SCHENECTADY — Americans have been arming up amid the dual crises of COVID-19 and civil unrest, with a trade organization reporting a 95 percent jump in gun sales and the FBI reporting a 44 percent jump in background checks on buyers.
At times in the last five months, gun shops have been stripped almost bare of the most-popular and even less-popular firearms, as well as ammunition.
Two Schenectady County gun dealers say they’ve never been so busy — not when new restrictions were coming down after a mass shooting, nor in reaction to the election of a Democratic president.
“Our sales, we surpassed 2019 by June,” said Dave Leon, co-owner of B&D Gunsmoke in Rotterdam. “Lines like you’ve never seen in the gun business.”
On top of that, there could be further rush to gun stores following New York State Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit on Thursday that accuses the National Rifle Association’s leadership of corruption and seeks to disband the gun-rights organization.
“I think there is a very fair chance this is going to further increase the desire of people to buy guns while they can,” said Craig Serafini, owner of Upstate Guns & Ammo in Schenectady. “I think is is incredibly tone-deaf that our state leadership, at this time, would seek to eliminate what is one of the oldest and largest civil rights organizations in the country.”
New York has one of the strictest sets of laws and restrictions on gun ownership of any state in the country, but to judge by background checks run by the FBI through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, consumer interest here is nearly as strong as in the rest of the country.
For the first seven months of 2020, NICS checks are up 40 percent in New York state, and 43.7 percent nationwide. The system, which went live in November 1998, set a new record in March: 3.74 million background checks. Then in June, it broke that record: 3.93 million checks.
March saw the arrival of the pandemic and widespread consumer shortages of everything from pasta to toilet paper. Then, late May and through June saw violent protests over police brutality, with looting and calls to strip police agencies of funding or power.
The shortages and hoarding of consumer goods seems to have led to the assumption there’d be shortages of guns and ammo, too. The civil unrest led some people to fear for that they and their families and homes.
There have also been pro-police rallies in response to criticisms of the police, and many of those who have featured speakers praising the Second Amendment, while also implying that it is under threat – a regular theme of gun-rights groups like the NRA.
Taken together, the shortages and hoarding of consumer goods seems to have led some consumers to the assumption there’d be shortages of guns and ammo, too. The civil unrest led some people to fear for their families and homes.
The fears led some people to mask up and head for their local gun shop.
“People just don’t feel safe, and if they don’t feel safe they are looking for ways to protect themselves and their loved ones,” Serafini said.
What makes this run on guns different, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, is that a much higher percentage of buyers have been first-time gun owners, and many were neither white nor male.
One survey conducted by the trade group found 40 percent of customers in January through April 2020 were first-timers, compared with 24 percent previously.
Another NSSF survey, covering January through June, found that sales of firearms and ammunition were up 95 percent and 139 percent, respectively. Blacks accounted for 14.7 percent of the customer base, Hispanics 9.1 percent, and Asians 3.8 percent. About 25 percent were women.
The responding retailers were a small percentage of the gun dealers in the United States, but the surge in sales and the increase in non-white, non-male customers has been reported by other sources, as well.
Leon and Serafini say they’ve seen the same trends in their stores — Leon said minorities and women have accounted for 50 percent of his sales in recent months, and first-timers are also a large component.
Serafini said part of his job is to match the right firearm to people who know why they want a gun, but know little else.
Those who want a gun for personal protection — to carry in case they’re attacked — really need a pistol, he said, and to get this they need to go through the training and licensing procedure mandated in New York.
Those concerned about home defense are better served by a rifle or shotgun, Serafini said.
Rifles and shotguns both are selling in large numbers at Upstate Guns and Ammo, pistols a little less so because of the lengthy process entailed in buying one.
At Gunsmoke, “We’ve sold inventory that we’ve never been able to sell,” Leon said. “As of today we have no 9-millimeter ammo in the store.”
They’ve even sold some lever-action guns, the deer rifles carried by generations of hunters and movie cowboys.
Studies indicate there are more privately owned guns in the United States than there are people — 392 million by the tally of the Small Arms Survey of 2018, or about 1.2 per person.
But many of those guns belong to people with large collections.
Gallup reported in 2019 that 43 percent of American adults live in a household with a gun, but just 30 percent own a gun themselves. Subtract whatever percentage of people are opposed to guns and add however many gun owners might buy an additional gun, and that’s the potential customer base for America’s gun shops.
Serafini said the run to buy guns and ammo in March was understandable but unnecessary, just as the run on toilet paper was.
“I don’t know that there’s a logical explanation to it,” he said. “Possibly fear of the unknown — I think people were afraid that there would be shortages, looting. Was it a reasonable assumption? I don’t know that it was.”
The June surge in gun sales is a whole different set of circumstances, sparked by violent protests over the police killing of George Floyd.
Add in a third factor going forward: It’s a presidential election year.
“That kind of fear buying is continuing,” Serafini said. “In the industry … we expect this to extend well into the new year. Regardless who wins the election this year.”
If Biden wins, some people will expect that he’ll try to limit legal gun ownership, Serafini said. If Trump wins, some people will expect that he’ll trigger more civil unrest.
“It’s sad that our industry is doing well based on the fear and uncertainty,” Serafini said.
Leon said the gun industry’s shortages are part of the larger pattern of supply chain stress the state and nation have seen since COVID-19 arrived.
He has an ironic and possibly unique perspective on the situation, as he also owns 15 franchise locations of the Planet Fitness gym. One business has people lined up to buy whatever he’s got as fast as he can sell it, the other is on total lockdown in most places, no one allowed inside.
On both extremes, Leon marveled, “There’s no end in sight.”
Staff Writer Stephen Williams contributed to this report.