First-time gun buyers are fuelled by fears over the pandemic, the economy, and nationwide protests

  • When the coronavirus pandemic hit the US in March, the FBI processed 3.7 million firearm background checks, the most since it started keeping track in 1998.
  • Then in June, the bureau conducted a record-shattering 3.9 million background checks.
  • Many new gun buyers say fears brought on by the pandemic, economic recession, and nationwide protests have fuelled their decisions to purchase a firearm.
  • Gun shop owners are welcoming the sales, but critics worry that the surge could lead to more violence if firearms end up in the wrong hands.
  • View more episodes of Business Insider Today on Facebook.

Michael Braunlin bought his first gun in March, as fears of the coronavirus pandemic were taking hold in the US.

“A lot of it was around not knowing what was happening and not having a lot of assurance from my government that we were going to be kept safe and protected,” Braunlin told Business Insider Today.

During a record-breaking year of firearm background checks across the country, he wasn’t the only one to make that decision.

“As I was watching more and more people panic-buy, I said, OK, I think I need to be purchasing a firearm just in case something happens,” Braunlin said.

So far in 2020, gun background checks have already reached monthly all-time highs twice.

In March, the FBI conducted 3.7 million checks – the most since the bureau started keeping track in 1998.

Then in June, that record was broken with 3.9 million. All four weeks of the month made the list of top 10 weeks with the most firearm background checks ever.

At Stock & Barrel Gun Club in Minnesota, shop owners have noticed the influx of first-time gun buyers.

“There are a number of people who, maybe a couple, three years ago would have never seen themselves as gun owners come through the doors,” Kevin Vick, executive vice president of the club, told Business Insider Today.

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Michael Braunlin bought his first gun in March as the coronavirus pandemic broke out. Guy Wagner for Business Insider Today

The biggest surge of recent sales here has been with handguns and shotguns – not for hunting, but for self-protection.

“I don’t feel safe right now, so I need to make sure I’m safe,” customer Victoria Legato said.

“People are scouring,” Randy Quick, another customer, added. “They’re emptying the shelves, you know? So it’s a different time.”

Gun background checks tend to increase following tragic incidents, like after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. But this year’s figures have reached new levels.

“We feel that self-defence is a human right,” said Vick. “So it transcends all categories of race, colour, creed, religion. And so we are seeing a broadening in the demographic, and we’re really happy to be serving it.”

But these shops aren’t free of their critics – especially from groups that advocate against gun violence.

“They care about sales, not about the people who own those guns,” Kris Brown, president of the nonprofit Brady: United Against Gun Violence, told Business Insider Today. “And I’m concerned that the rush to buy guns is going to increase fatalities and injuries of the very people that the gun owners are seeking to protect.”

For Braunlin, the argument against owning a gun is familiar. His wife was opposed to him getting one to begin with.

“She’s been kind of turning the blind eye to me owning it,” he said. “I think there is a subtle piece of assurance that I do have something to protect us. She won’t admit that, I don’t think, but from a safety standpoint, I’ve always looked at it as an ultimate, like, last resort.”

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Braunlin said he viewed purchasing a firearm as a ‘last resort.’ Guy Wagner for Business Insider Today

“The ability to defend yourself is something that you should be able to do – defend yourself or your family,” said Vick of the Stock & Barrel Gun Club. “And that doesn’t make you a crazy, that just makes you someone who’s responsible and wants to make sure that they’re doing the right things in the face of uncertain times.”

And these are uncertain times, marked not only by the pandemic but also a stalling economy, record unemployment, and nationwide protests against racism and police brutality – many of which started in Minnesota at the end of May.

“I do feel I have to be, like, extra responsible because I am a person of colour,” Braunlin said. “I’ve actually started researching what to do if the police stop you. And I have to think about the prejudice of other people. You know, I can’t control it.”

As someone whose own perspective on guns has shifted since buying one, he says that there’s nuance behind it all.

“I come from a very liberal family and I would consider myself pretty liberal,” Braunlin said. “Now being a gun owner, I’m like, OK, I get it. If they did away with the Second Amendment tomorrow, I’d be like, no, you can’t take my gun. I’m sorry, no.”