SUFFOLK COUNTY, NY — During the same week that the United States held its presidential election, Robin Mazzocca of Wading River took her first shooting lesson at a target range in Riverhead.
Mazzocca, who took the lesson at Baits & Barrels, is the new face of gun ownership during a time when research and anecdotal accounts indicate that sales of firearms and ammunition are skyrocketing.
The pandemic, coupled with the threat of civil unrest and a possible tightening of gun control legislation under a new administration, sent clients lining up for hours at gun shops across Long Island and the nation. And the customer base isn't comprised of those who fit the former demographic. Instead, there's been a significant uptick in first-time gun buyers and women, experts say.
For Mazzocca, the desire to protect herself first took deep root about nine years ago, when she was home alone with her daughter, then just a year old, at their home in East Quogue — and three men broke in and entered the house
"It was so scary," she said. "It was terrified — it was traumatizing. I had such nightmares afterward."
Mazzocca hit the panic alarm and ran into the closet; the men fled the house. Now, years later, Mazzocca and her husband and daughter have moved to Wading River, where she has security cameras, an alarm system and a dog.
"But I still was feeling that we needed something else," she said. While she was licensed three ago, it wasn't until recently that Mazzocca decided to go for lessons.
And with the election looming, Mazzocca said the need to know how to defend herself and her daughter intensified.
Her husband has known Tom Newman, owner of Baits & Barrels, for years. She decided to stop procrastinating and signed up, Mazzocca said.
"I had my first lesson last week, right after the election. I felt so concerned, no matter who becomes president. Also, it’s our Second Amendment right to bear arms. I don’t want to have this taken away from me. I want to own a gun and be able to know how to use it."
During her first lesson, which lasted just under two hours, Mazzocca said her hands were shaking. "It's scary. But after you shoot 20 rounds, knowing you are in control, that you have to be strong, lean into it— suddenly, I was like it was the Wild West. I felt so much better."
Mazzocca added: "With what's going on in the world, I felt it was time for me to really start learning how to defend myself."
She has horses and a farm on a cul-de-sac, Mazzocca said. "It's dark. Anyone can come down that road," she said.
With gun ownership came the discussion she had to have with her daughter about gun safety; all firearms in their home are secured in safes, she said.
She wasn't the only woman taking lessons in Riverhead; another woman in her late 50s who is often home alone while her husband works was also signed up, she said.
Armed with knowledge gives security to Mazzocca who has a concealed carry permit, due to having to make drops at the bank for her husband's business. "One place where it's strange to say I feel better knowing I can carry my gun is church. Your back is to the door. I get nervous," she said.
Mazzocca has a small handgun as well as a larger shotgun, she said.
"People who think women who own guns are big, burly hunters are totally wrong," she said. "I go from heels to cowgirl boots."
When she had a gun but didn't know how to use it, she said, "I was nervous. But after only one lesson I felt more empowered. I walked a little taller back to my car. When I left that indoor range, my adrenalin was pumping. I felt stronger. I thought, 'Wow, I know how to use a gun.'"
A self-professed animal activist, Mazzocca said the gun was to be used for protection only. "To shoot an animal, but not that kind of animal," she said.
Mazzocca said that during the lesson, simulators showed someone running toward her at 30 feet, then 20, then less. "As the person got closer, I missed almost every time. But my instructor told me, 'You have to know this person is aiming to hurt you or your daughter.' And I told myself, 'You have to protect your family.'"
Mazzocca isn't the only one who feels that way. According to Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting, research consultants, U.S. firearms unit sales in October were estimated at 1.9 million units, a year-over-year increase of 65 percent from October 2019. Single handgun sales increased year-over-year by 81 percent, and single long-gun sales increased by 48 percent from the past year, the report said.
And the demographics of gun buyers shifted this year. According to Reuters, the number of first-time buyers soared in 2020. Reuters cited industry analysts, trade groups and the CEO of Smith & Wesson Brands Inc., Mark Peter Smith, stating that Smith said sales of firearms to new gun owners totaled about 40 percent of sales.
Reuters also quoted Sportsman’s Warehouse Holdings Inc. CEO Jon Barker, who said the company estimated that 5 million people purchased firearms for the first time in 2020.
Locally, gun shop owners agreed. Newman, one of the owners of Baits & Barrels in Riverhead, said he's seen an increase in people who live in New York City and have established residency locally coming into purchase long guns legally. Also, he said, the permitting system for handguns in Suffolk County and other jurisdictions is "so inundated" that the wait is "extremely long."
Most people, Newman said, "really want a handgun. They're more ideal for home defense."
