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Gun sales are soaring. And it’s not just conservatives stocking up

Bill Roney, behind the counter of his gun store in Santa Fe, N.M., reaches toward a wall of rifles and a Trump campaign sign.
Bill Roney, the owner of a gun store in Santa Fe, has seen sales soar this year amid fears about the pandemic, the presidential election and civil unrest.
(Kate Linthicum / Los Angeles Times)

Bill Roney was steaming.

The owner of the largest gun store in Santa Fe, N.M., had more customers clamoring for firearms than ever before — but he was running out of guns and bullets to sell to them.

“You’re telling me you’re not receiving ammunition — not a single round?” he badgered a supplier on the phone who had just informed him that everything was out of stock. “Now I don’t want to be grumpy, but I also want my business to continue.”

Firearm stores around the country are in the same situation, with largely barren shelves and gun racks that have been nearly cleaned out.

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Americans have purchased almost 17 million guns so far in 2020, more than in any other single full year on record, according to Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting, a research firm that tracks firearms.

Higher-than-average gun sales have long been a common feature of presidential election years, as American as brightly colored yard signs and nonstop political advertisements on television.

But this year’s buying spree is different — and not just because it’s bigger.

In previous election years, sales spikes were believed to be driven almost entirely by longtime gun owners who worried that a Democratic president might impose new restrictions on firearms.

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This time, the sales appear to be driven by fears of societal instability, and gun shop owners and trade groups say the customer base is much broader, including large numbers of Black Americans, women and people who identify as politically liberal.

“People are uneasy,” said Jay Winton, who works at Roney’s Santa Fe shop, the Outdoorsman, which is out of stock of many varieties of weapons and ammunition, as well as accessories such as gun safes.

“They’re concerned about the long-term path of the country,” he said. “And just like they were hoarding toilet paper, they’re hoarding guns and ammo.”

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Left-leaning retirees have been coming through the doors in droves, waiting in lines alongside ranchers and overlooking the blue Trump-Pence posters that hang near the hunting rifles.

Winton said many are like the older couple that recently came in to buy a gun for the first time.

“They were self-described Berkeley liberals who said they were preparing for the coming societal collapse,” he said.

Adding to the ammo shortage is Inez Russell, a writer in Santa Fe, who said she was worried about right-wing militias that have staged protests around the state.

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“Either side feels like if their side loses, the country is coming to an end,” she said. “And one side has more guns than the other.”

Lately, Russell has been doing more target shooting and working on her gun-loading skills.

“I find shooting very calming because you have to really concentrate and be in the moment,” she said. “It is very satisfying to have control in such a tumultuous world.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty and a summer of civil unrest in response to police killings of unarmed Black people have raised national anxieties like no time in recent memory, said Florida State University sociologist Benjamin Dowd-Arrow, who studies gun owners.

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Nationally, homicides have surged during the pandemic, climbing 15% in the first half of 2020, according to the FBI. The reasons are unclear, although some observers speculate that it may have to do with the shaky economy or with officers pulling back from their duties because of greater community distrust in police.

Concerns over a chaotic election and the specter of political violence have only further fueled gun sales, with people on the left and the right worried about the months to come.

“We’ve created a powder keg of people who are afraid for different reasons,” Dowd-Arrow said. “When people feel that they can become victimized, they want to protect themselves.”

The FBI performed 28.8 million background checks on people seeking to buy firearms and accessories in the first nine months of 2020 — more than the annual total for any previous year. The total for all of last year was 28.3 million.

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Early in the pandemic, factory shutdowns interrupted supply chains for gun makers, but manufacturing quickly resumed to pre-pandemic levels, said Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the firearms and ammunition industries.

Now, he said, “this is an issue of overwhelming demand.”

His organization recently surveyed firearm retailers and found that an estimated 40% of customers nationally this year were first-time gun buyers, up from an average of 24% in recent years.

Black Americans bought guns at a rate 58% higher than in previous years — the largest increase for any demographic group.

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At Los Ranchos Gun Shop in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, a community of farmland and stately adobe homes set along the Rio Grande, it’s become common for people to walk in and say, “I’ve never owned a gun before,” said store owner Mark Abramson.

Most new clients say they want a gun for self-defense. Abramson said his store has seen an increase in women and people of color. Some Asian Americans have told him they were afraid of being targeted in racially motivated attacks after President Trump repeatedly blamed China for spreading the coronavirus to the rest of the world.

Abramson, who considers himself a liberal, said he sees more gun sales as a natural consequence of heightened political tensions, which he believes have been exacerbated by the news media. He and his employees have talked about the need to defend their store from looting should violence break out after the election.

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“If you’re fomenting fear and violence at the very extremes, there’s a point where people take up arms,” Abramson said.

There are other reasons people are buying guns, he said.

When the government was offering federal unemployment insurance subsidies to people who lost work because of the pandemic, many people were earning more than they were when they had jobs.

“There was a lot of people with a lot of extra cash,” he said.

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And there’s crime. Albuquerque has some of the highest rates of property and violent crime in the nation, although homicides have decreased slightly this year.

“A lot of people feel they cannot rely on the police,” Abramson said.

He said he fields about 75 calls a day from people looking for products that he usually sells but hasn’t been able to keep in stock lately.

On a recent morning, a man named Jason stopped by on his way to work looking for ammo. He was in luck.

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There was one box of bullets left for his AR-15-style rifle. He was surprised to see that the package of 20 bullets was available for just $11 as opposed to the $20 or $30 being charged online.

“There’s been so much price gouging,” he said.

The man, who declined to give his last name because he did not want his employer to know that he owns a gun, said he had been into firearms for a few years.

“But I’m not a gun nut,” he said. “I’m not a Republican or anything.”

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He said several of his friends who never were gun owners bought firearms for the first time this year.

“Everyone is scared,” he said. “On all sides.”


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