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Op-Ed: Gun sales surged to record numbers since March. What does it portend?

A line at the Martin B. Retting gun store in Culver City in March extends out the door and around the corner.
A line at a gun store in Culver City in March extends out the door and around the corner.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times )

Sociologists like me see the gun business as a telltale for the American psyche. In recent years, surges in sales have preceded high-stakes elections and followed high-profile gun tragedies, amid the prospect of tightening gun laws. While concerns about self-defense are almost always in the mix, increased sales often center on concerns that gun enthusiasts should get the guns they want while they still can.

But 2020 looks a little different.

In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic moved from an abstract to an immediate concern for the United States, FBI background checks — the standard measure of gun sales — hit a then-all-time-high of 3.7 million (in February the number was 2.8 million). This was just the beginning. Background checks increased by 48% from March through July in comparison with 2019 figures, and June set an all-time record of 3.9 million.

So many guns were being sold, it created a backlog in the background check system. According to news reports, the Department of Justice had to ask Congress for extra staffing to deal with the demand.

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A new ‘equity measure’ requires counties to reduce test positivity rates in the least well-off communities to match or be close to the county average.

As lockdown guidelines went into effect and anecdotal reports of people lining up at gun shops began to circulate, I started calling sellers to get some insight into the 2020 sales. From April to August, I interviewed more than 50 sellers in Arizona, California, Florida and Michigan.

For the most part, the dealers characterized the uptick in March as panic buying, and they were almost unanimous in noting that the pandemic brought a new group of customers to their shops. The buyers were first-time gun owners, and some didn’t seem to really want to be there. More than one dealer called them “liberals.”

“I had a kid walk into my store with a Bernie Sanders shirt on!” a seller in the greater Miami area told me. An Arizona seller told me of an elderly gay man who came into his store and silently stared at a gun for 10 minutes before finally mustering the courage to make the purchase.

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Many of these buyers didn’t know much about features, models or brands (if they mentioned a brand, it was Glock — perhaps because Glocks figure in movie shoot-out scenes and pop songs). They were trying to buy the sense of security associated with a gun.

“When you have uncertainty, you have to have a guarantee, and the only guarantee in this country is the right to protect yourself,” a central Florida gun seller explained.

And yet, as some of the sellers joked, arming yourself to deal with the run on toilet paper isn’t necessarily sound advice, and no one can shoot a virus. A pandemic also fits awkwardly into popular doomsday scenarios; the front-line heroes aren’t warriors and rogue survivors but nurses and grocery store workers.

In June, however, after the police killing of George Floyd, the scenario got more familiar. Racism and racial upheaval have long been sublimated into American notions of apocalypse, think of George Romero’s classic “Night of the Living Dead” or AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”

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Again and again, the dealers I interviewed cited Black Lives Matter demonstrations that had turned — or, in their view, could turn — hostile as the driver of summer sales.

“The protests, and the riots, and stuff like that going on,” was the way one Arizona seller explained his high sales in June: “ It seems like the criminal element is getting bolder, and I mean — you just see the craziest of crimes going on, people being extremely bold.”

Boldness wasn’t only ascribed to a “criminal element.” And this brings us to one more dimension of the protracted 2020 surge in gun sales: the election and the uncertainty it has created.

Gun sellers talked of “civil war” in the event of a Trump win or a Biden victory, of generalized unrest leading up to and after the vote. Few doubted that this election would turn out to be contested, and many acknowledged — some reluctantly, some enthusiastically — that the clock was running out on chances for peaceful resolutions to our differences.

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One small-town Florida seller told me, speaking of his regular clientele, that because of government’s “taking away of our rights with coronavirus, people are pissed. I think right now is time for lawyers, not bullets, whereas I think most people are thinking it’s time for bullets.”

Some gun sellers had hopes that the layered crises of 2020 would blow over, as has happened during tumultuous times in the past, but pessimism was palpable in most of my conversations.

Eight months since it began, the surge in gun sales has cooled somewhat, but the pending election still looms large. In September, background checks dropped back below 3 million but not by much. And in the long term, the new gun owners of 2020 may or may not transform gun culture.

The National Rifle Assn. claims that even if the buyers didn’t start this way, they’ll be converts to 2nd Amendment politics, but the sellers’ perception that a good many of the 2020 buyers are reluctant gun owners may well be more accurate — they are liberals whose politics aren’t going to fundamentally change. Nor are they likely to turn into enthusiasts for whom guns are everyday life.

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The point is, 2020 isn’t everyday life. Whether people are suspending their liberal politics to purchase a gun or doubling down on their long-standing embrace of weapons, they are converging on the firearm as a means of control, power and — perhaps — agency in a time of extended turmoil.

One takeaway from my interviews is that the surge in gun sales marked an extraordinarily swift change of perspectives. Americans seemed to go from secure to frightened quickly, and deeply. That shift from normal life to abnormal, the sense of inevitable chaos the sellers spoke of, is the overwhelming message behind millions of new guns in our hands and our homes.

Jennifer Carlson is the author most recently of “Policing the Second Amendment: Guns, Law Enforcement, and the Politics of Race.”


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