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America on edge: Covid lockdowns, protests and election strife led to record gun sales

People line up to buy guns and ammunition at the Ready Gunner store in Orem, Utah. Ammunition and gun sales have spiked in Utah in the days since the storming of the Capitol building in Washington. (George Frey/AFP/Getty Images)
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At gun shops across the country, 2020 was a year of wild spikes in sales, especially to new customers anxious about the pandemic and a summer of protests. More firearms were sold last year than in any previous year on record.

But despite the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol and an FBI assessment that extremist groups could plan attacks on government institutions in the coming days, government and industry data indicate that the huge surges of buyers seen earlier in the year have not been repeated since the November election.

Gun sales typically soar in the weeks following the election of a Democratic president, as buyers scurry to purchase firearms for fear that the new chief executive will fulfill campaign promises to tighten regulations.

But a Washington Post analysis of gun sales in 2020 finds no such surge in recent weeks. Rather, purchases soared in March and April as the effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus led to food shortages, empty streets and millions of lost jobs. Then firearm sales peaked in July, in the weeks after massive protests against police brutality spread throughout the nation.

Sales continued at a high rate in November and December, but the numbers didn’t come close to spikes seen earlier in the year. December gun sales were the third-lowest of any month in 2020, The Post’s analysis found.

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“When people are concerned about their personal security, they buy more guns,” said Phillip Levine, an economist at Wellesley College. “When people are concerned that their access to guns might be restricted, they buy more guns. Last year, we sort of saw both of those things.”

The flood of gun sales — about 23 million over the course of the year — represents a 64 percent increase over 2019 sales, according to a Post analysis of federal data on gun background checks. The 2020 numbers include purchases by more than 8 million first-time buyers, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group.

“What we’re seeing is a complicated mixture of all the bizarre things going on in 2020,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a pro-gun lobby group. “The surge of sales started with covid and people worried we could have problems with the food supply. All year, people saw people being beat up and murdered for wearing the wrong hat. The Capitol was just another example of people rioting, and every time that happens, more people buy guns.”

Cherie Dercqu, who owns a nail salon in suburban Pittsburgh, never owned a gun until last year. On Thursday, she bought her 11th firearm, a shotgun she plans to keep behind the front door of her home.

Dercqu, who said she spent her first stimulus check on guns, now packs a pistol in her purse and keeps another behind the cash register at her shop. She has been going to a range every couple of weeks to practice shooting and said she and her partner intend to keep buying firearms.

“Until this passes, we are buying guns,” Dercqu, 52, said. “We’re buying ammo, and we’re buying as much as we can. We’re two women. We don’t have a guy at home. I don’t want to feel vulnerable without anything.”

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Dercqu began buying guns when the coronavirus lockdown brought the economy to a standstill, then bought more during last summer’s protests.

“I’ve worked all life for my business, and I’m not willing to give it up to so-called peaceful protesters,” she said. “I’m just preparing for the civil war that is coming. We’re armed to the hilt now. We are prepared.”

Dercqu said the attack on the Capitol and President-elect Joe Biden’s victory have made her more anxious that the new president will limit gun sales. “Every time he says it, that means we are buying another gun,” she said.

Owners of gun shops and ranges around the country say 2020 was a banner year. Ammunition sales in particular hit all-time highs, and training classes are booked solid in many places for weeks to come.

But despite pitched emotions surrounding President Trump’s effort to overturn the result of the November election — and despite Biden’s campaign pledge to reinstate a ban on the sale of assault weapons — most shop owners said they’ve seen little, if any, bump in recent weeks.

“It’s been crazy all year,” said Steven Schneider, owner of Atlantic Guns in Rockville, Md. “If it’s not covid, it’s riots or ‘defund the police.’ It’s all personal protection and a lot of new customers.”

Schneider does often have lines of customers outside his shop, but that’s mainly because of covid-related restrictions on the number of people allowed inside.

In western Pennsylvania as well, in counties where Trump beat Biden, “there hasn’t really been a reaction since the election,” said Amy Hess, a gun-safety trainer at Elite Firearms and Training, a range in Bridgeville.

