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Gun violence, gun sales on the rise

By Jeri Chadwell
Published: Last Updated on

Despite all of the “state of the world these days” posts on social media, violent crime in the United States had been on the decline for several decades. But that began changing last year.

During the pandemic, there has been a precipitous rise in gun violence. There were around 20,000 gun deaths across the country during 2020, making it the deadliest year for shooting-related incidents in at least two decades. The numbers so far this year suggest 2021 could be even deadlier, according to data from non-profit research group Gun Violence Archive (GVA).

GVA estimates gun-related deaths nationwide this year are 14% higher than over the same period in 2020.

The national trend is also reflected locally. Gun violence in Reno was higher in 2020 than 2019, and it looks like 2021 could continue that trend. 

According to the Reno Police Department there were 121 incidents of assault or battery with a gun in 2019 and nine gun homicides. In 2020, there were 213 assaults and 11 homicides. During the first six months of 2021, there were 104 assaults and eight homicides.

Washoe County Sheriff’s Office provided some initial data for this story, but failed to follow up with similar incident numbers despite numerous requests.

As gun violence has increased, so have gun sales. More people are looking to arm themselves, and many are people who’ve never owned a firearm before.

As gun violence has increased, so have gun sales. In 2020, some protesters and counter-protesters brought guns to demonstrations. Here, members of the Three Percenters stationed themselves outside the Pioneer Center in downtown Reno during a peaceful Black Lives Matter vigil June 7, 2020. Image: Isaac Hoops / This Is Reno

Gun sales soar alongside rising violence

A spike in firearms sales began in March of 2020, according to research from the Brookings Institute, shortly after former President Donald Trump issued a proclamation declaring a national emergency in response to COVID-19. Gun sales reached more than 120,000 per day in the two weeks following the emergency declaration, with more than 700,000 firearms sold just in March 2020.

CNN reported that while there is not a government or national database of gun sales, the FBI tracks pre-sale background checks. In March 2021, the FBI reported nearly 4.7 million background checks—the most of any month since the agency began tracking this indicator more than 20 years ago. March 2021 figures represent a 77% increase over March 2019.

According to the Nevada Department of Public Safety’s Point of Contact Firearms Program, more than 102,000 pre-sales background checks were conducted in 2019. That number rose to more than 185,000 in 2020 and was at more than 77,000 as of the end of June of this year.

Background checks conducted through the Point of Contact Firearms Program can only be loosely used as an estimate of gun sales. Some individuals, like those with concealed carry weapons permits (CCWs) or federally licensed firearms (FFL) dealers, don’t have to get a background check before buying a gun. And even if a person is purchasing more than one firearm, only one background check is conducted.

As of January 2020, legal gun sales between private citizens must go through a licensed dealer, and a background check must be conducted.

The number of people applying for CCWs has also been on the rise. According to the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, there were 4,554 CCW applications in 2019 and 3,721 in 2020. The smaller figure in 2020 corresponds with a 10-week closure of the Administrative Services Division as a result of the pandemic. During the first six months of 2021, there were 4,428 CCW applications.

Local gun dealers have been riding the wave of increasing demand for guns, though they’ve also struggled at times to be able to meet it.

Surge in demand for guns and safety training

Gun stores in Nevada were not required to close up shop when other businesses were ordered to last March. That’s owing to a 2007 state law prohibiting the government from confiscating firearms or adopting policies that impose “additional restrictions as to the lawful possession, transfer, sale, carrying, storage, display or use” of guns and ammunition, even during declared states of emergency.

Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno

Local gun dealers said they have definitely seen an increase in purchasing during the pandemic, but they’ve also seen more people seeking firearms training.

Jay Hawkins, who was until recently the training and compliance manager at Reno Guns & Range, said the uptick began with the start of the pandemic.

“A lot of it was fueled by sincere concern about increased threats of theft or violence because of the hoarding of toilet paper and other products—and reports of incidents involving the elderly or people who were alone,” he said when he spoke with This Is Reno in July. “That was kind of a driving force—and that continued with the rioting and the talks of defunding the police.”

