Greg Offner never wanted a gun. Growing up, Offner, 38, attended military school in Wayne, Pennsylvania, where he was first taught how to safely operate firearms. As an adult, he was no stranger to the firing range, but he happily relinquished his rented handgun or shotgun to the clerk at the end of every session.
In mid-March, however, Offner’s feelings started to change. The coronavirus pandemic swept through the country, closing down bars, restaurants, and shops in Philadelphia, where Offner lives. When the Philadelphia Police Department announced a temporary delay on arrests for non-violent offenses, like theft, fraud, and narcotics infractions, Offner sensed a shift in public order was imminent. If the city were to erupt in lawless pandemonium, Offner wanted to ensure his home was protected. A few days later, Offner drove to a nearby gun store and purchased a handgun. (The shop was sold out of his first choice of firearm, a shotgun.) “My wife is pregnant,” Offner tells Rolling Stone, “and this was the impetus to say alright, based on where we live now, it’s something I would rather have and not need, than need and not have.”
All across the country, Americans are buying guns in record numbers. A New York Times analysis showed nearly two million guns were purchased in March, the second-highest month ever for gun sales. In March, the FBI processed over 3.7 million firearm background checks — the highest number in over 20 years — compared to 2.6 million in March 2019 and 2.8 million in February 2020. The week of March 16th alone saw nearly 1.2 million gun background checks, the most in a single week since 1998, according to FBI data. Ammunition website Ammo.com revealed they saw about a 1,000% increase in sales in Colorado, Arizona, and Texas since late February.
The coronavirus pandemic is not the first crisis that’s sparked a rise in gun sales. After the September 11th terrorist attacks, firearms sales rose. Gun purchases surged in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. (Many weapons were also confiscated by police in New Orleans in the aftermath of the hurricane.) The Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting precipitated a spike — January 2013 still holds the record for the month with highest-ever gun sales.
While the virus’ inherent danger subsists on a biological level, many recent firearm and ammunition buyers fear the pandemic’s ripple effect may cause a breakdown of societal norms. The combination of economic strain for many newly unemployed workers, the government’s delayed and insufficient response to the crisis, and a shortage of supplies have inspired an inherently American response to hunker down and protect what’s yours. In fact, protection and self-defense are the primary motivators for firearm purchase, according to a 2016 survey of gun ownership in America conducted by Harvard and Northeastern Universities. “I think for a lot of people, [a gun is] a psychological control,” Offner says. “I think it’s a warm blanket for an adult, maybe.”
However, what are the longer-term repercussions for America, a country consistently beleaguered and traumatized by mass shootings, with two million additional firearms, some in the hands of first-time gun owners?
When Indiana governor Eric Holcomb announced a stay-at-home order on March 23rd, Indianapolis resident John K. made up his mind: He was going to buy a gun. Like Offner, had experience with firearms and rented equipment while at the shooting range, but never owned one himself. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, John considered purchasing a pistol for target practice, but never followed through. However, given the federal government’s “irresponsible” response to the pandemic, John, who is in his early 40s, wanted a way to protect his family — a wife and teenage children — should the need arise. “It isn’t crazy to think that it would be good to be prepared should things go completely sideways,” he says. “I don’t think society is going to crumble but I’m a person who said if that did happen, I’d feel pretty stupid if there was no way to defend my family.”
Inside the shop at the gun range where he typically shoots targets, John and his wife stood in tightly packed lines — “which probably isn’t great from a social distancing perspective,” he says — and selected a handgun from the store’s limited supply. Within an hour, he had braved the crowds, cleared the background check, and purchased the gun. “It was surreal to see so many people in the shop at once, just buying whatever guns they could get their hands on,” John says. “We saw a guy who clearly raided a piggy bank paying for a gun with coins.”
John suspects many customers were first-time gun buyers with limited knowledge on how to operate a firearm. “It’s unsettling,” he says. “I think it’s crazy that I can walk into a store and within an hour walk out with a handgun. That seems completely unnecessary and fundamentally dangerous even in normal times. I think it’s crazy you can buy firearms with no safety training or experience with firearms.”
Before lockdowns went into effect across the country, crowded sales floors and low inventory were common scenes at firearms shops, where owners struggled to keep up with demand, especially from first-time buyers who may be unaware of the state’s gun-buying laws. At Bob’s Little Sport Shop in Glassboro, New Jersey, clerks frequently had to inform customers they could not walk out of the store that day, new gun-in-hand, says the shop’s vice president, Wayne Viden. (In New Jersey, prospective gun owners must first apply for a Firearms Purchaser Identification Card, a process that can take 30 days or longer.) “We heard, ‘What’s an ID card?’ ‘What’s a pistol permit?’ more times in the two week period than you usually hear in a year,” Viden says.
