Fear of the Coronavirus Comes to Rescue the Gun Industry

Francis Wilkinson

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The National Rifle Association, which traffics in hysteria to juice both its membership ranks and gun sales, has actually done the right thing when confronted by a genuine threat: Citing the coronavirus, the NRA canceled its annual convention, which was scheduled for next month in Nashville, Tennessee.

Many NRA members are older and likely more vulnerable to the virus. Still, the decision is bound to be unpopular with the sorts of NRA members who are behind the hairpin curves in right-wing talking points about the pandemic, which have had a bumpy tour of duty.

There is always a silver lining in disaster for the gun industry. Paranoia stemming from Covid-19 appears to be easing the “Trump slump” in gun sales just as the economy at large falls off a viral cliff, with Goldman Sachs projecting negative 5% growth in the second quarter and others contending it will be far worse. Some Americans are rushing grocery stores, for reasons that are simultaneously comprehensible and nonsensical: There is no shortage of food, food distributors, food manufacturers, grocery stores, plants or animals.

While food flies off shelves, others with a survivalist bent pursue a mad quest for firearms. Background checks on gun purchases have risen this year, and there have been reports of the pandemic increasing demand for firearms and ammunition.

Like the panic over food supplies, the rush for guns is at once understandable and bonkers. One first-time buyer of a semi-automatic rifle and a semi-automatic pistol told the New York Times that he “fears that the virus could lead to a breakdown of public order, with looting and robberies and ‘everything shutting down, like in a zombie movie.’”

As it happens, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre, in a zombie-influenced speech delivered 6 years ago, offered an eerie premonition of the apocalypse, citing “vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse a society” among the many reasons why every American needs a semi-automatic arsenal.

That arsenal does not come cheap, of course. Prices of AR-15 models run from several hundred to a couple thousand dollars. With the economy under enormous strain, and restaurants and stores shutting down around the nation, unemployment is sure to spike. It seems likely that some of the same consumers lining up for expensive guns this week — there were lines outside some gun shops — may be lining up for benefits in the weeks ahead.

In other words, spending money on a semi-automatic rifle at a time when disease is ascendant and economic activity is plummeting may not be an example of homo economicus at his most rational. That’s especially true given that government first responders, including police officers and other law enforcement agents, along with members of the armed forces, are precisely the employees most likely to remain on the payroll, and on the job.

Of course, the gun industry has many accomplices in fomenting hysteria. The infrastructure of right-wing propaganda is vast and varied, reaching millions of people through social media, podcasts, radio, YouTube and Fox News (not to mention Russian television and bots). As the disease becomes more visible in society, and the recent “hoax” propaganda about it is conveniently forgotten, there will be many opportunities to exploit the pandemic for financial and political gain. The lines outside guns stores suggest there will be no shortage of marks either.

To contact the author of this story: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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