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The Most Terrifying Part of Gun Panic-Buying Isn’t the Weaponry

Legions of first-time gun owners are arming their self-quarantine — with no experience or training

For the last 10 days, there’s been a line out the door at Hyatt Guns, one of the biggest firearm shops in America. There’s a retired law enforcement officer walking the line, checking IDs and helping people figure out whether they need a handgun permit or just a federal background check. Such help is crucial — for the first time in a while, the vast majority of customers are first-time buyers and generally green on the subject of guns. 

Overseeing the rush is Larry Hyatt, the 71-year-old proprietor of the shop in Charlotte, North Carolina. When I talked to him last year, it was to get his observations on the phenomenon of people sleeping with a loaded weapon nearby, and he remarked that there’s been a steady increase in women and the elderly choosing to pack heat for self-defense. But with the rush of COVID-19 across America, and the eerie shuttering of businesses and services, the demand for guns has spiked far more dramatically. The rush is so intense that in some counties, the local sheriffs have seemingly stopped processing handgun permit paperwork, Hyatt tells me.

“Is that… legal?” I ask him. 

“Well, I guess so. Because it’s the first time it’s ever happened,” he replies. 

That’s an eye-raising statement, given that Hyatt Guns has been around since 1959. But in one way or another, the gun rush is repeating everywhere around the country, from Culver City, California to Miami, Florida. While official sales figures are unclear, a few interesting metrics show the trend. The online retailer, for one, witnessed a nearly 300 percent increase in revenue in early March as coronavirus case numbers started to skyrocket. And in places like Virginia and Colorado, the number of gun background checks have roughly doubled compared to the same period last year. 

The flood of first-timers buying guns and ammo amid a global pandemic is a trend with serious implications. The obvious one is individual safety — a gun is a powerful tool that becomes far more dangerous in clumsy, anxious hands. Given that a majority of owners keep a firearm around without “safe storage” measures, I also can’t help but imagine disasters, whether minor or life-changing, happening when unsecured guns trickle into the wrong hands. 

The biggest thing, though, that Hyatt’s noticed about this new crowd? They don’t know local gun laws, including the fact that background checks take time. 

“People didn’t realize that they need to wait 10 days to two weeks to have a gun in hand,” Hyatt says. “But people are concerned that a government that can’t handle drugs and crime in good times, can’t do much if this thing gets worse. I think people are mostly frustrated, a lil’ mad at themselves for not feeling prepared.”

The Demographic of First-Time Buyers

Hyatt has watched the city of Charlotte bloom from a “small provincial town in the South” into a city of 850,000, and his customers are normally a fairly diverse mix of newbies, hobbyist shooters and diehard collectors. But the COVID gun rush is fueled by urbanites, Hyatt says, not the “Second Amendment types” in the suburbs and rural backwaters who already own guns. On average, the new buyers are either unfamiliar with guns or haven’t shot one since childhood. 

“And there’s been no advertising driving this, but each person decided on their own that they needed a gun,” he adds. “It’s skewed toward women. It’s skewed toward senior citizens. And it’s skewed toward African Americans.”

A big rush of first-time buyers would be a metaphoric reversal of longtime trends: Some 70 percent of Americans don’t own a gun, but those who do tend to buy more than one (incredibly, just 3 percent of the population have called dibs on more than half of firearms in the U.S.). What is perfectly on trend is the reason for the purchase, as more than two-thirds of gun buyers do so for personal protection rather than hunting or sport shooting. 

Hyatt has seen a number of these gun-buying rushes happen after other surges of mass unrest, whether it’s the 2008 recession, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 or the Y2K scare at the turn of the millennium. But those surges often involved knowledgeable buyers who were worried about a government crackdown and a loss of access to firearms, Hyatt says. “This time, customers don’t really care about guns. It’s not about the guns for them,” he explains. 

What Kind of Gun: Whatever Is Approved Fastest!

Perhaps as a result of that anxiety to get armed, fast, people are walking home with shotguns and rifles instead of pistols. That goes back to North Carolina’s state permit law on handguns, which are backlogged in a number of counties and generally take longer than the federal background check. This is a huge surprise to me, because handguns are by far America’s favorite kind of firearm and the one most often purchased for self-defense specifically. 

“The best sellers right now are the pump shotgun with a shorter barrel and the AR-15, which is the ultimate survival gun,” Hyatt remarks. 

As for virus protocol at Hyatt Guns, the big change is that people can’t browse and feel up a bunch of options in the store. The employees are wearing gloves, wiping every weapon down and limiting the number of people in the store. The staff is coming in on a voluntary basis, and it’s unclear if or when the shop will close. If it does, Hyatt will have to do something to prevent a break-in; he imagines a few people will sleep inside to make sure things don’t get stolen. 

Safety Remains a Concern

The anecdotes of mishaps with guns purchased during the coronavirus wave are already emerging; one man in New Mexico recently shot his 13-year-old cousin with a pandemic pistol. It’s the kind of outcome that Hyatt worries about most; the “old rural days” of just leaving a gun in the closet is no longer acceptable in any way, he says. The shop encourages all buyers to leave with a gun safe, and leave the gun separate from its ammunition at all times inside any home with children. 

The second concern is thefts. A huge swath of gun crimes in the U.S. are committed by people who got the firearm illegally, often through a black market of stolen weapons (though plenty of legal loopholes exist). Home break-ins are still a problem, but guns stolen out of cars is a major trend, Hyatt says (“Don’t put a Smith & Wesson sticker on your car,” he chuckles). A mass of inexperienced first-time owners who want to keep their gun handy during a chaotic time is a formula for a lot of those same guns going missing — or being used by the wrong person. 

While the U.S. is behind on gun research thanks to a series of roadblocks, strong evidence suggests that gun violence goes up where there are more guns, whether that area is a home, a city or a region. That means more accidental shootings and certainly more suicides, along with higher risk for fatal domestic violence outcomes. The sloppy storage of guns directly leads to youth deaths and mass shootings, too. 

That so many people who don’t care about guns are running to guns now says something powerful about human nature, and its ability to ignore potential physical consequences in the face of emotional relief. It’s what makes marketing for firearms, both explicit and subconscious in the American psyche, so effective. And it’s what makes the right for the public to own guns so controversial, Hyatt reminds me. He hopes that these new buyers will learn laws and go to the range to practice shooting (“They’re still open!”). 

I have my cynical doubts, thanks to the survey data on how many gun owners actually do that. But anxiety is an unfortunate, yet predictable, symptom of the COVID panic, and its impact won’t be fading anytime soon. 

“Owning a gun is a big, big responsibility. But I sometimes don’t think these people really want to buy one; they feel like they have no option. What is their option? Karate lessons? A bodyguard?” Hyatt concludes. “I think just buying a firearm and a box of ammunition is making these people feel better. Whether they can really use it under duress, how much they’ll practice, I don’t know. But I do think they’d rather have a gun and a chance against a threat, rather than just saying, ‘Please don’t hurt me.’”