Gun sales rise as coronavirus fears trigger personal safety concerns

Anxious shoppers snatching up guns and ammo to gird for potential chaos related to the coronavirus pandemic are leading in some cases to long lines, short supplies, and purchase limits.

Businesses say some customers are feeding a self-fulfilling prophecy of artificial shortage, buying up firearms for protection because they’re afraid others will empty the shelves first.

Other customers are looking to protect themselves from fellow shoppers as tempers flare due to grocery stores stripped of the essentials.

Long lines have been reported at gun shops across the country. Customers were waiting in line outside the Martin B. Retting firearms store in Culver City, California.

“Just a heads up, if the phone is ringing and we’re not answering it’s probably because we’re a bit overwhelmed at the moment,” the store posted on its Facebook page this weekend. The store also announced it was too busy to conduct firearms safety certifications classes.

Some of the lines were due to crowd control. Owner Dan Retting told NBC News the store was restricting the number of people allowed inside “to a safe number in light of the current situation,” limiting the store to 25 customers at a time. The store also announced it was implementing a waiting list and asking customers to come back at appointed times.

Hyatt Guns of Charlotte, North Carolina, which bills itself as “America’s Largest Gun Shop,” has seen sales surges for handguns, shotguns, and AR-style rifles bought for personal defense, and especially ammunition, “to unprecedented levels,” said Justin Anderson, the store’s director of marketing, surpassing holiday rush buying.

“Most of what we’re hearing is fear and uncertainty,” said Anderson. “Our customers want to be able to protect themselves and their families and they want to ensure they have the means to do so.”

While there are no publicly available ways of directly measuring gun sales by private gun manufacturers, there are several indirect indicators. Online ammunition site reported a 70 percent increase in sales.

Over 5.5 million background checks were conducted in January and February, according to FBI data, 1 million more than during the same period last year. Gun sales typically increase in election years, but this year’s figures are still an increase of nearly 350,000 over 2016.

Stocks for major gun and ammunition manufacturers American Outdoor Brands Corp., Sturm Ruger & Company, Vista Outdoor Inc., and Olin Corp., plunged amid a broad market sell-off on Friday March 6 before rallying a week later.

Betsy Terrell, a 61-year-old resident of Decatur, Georgia, said she thought for years about purchasing a handgun and decided to finally get one after seeing chaos at her local Costco, with long lines and people stockpiling goods.

She feels the metro Atlanta area already has a lot of crime. She's worried that if the economy tanks, crime will rise even more.

“I was beginning to see people acting oddly. That was a little unnerving,” she said. “I feel there's potential political upheaval. ... It's scary. It's only now I've felt this overwhelming need to arm myself to protect myself."

After spending the past couple of weeks stocking up on food, coffee, water and medicine for one of her cats, she decided it was time to act.

Ed Turner, who owns Ed's Public Safety in Stockbridge, Georgia, said his shop was not seeing people “flailing their arms screaming it's the end of the world,” but sales were up five times the usual volume. “Worst day on the stock market since 1987 and shelves getting bare apparently have got everyone’s attention,” he said.

In the 27 years he's been in business, he said, “I've never seen it like this. ... This is self-preservation. This is panic. This is ‘I won’t be able to protect my family from the hordes and the walking dead.'"