking up on guns in the midst of a pandemic should not come as a surprise. Fear often plays a role in gun ownership.

Two-thirds of gun-owning Americans say they own their guns for “protection,” according to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center. Sixty-three percent of gun owners in a 2017 study said one of the primary reasons they own guns is for protection specifically against other people.

Using a gun for self-defense is extremely rare. A 2015 study found that self-defense gun use occurs in less than one percent of all crimes when the victim and perpetrator encounter each other. And research suggests that actually hitting a target when under extreme stress is very difficult — trained New York City Police officers missed 82 percent of the time when they were being shot at, according to a 2006 paper published in the journal Police Quarterly.

A surge in gun buying, if it exists, would add to what appears to be an already robust 2020 for gun sellers. Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting, an industry analyst, estimated that gun sales in February were up 17.3% year-over-year, after a similarly strong January, before any large-scale pandemic-induced buying.

A higher availability of guns could lead to more gun violence. According to a 2017 study, a surge in gun-buying after the Sandy Hook school shooting resulted in an increase in accidental gun deaths. And according to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, “a broad array of evidence indicates that gun availability is a risk factor for homicide, both in the United States and across high-income countries.”

March 18, 2020: This story has been updated with additional information on CBI’s response to long wait times for firearm background checks.

Guns & America’s Leigh Paterson and Jeremy Bernfeld contributed to this story. Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

Email: lpaterson@insideenergy.org; leighpaterson@rmpbs.org
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