Rick Friedman, owner of Right to Self Protect, a firearms store and training facility with two locations in New Jersey, is accustomed to seeing the same clients month after month. But when SARS-CoV-2 began to spread, Friedman noticed a change. His neighbors began to stop him on the street and ask about coming in. These were people who hadn't bought a gun before, he said, and they were bombarding him with questions about the gun-buying process. Emails came in, too, prompting him to add more information to his website. And customers who had registered for a firearms card years ago but had never purchased a gun started filling his stores.
Friedman said these first-time gun buyers were concerned that somewhere down the line, basic services, such as law enforcement, might be disrupted by the pandemic. The virus, after all, is not just a health hazard. It is also a source of economic and social uncertainty. And in this new reality, these prospective gun buyers wanted to be able to fend for themselves. The National Rifle Association, the country's major firearm lobbying group, has promoted this messaging, while other pro-gun advocates have backed anti-lockdown protests across the country.
While there is no definitive accounting of guns sold in the United States, the available data suggest that the coronavirus outbreak has prompted an unprecedented interest in owning a gun. The FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System initiated more than 3.7 million checks in March, almost a million more than the month before. Not every background check translates into a gun purchase, of course, but other metrics abound. Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting, a firm that analyzes gun sales, estimates the number of sales in the month of March to be more than 2.5 million — an 85 percent increase year on year, and the highest-selling month on record, in what is usually a slow time of the year. Companies are out of stock, and some mom-and-pop gun shops have been cleaned out.
"It's the highest number ever recorded over the past 20 years," said Jurgen Brauer, the chief economist at the firm. "It really suggests how unprecedented these times are."
According to Brauer, 70 to 80 percent of the recent sales are estimated to be by new buyers. While such information is self-reported from the industry, the idea that new buyers are purchasing guns is supported by state-level data. In New Jersey and New York, for example, it is easier to get a long gun than a handgun, which requires extra steps in the licensing process. Long gun sales in those states have increased much more than handguns.
All of this has public health researchers sounding an alarm. Over the past few years, studies have shown that having a gun in the home increases the risk of accidents, homicides, and suicides, while also making domestic violence more deadly. And while some people clearly believe that a gun offers protection in uncertain times, new gun owners and gun owners buying for self-defense may be at heightened risk during the pandemic, researchers say.
In fact, research consistently shows that a gun in the home poses a greater risk to the people living in that home than to it poses to any intruder, said Karen Liller, a public health and injury prevention professor at the University of South Florida College of Public Health. That risk is now heightened by factors associated with the pandemic, including economic disruption and increased isolation and anxiety. Adding a gun into this mix, she said, is "a recipe for disaster."
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In the United States, the demand for firearms is incredibly variable, and often tracks with moments of helplessness and uncertainty when the perception of lawlessness is on the rise. Sales rose in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, for example, and people brought guns to church after the 2015 shooting at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. "During 9/11 when the towers came down, what happened?" said Bindu Kalesan, a clinical epidemiologist and data scientist at Boston University School of Medicine. "People watch, people pack guns into their cars."
There are also increases in sales when people perceive a potential removal of access. Gun stocks rose on Wall Street in 2016 after then-President Barack Obama cried in a press conference about gun control; sales were high in the runup to that year's election, when it was anticipated that Hillary Clinton would win.
In its length, its scope, and its threat and alterations to the social fabric, this pandemic plays into the distinctly American perception of self-reliance, Brauer said. "It's the philosophy that you do look out for yourself, you do not rely on anybody else." And if need be, you defend your own home. Brauer stresses that the need for such measures is "more of a perception than reality, but it's perception that drives the marketplace."
Andrew Flescher, a public health expert in social policy and bioethics at Stony Brook Medicine, suggested that the act of buying a gun "possibly furnishes the buyer with a feeling of control" at a time when social distancing requirements have some people feeling that they have lost agency over their own lives. Kalesan echoed this view, saying that guns confer a sense of power and security. From a psychological standpoint, she added, a gun is similar to a "security blanket for a child."
When New Jersey issued a "stay-at-home" order, it originally designated gun shops as nonessential, and shut down retailers as well as the state's own background check system, which screens potential purchasers. Gun groups sued the governor, and the state reversed the order after a memo from the Department of Homeland Security designated firearms as "critical infrastructure." In other states, the Covid-19 crisis has also brought the debate about gun restrictions front and center. Last week, after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam disputed President Donald Trump's claims about the availability of testing equipment for the virus, the president criticized a series of gun control measures Northam had recently signed, claiming that the state is "trying to take that Second Amendment right away."
