Fears over the impacts of the coronavirus have brought a phenomenal surge in gun and ammunition sales across the country, propelling them "through the roof" in places like El Paso County.
The surge in sales began a few weeks ago, just after Colorado saw its first confirmed case of the coronavirus, said Carol Klesser-Higdon, a certified pistol instructor in the Colorado Springs area.
"All of a sudden, the panic set in with people," Klesser-Higdon said. "I can tell you any gun store you go to right now, they're swamped."
Gun and ammunition shops in Colorado have remained open under Gov. Jared Polis' statewide stay-at-home order, issued Wednesday until April 11, that mandates residents not leave their homes for anything nonessential. Critical activities included grocery shopping, accessing health care or medicine, and working in an industry deemed essential.
For weeks, state and public health officials have been encouraging social distancing — maintaining at least six feet of distance from others, even during activities deemed critical in the governor's order. But as one of the few industries still open, crammed gun shops pose a particular threat to mitigating the virus's spread.
"One of the things I really have an issue with is it's really hard to socially distance in a gun store," said Klesser-Higdon.
In her 17 years of being in the gun industry, she said she's "never seen anything quite like this."
"I think the panic of, 'If we don't have enough stuff we could not survive, and will people start coming to our homes and rob us?'" she said. "I think that is the primary reason why people panic and want to get guns."
Background checks across the state have tripled as gun stores remain open. Background checks used to only be a matter of minutes, Klesser-Higdon said. They now take days.
In Colorado, there are more than 15,000 people in the queue waiting to be cleared for a background check, she said. On Black Friday, that number is closer to 500.
If a background check takes longer than three business days, gun dealers are permitted to allow the sale to go through unless a state has stricter waiting periods. Nationally, background checks were up 300% on March 16, compared with the same date a year ago, according to federal data shared with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gunmakers.
Even some gun-control advocates say it might not be wise to shut down federally licensed firearms dealers, whose sales require background checks. That could force buyers to use a website or seek a private sale that doesn't require a check, making it more difficult to trace a firearm if it's used in a crime.
There are risks to both closing a gun shop or keeping it open, said David Chipman, a retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“If you keep it open, there’s the risk of first-time buyers who are largely buying out of fear and panic and untrained,” said Chipman, now senior policy adviser for Giffords, a gun-control advocacy group.
As more states declare stay-at-home orders, the question "what is essential?" has come to reflect a statewide identity.
There is a lot of variation across the United States because a national stay-at-home order has not been issued, said Benjamin Clark, associate professor of planning, public policy and management at the University of Oregon.
“We end up with places making up the rules that are culturally or geographically specific,” Clark said. “This is why we see so much variation, and potential risk.”
As a gun instructor, Klesser-Higdon's main concern is that panic-buying has led to people, driven by fear, handling a weapon they don't understand. It's a recipe for disaster, she said.
"I worry about people shooting themselves in the leg or the foot because they're going to carry something that they don't have any clue what they're doing ..." she said. "So these people are like, 'OK, I'm going to buy the gun, now I feel really good, now I've got a gun in my hands, I don't know what the heck to do with it.'"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.