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First-time gun buyers are arming themselves before the election

A firearms sales spike and ammunition shortage before the election says a lot about fear in America.

A gun shop employee shows a customer a rifle for sale. Both are wearing masks.
First-time gun buyers are flocking to firearm shops to feel protected as election results approach.
Mike Pont/Getty Images
Melinda Fakuade is an associate editor for Vox, working mainly with The Goods and the Culture team. She is from New York and her writing has focused on culture, entertainment, and consumerism.

America is on edge right now. The anxiety and dread of 2020’s pandemic and protests and presidential drama have consumed the country, and it has been reflected in our purchases. Retail therapy has turned into panic-buying, and many industries are experiencing product delays and shortages. Searches for “bug-out bags,” which are emergency survival kits, exploded in March. All of it is taking us by surprise. Our eyes are on the election, but also on our neighbors, on our social media feeds, and on our deteriorating sense of security, both emotional and physical. People are looking for something that will make them feel a little less helpless, and when people feel powerless in this country, many head to the gun shop.

In America, old habits are hard to break. There’s no data on how many guns Americans buy in a typical year, but we do know there are more guns than people in the United States. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 73 percent of gun owners say they could never see themselves not owning a gun.

In an election year, some people worry about gun laws changing in their area with a possible change in leadership. There were significant spikes in background check requests the week after Barack Obama won the 2008 election. A gun shop owner told CNN at the time that he had “... been in business for 12 years, and I was here for Y2K, September 11, Katrina ... and we did notice a spike in business, but nothing on the order of what we are seeing right now.” Nicholas Johnson, a professor at the Fordham University School of Law, told the Morning Call that election gun-buying generally occurs when a Democrat takes office, because consumers fear new restrictions.

Something is different about 2020, though. There has been an onslaught of new gun owners, looking to arm themselves in the event of turbulent election aftermath. A Suffolk University poll found that 3 in 4 voters are worried about the possibility of violence on Election Day. According to CNBC, in September, 1.8 million guns were sold — a 66 percent increase from the same time last year. For seven months straight, sales growth has been over 50 percent. The lead-up to Election Day has shown that Americans feel particularly divided, and worry about the threat of civil war.

This shift may be attributed to the polarizing social conditions of the past year. All over the country, Americans have protested police brutality, including the killing of civilians like George Floyd this past May and Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia in October. These protests have seen yet more violence — mostly from police, extremists, and alt-right factions.

Douglas Jefferson, the vice president of the National African American Gun Association, told the New York Times that “the year 2020 has been just one long advertisement for why someone may want to have a firearm to defend themselves.”

Second Amendment rights have historically been a divisive issue, but according to a retail report from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, 40 percent of sales between this past January and April were to first-time gun buyers. In addition, many of this year’s first-time gun owners come from unexpected consumer groups. Gun sales to African Americans are up by 58 percent. Mark Oliva, the NSSF’s director of public affairs, told CNN Business that they’ve “never seen a year-over-year increase that large in African-American gun buyers.” Sales to women were also up 40 percent this past September, as compared to the previous September.

Pamela Washington-Turner, an IT technician in Louisiana, says she recently purchased a Glock 40, at her husband’s suggestion. The 41-year-old mother of four told me she feels the need to be able to protect her children. “There are a lot of people without jobs and who need money. Some people are desperate.” She has been carrying a stun gun until she gets used to bringing her handgun out, but at night the weapon stays next to her bed.

She told me she is concerned about what will happen in the wake of the election. “I feel like either way it goes, if Trump loses there will be people that’ll be upset about their candidate not winning, and if Biden wins, same thing,” she said. “But I feel like it’ll be more if Trump loses, because he seems to promote division and chaos.”

Walmart, which sells firearms in about half of its stores in the United States, announced on October 29 that it would remove its gun and ammunition displays ahead of the election. Guns and ammunition would still be available for purchase if a consumer asked, but the products would not be out on the sales floor.

However, on October 30, Walmart walked back this decision. Kory Lundberg, a Walmart spokesperson, told NBC News that because “current incidents have remained geographically isolated,” the retailer has decided to return the displays to sales floors. In a statement, Walmart claimed it had removed the displays due to wanting to use an “abundance of caution” in case of “civil unrest.” Walmart did not respond to Vox’s request for comment.

In anticipation of the election, many businesses are boarding up their storefronts, much like they did during the unrest in May and June. In addition to these concerns, many people this year are worried about voter suppression efforts and the threat of violence, especially Black voters, as Sean Collins previously reported for Vox.

All this fear has been the culmination of a long, tense year of unease. At the beginning of the pandemic, when supermarket lines trailed out the door, there were similar frantic crowds looking to purchase firearms. Just as people hoarded toilet paper this year, they may have been doing the same with ammunition — manufacturers are reporting shortages in their supply chain that could last at least until January 2021.

Searches for “how to buy a gun” spiked in March, and again in late May to early June during nationwide protests against police brutality. According to a New York Times report from April, Americans bought nearly 2 million guns this past March, which was almost as high as the previous peak, January 2013, following the Sandy Hook mass shooting and President Obama’s reelection. This past June, the FBI reported 3.9 million background checks for gun purchases, up from 3.7 million in March.

When businesses closed at the start of the pandemic, gun stores locked down on a state-by-state basis. For example, in Texas, gun shops were considered essential businesses, while in New York they initially were not (which brought on a lawsuit from the National Rifle Association). Their essential status has often been unclear — Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva ordered the closure of gun shops twice, but they had previously been deemed essential. (Gun rights groups filed a lawsuit over this as well.) After industry groups lobbied the White House, the Trump administration eventually added the firearms industry to a federal list of essential businesses.

This election cycle has been made particularly tumultuous, and as anxiety continues to creep in, many Americans are hoping to feel better while knowing they are prepared for the worst.