Daniel Hill had never bought a gun before. But last week he was in Larry Hyatt’s gun store in North Carolina, picking out two of them: a 9 mm Taurus handgun and an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
His motivation: the coronavirus.
Hill, a 29-year-old kitchen manager in Charlotte, said he fears that the virus could lead to a breakdown of public order, with looting and robberies and “everything shutting down, like in a zombie movie” where society “just won’t have any sense of lawfulness anymore.”
Gun and ammunition dealers said they’ve seen an influx of customers with similar concerns in recent weeks, creating a spike in sales as coronavirus anxiety spreads. Reports of firearms and survival gear flying off the shelves have been widespread, including in California, New York, Washington state, Alabama and Ohio. Photos on Twitter over the weekend showed lines around the block at one Los Angeles gun shop.
Some dealers said an unusually high proportion of sales have been to first-time gun buyers.
“We attribute it mainly to the virus scare,” said Hyatt, whose gun store has seen sales increase 30% to 40% percent since late February.
The presidential election and stock market fluctuations have also been driving business, he said, and the store is now selling more than 300 firearms a week.
“People have a little lack of confidence that if something big and bad happens, that 9-1-1 might not work. We saw it with Katrina,” Hyatt said, referring to the breakdown in emergency response after the 2005 hurricane on the Gulf Coast. “People haven’t forgotten that a disaster happened, and the government didn’t come.”
Some major law enforcement agencies said they had not seen any sharp rise in firearms sales in recent weeks. Data from the FBI show a sizable increase in background checks for gun purchases since the start of the year, although other factors, such as the national political campaign and gun control efforts by some state legislatures, including Virginia, could also be driving them.
Checks through the FBI system leapt 36% in February compared to the same month last year, to a total of 2.8 million nationally — the largest year-over-year percentage increase in any month since July 2016 (another presidential election year). The agency processed more background checks in February than it had done in all but two other months since it started performing the queries in the late 1990s.
January, when most confirmed cases of the virus were still mostly overseas, also saw a sizable increase in background checks, up 25% from the same month last year.
The background check numbers for March — when confirmed cases of the virus began to dramatically spike in the United States and public measures to slow it took hold — won’t be available for a few weeks.
Licensed firearms dealers like Hyatt are required to run those queries with the FBI to ensure that would-be purchasers aren’t convicted felons or otherwise barred from gun possession. Private sales, including through gun shows, online marketplaces or social media, are exempt from federal background checks, so any change there would be difficult to spot.
Even before virus concerns escalated or the stock market plunged in recent weeks, national politics were likely playing a role in rising sales.
Chuck Lowder, who picked up a rifle at Hyatt Guns last week, cited a testy confrontation between a construction worker in Detroit and former Vice President Joe Biden, who is now leading in the polls for the Democratic presidential nomination, about the candidate wanting to “take away our guns.”
Biden used a vulgarity to tell the worker that he was wrong. While the former vice president supports universal background checks and banning the sale of military-style semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines, he also supports many types of gun ownership and owns guns himself.
Still, those moments can spur devotees to their favorite gun store, said Lowder, a retired brewery worker and truck driver who had come from Lenoir, North Carolina, to buy an AR-15.
“When you’re told you can’t have something, the first thing you want to do is get it,” he said.
Even so, Lowder also said that the “unreal” number of customers he saw in Hyatt’s store last week was likely more about the fear of what could happen with the pandemic.
“When you’re told that the coronavirus is going to get you, and the TV and everything is just swamped with it, people start believing it, and they get scared,” he said, adding that he also bought 300 rounds of ammunition, triple what he normally would buy.
Some ammunition suppliers said they also have seen a sharp jump in sales. Alex Horsman, the marketing manager at Ammo.com, said the past few weeks have marked the largest spike in orders in the five years he has been with the online company.
The company said it recorded two-thirds more transactions in the 11 days after Feb. 22 — when Google Trend indicates that search interest for “coronavirus” began a new surge — than in the 11 days prior. Buyers in North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Texas led the increase in sales.
As customers have been flooding into gun stores, demand appears to be outstripping supply among some wholesalers, said Andy Raymond, the owner of Engage Armament in Rockville, Maryland. “We’re getting stuff from distributors who are saying, ‘Hey, due to high volume, we’re delayed in shipping.’”
Hill, the first-time buyer in Charlotte, said he thinks society is a long way from the full breakdown that he fears might be coming because of the virus.
“But you can tell it’s already taking a toll on everybody,” he said. “If it were to keep going the way it is going, how bad could it get?”