Record numbers of Americans try to buy guns

Coronavirus pandemic, civil unrest, calls to defund police bringing in new buyers

MINNEAPOLIS -- Americans are buying guns in record numbers.

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The new coronavirus pandemic, civil unrest after the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing movement to defund police are bringing in new buyers worried about their personal safety, according to buyers, store owners and gun experts.

Gun sales began rising to unusual highs in March, as coronavirus cases began surging in the U.S. and government-ordered lockdowns led to the highest unemployment levels since the Great Depression. The Federal Bureau of Investigation processed 7.8 million background checks for gun purchases from March to June, according to National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade group.

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In June, background checks for firearms were up 136%, compared to a year earlier, according to the trade group, which gives the best proxy for gun sales. Background checks in June for civilians seeking a license to carry were the highest since the FBI began conducting checks 20 years ago.

Background checks for guns in Georgia tripled last month versus last year, according to NSSF data, and have more than doubled in Oklahoma, New York, Illinois and Minnesota.

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Last month in Minneapolis, the city where Mr. Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white policeman, the line for gun permits was three hours long on Juneteenth, with a racially diverse group standing in line to obtain a permit.

Craig Geske, 57 years old, said he was applying for a permit because he is afraid the police in his area aren't able to protect him. "I don't want to ever shoot anybody ever," he said. "But if I had to duck and shoot back in self-defense, at least I'd have a chance."

Dealers estimate that 40% of sales are going to first-time buyers, an increase over the normal average of about a quarter, according to an NSSF survey.

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During most big sales increases, buyers tend to be gun aficionados or Second Amendment supporters. But this time, sales of handguns, which are used for personal safety, are the strongest.

Nearly two handguns, commonly used for self-protection, are being sold for every rifle or shotgun, according to federal data. In the past, the biggest surges in gun sales were fueled by rushes on AR-15 style rifles that Second Amendment activists feared might be banned by the government, such as after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012.

"With the pandemic, it's driven more by fear for personal safety; it's people who haven't been interested in the past," said Jacquelyn Clark, co-owner of Bristlecone Shooting, Training and Retail Center in Lakewood, Colo.

That worries political leaders who are struggling to quell a recent surge in violence in cities around the U.S. Murders in Milwaukee, Chicago, Kansas City, Mo., and New York are on pace to see their highest levels in years, or even decades.

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"When we shut down all but necessary businesses, the states kept gun shops open. Why is that an essential business? And we had people lined up outside," Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said in an interview. The city is struggling with a steady increase in gunshot victims.

Georgia Gun Club in Buford, Ga., just outside Atlanta, is seeing four to five times its usual foot traffic, said Wade Cummings, general manager and director of training at the indoor firing range. This is usually a slow season. The traffic goes well beyond the usual "hard-core gun community," he said.

First, there was a run on ammo, he said, then it was the Asian-American community fearful over hate crimes they had seen related to China-bashing, and now it is just about everybody. Basic training courses are sold out through October.

At Coliseum Gun Traders in Uniondale, N.Y., sales manager Kevin Romano said many first-time gun owners say they are buying guns because they see other people are buying guns.

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Gun stores were closed in some states in March amid a debate over whether they needed to be open during lockdowns, along with such essential businesses as grocery stores and gas stations. But eventually, all state governments allowed them to operate after the Trump administration said they should be considered essential businesses.

Among the new buyers are people who say they never thought they would own a firearm and were previously critical of those who did.

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John Kingdon, 42, has marched and signed petitions for gun control, spurred by the 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Colorado and another at a gay nightclub in Orlando in 2016. But in May, the registered Democrat who lives in the Denver area bought a Sig Sauer P320 semiautomatic pistol online for around $550.

"If I had a hard time getting police to respond to me when we weren't in a pandemic, what about now?" he said.

Write to Julie Wernau at Julie.Wernau@wsj.com and Zusha Elinson at zusha.elinson@wsj.com