Still, the Pennsylvania State Police reported conducting record numbers of background checks on gun purchasers in both the third and fourth quarters of 2020.

Florida authorities also reported that 2020 set a record for concealed-weapons license applications, hitting a peak in October after starting a steep climb in July. The state processed 305,043 new permit applications in 2020, up about 50 percent from 2019. More than 2 million Floridians hold concealed weapon permits.

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The main impetus for increased sales last year was the pandemic, Hess said. Starting in March, “we were bombarded with calls for classes and lessons. And then there was civil unrest,” she said, recalling that news accounts of the protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — and video of looting — aroused fears.

“People are afraid for their personal safety,” Hess said. “Society only really works when the rules are followed. It seems the rules have been thrown out the window.”

Demands to “defund the police” kept gun and ammunition sales “going through the roof,” she said. “People are thinking, ‘Who can they turn to?’ Well, you are going to end up being your own first responder.”

Hess, 52, saw no indication ahead of or since the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol that customers were preparing for anything unusual.

But in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Bianca Huynh, manager of Army Navy Outdoors, said that starting in late December, she saw a run on “protection things like batons, pepper spray, stun guns, things like that. . . . We talk to our customers one on one, and some of them started talking about going to Washington. We didn’t know what that meant. They just said, ‘We’re going to support the president on January 6. It’s a big day for him.’ ”

Huynh said she sold out of pepper spray, stun guns and “lots of things that we normally don’t sell out of, like bulletproof vests.”

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When she saw the assault on the Capitol, Hunyh said, “I thought we probably had sold to some of these guys. It’s sickening to my stomach that some guys we dealt with may have actually been some of the bad guys. It’s not a proud moment.”

Similarly, Debbie Schultz, owner of Schultz’s Sportsmen’s Stop in Apollo, northeast of Pittsburgh, said that although the covid shutdown sparked extraordinary gun sales, the faceoff between Trump loyalists and Americans who accepted the result of November’s election has motivated many recent customers to buy a gun.

“Everything now has to do with the so-called impeachment, the upcoming inauguration, the rigged election,” said Schultz, 65, a Trump supporter. “Now people see a little bit of violence on TV, and they think, ‘I’d better have something.’ ”

Gun sales spiked through most of 2016, when Hillary Clinton, who promised to beef up gun controls, led Trump in most election polls. Once Trump took office, firearm sales went through what industry analysts called a “Trump slump,” with gun purchases falling about 8 percent in 2017, a record decline.

In 2020, the biggest spike in gun sales took place in the weeks of nationwide protests after Floyd’s killing on Memorial Day.

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“In American society . . . guns are associated with protection,” said David Yamane, a Wake Forest University sociologist who studies gun culture. “You don’t have control over these events going on around you, but at root, you can at least feel like you’re doing something to protect yourself.”

Van Cleave, the Virginia gun advocate, said a pervasive sense that “there are evil people out there who are willing to harm others for political purposes” is driving many sales to buyers who’ve never owned a firearm before. “Everything’s upside down, sideways, now, and any time people feel instability, they’re going to think about security.”

Panic-buying of firearms has long been associated with politicians’ calls for limits on gun sales or possession. Michigan authorities on Monday banned the open carrying of guns at the state Capitol; armed demonstrators stormed the building in April to protest coronavirus-related measures imposed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D).

Whitmer this week said the ban was “a good start, but more action is needed.”

Anxiety over changes in gun regulations has consistently produced surges in buying, but 2020’s unusual sales levels were primarily a factor of the pandemic, said John Beehner, a retired police officer who trains first-time gun owners in western Pennsylvania.

“People have always bought guns,” he said. “It’s a good hobby. Some people say we just wanted something we could do together.”

But “once covid hit and factories shut down, people got panicked about getting ammo,” Beehner said, “and then they thought, ‘It will be harder to find guns, so we better buy those, too.’ Everyone started losing their jobs. And when people lose jobs, people get desperate. So I think people were worried: ‘I’m in my house all the time, and I want protection, from whatever.’”

Spolar reported from western Pennsylvania, and Rozsa reported from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.