Gun stores are experiencing a surge in buyers during the coronavirus pandemic, with requests for background checks increasing 100% over the same time last year.
“I have not seen one sick person of the thousands of people that have come in here,” said Justin Green, owner of SDS Guns in Colorado Springs. “But I have seen a lot of people that are afraid of sick people, and afraid of what type of scenarios may happen when everything is shut down.”
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which performs background checks for prospective gun purchasers, said Wednesday that it had performed 14,000 checks during the past week, double the 7,000 it ran during the same period in 2019. Typically, the checks take five to eight minutes to complete. Now, gun shop owners are seeing times of two days on average.
Federal law requires that processing take no longer than three days for licensed dealers. Green said that his first customer on Monday received approval on Wednesday shortly after noon.
A spokesperson for the bureau declined to speculate about what was driving an increase in sales, but store owners were clear: it was the virus.
“We’re seeing a very large increase in first-time buyers,” said Gunny Salas, the owner of Tacticool Arms in Greeley.
Green compared the surge to similar periods of mass buying in both “Obama scares” — President Barack Obama’s first and second elections — and the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre where a gunman murdered 26 people in an elementary school.
In all of those instances, fear of potential gun regulations drove purchases. An analysis in the Journal of Business & Economics Research observed that “it appears that firearms are among the most sensitive [products] to regulatory threats.”
Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, a former sheriff, mused that "If I were a burglar or a bad guy, I might be concerned" about the rate of purchases. "People are saying, 'Who knows what's going to happen? There's runs on grocery stores. Restaurants are closed. I can't depend on the government, so I will defend myself if need be.' "
Background checks only serve as a proxy for firearm sales because there is no reporting mechanism for the sale of individual weapons. In 2019, CBI denied approval to 2% of potential buyers after a background check.
“We’re in an industry that allows us to discriminate,” said Green. In the past week, his store denied over a half dozen straw purchases made by someone other than the intended owner. SDS Guns also turned away three or four additional people in whose ownership abilities the store was not confident.
CBI has addressed the backlog by having examiners perform background checks outside of normal business hours and training other staff to run checks remotely to avoid possible transmission of the virus.
House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver, was unworried about the increase, saying he advocates for responsible gun ownership and safe storage of weapons.
“For the people who can legally purchase firearms, it’s totally their right to do that,” he said. “Usually you see a spike with Democratic presidents, but it’s spiking with Donald Trump as president.”
Garnett, who was a sponsor of the 2019 “red flag” law that established a procedure to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed a danger to themselves or others, empathized with people who felt the need to arm themselves in case of anarchy or martial law.
“People have a lot of anxiety about the unknown, and I understand that,” Garnett said, adding that “I don’t think it’s going to get to that point.”
Green dismissed as “foolish” the notion that large increases in gun ownership from panicked buyers was in any way problematic. People are “giving up their rights and their freedoms for government protection,” he said. If anyone believes the government can protect them in a crisis such as coronavirus, they are “a fool.”
Salas agreed with the sentiment, saying, “I believe every household should have a gun. You’re your own first response. I believe all these people that are panic buying, they should continue to educate and learn about the firearm and maintain it in the home.”
The state has ordered bars and restaurants closed and large gatherings canceled, with corresponding massive increases in unemployment insurance applications. As a result, tight wallets may act as a check on some impulses to buy. Lauren Boebert, the owner of Shooter’s Grill in Rifle and a Republican candidate for the 3rd Congressional District, said that as a restaurant owner, she no longer has the income stream for additional gun purchases.
“I’d like to buy more ammo, but I am doing everything I can to keep my staff on the payroll,” she said.
Dragonman’s gun store in Colorado Springs reports brisk business, with a sale happening every 15 minutes. Over the weekend, owner Mel Bernstein even advertised a coronavirus-specific promotion: 12 rolls of toilet paper free with every gun purchase.
“We’re 90% almost out of ammunition, every caliber,” Bernstein said. He will not receive more until the first week in April. (The store is also out of toilet paper — or as Bernstein puts it, “wiped out.”) The popular guns he has sold during the pandemic include the semiautomatic AK-47 and AR-15 rifles.
His store also includes a shooting range, and Bernstein has taken precautions to prevent the virus’s spread on his premises. Shooters are 10-12 feet apart and every time someone rents a gun, Bernstein wipes them down.
“We try to do everything as safe and healthy as possible,” he added.
Colorado Politics reporter Ernest Luning contributed to this story.