In 2020, Americans responded to perceived threats by breaking firearm sales records. In the new year, turmoil over the sanctity of the vote and fears that a new president might keep far-reaching gun-control campaign promises sparked a new rash of firearm sales.
Gun manufacturers’ supply lines in January are stretched thin. In Pittsburgh and across the country, retailers are struggling to meet demand, and some ammunition is hard to find.
“We saw record-breaking [numbers of] background checks in November and December, and finished 2020 with 21 million background checks,” said Mark Oliva, public affairs director for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm industry trade association. “That’s 34% more than the previous high of 15.7 million in 2016.”
Mandated reviews of most gun customers’ police records by the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and the Pennsylvania Instant Check System, are common barometers of legal firearm sales.
The guns in greatest demand are semi-automatic handguns and AR-style rifles. AR stands for Armalite Rifle, the company that originally developed this type of semi-automatic with easily interchangeable parts.
These weapons and their derivatives, manufactured for civilian use, do not have military capability. Semi-automatics fire one shot and reload with one pull of the trigger. Automatic rifles, or machine guns, fire multiple rounds with a single trigger pull. True “assault rifles,” capable of firing one shot, a burst of three shots or continual fire with a single trigger pull, are generally not available for civilian use.
Background checks and other data show that the demographics of Americans buying those guns have changed since as recently as 2019. A report released this month by the National Shooting Sports Federation stated that 40% of all gun purchases in 2020 were made by 8.4 million first-time buyers.
Classes of people once generally opposed to guns are fueling the spike in firearm sales. Forty percent of gun buyers were women, and sales to African Americans rose 58%, according to the report.
“I’m a 47-year-old white guy living in suburban Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Oliva said. “I no longer look like the average American gun buyer.”
Despite their names, the automated background check systems are not “instant.” Since spring, gun buyers have had to wait, sometimes for hours, before being cleared to make purchases. That’s assuming there is anything to buy.
Nate Gerheim, manager of The Shooters Bench in West Deer, said national firearm supply lines have faltered. His shop hasn’t been fully stocked since summer.
“I can’t get inventory. It’s pretty much everything, ammo, too,” he said. “[Firearm] factories are running three shifts. It’s supply and demand, and there has never been this much demand.”
Allegheny Arms and Gun Works, one of the region’s biggest gun stores, buys in volume and has kept display cabinets filled with everything except the popular ammunitions most in demand. But a notice on its website advises customers to expect background check wait times of 1½ to 2 hours.
Josh Rowe, co-owner of the Bethel Park store, said he hired six additional front counter workers to handle the rush of customers.
“Initially in March, April and May [high demand] was because everything was locked down and people thought they might have to defend themselves if there was a social breakdown. In the summer, they felt they had to protect their homes and businesses from rioters, who were trashing cities everywhere,” Mr. Rowe said. “Now the new Biden administration is making no secret that they are staunchly anti-gun, and people worry they’re not going to be able to get what they want.”
Before the election, President Joe Biden’s campaign published an ambitious list of gun-control initiatives, including efforts to make manufacturers culpable when their products are used in crimes.
The administration would work to stop the internet sale of guns and ammunition, ban high-capacity magazines and revive the 1990s “assault weapons ban,” which largely failed when manufacturers changed design specifications or sold individual gun parts to be assembled at home.
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Biden promised to “buy back” those guns, overhaul the language defining the targeted weapons, and move a bill through Congress that would ban civilian use of modern semi-automatic rifles made to look like automatic machine guns.
“It’s a direct threat to our industry. They want to ban an entire class of firearm, the best and most popular firearms sold today,” Mr. Oliva said.
“These guns have been here since 1959, there are 20 million of them in the United States, and they are used in an extremely small percentage of crimes. The high volume of gun sales is a response to threats to take away an effective tool for self-defense.”
John Demonte, a business owner from Harrison City, Westmoreland County, said he has recently added four handguns to his family’s collection of self-defense and target guns. One purchase was in direct response to one of Mr. Biden’s campaign promises.
“The reason I bought it was the magazine holds 20 rounds and the bullets go faster than 2,000 feet per second, two things he said he’d like to take away along with ARs.”
Firearm expo promoter Annette Elliott said her Pittsburgh Gun Show, a 650-table event scheduled at the Monroeville Convention Center Feb. 6-7, is expected to attract a large and diverse crowd.
“They’re men, women, Black, white and of all ages, a lot of them who feel they can’t trust the government to protect them anymore,” she said. “People feel there’s no one defending them, they’re on their own, and they’re getting self-defense weapons while they can.”
Americans’ perceived threat of being “on their own” in the face of danger was part of the lesson plan when Jay Aronson, a professor of science, technology and society at Carnegie Mellon University, instructed a class on gun violence in 2019.
More recently, a perfect storm of COVID-19 anxiety, violence instigated from the left and the right, a violently disputed presidential election, and a new administration promising further gun controls has created a sense of vulnerability and fear that can be salved with a trip to the local gun shop.
“My take on it is, people don’t feel that law enforcement is willing or able to take care of them, and they have to take it into their own hands,” Mr. Aronson said.
“It’s a fear of social breakdown, a declining belief that police will keep us safe. The left believes police are racist and not concerned for their rights. The right believes we’ve hamstrung the police to the point where they can’t protect us. And all of this has led to running out of stocks of guns.”
John Hayes: email@example.com.
First Published January 25, 2021, 1:43am