Similarly, Austin, Texas’ Central Texas Gun Works fielded questions from curious customers, from those looking to purchase a gun online to inquiries about the background check process. “When this all started, we got 100 phone calls an hour, to the point where we couldn’t make outgoing phone calls at all because everything was coming in,” says Michael Cargill, the owner of Central Texas Gun Works. He’s frequently informing patrons of Texas’ gun laws, which allow gun owners to openly carry their handguns.
The influx of new and potentially untrained gun owners poses an additional risk to an already precarious situation, says Chelsea Parsons, the vice president of gun violence prevention at the progressive think tank Center for American Progress. “What really has me concerned,” she says, “is that people who are choosing to buy guns right now, particularly people who are first-time gun buyers, are making that decision from a place of anxiety and fear.” Since research shows access to firearms at home increases risk of suicide or homicide, Parsons is concerned gun-related deaths and suicides could surge due to fears over a breakdown of law and order, and the cognitive stress of social isolation.
As cases of domestic abuse rise worldwide due to lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control nonprofit, fears panic-buying may allow for firearms to land in the hands of abusers. “We know during times of prolonged stress, domestic violence spikes,” Feinblatt says. “Since access to guns makes it five times more likely an abuser will kill his female victim, it’s more urgent than ever that lawmakers keep guns out of the hands of abusers.”
The National Rifle Association has leveraged the pandemic to amplify gun-rights messaging. The organization has sued both New York and California over the closure of firearms dealers, issuing press releases decrying the states’ classification of gun shops as non-essential businesses. “There isn’t a single person who has ever used a gun for self-defense who would consider it nonessential,” NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre said in a statement.
The group’s public directives signal an organization on the defensive without taking into account safety precautions for new gun owners. Instead, on Twitter, the NRA is promoting pandemic-related gun purchase for self-defense, responding to record-breaking firearm sales by tweeting “Gun-hating politicians won’t like this, but what do they expect when they are releasing inmates while closing gun shops during a pandemic.”
Parsons characterizes the organization’s response as “grossly irresponsible.” “This would have been a good opportunity to show thoughtful leadership by offering actual guidance on how to store your weapon,” she says.
“They’re not interested in pushing for safety,” Feinblatt agrees, “what they are interested in is pushing gun sales. And the way you do that is to scare the dickens out of the American public and that is exactly what they’re doing — and they’re hiding behind the Second Amendment when they do it.”
Already, pandemic-related gun events have occurred. A man in New Mexico accidentally killed his 13-year-old cousin with the gun he said he was using for protection against coronavirus. In Georgia, a man was arrested for pointing a gun at two people wearing medical masks and gloves out of concern he might catch coronavirus from them. Police arrested a man with a felony conviction in Maine for firearms possession — guns he said he needed to protect himself during the coronavirus outbreak.
The psychological and economic stressors inspired by the pandemic, such as generalized anxiety and job loss, are likely to persist even as normalcy resumes, Feinblatt says, which may result in a spike in gun-related suicides and deaths. To stymie any potential surge in gun violence, Everytown is working with state governors and local elected officials to promote the proper storage of firearms, to enforce strict background checks (federal law states if a background check is not completed within 72 hours, the purchaser can obtain the gun), and to ensure victims of domestic violence can quickly obtain restraining orders.
Still, in a period of history when the future is largely out of an individual’s control, preparing for imminent danger is, for some, the only way to be proactive. “I think this shit is going to hit sideways,” says Jenny, a South Jersey woman who declined to share her last name. “I need to be able to protect me and my family.”
While Jenny was raised in a hunting family and already owned two pistols and several handguns, the coronavirus pandemic inspired her to stock up on far more ammunition than she’s ever purchased at one time. She placed two online orders: One from Ammo.com, and another from CheaperThanDirt.com. “I don’t want to say my family are doomsday preppers, but we prep for situations,” the 48-year-old says. On Facebook, she’s seen posts about car break-ins throughout her community and fears it’s only a matter of time before crime escalates. She’s seen what happens when people get desperate, she says. And without jobs and income, people are nearing desperation.
“As a gun owner, it’s not our aim — I hate to use a pun — to kill people,” Jenny says. “This is my house, this my compound. If someone breaks in to hurt my family, we’ve got to protect ourselves and we’ve got to be stocked up.”