Talking to Gun Sellers: Some (Very [Very]) Preliminary Findings on Guns & Coronavirus

“Panic buying” is not a new phenomenon in the gun world. After mass shootings, on the eve of elections, and in the midst of natural disasters, gun sales often go up dramatically. People might be motivated for a variety of reasons: they might worry about crime and insecurity; they might be concerned that certain kinds of guns will be banned; or they may simply want to make a statement in the best way Americans know how–by buying something, in this case a gun.

Almost immediately, the surge in gun sales in the context of the coronavirus pandemic seemed different. One gun seller I talked to said he hadn’t seen anything like it in terms of sheer volume since the week after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968–and a whole lot of panic buying has happened since then.

As someone who has studied the social life of guns for a decade (time flies!), I realized pretty quickly that this was a rare moment to make sense of how individual rights (gun rights) intersect with a public health crisis (coronavirus). How does a pandemic translate into the decision to purchase a gun? How do emergency orders riccochet across a wide range of constitutional rights–not just Second Amendment rights but others as well–and how do gun-owning Americans make sense of these orders? What’s unique about this current surge in gun purchasing, and what are its long-term implications?

I am in the very early stages of this research, but there have already been some striking findings based just on my interviews with California and Florida gun sellers. Here’s a peak.

Who is buying guns, and why? 

There has been a lot made out of the large proportions of first-time gun owners among gun buyers. Everyone single gun seller I’ve talked to has confirmed this. Sellers can tell by the way someone handles a gun, their surprise at the regulatory process of purchasing a gun, and by buyers’ own admissions that they’ve never owned a gun before–and maybe they’ve even been staunch supports of gun control. What flipped the switch? Some gun sellers have pointed to very specific concerns–the possible impact of the virus on police and police response time or concerns regarding an uptick in crimes of opportunity amid desperation. But many more cite more general fears–fear in general, fear of social breakdown, fear of civil unrest, even fear of martial law.

But first-time gun owners are not the only dynamic going on. Some stores have confirmed an uptick in Asian Americans buying guns; others have noticed that a lot more couples are coming in together; one store told me the LGBT clientele was on the rise. And while handguns and shotguns (home defense weapons) are flying off the shelves across the board, only in Florida am I hearing about AR-15s also surging–the buyers, the gun sellers told me, were not first-time gun owners but people already embedded in gun culture and who were worried about civil unrest.

Regional Variations Matter

It is easy to lump gun-owning America into an amorphous blob–but gun culture varies by region, by community, by gun store. The culture of disaster matters: for example, gun sellers in California and Florida have told me that no one in their states should be caught off guard by coronavirus: after all, Florida has hurricanes, and California has earthquakes. As one Florida gun seller told me, all the people who already know how to be prepared already had their guns. At the same time, I’m already seeing big differences between California and Florida gun sellers, differences that can be usefully placed in terms of those state’s very different gun laws and gun cultures. The Californian gun sellers I’ve talked to are much more likely to focus on the concrete, immediate concerns regarding spikes in crime; the Florida gun sellers, in contrast, are much more likely to focus generalized fears regarding total social breakdown–and civil unrest.

Gun Sellers are Not their Customers

Federally licensed gun sellers are an interesting lot. They are the frontline enforcers of gun control; after all, they are the ones performing those background checks. They are much more aware of gun laws and gun specs than your average owner. And they are much more aware of gun politics–as it effects their livelihood. Gun sellers have often been in the business of gun selling for many, many years, and they’ve seen waves and waves of panic buys. While I wouldn’t call them cynical or jaded, they do see these surges as part of the business cycle of selling guns–a commodity that is uniquely responsive to political shifts, elections, and crises.

What Is Clear, and Not So Clear, about Coronavirus

One thing is very, very clear to gun sellers: coronavirus has be very good for gun sales. The numbers that gun sellers have shared in terms of their sales accounts have been dramatic and unmistakeable. But beyond that, guns sellers as a whole aren’t unified in terms of what to make of coronavirus. Some see it as a hoax aimed at undermining not just Second Amendment rights but also First Amendment rights; others see it as yet another example of government mismanagement and overreach; and still others see it as a terrifying pandemic that we’re ill-equipped to face.

 

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This is just a peak at the trends I’m finding in my conversations with gun sellers–and there’s much, much more to explore, and I’ll be updating my website as I go along, especially as I start talking to gun sellers in Arizona and Michigan.

For now, I’m grateful to be able to do this research despite all of the disruption that coronavirus and responses to it have wrought. Check back soon for the next installment!

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