ELLSWORTH — It’s not quite as busy as the period surrounding the 2016 election, but local gun stores have seen a surge in first-time buyers, many motivated by fears that law and order will break down in the face of coronavirus.
“Last week was just a phenomenal week,” said Jason York, manager at Willey’s Sport Center in Ellsworth.
“Fully 25 to 30 percent were new buyers who had never had a gun,” said York.
The store had a run on ammunition (buckshot and 9-millimeter shells), handguns and shotguns, said York. “Everything’s backed up a couple of weeks. It’s nationwide.”
York said he deals with a dozen different suppliers, all of whom have backlogs of several weeks. “You almost can’t go online and order a gun right now … I’m getting stuff today that I ordered 10 days ago. Normally it comes in two days.”
Brian Stan, owner of Poseidon Firearms in Lamoine, said he’s also seen an increase in the number of first-time buyers. Stan, who once ran a hunting and fishing store in Lamoine, now operates as the go-between when buyers purchase a firearm online, conducting background checks and keeping a record of purchasers.
“Whenever anything happens in politics or society, it drives people to the gun stores,” said Stan. “Fear, you know. People are afraid. It gives people a little security to have something, even if they’ll never use it. It’s a Band-Aid for their conscience.”
Background checks through the FBI were up 36 percent in February compared to the same month last year, according to a federal database. The agency processed 2.8 million checks last month, compared to 2 million in February of last year. That’s the largest month-to-month jump since 2016. Not all gun buyers are required to go through a background check, however, so those numbers do not necessarily reflect the number of firearms bought and sold.
Stan said he’s been processing an increased number of licenses for tactical, AR-style firearms. “Pretty much anything that’s a military style gun that’ll shoot fast,” he said. “People’s perception of that is that if the military uses it to great effectiveness it’s got to be the best. A gun is a gun. There are a lot of hunting guns that are more powerful and more deadly than military guns.”
He said the run on gun shops happens roughly “every year and a half,” whenever there are shifts in politics, the economy, or if politicians begin discussing gun control after mass shootings. This time around is dramatic, said Stan, but he hasn’t seen quite the same surge he saw around the 2016 election, which he said persisted for months.
“This is a huge industry. It’s like the milk industry. If somebody came along and said we’re going to ban the sale of everything except whole milk, vitamin D, it would create a panic.”
Stan said first-time buyers are not required to take any courses in Maine, although many safety courses are available around the state.
“Every gun has a little warning on it: ‘Read the owner’s manual before operation,’” Stan said. “But a lot of common sense is necessary with anything. It’s like driving a car.”