Forget the toilet paper. Americans are stocking up on rifles, shotguns and pistols for the coronavirus crisis with first-time gun owners fueling the surge.
Hyatt Guns, in Charlotte, North Carolina, just recorded the busiest week the store has seen in its 61-year history.
“It is unprecedented,” said owner Larry Hyatt, who spoke to The Washington Times as more than 50 customers waited in line outside his store.
After President Trump declared the coronavirus a national emergency earlier this month, Mr. Hyatt’s recent sales surpassed the run on guns in the weeks following the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, which spurred calls for tough new gun laws that drove up firearms sales.
“I thought 9/11 was the peak, I thought Sandy Hook was the peak, but I never thought there would be another one,” said Mr. Hyatt.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation said the FBI processed more than 300% more background checks on March 16 than it did on the same day in 2019. And ammunition website Ammo.com, which ships ammunition to gun dealers said its total transactions jumped 222% between Feb. 23 and March 15.
Dave Workman of the Second Amendment Foundation, a pro-gun group, said uncertainty about the economy and concerns about public safety are driving sales.
“It is almost a carbon copy of 9/11 where people went to get guns because they were scared, but the difference this time around is that people are afraid of the potential breakdown of society. I think people are worried about their future and jobs,” he said.
Fears that homes or possessions could be at risk has completely changed his customer base, Mr. Hyatt said. Typically, his customers are rural hunters buying rifles for sport.
Since the pandemic began, Mr. Hyatt’s shoppers have largely been urbanites — including the elderly and vulnerable — seeking self-defense weapons. He estimated that about 98% of them are first-time gun buyers.
“It is people who are really worried about having food shortages or don’t have a man in the house to protect them, ” he said. “It’s basic human instinct.”
David Chipman, a senior policy adviser at Giffords, an organization advocating for stronger gun laws, said he’s worried about first-time buyers having a weapon during a time of crisis, especially when many training facilities are shut down because of the coronavirus.
“I get why people are doing it, but fear doesn’t always cause us to make the best decisions,” he said. “I’d rather they spend the $500 in a way that probably affords more security to their home like a deadbolt or putting money away in case they lose their jobs.”
The gun-sale spike is leading to long delays in approvals and wait times could get even longer. Last week, the FBI office that operates the National Instant Criminal Background Check System is considering staff reductions or shuttering some offices in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Hyatt said his sales have already been hurt by the backlog of FBI background checks. He said in some cases, it is taking between four and five days to complete a check.
“The system cannot handle an emergency,” he said. “I think it is a real frustration for the good, legal gun-buying people to try to do things right and they can’t get the product in the time frame they most need it.”
At the 72-hour mark, if a dealer doesn’t have a decision from the FBI, he can legally sell a gun to someone who hasn’t been denied. Mr. Chipman said the lack of a firm decision creates a moral dilemma for dealers.
“It is lawful to transfer the weapon, but that’s an awful decision with all that’s going on,” he said. “If they transfer it and it is later rejected, this puts the ATF at risk because they have to go back and get the gun.”
Mr. Workman said backups at courthouses where staff may have been sent home amid fears of spreading the coronavirus is contributing to NICS delays.
He said first-time gun owners often don’t understand how difficult it is to purchase a firearm.
“The poor guy at the gun shop has to contact people who are first-time gun buyers and tell them they can’t get a gun because of the gun law they voted for,” he said.