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Pandemic, protests, politics driving US gun sales

Charlotte Plantive with Thomas Urbain in New York
·5-min read

From the countryside to the cities, Americans are engaged in a frenzy of gun-buying fueled by the pandemic, protests and politics.

Brenda Dumas, wearing ear protectors and adopting a shooter's stance, takes aim at a cardboard target with her new gun.

"Fight," commands the instructor at the Boondocks Firearms Academy in a suburb of Jackson, the largest city in the southern state of Mississippi.

"I want to be able to protect myself should the need arise," said Dumas, a white woman in her 60s.

She persuaded her husband, David, to attend the gun safety course with her for their 36th anniversary.

"I felt more unsafe," Dumas said, citing the "violence that is constantly on our televisions right now."

The United States has been rocked by protests against racial injustice since the May killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

While most of the protests have been peaceful, some have been marked by looting and arson.

President Donald Trump has sought to blame the violence on the "radical left," and claims that only his reelection on November 3 can reestablish "law and order."

An African-American man taking the same course as Dumas who asked not to be identified had a very different take.

"Protest is a right. These people are not creating turmoil," he said. "We have a president who, instead of de-escalating, is escalating."

He said he had purchased his first handgun "for personal security."

"It's not necessarily that I feel unsafe, but we are living in some trying times now," he said. "There is a lot of turmoil in the nation."

- 'Protect my family' -

About 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) to the north, on Long Island in New York state, customers patiently await their turn at Coliseum Gun Traders.

Al Materazo, a white man in his 40s who was stocking up on ammunition, said guns were "never really part of my lifestyle until just recently."

He said he bought his first gun "right at the very beginning of the pandemic, late February maybe."

"When I heard about what was going on I figured a lot of people are going to be out of work," Materazo said. "It's possible that some people may resort to robbery and I want to be able to protect my family."

Citing the "political climate and the riots," Materazo said he has since purchased a second weapon.

Another customer, Edwin Tavares, 51, said he was concerned about rising crime in New York, where murders are up 40 percent this year over the same period last year and the number of shootings has risen by 91 percent.

Tavares, who is Hispanic, said calls to defund the police by Black Lives Matter protestors means self-defense is being "put in our own hands."

"If you have a family you think first of your family," he said.

"I don't really want to call 911 and have it take 20 minutes for a police officer to be at my house," he said. "It boils down to that."

Coliseum Gun Traders owner Andrew Chernoff said business has been booming since February.

"It's been a real long trend," Chernoff said. "This is probably the longest one I've seen in my career in this business. It's crazy!"

He said his customers come from "every walk of life, from 18 years old to 80 years old."

"From somebody who drives a garbage truck to someone that sits in an office. It's everybody now," he said. "Everybody's scared."

Chad Winkler, general manager of the Boondocks Firearms Academy in Jackson, said he had seen a surge in customers.

"We've seen a huge increase in the number of people that are first-time gun owners and also first-time class attendees," Winkler said.

"We've seen a big increase in that, probably, you know, a 50 to 60 percent increase in normal classes."

"At this point they're just so many new gun buyers that the manufacturers are really having a hard time keeping up with that," Winkler said.

Prices have soared because of the demand. One of Winkler's customers said he just bought a semi-automatic rifle for $800 which usually costs $499.

- 'It's a sad commentary' -

In New York City, where firearm laws are stricter than in Mississippi, there is a long wait for gun licenses.

John DeLoca, the owner of Seneca Sporting Range in Queens, said applications for gun licenses in New York City used to have to be processed in six months.

"Now they're backlogged a good 14 months," DeLoca said.

Like Chernoff, the Long Island gun dealer, DeLoca said his customers come from all sorts of backgrounds.

"White, Black, Spanish. Young, Old. I had two 85-year-old twin sisters looking for gun licences," he said.

Federal statistics for the number of criminal background checks required for gun purchases from licensed dealers confirm the surge in demand.

In 2019, the number of average checks monthly was 2.3 million. It was a record 3.9 million in June.

"After the election I think everything's going to level off," DeLoca said. "People only have so much money."

Winkler said there "tends to be an increase in gun sales" whenever there's a presidential election.

"There may be some big changes in the gun laws and that kind of stuff so people are kind of buying in preparation for that," he said.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden favors more restrictive gun laws while Trump casts himself as a staunch defender of the Second Amendment of the Constitution which gives Americans the right to bear arms.

Alycia Brewer and her husband have purchased AR15 semi-automatic rifles for "personal protection" and are taking the course at the Boondocks Academy.

"Most Americans should be concerned," Brewer said. "Because we want to keep our rights, our Second Amendment rights, because that's what our country was founded on."

Chernoff, the Long Island gun dealer, said that regardless of the reasons people are buying guns "our industry is going to have a banner year."

"It's wonderful but if you look at it as a reflexion on what's going on, it's kind of sad," he said. "It's a sad commentary on what people have to think."

tu-chp/cl/ch