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You may be stocking up on toilet paper. Others are out buying guns

You can’t shoot a virus. But that’s not what people who are lining up for guns and ammo are worried about.

You may be stocking up on toilet paper. Others are out buying guns
[Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images]

You may have witnessed your own apocalyptic scenes of people panic-buying thousands of rolls of toilet paper in the supermarket. What most shoppers may not have seen is that there’s a similar rush at gun stores, as gun owners rush to buy as much ammo as they can fit in their shopping baskets.

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As people are stocking up on food, cleaning supplies, and other essentials in response to the coronavirus pandemic and possible lockdowns, gun shop owners around the country are reporting that people are also gathering firearms, in reaction to fears of shortages, threats of crime, and governmental confiscations. And that’s pointing to the robustness of a small but powerful industry, even in the face of a brewing downturn.

“Coronavirus has absolutely caused a panic,” says Don Lankford, owner of Southern Survival, a tactical gun store in Opelika, Alabama. People lined up outside his store from the early morning on Saturday, which proved to be his highest day of sales ever. He believes the panic is overblown. “The overall atmosphere is that people here are more afraid of other people than the virus,” he says.

That explains the long, snaking line outside the Martin B. Retting firearm store in Culver City, California, an image of which went viral Saturday. That sparked understandably perplexed replies such as “Are they planning to shoot the virus?” and “The people who shoot hurricanes are now going to try shooting microbes.”

That’s, of course, not the mindset behind the stockpiling. Rather it’s to do something in the face of the unknown, says Robert Spitzer, a professor at SUNY Cortland, and the author of five books on gun policy. The same uptick occurred following the 9/11 attacks, and even leading up to the clock striking midnight in 2000 over Y2K bug fears. “Often, the surge in gun sales and ammunition sales is not logically related to the concern at hand,” he says.

What generally drives people to the gun shops is the idea that the government, and law and order, will break down, causing a state of anarchy, and that people will need to “protect their homes from predators or lawless individuals.”

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Lankford says recent sales at his store are certainly driven by those fears of “civil unrest,” during which individuals feel they need to protect themselves against rioters and marauders, however unfounded a likelihood that may be. “They work hard,” he says of his customers. “They want to protect anything they have.”

That also appears to be the rationale for the increase in purchases at Hyatt Guns in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I would say Friday, Saturday, and today are as close to panic buying as I’ve ever seen,” says owner Larry Hyatt.

Hyatt says his customers are buying handguns, rifles, and short-barrel shotguns (and lots of ammo), but not hunting guns, which suggests to him that they’re preparing for self-protection. “Our government has not gotten crime under control, even in good times,” he tells Fast Company. (Crime is, in fact, at its lowest level in decades). Many people are buying their first guns, including senior citizens and women, who are anxious that the police will be tied up when institutions are at capacity during the pandemic. (Whether these first-time gun buyers need to observe waiting periods and undergo background checks varies by state.) “People are protecting the nest,” he says. “And curse anyone who takes that right away.”

Lankford, in Alabama, says he’s seen an increase in visits from Asian-Americans. Some reports suggested Asian-Americans are arming themselves due to fears of being scapegoated for COVID-19’s Chinese origins. (President Trump’s tweet yesterday called it the “Chinese Virus.”) But Lankford says he doesn’t think that’s the reason in his store; rather it’s because there’s a large community of Asian-Americans, given the proximity of Auburn University, and Kia and Hyundai plants 40 minutes away, just across the border in Georgia.

Spitzer says another common reason for surges in uncommon times, which is somewhat contradictory, is the fear of the government’s confiscation of arms, in the event of martial law. This fear was already high with the possibility of a Democratic president taking office. (Gun sales surged during the Obama presidency, especially after mass shootings.) Both Lankford and Hyatt said that sales were already growing since the start of the Democratic primary;  Lankford particularly mentioned Joe Biden’s promises to ban AR-15s. For Hyatt, the combination of a potential economic collapse, the pandemic, and unstable politics mean that, for firearm sales, “the perfect pot is being stirred.”

There’s no official national data yet to confirm the spike. At the start of every month, the FBI releases its background-check list, which organizations such as the National Shooting Sports Federation use as a basis to generate the number of new gun purchases, says Mark Oliva, NSSF’s director of public affairs. Still, Ammo.com, the largest online retailer of guns and ammunition, told USA Today that it experienced a 68% rise in sales between late February and early March.

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“For some people, it meant running to the grocery store and buying all the toilet paper they could grab. And, for others, it meant running to the gun store and finding guns and ammunition.”

Ryan Allen, the owner of Frontier Arms in Cheyenne, Wyoming, who has had a 15% increase in sales in recent days, says the people stockpiling “firepower to protect the family” is only a fringe group. That may be a result of a state where guns are primarily used for hunting, but he says most people are topping up on ammo in the same way individuals are flocking to grocery stores.

“It’s a fear of shortage,” Spitzer says, “leading to a shortage with it, which inspires people to accelerate the shortage.” It mirrors what’s happening with food and toilet paper. “For some people, it meant running to the grocery store and buying all the toilet paper they could grab,” he says. “And, for others, it meant running to the gun store and finding guns and ammunition.”

That signals that the gun industry is one of the few that may stay resilient in the face of economic hardship and a possible recession. The stocks of the three publicly traded gun companies, Ruger, Vista Outdoor, and American Outdoor Brands (formerly Smith & Wesson), have all risen since March 12—while the market in general has been in decline.

Still, the invincibility may not be long-lasting. Guns are durable goods that appeal to only a limited constituency, says Spitzer. He cites the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Remington in 2018 as proof that the firearm industry is not as sturdy as we tend to think.

While sales will probably be good for a while, the frenzy won’t last long. “The virus will eventually run its course,” he says. “Panic will subside, and there probably won’t be either an apocalypse or a revolution.”

Still, as it stands, the gun shops are doing great business, to the point of struggling to cope. Hyatt, in North Carolina, says his store can’t keep up with the online sales, and the in-store purchases are reaching 250 to 300 per day, which is the maximum the staff can handle. “We’re at our limit!” he says.

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Lankford, in Alabama, says his distributors are almost completely out of stock. And, if those distributors have to shut down due to coronavirus infections, shipping would stop, and his business would be stumped.

“I hope it calms down,” he says. “This is no good for anyone.”

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