Hawkins said increased demand was also seen during the months leading up to and following the 2020 election, but that was to be expected. Hawkins said gun sales increase particularly when there’s a chance a Republican administration may be replaced by a Democratic one, and people fear their Second Amendment rights might be infringed upon.

Many buyers became first-time gun owners during the pandemic, and the demand for training soared with these purchases. Hawkins said he is glad new buyers have an interest in the safe and responsible use of guns.

“So, training in itself, at one point, was up probably about 400% or 500%. And it continued like that for several months, to where I pretty much was doing a CCW class every other day,” Hawkins explained. “It became very burdensome on our instructors because it’s a lot to stand up in front of a group of people for eight or 10 hours when you’re talking about stuff that is critical.”

Hawkins said instructors take their job seriously. They’ll hang around with students as long as it takes to answer their questions, regardless of the burden.

An instructor at Reno Guns & Range leads a group class. Image: Courtesy Reno Guns & Range

“It is a critical thing. I mean—you’re talking about a tool—and, number one, it’s the most restrictive tool you’ll ever have in your possession, as far as being able to use it. And, also, it has the consequence that, any time you use it, it can take the life of another—either the one you intend it to or the one you did not intend it to,” he said.

Despite the fact that the store didn’t have to close during the pandemic, it did have to take steps to ensure customers’ safety. For regular customers, the store was able to do curbside pickup for a while. For new customers, service was provided in a one-on-one environment with a disinfecting process in between customers.

Training courses have been held with one person to a six-foot table to ensure social distancing.

Demand remains high for classes. It’s down from its peak, but Reno Guns & Range still does at least eight to 10 classes for new CCWs and renewals each month. It also still offers its introductory course, which Hawkins said is quite popular.

Supply shortage called ‘problematic’

Between new gun sales, sales to existing owners looking to stock up on guns and ammunition and supply chain difficulties, there’s somewhat of a supply shortage now impacting the market.

“There are difficulties getting some ammo because, during the pandemic, raw materials became harder to get because they weren’t being produced at the level they had been previously. The workforce was reduced significantly, so you couldn’t simply meet [demand] or provide the supplies needed,” Hawkins said.

He said that combined with demand created “the perfect storm.”

“Demand went through the roof—when you have such a significant increase in new gun owners, and new gun owners need bullets and magazines and all of the other things,” he said. “Had it been just the normal, so-called ‘gun people,’ it would have been problematic.”

Sharon Oren is the owner of Maccabee Arms. He also struggled to keep enough supply to meet demand during the pandemic.

Sharon Oren, owner of Maccabee Arms.
Sharon Oren, owner of Maccabee Arms, said supply chain disruptions caused an 18-month delay in orders he placed for guns and ammo for his business. Image: Jeri Chadwell / This Is Reno

“It started with the manufacturing because a lot of our stuff is not made in the U.S. anymore,” he told This Is Reno in July. “Almost everything comes from overseas. If it’s not the complete product, it’s parts for the product. It’s ammunition. Once Europe, and especially China, shut down, it created a big mess with supply chains.”

Oren said some of the guns and ammo he ordered shortly before the pandemic were delayed by 18 months. But business remains good, and Oren has managed to keep the store stocked. He said he also sees some positives surrounding the pandemic’s effect on gun sales, including more people shifting their perspectives on gun ownership.

“What I did like to see was a lot of first-time buyers who also came in and said, ‘Hey, I never thought about owning a firearm.’ But it’s because of political thoughts, the way they were raised, whatever it is,” Oren said. “The pandemic, the [George] Floyd events, of course—it created a situation where, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, it doesn’t really matter. You realize that the king is naked.”

He said he is also pleased with a big increase in female shoppers in the store.

“One of every three women gets attacked violently or raped. So, for years I have been preaching that more women need to be able to defend themselves and buy a firearm—buy a tool that’s appropriate for them and then get the training and be able to defend themselves, or at least try to,” Oren said.

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