Much like toilet paper and water bottles, firearms and ammunition are flying off the shelves in Riverside County, where gun stores are considered an essential business, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
In California’s updated stay-at-home order, Gov. Gavin Newsom left the distinction up to county sheriffs to determine whether gun stores should be considered necessary and allowed to remain open.
When firearm activists filed a federal lawsuit against the state Friday after Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villaneuva announced he would close gun shops in L.A., Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco sided with protesters and decided to keep gun shops there open.
“Not only do they seem to fit in the ‘essential’ category, closing them and denying people the right to own a handgun is an obvious violation of the 2nd Amendment,” Bianco said on Twitter in response to a resident’s question Friday.
By Saturday, the Trump administration had ruled that gun shops were considered essential and should remain open. Bianco joked that his tweet might have encouraged the president’s decision.
The brouhaha began last week when Villaneuva ordered the closure of all L.A. County gun shops, noting that if they didn’t shut down, they would be cited and potentially lose their business licenses.
One day later, the Los Angeles County sheriff walked back that announcement, saying it was up to the governor to decide what businesses must close. But when Newsom turned the tables, saying the decision should be made at the local level, Villaneuva doubled down and said his department would allow gun purchases to be made during the coronavirus pandemic only by police or security personnel, not average citizens.
Gun activists sued, and by Saturday, the Department of Homeland Security stepped in, announcing that essential businesses include firearm and ammunition manufacturing, sales and distribution.
On Monday, Villaneuva made another about-face, announcing on Twitter that gun shops would reopen in Los Angeles County. But by then, gun enthusiasts were flocking to Riverside County, especially first-time buyers.
Warrior One Guns and Ammo owner Norris Sweden posted a video on Facebook expressing his frustration with the initial call to close gun shops.
“We are essential, and it’s as simple as that,” the owner of the Riverside store vented in the post, which has received more than 750,000 views and over 1,000 comments.
Sweden, who’s been running the shop for 15 years, said he didn’t expect the video to go viral. He said he was “just frustrated” with some first-time buyers — who make up about 90% of his new clients — giving him attitude because they didn’t understand the process for purchasing firearms in the state.
Since posting the video, Sweden said that people had been coming from as far away as Livermore to the north and San Diego to the south. People start lining up outside the store as early as 6 a.m. most days, he said.
Sweden encourages social distancing in the store by allowing only a certain number of people inside at a time and by disinfecting the store every other hour.
“We’re doing the best we can possibly do,” he said. “Honestly, we don’t think too much about [the virus]. What we’re doing here, we know it’s important so we have to stick to it. ... The support and love that we’ve gotten is what has kept us motivated to help people.”
At Second Amendment Sports in Palm Desert, store manager Kent Miller said sales had doubled recently and the store had had to limit the amount of ammunition for specific calibers to manage the high demand.
Since Newsom’s stay-at-home order, customers have been lining up outside hours before the store opens, said Miller, adding that the shop has had to adjust its hours amid the surge in sales, the vast majority of whom are first-time buyers.
“When people started hoarding ammunition, I needed to make sure that I [had] enough to protect sales and make sure that I [didn’t] sell out,” he said.
The uptick in sales comes as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continues to grow in Riverside County. As of Tuesday, there were 291 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nine deaths, records show.
Local and state public health officials expect those numbers to rise. “The incoming surge is not fake nor a hoax. It is real, and we have to be as prepared as possible,” Supervisor V. Manuel Perez said.
And for some, being prepared has meant the purchase of guns. Tom Reese, who owns Riverside Indoor Shooting Range, said new buyers accounted for nearly half the recent sales at his store. The shop, which has been open for six years, allows customers to buy guns and ammunition and take a training class on how to properly use their newly purchased firearms.
Reese said he hadn’t seen an influx in sales like this since arguments over gun control “when the government tried to take our guns away.”
“I think we are seeing anti-gun people now worried about gun protection,” he said. “They’re the ones that voted against our gun rights and now they’re buying them. It’s crazy.”
Bianco said gun ownership was not as politically divided a topic as in places like L.A.
“I think it’s just common sense,” the sheriff said. “It’s easy to be emotional and say that there shouldn’t be guns, but that’s not the right answer, especially in times like this. … Everyone wants to protect themselves.”