The number of checks last month ― the most since the National Instant Criminal Background Check System launched in 1998 ― marks a 41% increase from the same time period last year.
Individuals seeking to purchase a gun are required to submit to a federal background check when buying from a federally licensed firearms dealer, which includes major chains like Walmart and Cabela’s, as well as mom and pop stores and some individual retailers.
The background check figures appear to confirm reports from gun retailers across the country who say they’ve seen a surge in sales in recent weeks tied to coronavirus concerns.
Michael Weeks, owner of the Georgia Gun Store in Gainesville, Georgia, told HuffPost last month that he’s seen the biggest increase in sales since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, when a gunman killed 20 children and six faculty members, as well as his mother and himself, in Newtown, Connecticut.
Gun sales surged across the country in the months after the massacre amid fears that the federal government would enact stricter gun control measures. The FBI’s latest report shows a 34% increase in background checks last month compared to December 2012 ― the month that saw the most checks within a year of the Sandy Hook shooting.
“All of our distributors are several days if not a week behind on getting merchandise out of the warehouse,” Weeks said. “It’s like Black Friday every day almost.”
Gun retailers and experts told HuffPost the recent surge in sales was likely caused by several factors, including fears that demand would drive prices up, the possibility that the government would shut down stores and the potential for lawlessness amid the crisis.
“Fear, especially uncertainty, drives gun purchasing for a lot of people,” Lacey Wallace, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Penn State Altoona told HuffPost last month. “The number one reason people buy and own guns is for personal protection so when you’re seeing everything in the news about things getting shut down, the virus spreading ... that’s going to bring in a lot of the uncertainty.”
Many retailers reported an even higher increase in ammunition sales.
Ammo.com, an online retailer of ammunition, said Wednesday that it had seen a 792% increase in revenue when looking at the time period of Feb. 23 to March 31 compared to the previous 39-day time period of Jan. 16 to Feb. 22.
Though gun safety groups have warned that an increase in gun sales could drive up deadly domestic violence incidents, suicides and accidental deaths, the federal government has deemed gun retailers “essential” as stay-at-home orders to curb the contagion spread across the country. However, the federal guidance doesn’t mandate states to list gun retailers as essential.
“Individual jurisdictions should add or subtract essential workforce categories based on their own requirements and discretion,” according to an advisory issued March 28 by Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Christopher Krebs.
Governors in at least 37 states have issued stay-at-home orders. Some states did not list firearms retailers as essential, causing some confusion about whether they could remain open.
The federal guidance issued last week prompted New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) on Monday to reverse the state’s decision to shutter gun stores as part of its stay-at-home order.
“It wouldn’t be my definition, but that’s the definition at the federal level and I didn’t get a vote on that,” Murphy said during a press briefing. The gun shops may reopen “by appointment only and under limited hours.”
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