MIAMI — Gun shop owners have never seen such a surge in sales — not after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, not in reaction to mass shootings, not even when Category 5 hurricanes threatened to flatten South Florida.
Fear and uncertainty about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic are motivating people to buy guns and ammunition as they seek protection from possible doomsday disintegration into lawlessness, with home invasions, looting, runs on banks, and fights over food, medicine, hospital beds and shelter across the land.
“Our sales are up 80 percent, with a huge increase in first-time buyers who are worried about martial law, economic collapse, unemployment, shortages, delinquents roaming the streets,” said Alex Elenberg, manager of Charlie’s Armory on West Flagler Street. “If you can’t defend your house and your family, what good are you?”
The United States is the home of the world’s largest gun-owning population per capita, where 40% of Americans say they own a gun or live in a household with guns. Even so, concern about the accelerating spread of COVID-19 is causing a spike in sales, according to sellers and data from gun-tracking agencies, such as the FBI’s National Instant Crime Background Check System, which saw a doubling of checks on applicant buyers last week.
In Florida, the number of background checks posted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which closely correlates with the number of gun sales statewide, has risen to unprecedented levels, up nearly 500% on Friday alone, with 13,192 checks recorded compared to 2,646 on the same date last year.
From St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 through Saturday, 56,677 checks were recorded compared to 11,842 during the same five-day period in 2019. While the volume of checks in the FDLE’s Firearm Purchase Program decreased 16% in 2019, it’s up 38% in 2020, with a week to go in March.
“I think it’s a little too knee-jerk on the part of consumers, just like the toilet paper hoarding,” said Jorge Corbato, owner of Nebulous Ordnance Defense in Miami. “Do you really believe this virus is apocalyptic?”
Guns provide tangible comfort in a time of desperation, Corbato said. It’s like people are arming themselves against helplessness.
“Look, to me, a gun is a tool like a fire extinguisher. I’d rather have it than not,” he said. “It gives you a sense of security if the world goes south, sideways, or very bad.”
Corbato, a sportsman and former member of the U.S. Rifle Team, runs a small business with regular customers. For novices coming in over the past week, he has recommended Glock handguns, which he describes as “reliable, in the $500 range,” or, better yet for home protection, a shotgun like the Remington 870, for $300.
“It’s less cumbersome and it’s like a Chevrolet — low-tech, pump-action, doesn’t break,” he said. “In case of an intruder, if they even hear the sound of the gun racking, they’ll run. But remember, these scenarios don’t play out 99.9% of the time.
“I’m not trying to scare anybody during coronavirus. I will never convince anybody to buy a gun. It’s a big responsibility, owning a firearm. I don’t relate to the gun nuts or the ‘take it from my cold, dead hands’ philosophy. My customers are level-headed, and if I see someone who is too weird, I won’t sell to them.”
Like many other sellers, Samuel Rivera is running out of inventory at his Gunaholic shop in Hialeah. With sales up 60 percent, his stock of 100 handguns is down to 18. He placed four orders last week but his sold-out distributors don’t know when they’ll be able to replenish.
He’s selling to more women and senior citizens than usual, and is also doing brisk business in tasers, pepper spray and bulletproof vests. He refuses to price gouge, although he’s seen other stores raise prices — charging $25 for a 50-round box of 9 mm bullets that should cost half that.
“The women and the elderly are tired of being victims, and afraid of getting robbed at the ATM or scammed at home,” Rivera said. “I’m not worried about violence and I try to calm all my customers down. I tell them, it’s not like Venezuela. Fighting over toilet paper and Purell — that’s silly panic.”
Charlie Berrane, owner of Charlie’s Armory and the Warrior Gun Range and Gun Shop, said customers want to be prepared for mayhem.
“We don’t know where the virus will lead and we don’t know if we’ll be able to depend on our law enforcement officers to respond,” Berrane said Tuesday, monitoring the line outside his Doral store. “People want to be more self-reliant.”
Only three handguns were left in the display cases at Charlie’s Armory on Monday evening, and some ammo shelves were empty.
Elenberg said soaring sales also followed the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland in 2018, but those were mostly to existing gun owners who wanted to stock up in anticipation of new gun-control laws that might restrict ownership. Some current buyers are anxious about the federal government invoking emergency powers and halting gun purchases.
“We’ve been pushing Glocks and shotguns that are manageable, but ammunition is getting low, very low,” Elenberg said. “Manufacturers can’t keep up. Delivery services are overwhelmed. There are massive flaws in the supply chain right now.”
Gun stores are allowed to stay open in South Florida despite orders by local mayors for closures of nonessential businesses because state orders preempt them. Gov. Ron DeSantis said that firearm and ammunition supply stores can remain open.
Elenberg, Corbato and Rivera offer training classes and shooting range practice options but worry that the flood of new gun owners may not be receiving proper instruction because people are staying home.
At Brady: United Against Gun Violence, the organization behind the Brady Law that mandated a five-day waiting period on handgun purchases, President Kris Brown has issued a safety warning: New guns in new hands could add to the trauma of the pandemic.
“The unintended consequence of these panic-induced purchases in response to COVID-19 could be a tragic increase of preventable gun deaths for the loved ones these individuals are trying to protect,” Brown said. “While it is understandable to seek what can feel like protection in times of upheaval, we must acknowledge the risks that bringing guns into the home pose and take all appropriate measures to mitigate that risk.”
Unsecured firearms in homes can lead to unintentional shootings, what Brady calls “Family Fire,” shootings that injure or kill an average of eight children or teens every day. Improperly stored, unlocked guns at home increase the risk of death in a domestic violence incident by up to 500% and double the likelihood of a fatal outcome in a suicide attempt. Three quarters of all school shootings are by kids who have access to unsupervised guns at home.
Brown urged gun owners to lock unloaded guns in a safe and store ammunition separately, citing a University of Washington study of gun owners who had attended gun safety events and received free locking devices. Nevertheless, 40% of participants did not lock their guns at home, and 15% said their guns were loaded and unlocked at home, even when kids were around.
The Giffords Law Center Against Gun Violence, which lobbies for more restrictive background checks on every gun purchase, including those from private, unlicensed dealers, stressed that access to guns compounds the danger of domestic violence and suicide during times of crisis and economic hardship.
“Risks increase when protected parties are isolated, have limited access to legal remedies, and when safety planning, shelters, and counseling resources become unavailable,” the Giffords Center said in statement. “Many people may be experiencing increased anxiety and depression during this time. Data shows that when a person is experiencing a mental health crisis, easy access to guns significantly increases the risk of death by suicide.”