"The Second Amendment was intended precisely for times like now," said Scott Bach, the executive director of the Association of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs. Both he and Friedman have worked in law enforcement and say they anticipate disruptions in the system. In particular, Bach mentioned the New York City Police Department, where at one point, almost 15 percent of the force was out sick with Covid-19. The Detroit Police Department has also been hard hit; in late March, the city's chief of police reportedly modified the rule book to reduce encounters between officers and the public. ("We have been told to use caution and discretion wherever possible with regard to lower-end crimes," a lieutenant told The New York Times, "basically for our own safety.")
During a home invasion at the best of times, Bach said, the police can still be minutes away. "In a time like now where they're stretched thin, a lot of them are home sick," he said. People will need to rely on themselves to protect their families.
"It's a failsafe," Bach said, for "when you have unprecedented events going on in this country and the potential for things, you know, getting out of control."
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While it's understandable that people would want to protect themselves in times of uncertainty, public health professionals caution that the pandemic could increase the well-documented risks of having a gun in one's home. David Hemenway, the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, notes that guns purchased for self-defense are usually not stored as safely as guns purchased for hunting. The weapons tend to be "much more accessible to people in the family and people you don't want to have them."
That could be a particular problem now that kids are home all day. "They're not in school, they're not in playgroups," Liller said. "They're very curious." She cited a study in which more than 70 percent of children under age 10 know the storage location of a firearm at home. Almost 90 percent of accidental shooting deaths of children occur in the home.
One of Kalesan's studies — which has yet to be published but has been submitted and peer reviewed — found that unintentional gun injuries are on the rise and make up over 50 percent of cases coming to the emergency room for non-fatal gun-related injuries. In a separate fact sheet, people who died from an accidental shooting were three times as likely to have a gun in the home.
Another area of concern: Domestic violence is being reported at increasing rates as families quarantine together. A recent study revealed that almost one million women have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner, and approximately 4.5 million women have been threatened with a firearm by an intimate partner. Liller paints a picture of a woman with children trapped with her abuser, with neither of them leaving to go to work. "You have real concerns about domestic violence, child abuse, child maltreatment," she said.
Suicide is also a concern. Each year, 100,000 Americans are shot and injured by guns, resulting in 36,000 fatalities, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. And among these fatalities, more than 60 percent are due to suicide. While some might assume that a person who wants to take their life will find a way, "that's not really true," Liller said. The risk of suicide is higher for those who have access to firearms, and gun suicide rates are higher in states with high rates of gun ownership. Further, suicide is often precipitated by a crisis. Kalesan believes that the pandemic will worsen conditions, such as financial stress, that can serve as suicide triggers. "We are going to see definitely a spike in suicides," Kalesan said. She is particularly concerned about young men already affected by the opioid crisis. Both suicide and addiction are classified as diseases of despair, she explained. She believes that young men who have turned to opioids and then purchase a gun will be at heightened risk for suicide.
While owning a gun carries some level of risk, gun buyers suggest that the risk of a home invasion — or the risk of not being able to get help in an emergency — is far greater. And while Americans can readily find gasoline and food, Bach wonders how long supplies will last. Friedman expressed similar uncertainty about the future: "How quick can something change?" he asked. "We're always going to just say, be prepared. Protect your family."
But crime, like many aspects of life, is changing during the quarantine. Crime rates are down overall, especially burglaries and violent crime. Gun violence tends to spike "when the days are longer and people are outdoors and interacting with each other," said Hemenway. "It's hard to shoot somebody over Zoom," he added.
Public health researchers acknowledge that all across the country, people feel they are on the edge of a different reality, one only experienced in history or in movies. "Is society likely to devolve into a chaotic and uncivil mess in the months shortly to come?" Flescher asked. "This is, of course, unknown." The gun industry is providing an answer in the midst of uncertainty — but it's an answer that researchers say is deeply flawed. Kalesan would like to see better counter messaging about the dangers of storing a gun in the home. "The benefit," she said, "does not outweigh the risk."
There are ongoing questions as this unfolds. What will happen to these first-time buyers, especially those who are in states like New Jersey, where buying can take weeks? As the days tick on, will they continue to want the gun? "How many of them will become regular buyers?" Brauer asked. He suspects even the industry doesn't know, given how unprecedented this situation is. But Friedman is optimistic that these first-time buyers will become lifelong buyers. "If I could send one message to the state of New Jersey," he said, "it is that you are going to come out of this, God willing soon, with a whole new generation of firearm owners."
For her part, Liller urged prospective buyers to pause and take a longer view. Covid-19 will pass. It won't be in our lives forever. But "that gun in the home" — and whatever harm it causes — that "will be forever."
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Ariel Ramchandani is a freelance journalist. She's written for The Atlantic, The Guardian, Pacific Standard, and other publications.