And, he added: "People who are coming in aren't looking to take the guns and riot or do anything nefarious with them. They're looking to have them in their homes in case all the rumors, speculation and rhetoric out there comes true."
A large segment of those purchasing firearms now "normally wouldn't fit the profile prior" to the current uncertain times. "They're coming in and saying, 'I never shot a gun in my life, ever,'" he said.
Women buying guns
One woman in her late 60s told him the last time she'd shot anything was a bow and arrow at Girl Scout Camp, Newman said.
Newman, whose on-site range was just approved by Riverhead Town two months ago, said education is critical and that the new crop of people purchasing firearms couldn't agree more.
"These are professional, responsible, good people who are asking for training. They've never shot a gun and are first-time gun owners. And the demand for training is astronomic. They're not thinking it's like a new TV, where they just have to open up the box and read the instructions," Newman said.
The largest percentage, about 70 percent, of new customers are women, Newman said. "Women are coming in in droves."
Election was a tipping point
The election was a tipping point for many. "At this point in the game, with the election, you have a lot of people who were on the fence and this heated political scene drove them through the doors," Newman said.
For women, the stigma of past days is gone, and many who are coming in to buy a firearm are doing so with the encouragement of their female friends. Other couples are coming in for the first time because their children are grown and out of the house, Newman said.
Newman said the business model at Baits & Barrels is centered on education. "Our goal was not to just retail firearms. It was retail and education," he said. Training involves an overall plan for what to do if a break-in is suspected at home; it's not about just picking up a gun and shooting, Newman said.
The range is high-tech, using laser simulation, and located in a bullet-proof trailer, Newman explained, adding that everyone who works at the shop is either a former member of the military or retired law enforcement.
The demand for guns has led to shortages at a time when production and supply are also down due to the coronavirus, Newman said.
But that demand has only escalated, with the numbers reported by the National Instant Criminal Background Check soaring, Newman said.
With the election, Newman said many just want guns as an insurance policy. "No one wants to have to use insurance," he said. "It's a matter of last resort, protection — but you want to be trained to use it and to have to have good acumen with the firearm so you're not nervous and know how to operate it properly."
Those buying guns are also stocking up in case rumors of defunding police come to be or heightened restrictions on gun laws materialize, Newman said. "Everyone is saying they are buying guns just in case," he said.
And they are racing to beat a ticking clock, he said. "People who remember the assault weapon ban know the lame duck period starts now. Right now is the time to buy, because laws can't change by executive order until inauguration day." Individuals are concerned about potential reform gun safety laws and what it may mean to their ability to purchase firearms, he said. "They're going to grab what they can get now out of fear of it being outlawed," Newman said.
There's also a shortage on ammunition, with some components from China difficult to secure; that means ammo has to be limited so there is enough for everyone who purchases a firearm, Newman said.
The pandemic and the election have created a huge uptick in sales, Newman said. "It's crazy," he added. "I haven't worked this many hours in a long time."
Alan Gordon, owner of The Suffolk Sportsman in Smithtown, said he has seen "an extreme increase in sales since the quarantine began in mid-March. Guns and ammunition have been more difficult to obtain from distributors with shortage of supply as well as longer shipping times."
There were long lines back in March and then again in late May and early June when the rallies broke out, he said.
But, Gordon said, while there is still a high demand and the store is busy, there are no longer wraparound lines or business as heavy as earlier in the year.
Gordon said customers have come in with a similar refrain: "Due to the uncertain and troubling times, people feel the need to and want the ability to protect themselves should harm come their way."
Cliff Pfleger from the Long Island Gun Source in Medford said he has seen an uptick in sales, both for guns and ammunition.
That follows an "unprecedented surge" in March when the pandemic incited fear and a rush to gun shops.
According to ammo.com, while some people were scrambling for hand sanitizer and TP, others were also looking to stockpile guns and ammunition.
The site reported that it noticed "an unprecedented 276 percent sales surge" on March 10. Statistics reported by ammo.com from Feb. 23 to March 15 indicated a 309 percent increase in revenue, a 222 percent increase in transactions, a 77 percent increase in site traffic and a 27 percent increase in the average order.
And that's led to the current shortages, gun shop owners said.
"The most popular firearms and ammunition are still hard to come by since COVID and the riots," Pflegler said. "The mood is of a worried and concerned feeling now," due to the projected win of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, he said.
"They have made it clear that they intend on going after firearms with more laws and more restrictions. Expect gun and ammo sales to soar for the next four years if this happens," Pflegler said. "They said the best firearm salesman was President Obama, but this ticket will take the cake!"